April 22, 2012

Indo-German Urban Mela, Mumbai

It was just as well we ended up at the Indo-German Urban Mela at Cross Maidan past sundown for, as we walked up to Entry Gate 2 on Vithaldas Thakersey road, near the intersection with Veer Nariman road, the night was well and truly upon us and from behind the entry gate rose multi-purpose pavilions glowing in the Mumbai night.

For a moment one could be forgiven for believing one was entering a gigantic jewellery showroom past closing time, with precious jewels the size meant for fingers of a species many times larger than an average human, glowing invitingly to explore them in the dark of the showroom.  

A flier said: The gemstone shapes for the pavilions are a reminder and celebration of the colour and vibrancy of Indian art and design.

The pavilions could as easily be gigantic fireflies in futuristic woods as they could equally be life sized specimens in an open air geometry class, the structures a suffusion of circles, hexagons, squares, decagons and straight lines.

It was perhaps fitting that the Indo-German Urban Mela, a collaborative celebration titled Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities marking the 60th year of diplomatic relations between India and Germany, was themed StadRaume – CitySpaces and opened in Mumbai first, for perhaps no Indian city is as consumed about City Spaces, and subsumed from the lack of it, as Bombay is.

From Mumbai the Indo-German Urban Mela will next move to Bangalore before opening in Chennai, New Delhi, and finally Pune – all major Indian cities rapidly changing from increasing urbanisation, and grappling with its implications ranging from issues concerning mobility, energy, sustainable urban development, architecture, cultural space, and education among others.

The pace of change wrought by the demands rapid urbanisation places at the city’s door is a topic no longer confined to genteel drawing rooms of the Mumbai elite who’ve ‘lived through’ the transformation of Bombay to Mumbai through the 1960s to now.

Instead it’s being played out in gory images of suburban commuters falling off overcrowded Mumbai locals at about the same time the Urban Mela (Mela is Indian for 'a Fair') opened in the rare open space, Cross Maidan, located between Churchgate, and Victoria Terminus (renamed CST), the rail heads for Western and Central Suburban train lines respectively, and symbols in recent days of much that’s gone wrong with the city as it bulges ever more delicately with rapid urbanisation.

Having cleared the security checks I headed for the info desk for sundry information booklets including the layout of various pavilions. The pretty girl at the counter cheerfully apprised visitors of the sights around, patiently answering questions put to her. To retain the enthusiasm she did after a long, hot April day, for unlike the pavilions cooled to bearable temperatures, the information kiosk could only rely on the fickle Mumbai breeze, was probably down to the due diligence the organisers exercised in selecting volunteers to help out in the Urban Mela.


I’d have imagined the 15 pavilions, variously dedicated to Planning and Architecture, Mobility and Transport, Supplies and Infrastructure, and Culture, Society and Public Life, would also draw on issues specific to Indian cities, like Mumbai for example, and enumerate solutions and contrast similar issues mitigated by careful planning and implementation in German cities.

It’d have helped to have visitors relate to issues they face in their personal capacities on account of demands put on city spaces by rapid urbanisation and be introduced to possible solutions Indo-German collaboration could bring to bear. I’d have liked to see solutions offered for immediate local contexts in addition to the Siemens pavilion featuring a range of interactive experiences to enable visitors to see how cities of the future can be built around innovative technological solutions to help “turn grey cities green”.

While Siemens did an excellent job in demonstrating with interactive experiences a plan for future cities, it was largely a learning experience for possibilities that new cities can be made to hold, not immediately apparent to Mumbai residents unsure of what their future holds as Mumbai threatens to unravel at certain levels from rapid urbanisation. The Siemen’s pavilion at the Urban Mela was more of a What might have been if only moment .

Too often, a lack of awareness of long-term solutions available and an inadequate understanding of how other cities elsewhere in the Western world are preparing for the challenges of rapid urbanisation is reason why public mobilisation in India, and Mumbai in particular, rarely ventures beyond protesting against immediate issues faced by residents in Mumbai and elsewhere.

If ordinary Indian citizens are to put pressure on the government and demand a stake in public policy beyond the mandatory once-in-five-years ballot, they’d have to build a citizen consensus on a future they’d like see for themselves and succeeding generations, and that can only come about if they’re aware of the possibilities urban planning and technology hold.

To that end, the presentations put out by Siemens, BASF, Lanxess, Bosch, and SAP in their pavilions were revealing, instructive, and useful to an extent.

While cities like Mumbai, given the direction and the distance they’ve travelled over the decades, might have little potential to gain from solutions presented, I’d like to believe there’s still much that can be done to redeem the seemingly irredeemable in certain aspects, most notably in urban transportation, starting with the suburban rail networks.

Soon a long queue snaked past Lanxess and Cultural pavilions, in the direction of the Beergarden and the Open Air Stage where psychedelic lights played on a screen mounted on a raised stage, the venue for the opening concert by the Schal Sick Brass Band, and subsequent programmes on succeeding days following the opening of the Urban Mela on 14th April, including the Indo-German Hip Hop Week B – Boy Cypher & Hip Hop Chill Out Session, and Pecha Kucha Mumbai #8.

At first I thought the queue, largely youth, and mostly couples, were lining up for beer at the large beer garden near Gate 3 only to realise that they were queuing up for an evening of Silent Concert & Disco at the Open Air Stage. They would be dancing away to music streamed through headphones clamped on their ears while the rest, unless they happened to be by the stage, would be oblivious to the event.

In the mellow of a night aglow, with no music playing except through headphones, the bobbing heads shaking a leg would be lost to those in the distance as traffic on the adjacent road periodically claimed the silence each time the signal turned green.

Apparently Goa has led the way in popularising the Silent Disco, with each partygoer  dancing to their own music via their headphones.

The Beer Garden was slowly filling up. Expatriate Germans among other visitors held forth on tables, their sleeves rolled up. There was a hum in the air, and intermittent silences elsewhere.  

I couldn’t get enough of the pavilions. They were quite unlike any I’d seen before. Apparently their design allows them to be combined and installed in a variety of ways to form larger structures, assisting them to adapt with the local environment.

A booklet further informed that the largest pavilion is 210 square metres and is made up of three self-supporting hexagonal structures, just like a honeycomb. The pavilions take inspiration from traditional mobile structures like pagodas and incorporate this with a combination of Indian techniques, textile technology and high-tech components from Germany.

It further added: Precious gems and stones together with traditional Indian shapes and patterns have provided inspiration for the layout and colour of the pavilions with gold, copper, ruby-red and sapphire-blue all key to the aesthetics of the structures.

Designed by the award winning installation artist Markus Heinsdorff, the pavilions are among the highlights at the Indo-German Urban Mela, and I would surprised if among the well heeled who walked through the gate, an enterprising soul or two didn’t get their next bright ‘idea’ for a winning Shaadi Ka Mandap (Marriage Tent).

There’d no shortage of clients willing to pay for the Pandal (Pavilion) to see their darling daughter or son take wedding wows.


We exited the Mela by the same gate we’d entered, past the Charkha, a 30-ft high steel structure formally dedicated to the nation in 2011 by TATA Steel on the occasion on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, October 2.

In the night sky, in the backdrop of glowing pavilions, the skyward spiral of steel perhaps seemed an appropriate and instructive context to a city simultaneously spiralling upward and down, with its populace balanced somewhere in between.

As we stepped out and walked toward Veer Nariman Road, the Eros, that faithful Bombay landmark, beckoned. Cine goers were milling about the entrance. A poster of  Housefull 2, the sequel to Housefull hung above the entrance.

If I needed any reminding so soon after seeing exhibits centred around City Spaces and the challenges rapid urbanisation places on them, the film Housefull did more than an adequate job driving home the point that Mumbai is indeed Housefull.

The Indo-German Urban Mela ends its innings in Mumbai late today, a fine beginning, and a memorable experience. 

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Riot Kitty said...

Beautiful pictures...I'm not sure how well we're doing handling urbanization in the west. Here, building seems to be guided more by greed than sense. Hence, boom and bust in our real estate markets.

I can't imagine getting married in a place like that. That would be pretty public and ostentatious.

Anuradha Shankar said...

the pavillions were really so beautiful!!! esp all lit up!!! and u are so right about the kind of thoughts that the displays brought up! seeing that energy self sufficient house was a revelation!

Anil P said...

Riot Kitty: Thank you. It's much the same story everywhere.

But I'd imagine the Western world still has things under control insofar as planning for Urban Development is concerned as opposed to countries like India which seem to be losing the plot, with many a suspect people manning key portfolios concerning infrastructure and Urban Planning.

Not marrying in a pavilion during an exhibition but using a similarly constructed pavilion in a lawn hired for the marriage reception.

Anuradha Shankar: The pavilions were indeed beautiful.