In an erstwhile cinema, dreams are reinvented : Conversation with Manish Maker

by Deepika Sorabjee

Sudarshan Shetty, Flying Bus. Image courtesy: Manish Maker.

Sudarshan Shetty, Flying Bus. Image courtesy: Manish Maker.

On March 6, 2010, the drive-in cinema at Bandra East in Bombay was all dressed up for a grand bowing out. Forlorn and unused after it’s heyday in the 70s, when sitting on the bonnets of our cars watching the larger-than-life screenings on a massive outdoor screen and a scratchy soundtrack, we imagined ourselves in American suburbia.

Jump cut to three decades later. Cinema had changed. Now it is all about the multiplex. This was no longer suburbia but prime real estate. The Maker family who owned the drive-in cinema, invited GallerySKE to curate an exhibition within the spaces of the cinema that was soon to be demolished. In hindsight, this grand bowing out, one-night-only exhibition, accompanied by Californian dancers scaling the heights of the nearby Maker Towers, was not so surprising after all. Manish Maker, the young man at the helm of the redevelopment, (the cinema was to give way to a 7 star hotel and a luxury mall), has been a keen collector of contemporary Indian art for a while.

Videos were projected on mounds of earth and on the mouths of JCBs, on worn walls and unused spaces around the now stilled film projectors. The night ended with a performance, which aptly had a ceremonial burning like a funereal pyre – something was ending. Sensitive to not erasing the history of the site as it gets transformed unrecognizably, Maker has preserved these projectors and the benches that were the cinema seats on the stadium-like stands, that formed the back of the drive-in cinema. He hopes an artist may use them in a transformative work.

In the adjacent Kala Nagar, where as a child, I’d visit artist K.K. Hebbar’s home, looking over the studio wall, all that lay between Kala Nagar and Dharavi, were marshy waterways. I talk with Manish Maker about his plans for this very site, now part of the shiny Bandra Kurla Complex and his ideas for integrating art in the public spaces the architecture will generate.

Deepika Sorabjee (DS): Obviously the first question is when and why did you start collecting? What made you continue?

Manish Maker (MM): It was an interesting incident, or accident, involving a Husain from the 70s that during one of our office renovations somehow ended up in our basement and was forgotten about for decades. When we were renovating our home, I recalled and tracked down that painting. Fortunately, it was in immaculate condition and became an integral part of our living room and our lives; it changed the way we thought of the space surrounding it, which literally started evolving around this painting — there were very strong interactions and dialogues between art, space and volume.

From here developed the interest in pushing the dialogue between art and architecture further, to spaces where experimentation was possible to more complex and experiential works.

DS: Over the years, one buys differently. Tell me a bit about your progression, if that’s the word, to the art you now buy – you are open to conceptual art, and one of the brave ones who puts money on the table to support big ideas, as in the case of Sudarshan Shetty’s Flying Bus. What interests you now, as opposed to what interested you when you first started collecting?

MM: There has been a progression, as there always is, precipitated by many factors, including my own changing tastes and understanding, and definitions of art. There has also been a progression of scale and production and engineering complexity, whether it’s Srinivasa Prasad’s Payana or Eva Schlegel’s In Between that each fill entire double height lobbies, the 10 ton Flying Bus with steel wings that are 40 ft. 500 kg, a 150 ft long graffiti work that we had commissioned at the project, our demolition party for the erstwhile drive-in theatre wherein a 100,000 sq. ft. old auditorium building was converted into an art event for one night.

There has also been progression with regard to content. With every work, we are eager to surprise and to take risks, to be bolder, to install works that inspire reactions, and interest in the environment and what the artist is saying. For example our latest installation In Between by Eva, comprising over 200 huge balloons, was rather unexpected for a bank lobby.

DS: Yes, that must have startled the people walking in! It is what that is needed in art in public spaces, to refresh the familiar and the mundane, and to question.

Tell us about your plans for the art you would like for the buildings you envision. These spaces – the lobby with double or triple height ceilings and atria in the malls, and the outside interlocked spaces – there is this space yet containment that lends itself well for installations and even video work.

The hammer in Sudarshan Shetty’s Party is Elsewhere marked time through the drive in cinema’s last magical evening. Image courtesy: Manish Maker

The hammer in Sudarshan Shetty’s Party is Elsewhere marked time through the drive in cinema’s last magical evening. Image courtesy: Manish Maker

MM: Maker Maxity, from its inception, was planned as a space for art and architecture to co-exist, to be showcased and explored. The dialogue between art, particularly site-specific art, and architecture has always been of immense interest to us —the way art and space influence each other. Also, the ability to provide engineering, production, and installation expertise for works of such complexity is very exciting.

So, conceptually and structurally, the project spaces — lobbies, landscaping, etc. — have been envisaged and designed as spaces to house indoor and outdoor art. Our interest is in art that captures the spirit of the city, the history and evolution of what’s happening around us. But really there is only one criterion — to have art of a very high standard and quality.

Sudarshan’s Flying Bus also had a unique vision in its use as a vessel for an on-going dialogue with other artists — the ‘Flying Bus Project’. So through the medium of Sudarshan’s installation, we already have a centre for creative dialogue. (The first artist whose works were to be shown inside the bus were two video works by Amar Kanwar). Some of the commercial office buildings also house dramatic site-specific installations, such as Hema Upadhyay’s Plant Bombay and Srinivasa Prasad’s Payana, or Eva Schlegel’s In Between. Also, art from within the collection will be rotated, before the Payan’ we had a Jitish Kallat work in the lobby. In 2010, our entire site was transformed for one evening into a stage for large-scale contemporary art installations, specifically video art, sculpture, performance and sound works.

We are focused on building a meaningful collection across mediums, and to see our vision accessible to a wider audience. Designs for future phases are already evolving in this manner. There are many more commissions to come and we are looking to work with national and international galleries.

DS: Who would see this art? Could anyone walk into the lobby spaces and the mall to just see the art? I know, so far, you have been enjoying hearing the reactions of the office goers.

MM: We still get a number of visitors who specifically enter the project only to see Sudarshan’s Flying Bus; it is a work open for public viewing from noon to 7 pm every day. The other outdoor works to come up will also be part of our public collection.

Indoor works, whilst also open for viewing, have different security considerations, being within buildings that house major corporates, banks and financial institutions.

DS: Do you think, with the lack of institutional support and government planning for public art, there is a place for the individual in promoting public art?

Srinivasa Prasad, I Wonder Why. Sculptures in coal, which were burned at the end of the evening. Image courtesy: Manish Maker.

Srinivasa Prasad, I Wonder Why. Sculptures in coal, which were burned at the end of the evening. Image courtesy: Manish Maker.

MM: Obviously, there is long way to go, whether with regard to a city’s support towards art, such as Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Chicago, corporate support, such as Pepsi’s Kendall Sculpture Gardens at Purchase, or individual support, such as David Walsh’s MONA at Tasmania.

There is a place for individual support, but it is extremely challenging on multiple accounts, the most obvious ones being cost — even after the world came to an end in 2008, price tags for high quality works continue to have many zeros; space — not only in terms of area, but also volume and environment; complexity – of design, production, shipping, installation, maintenance; intent— in today’s feverish world with our complex, multiple-priority existence, much takes precedence over a commitment to sponsorship or support of public art.

DS: Finally, the crunch question, as you put your money on the table. What are the particular details that you have to look out for in an artwork for a public space – from the angle of a buyer and maintainer of the artwork?

MM: There are very different and diverse factors. Besides size and scale — which must be appropriate — the context is also very relevant. How does the work fit not only within the physical context of the space, but within the curatorial context of the environment and the other works? Do the artworks come together as a meaningful whole, and generate greater meaning and interest as a collection on a campus?

Cost and price are of course also definite considerations, but when one doesn’t trade in art; doesn’t purchase for future value, one can focus on quality, without corruptors such as escalation or future market value coming in the way. Permanent works like the Flying Bus aren’t going anywhere, and the artists understand the intent too, so the entire commercial approach changes.

Engineering, installation and maintenance are of course, of utmost importance, and one has to get fully involved in specifications of material, sustainability, longevity, etc. The city’s climate is harsh, things will and do corrode.


Deepika Sorabjee obtained her MBBS degree from the Grant Medical College (Bom Univ) and the Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals, and a diploma in Indian Aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She is a writer based in Mumbai and is training to be an art conservator.


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