Words extracted from an article published by The National, an Emirati newspaper: "Standing outside the gleaming tower of the Maker Maxity building in suburban Mumbai is a fire-engine-red double-decker bus ... This bus, however, sprouts two stainless steel wings ... A whimsical creation by Mumbai-based artist, Sudarshan Shetty, 50, at an estimated cost of US$250,000 (Dh920,000), this Flying Bus sculpture is arguably India's most significant public art project".
Shetty's Flying Bus has been called a public art work, or art in a public space, by Mumbai Boss, Tehelka and the Telegraph, among other publications. My friend Deepika wrote, in the Economic Times, about Manish Maker, the man who commissioned the Bus: "He has a plan in place for incorporating artworks in the upcoming mall and hotel that will replace the family-owned erstwhile drive-in cinema. These are all public spaces anyone could visit".
A preview of last month's Art Chennai in the Hindu began: "For nine days beginning March 10, art buffs in Chennai are in for a big treat. Teams of artists are likely to take people in public spaces such as shopping malls and railway stations by surprise".
The line introducing the Grand Hyatt's artworks on the hotel's Facebook page reads, "Grand Hyatt Mumbai, houses one of the finest collections of commissioned art in a public space".
I can see why people think of malls, hotels and the courtyards of office complexes as public spaces, and art placed in such locations as public art. These locations charge no entry fee, and are visited by thousands of people each week, unlike art galleries which get few footfalls outside of opening evenings. The Grand Hyatt, though, is no Shivaji Park. Or Millennium Park, since we're speaking of public art.
Sudarshan Shetty is among the finest artists of his generation, he is represented by an excellent gallery, and Manish Maker is a discerning collector. None of these things make the Flying Bus a public art project. I've been to Maker Maxity fairly often. It's one of the most expensive blocks of office space in the country. Alert securitymen at its gates make sure nobody gets in unless they have official business or want to eat overpriced pizza.
The confusion among journalists and affluent Indians about the nature of public space (the poor know very well that shopping malls and five-star hotels are privately owned and rigorously exclusionary) is sad. It means those among us best equipped to demand an expansion of public spaces and institutions are likely to believe the opening of a new mall actually constitutes such an expansion.