One morning this week, a small group including engineers, an architect, a gallery-owner, an activist, and municipal officials trudged through thick undergrowth to inspect a dilapidated warehouse.
The warehouse is in Rabindra Sarobar in south Kolkata — 192 acres of greenery with four lakes and a large bird population. The park is a source of pride for morning walkers, locals and the city authorities. So this rundown warehouse that attracts only scrap-hunters has long been a cause of concern.
Now a metamorphosis is in the works, and this group is here to make it happen. The warehouse is to become an art gallery, the first of its kind in this culture-loving city.
If Vivek Bharadwaj, CEO of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (which recently took over Rabindra Sarobar) is to be believed, this is not just another five-year government project. KMDA plans to hold the new gallery’s inaugural exhibition in November 2012. “While Kolkata is teeming with art galleries for canvas and paper work, this one will be different as it will showcase huge art installations like sculptures and metal works,” says Bharadwaj, an IAS officer (1990 batch) whose last assignment was with the Kolkata Environmental Improvement Project.
The gallery project is part of a plan to turn the 73-acre Rabindra Sarobar into a cultural and entertainment hub. The makeover is a joint initiative of local residents, KMDA and the Kolkata Improve-ment Trust, which owns the land.
The Great Sarobar Marathon Run, held for the first time this January, will be an annual event, officials say. The Yogathon, a thousand people doing surya namas-karas on World Yoga Day is another big event for “Sarobarites”. Security has improved, and the lake is regularly cleaned. “This is not enough, though,” says Bharadwaj. “I am looking at mechanised cleaning, and modern electronic parking in the area.”
“We rarely have access to such a huge space for an art gallery amidst the natural environs of trees and a lake,” says Prateek Raja, the owner of the Experimenter gallery in Gariahat. He has been roped in to develop the Sarobar art gallery. Raja claims to be working on a brand-building blueprint for the place, including shows and events that will generate walk-ins. “It is a unique opportunity to showcase to the world the kind of art forms which cannot be otherwise displayed in any other art gallery” in Kolkata, says Raja — because the Sarobar gallery will be so large. Raja and Bharadwaj were both part of a delegation that visited Germany three years ago to study urban public art.
Bharadwaj’s brief to the renovators is to not tamper much with the warehouse, so it retains its historic character. The architect, Rajeev Agarwal, who is from Delhi, could not agree more, and has suggested using huge glass windows “to give the backdrop of the lake and make use of natural lighting”.
While tenders for repairing the warehouse and clearing the overgrown area around have already been floated, says Bharadwaj, work is likely to start by early September. The 45-day target for completion appears overambitious. KMDA’s plan for the new Sarobar gallery is to hold its first exhibition in early November.
“There is a particular reason behind this urgency,” says Muder Patheria, a local resident. “The first exhibition will showcase some of the best Durga idols and artefacts that are not immersed after Durga Puja.”
Although they have spoken to senior artist Shuvaprasanna about installations of Durga, nothing has been finalised, says Bharadwaj. The artist is known to be close to Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister, who is a strong advocate of Bengali cultural institutions.
Meanwhile, the budget for the Sarobar art gallery is surprisingly slim at Rs 20 lakh. Bharadwaj says it will suffice, as the warehouse needs just basic repair and low-cost industrial flooring. Natural light will be used rather than electric, and the outdoor breeze harnessed and circulated rather than costly airconditioned air.
If the enthusiasm and forward thinking of the civic bodies and private parties translates into timely action, come November Kolkata will have its first art gallery in a park, for large installations.