THE OLD bungalow on Malabar Hill overlooked Marine Drive, where in the evening, if one stepped into the garden, ‘the Queen’s Necklace’ twinkled in the distance. Back in 1968, when Heimo Rau and Dirk Angelroth began German language classes in Bombay, they rented a property belonging to one of the cities most generous, and most colourful characters — philanthropist and animal lover, widow of a former mayor of Bombay, Bapsy Sabavala.
The bungalow, with its spacious entrance hall, and high wood-panelled ceiling, became a German language centre, which also hosted several music concerts. A year later, the centre was officially inaugurated as the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan (MMB). Over the years, the institute and this city forged a unique relationship that has nurtured many a cultural expedition — from language, to the arts, from theatre to technology — from the West to the East and vice versa.
Starting Friday, the MMB — which moved from Malabar Hill to Kala Ghoda, Fort, in 1972 — will celebrate 50 years in Mumbai with a three-day festival that boasts of some of the most influential thinkers, writers and artists in India and the world. The festival will open with a keynote lecture by Professor Homi K Bhabha titled ‘The Task of the Humanist: Bringing Hannah Arendt Home to Bombay’.
Saturday is set to be a big day for art lovers — the preview of renowned artist Nalini Malani’s first solo show in India ‘Can You Hear Me?’ featuring more than 50 animations will take place in the evening. The artist has had a long association with MMB. In 1993, Malani worked on a collaboration on German dramatist Heiner Mueller’s Medeamaterial (with Alaknanda Samarth). In 1997, she rehearsed a production of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Job’ at MMB for a performance at the NCPA.
On Sunday, the MMB will present the Merck-Tagore award to Professor Kris K Manjapra for his contribution towards intercultural exchange between India and Germany.
In the past year, art and technology have merged at the MMB with its first digital exhibition ‘Open Codes’ held in collaboration with the ZKM Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, which explored works created from codes and scripts. “We are planning more activities in this field involving coders and artists from different cultural and creative industries. The result doesn’t necessarily have to be an artwork, it can be a product too. We’re interested in the overlap of different industries,” says Björn Ketels, director, MMB, Mumbai.
In the early years, under the direction of Dr Georg Lechner, the MMB fostered a healthy exchange of eastern and western arts and cultural forms. “I think it came about gradually. We have autonomy even though we are funded by the foreign ministry. Since the late 1960s-70s, the institute understood itself as a platform of dialogue and not just cultural diplomacy, which is always agenda-driven,” said Ketels.
One of the pillars of the MMB has been its library — and for this weekend’s celebrations, they are serving up a treat. A virtual reality installation developed by Goethe-Institut Prag, in cooperation with Mika Johnson and Shahid Gulamali will be presented in Mumbai for the very first time.
“When you wear the eye-gear, you will be transported inside a room where you will see yourself as a bug — you are now into the world of Gregor Samsa from Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis,” says Jayashree Joshi, head of the library and information centre, MMB.
The library will also present three German-to-Marathi translations to mark the golden-year celebrations in fiction, poetry and non-fiction.