sudarshan shetty featured
October 2023
#Bombay (1995) - Mumbai (1996) , 9740 Views
Mumbai my home

By: Sudarshan Shetty

Born in Mangalore, raised in Mumbai, Sudarshan Shetty is one of India’s prime experimental artists of our times who is globally recognised for his installations and multi-media works. He talks about how the city shaped his art and other experiences in the 90s.

I returned home to Mumbai in ’95 after a period of 8 years, first spending three years in Ahmedabad and then another five years in Delhi.

I remember the feeling of being uprooted, not simply because of the fact that my parents had moved away from where I grew up in Mumbai to a one bedroom flat in the distant Thane. It was more than that. The city now renamed ‘Mumbai’ seemed to be in a dystopic flux. There was an unprecedented surge in the construction buildings, unregulated, and perhaps even partially sanctioned by corruption and greed of the few. There were several flyovers being built shadowing the age-old, uneven and bustling streets beneath, and raising a ceaseless storm of dust through the suburbs, never to settle down even now. Navigating the city, more than ever, was now a Sisyphean trial.

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The familiar landmarks were vanishing as if in the blink of one’s being. The ‘Bombay’ that once I knew so well as home, was only revocable in my imagination and an image of it inscribed in my head, that I wasn’t yet ready to let go of. The image that I still carry inside me and tend to project on to the once familiar sites, for the sake of my own sanity and survival. I often thought of the acuity of what a person without a home must feel.

Something about the city had changed after the communal riots in ’92. I remember calling my mother from my first ever show away from home in Rotterdam at the time. Through the static of the long-distance line, I heard stories about people at our doorstep looking for places to hide from the rampaging mobs and a maelstrom of violence across the city. While there I was, in the distant Netherlands, at an event that celebrated contemporary India, called ‘Spirit of India’.

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The communal riots of 1992 left an indelible mark on the city’s social fabric. These riots were a result of religious and political tensions, culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Mumbai bore witness to some of the most intense and violent episodes, leaving scars that continue to influence the city’s socio-political dynamics. The communal riots revealed the fragility of the once fabled communal harmony and left many of us questioning the city’s cosmopolitan identity.

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However, Mumbai was still my home. Coming back to it also was like entering a new world of possibilities. I was making new connections and rediscovering old friendships. Mumbai, as in its essential character, still held the possibility of relationships across social barriers. I was meeting writers, filmmakers and artists from varied disciplines. We thrived on shared experiences and informal collaborations. The artists of my generation seemed to thrive in a close knit community. Social success was still a distant dream for most of us and we literally lived off each other’s pockets.

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Amidst this shared enthusiasm of a self-assumed ‘alternate life’, the pursuit of social recognition and success remained an elusive dream for the majority of us. Our aspirations stretched beyond our current circumstances. Financially, we were far from self-sufficient, and our livelihoods were often interdependent. As it was still possible, we relied on one another for support, both emotionally and financially, as we navigated the rough waters of survival in a difficult city.

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For better or worse, the liberalisation of the economy in the ’90s, opened up a few avenues for us, away from the clutch of the gatekeepers of culture in the country. Even if inadvertently so, it afforded us other ways of thinking, perhaps more directly, besides the prescribed notions of our own location in relation to the world at large. Things seemed more possible than ever. Mumbai, the fabled city of dreams, perhaps was playing out its potential very differently, which allowed us to perform what is close to home, in a more meaningful way.

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In retrospect, this period of my life in Mumbai, however difficult, was characterised by a sense of growth and camaraderie. It was a time when the city’s bustling streets mirrored our own pursuit of self-discovery, reminding us that amidst the chaos, there were opportunities waiting to be seized.

Looking back, my return to Mumbai also seems like a poetic sojourn, with shades of both nostalgia and transformation. The city had shed its old skin, and as we waited for the dust of change to settle, which never did, I found myself navigating the ever-evolving tableau of a Mumbai that had irrevocably shifted, much like the nation it represented.