Thursday, April 5, 2007

Reclaiming Public Space and Building a Contemporary Culture

I had presumed that it was like most of the rumours floating in the air; this story that the old Medical College building was going to be converted to a mall. Unfortunately like most of those other bizarre rumours floating around in Goa, this too turned out to be horrifically true. The building is going to be converted into a mall! Horror of horrors!

“Ofcourse” commented a friend, who would have liked to see the building remain a public space, “our politicians know only malls”. True and yet not true. Our politicians are merely reading the signs of the times, succumbing to a trend that is sweeping all of society, and not only in newly consumerist India. Worldwide we are witness to a change in the nature of public spaces as they get interiorized and privatized. Thus while the earlier era was about the public parks, promenades and buildings open to all, we today see a trend to create ‘public spaces’ within malls and private club-houses, locking out the undesirables and open only to the paying public. In such a situation it is not strange that our politicians seek to create a mall in the building of the Escola Medica, or convert vast open areas into an IT Park rather than a natural park for a growing and choking city. While it is not strange, it is sad however that they have once again created a private asset committed to perpetuating differences, rather than the public assets and wealth they are expected to commit themselves to.

And while this conversion of a public building into a mall may correspond to a negative global trend, there is also at play a local dynamic. We in Goa seem entirely bereft when it comes to knowing what to do with our public buildings. We either convert them to hotels or convert them to museums. On both fronts we think not of ourselves, but of how groups other than ourselves can use these buildings (and our resources and selves consequently). One could argue that the museum serves to educate the local as well as the visitor, but take a look around you at the many museums we have. You visit them once and you can safely never visit it again, since there is going to be no substantial addition to the collection. With culture being identified only with the past, there is no investment in the museum as a space where the local can constantly engage with the cultural world and the creations emanating from it. In that sense then, the State did the most appropriate thing in converting the building of the Escola Medica into a mall. It couldn’t be converted into a hotel, that would be too crude, and if turned into a museum what would we do with the old Secretariat? So we seek the middle ground and convert it into a mall, by leasing it for three years! We haven’t thought of converting it into a public space, since we are never thinking of the local individual and how they and the city could benefit from an innovative use of the building!

What would such an innovative use of the Escola Medica be? One such use will be on display from the 10th of this month onwards for a period of two weeks. A collection of art works by different art works by Goan artists, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the work seeks to highlight the continued creativity of Goan artists and the evolving nature of local culture. But this is not all it seeks to do, it also seeks to use this montage of art and culture as the backdrop for performances of various kind; theatre, academic reflection, song, which will continue to highlight this fact of continued cultural evolution. In making use of this grand space, what they are effectively doing is to transform it into a Palace of the People. But this momentary use is only one of the many uses it could be put to. Outside of the Kala Academy the city lacks a space where one can host the film clubs of the city and the continuing film festivals that Panjim is currently hosting. There is no reason why one of the halls of the old GMC cannot be outfitted to play this crucial role. A society that nurtures so many musicians offers no public space where they can practice- rooms that can be hired at ridiculously nominal prices for a budding band to practice. If the film festival is to continue in Panjim, whether as the dramatic IFFI or a locally hosted international film festival, it needs a permanent office. All said and done the city, as well as the State, needs space where culture is pushed toward the cutting edge and local talent nurtured and displayed, a Palace where the people hold court. However…

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