Mumbai’s ‘upgrading’ and at a price!

“It’s impossible to sit by a street and sketch anywhere in Mumbai,” says Mumbai-based line-drawing artist Vaidehi Goradia. “It’s important for an artist to interact in public space with people and tackle issues that are social in nature, like say, women rights, through paintings or sketches. Now, that is becoming increasingly difficult with the lack of safe open zones in the city,” says Goradia.

Little wonder then it’s rare to find students or artists sitting either alone or in small groups in public spaces sketching form, figure or structure. It’s the onslaught of never-ending ‘developmental’ activities in India’s financial capital to blame.

Mumbai, incidentally, happens to be the only metropolis in the world to house a National Park. And, a smaller Aarey Milk Colony that houses rare fauna and natural resources. So, for most in the city, all it took was a drive down to Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Borivali and spend a day at the lush park amidst nature, to take that much-needed break from urban life and all within an hour’s reach from even as far as South Mumbai. Now, that is relegated to a not-so-distant past.

It’s impossible to drive down to SGNP without losing hair, your mind or a limb if not life and not necessarily in that order. Mumbai’s latest offering - the Metro III Project has gripped the city leaving its denizens grappling for air. If it isn’t the drudgery of tailing vehicles in traffic moving at snail’s pace or dodging the maze of barricades and construction works all across Mumbai, it’s the stress that kills you.

To top it, a proposed Metro Car Shed’s arrival at Aarey Milk Colony poses a threat to the very existence of the green zone. A recent fire that raged all night at the Colony, triggered ‘fears of sabotage’ and attempts to ‘rid the zone’s trees’, underlining popular fears.

So, through the week, as Mumbaikars spend hours commuting through Metro-III construction zones reaching their workplace and back, it’s only a Sunday that provides some relief from the ordeal. And, while some prefer spending the break at home, away from the traffic and the all-too-familiar buzz of ‘development’ in their neighbourhoods, the physically fit make a beeline for a ‘maidan’ or a park in the vicinity.

South Mumbai’s roads, much like most of the rest, has its own share of ‘developmental works’, leaving a few parks and maidans for recreation. It’s either Oval Maidan that lies south of Churchgate State, Cross Maidan from Churchgate till Metro or Azad Maidan, bordered by the Bombay Gymkhana in the South and the all-too-famous ‘Protest Zone’ in the north near CST. So, while on weekdays, busy work or college schedules don’t permit the luxury of dropping by, on Sundays, the rush to grab a spot if not a patch at a maidan gets maddening.

“I have to go as early as 6 am to grab a grassy shaded spot at Oval Maidan to sit and sketch without the fear of being knocked down by a vehicle or hustled by passersby on a public road as is the case today,” says 43-year-old Vadodara-based ‘live’ painter Lyla Joshi in the city on a sabbatical from a hectic job back in Vadodara. “I did try sketching in public spaces in Mumbai but dumped the idea after being hit on three occasions by vehicular traffic and being told by the police to move on as ‘I’ was at fault,” she says. “It’s crazy here in Mumbai, so unlike Vadodara where it’s easy to sit in public spaces and grab a chat or simply sketch without coming in someone’s way,” added Joshi.

A case in point being ‘Backgarden’ a triangular Wellington Garden located between Campion School and St Anne’s School in Colaba where scores of schoolchildren from SoBo’s schools play football, hockey, basketball and other sports. Open to the public for fixed hours during the week, the ground is thrown open for longer hours on weekends. Earlier attempts to install a public  swimming pool on the ‘ground’ were quashed collectively by generations of ex-students who grew up playing sports on the legendary ‘Backgarden’ now parents themselves.

One should visit a SoBo maidan on a Sunday to witness the aftermath of ‘developmental works’ in the city. Along each long ends of the maidan are lined up ‘batsmen’ at a distance of barely four feet from each other. ‘Bowlers’ do their run-up from the centre of the maidan, parallel to each other to their respective ‘opposition team’s batsman’ at the other end. The fielders are all interspersed between each other across the maidan, some positioned outside the maidan on the road, even across to collect that stray ball that leaves the batsman or is hit out beyond the maidan.

Fielders with eyes set on 'their ball' amidst hunderd others being hit all around at Oval Maidan, Mumbai

For the uninitiated, it’s a well-disciplined order that shines even from within the frenzied bustle in the maidan. The fielders have their eyes set on ‘their ball’ amidst the flurry of similarly-hued tennis balls being hit all around. The dearth in public space and recreational zones couldn’t get worse. Braving stray hits from balls struck randomly by batsmen interlining the inner rim of the maidan, the fielders go about their task almost with the sheer gratitude of being able to do so.

Meanwhile, the ‘live’ artist is left with little choice but to sit huddled against a coconut tree and attempt a line drawing of the High Court or Rajabai Tower risking being hit by a stray ball. “That won’t kill. Being hit by a vehicle will,” says Joshi. It’s safer than sketching anywhere else in Mumbai’s open spaces where the traffic breaks every rule, dodging ‘developmental works’ to meet time-bound targets. Meanwhile, the authorities are set to launch Mumbai 2.0. And, the stakes are set to get higher.

A version of this article first appeared in print here.