Better Together: The Mumbai Assembly Embodies The Spirit Of Collaboration

The Mumbai Assembly.

The Mumbai Assembly co-founders Preeti Gaonkar (in the blue top), Andre Tully (in the white printed shirt) and Rafael Pereira (in the pink shirt) with the team behind the Appa Art Festival.

In some way, the REProduce Listening Room gigs at The Mumbai Assembly (TMA) feel a bit like attending a music festival. The concert series, which primarily showcases experimental electronic music, is held at multiple spaces or ‘stages’ across the venue. At the last instalment in May, attendees went from hearing Jamblu’s noise compositions in a darkened air-conditioned room on the second floor to bopping to producers and singers Madboy and Pulpy Shilpy’s hip-hop-infused beats in the parking lot to seeing Western classical pianist Sahil Vasudeva perform a short recital inside the former mess on the ground floor.

It was the range of spaces that attracted Preeti Gaonkar, the co-founder of TMA, to the spot where they hold their events, the Kanara Catholic Association Hall in Bandra, which serves as a community centre for the Mangalorean Catholic community of the city. The venue has the familiar feel of a school. The entrance leads to a large room with a badminton court that resembles an assembly hall. “There are lots of spaces that are really beautiful but they can be intimidating for audience members,” said Gaonkar. “What I really love about this is that it’s so approachable.”

The same rooms that are used for wedding receptions, communion commemorations and administrative meetings by the KCA serve as places for experimental dance, theatre and music productions thanks to TMA, a year-old cultural organisation that pitches itself as more than just a venue for hire. Gaonkar looks at those who conduct events here as “partners” or “co-hosts” with whom they’re equally invested in developing audiences for the arts. Notably, the initial “idea wasn’t to start with a space but to create an organisation that would support new and independent talent to develop, produce our own shows and try to enable different connections to happen”.

To this end, TMA aims to function as a ‘lab’ for the creative industries. Those “working in this sector, particularly dance and theatre, always end up working in their own spaces, in their houses or wherever, and are constantly struggling, one, to present their work and two, to survive in this city,” said Gaonkar. “Sometimes this survival becomes so difficult, a lot of other things get compromised. The idea was: if we could just create a small spot even, where we offer space, access to senior people and information and take away some of the burden that’s there on these practitioners, how would that help? How can we be that little patch of stimulation that can encourage people to experiment and [let them know] it’s alright if you fail.”

Unlike conventional venues where artists are expected to draw in a substantial crowd, at TMA they’re free from commercial constraints. “When you go into a venue, there is pressure for [the performance] to succeed,” said Gaonkar. “Our focus is that it’s fine if the material doesn’t succeed, the important thing is ‘What are you learning from it?” Not everybody who approaches them quite gets this. “It was and is a challenge to explain that we’re more a project space than a venue,” she said. “We don’t have [daily] programming.”

The focus is on depth rather than frequency. Apart from the REProduce shows and working with events company Gatecrash to hold jazz gigs every quarter, TMA hosts the Mumbai edition of the Appa Art Festival, at which along with an exhibition of artworks, the music pieces composed at the annual residency in Kamshet are performed here. “It’s musicians presenting more of their experimental work,” said Gaonkar. “What we created was a public platform for them to be able to engage with, but with their experimental stuff and not the commercial stuff that they’d play in clubs.” They’re also co-producing an album version of the Sounds of the Sufis, a “musical documentary theatre performance” by singers and narrators Anuraag Dhoundeyal and Priyanka Patel and tabla player Karan Chitra Deshmukh that traces the history of Sufism from the eighth century to the present day.

As somebody who has been working in the city’s arts scene for over two decades now, Gaonkar is well placed to identify gaps in the cultural eco-system. She started her career as a teenager, working as a volunteer with the Prithvi Theatre Festival and then joined the venue on a full-time basis. Since then Gaonkar has worked with a handful of visual art and theatre organisations including the British Council. For three years, she lived in Singapore, where she was employed with the local office of the Asia Europe Foundation, an institution that organises seminars, conferences and cultural events for professionals from Asia and Europe, before returning to India in 2015 to launch TMA.

Perhaps the best example of TMA’s lab-oriented vision is their partnership with contemporary dancer and choreographer Sujay Saple’s Mumbai-based company Shapeshift Collective. In addition to staging their shows and workshops here, Shapeshift co-organised a mentorship programme that ran from October 2016 to February this year in which three upcoming dancers, Aditi Venkateswaran, Arpit Singh and Vikas Baid, were guided by Indian and international choreographers such as Ima Iduozee, Mandeep Raikhy, Michel Casanovas, Sujata Goel and Tero Saarinen on different aspects of their upcoming projects. At the end of the programme, they staged short work-in-progress pieces for the public. “The choreographers didn’t charge us anything because they believed in the programme,” said Gaonkar. “We didn’t charge the dancers anything.”

Similarly, in August 2016, a different set of dancers, Binal Shah, Shruti Maria Datar and Avantika Bahl, was invited to present works-in-progress at TMA. The show, which was ticketed, was attended by a small group of about 25, but the Q&A session that followed was “so stimulating”, said Gaonkar, that it “fed into the artist’s process”. One of the pieces that emerged from the exercise was city-residing choreographer Avantika Bahl’s Say, What?, which is performed in silence, incorporates sign language and features Mumbai-based hearing-impaired dancer Vishal Sarvaiya. TMA is now producing a country-wide tour of Say, What?.

Saple believes there are a few things that distinguish TMA from most other venues. “What makes it different and exciting is three things: one is its interest in giving access to the kind of artists and conversations and thought which otherwise would not find mainstream representation; it’s a space for alternative voices,” he said. “The second is the practice of curation as opposed to [being] a venue for hire. We’re both interested in creating relationships with the artists, not just presenting their performances. A lot of time people call and ask if it is available for rehearsal and we’re like ‘No, write to us about your project and let’s see how we can make it happen together’. It’s a co-supporter of the artist’s vision and arts in the city.” The third facet is Gaonkar’s openness to collaboration. “She realises the difficulty of running an arts space alone,” he said. “She is aware that some people know about a field more about her.”

Aware that such a mode of functioning would take time to generate revenue, TMA was conceptualised as a non-profit, which is supported by two for-profit companies run by the three founders. They include Andre Tully, who helms event management company Nothing Regular Media and Entertainment, and Rafael Pereira, who’s in charge of Cadre Project Support Solutions, which provides trained manpower for conferences, music festivals and the like. Most of the proceeds from TMA’s ticket sales go to the artists, the proportion typically ranges from 70 to 80 per cent. They do a 50-50 split in rare cases like “when somebody wants to do a one-off performance”.

Over the last 12 months, TMA has achieved to some measure its first two goals of supporting new talent and producing its own shows. The third aim of forging connections will take up a significant part of its second year of operations. This year will see TMA embarking on a nine month-long venture with the UK-based Arts Council-funded theatre foundation Fio in which spoken word artists in the UK and India will tour each other’s countries. Towards the end of 2017, it will hold the Mumbai edition of the Europe-Asia Roundtable Sessions (EARS), a conference series, conceptualised by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland, which serves as a platform for collaboration between the creative industries in Europe and Asia and showcases the latest trends in both the regions.

Ears on Mumbai will have professionals from the fields of film, music and the performing arts coming together to share ideas and start potential collaborations. “What I really liked about the conference is that it wasn’t just talk, talk, talk but it really provided an informal set-up for a lot of people to start interacting with each other,” said Gaonkar who worked on and attended the Helsinki and Shanghai editions while she was in Singapore.

“The other factor that I find really important is that it will have pan-Asia representation,” she said. “It’s not just connecting with the West. There’s already interest from China, Korea, Taipei.” The conference fits in perfectly with TMA’s modus operandi of “constantly being on the lookout for similar objectives that different arts organisations have and bringing them together”. The results are most successful when each of the parties involved is equally devoted in an enterprise, believes Gaonkar. “The idea that we want to work with is collective ownership.”

The Mumbai Assembly, KCA Hall, near Birdsong The Organic Cafe, 16 Veronica Road, Bandra (West). Tel: 99309 90969. Get directions here. For updates on events, follow their Facebook page.

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