Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre is unique cultural remedy Mumbai needs, say organisers

It opened with a lavish gala last month and aims to celebrate the country's past, present and future affinity with art and design

Sleek interiors could be mistaken for a mall, but cultural celebrations echo around the vast space. Photo: Harshan Thomson
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With its shining glass facade, slick interiors and a sunlit lobby, the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre could well have been a shopping mall where young Mumbaikars could while away a weekend. Instead, the centre, more commonly known as NMACC, is the cultural heartbeat of the Nita Ambani-led Reliance Foundation, the philanthropic arm of her husband Mukesh Ambani's influential Reliance Industries.

Designed by American architects, the building lies within the precinct of Mumbai's much larger Jio World Centre, a business and leisure hub centrally located at the heart of Bandra Kurla Complex's commercial district. There are no designer brands inside, only humble artists who have set up studios and are busy weaving their indigenous motifs into hand-painted tapestries as curious onlookers stop and watch.

The NMACC opened with three centrepiece shows on March 31 — Sangam/Confluence; India in Fashion; and The Great Indian Musical: Civilization to Nation. The first two are on public display until June 4, while the latter, a Feroz Abbas Khan-ran theatrical spectacle, runs until April 23.

Four-storey gallery Art House is currently hosting the group show Sangam/Confluence. The contemporary visual arts exhibition has been curated by Jeffrey Deitch and Ranjit Hoskote.

Featuring Indian artists such as Bharti Kher, Bhupen Khakhar and Ratheesh T, alongside global artists including Anselm Kiefer, Lynda Benglis and Cecily Brown, Sangam/Confluence aims to capture affinities between the East and West.

"Many great European and American artists have been deeply affected by their study of Indian art and philosophy. One of the important objectives of Sangam/Confluence is to further this Indian and international artistic dialogue," says Deitch, pointing to Kher as a perfect example of a truly global artist whose art straddles Indian, European and American traditions. Kher's sculpture An Absence of Assignable Cause (2007) is on display at the exhibition.

Also on display are late pop artist Khakhar's Fishermen in Goa; Self-Portrait in Kashmir Landscape (After Joachim Patinir) by Raqib Shaw, who was born in Kolkata, raised in Kasmir and lives in London; and German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer's There Are Still Songs to Sing Beyond Mankind.

The Great Indian Musical is an immersive theatrical performance that has been conceived and directed by Khan with music by popular duo Ajay-Atul and choreography by Mayuri Upadhya and Vaibhavi Merchant. The piece has been designed as an epic sweep narrating the cultural arc of India. Bollywood's go-to fashion designer Manish Malhotra has contributed more than 1,100 costumes for the musical, staged inside the 2,000-seat Grand Theatre.

Given India's rich textile and craft heritage, it is fitting to see India in Fashion: The Impact of Indian Dress and Textiles on the Fashionable Imagination being given such a pride of place. A short walk from the Art House, this captivating costume show takes up more than 4,600 square metres of pavilion space on the ground floor. It has been curated by English fashion journalist Hamish Bowles and designed by celebrated exhibition director Patrick Kinmonth and Mumbai architect Rooshad Shroff. Shroff says it explores India's history of textiles from the 18th century to contemporary times and how the different periods have "shaped our culture besides inspiring iconic Parisian fashion designers" such as Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel.

Across 10 sections, the exhibition celebrates the thematic narrative of India's fashion journey. Visually arresting, each enclosure is dramatically designed to reflect Indian architectural marvels and motifs — one recreates the Mughal gardens, while another reinterprets the Jantar Mantar observatories of Jaipur and New Delhi and the famous stepwells from Rajasthan and Gujarat.

India in Fashion exhibition at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre — in pictures

One section is dedicated to the journey of the sari, detailing how it has inspired western fashion designers, including Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Paul Gaultier and Cristobal Balenciaga.

"We wanted to create an immersive experience that takes these iconic garments and puts them into a space that serves as a tribute to the grand architectural moments of India," says Shroff. "The high-tech facilities at NMACC allowed us to work freely and creatively to achieve our vision. I don't think there's another venue like this in Mumbai that can bring alive a historical fashion statement in such a unique way."

Shroff has been working behind the scenes on the show for almost two and a half years, while Bowles, who is currently Vogue's global editor-at-large and editor-in-chief of The World of Interiors magazine, has been at it for "even longer".

Shroff, who holds a master's degree in architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design in the US, is hopeful that NMACC will be a creative outlet for the people of Mumbai. "While studying in America I had great exposure to the arts but when I came back to Mumbai I quickly realised the cultural vibe was missing here. That was the biggest vacuum I felt," he says.

Shroff is not alone in feeling that, despite Mumbai's reputation as being India's financial capital, the metropolis has always lacked access to world-class private museums with the kind of infrastructure and amenities that Indian visitors find on their cultural pilgrimages abroad. Many hope that NMACC's arrival on the cultural scene could remedy that void.

Mumbai is home to a few state-run institutions, such as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and Dr Bhau Daji Lad history museums, as well as the National Gallery of Modern Art. However, as a privately funded cultural hub, the NMACC has the potential to stand out in the city, which has a population of more than 12 million. Its wider metropolitan area stretches beyond 22 million according to some research reports.

Speaking to The National, Tasneem Mehta, who runs the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, is enthusiastic about Mumbai's newest cultural destination. "We are excited for NMACC," Mehta says. "I can tell you that producing big art shows is an expensive affair. Funding is always an issue. But private institutions are much more nimble and have good budgets. My hope is that NMACC will be a game-changer for India."

NMACC has already been touted as a first-of-its-kind in India, particularly in the way it brings visual arts and performing arts together under one roof. “It is so much more than a space — it is the culmination of my mother’s passion for arts, culture and her love for India," says Isha Ambani Piramal, the only daughter of Mukesh and Nita Ambani. Like the rest of her extended family, Isha lives in Mumbai.

"It is commendable that the Ambani family could dip into their wealth, resources, connections and goodwill to build this centre. It proves Nita Ambani's commitment and deep respect for the arts," says Priyasri Patodia, a Mumbai gallerist. "It is not hard to see that this space will help foster many different art forms in the near future, primarily by providing a platform to folk artists, musicians or other talented performers with limited means."

Patodia was one of the hundreds of special guests who attended the centre's high-profile launch, which was followed by three days of festivities attended by international celebrities including Penelope Cruz, Gigi Hadid, Zendaya and Tom Holland, who mixed with Bollywood stars such as Priyanka Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan. The event was dubbed the Indian Met Gala.

Scroll through the gallery below to see which stars attended the opening last month

"Right now, everybody is still talking about the opening. They can't get over it," Patodia laughs. "But once all this hype and buzz settles down, you will see that this space is meant not just for the rich and famous. It is for everyone who loves art and culture.

"I have always believed that art binds and NMACC, with its emphasis on inclusivity and diversity, will play a huge role in bringing people together."

Updated: April 12, 2023, 3:03 AM