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bombay to mumbai

When the city of Bombay was renamed into Mumbai in 1995, it was a different kind of name change than, say, Peking to Beijing. Rather than correcting pronunciation, the city chose a different etymology.

The official reason for the change was to undo colonial anglicization of the city's original name, so called after its patron deity Mumbadevi. Her name, in turn, derived from the Sanskrit Mahā-Ambā Devi, Great Mother Goddess.

The name Bombay, however, can be traced back to the Portuguese conquerors of the 16th century, who called the place Bom Bahia, or good bay. This name was indeed later anglicized to Bombay. But linguistically there is no relation, let alone corruption, between Bombay and Mumbai - and it seems a curious coincidence that the two names sound so alike.

Over a decade before the name change, Salman Rushdie told the tale of the city's origins in his novel 'Midnight's Children' (1981):

...at the dawn of time, when Bombay was a dumbbell-shaped island tapering, at the centre, to a narrow shining strand beyond which could be seen the finest and largest natural harbour in Asia, when Mazagaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands, too - in short, before reclamation, before tetrapods and sunken piles turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsula like an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westward into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clocktowers, the fishermen - who were called Kolis - sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fishlovers of us all. (...)

There were also coconut and rice. And, above it all, the benign presiding influence of the goddess Mumbadevi, whose name - Mumbadevi, Mumbabai, Mumbai - may well have become the city's. But then, the Portuguese named the place Bom Bahia for its harbour, and not for the goddess of the pomfret folk ... the Portuguese were the first invaders, using the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then, one day in 1633, an East Indian Company Officer named Methwold saw a vision. This vision - a dream of a British Bombay, fortified, defending India's West against all comers - was a notion of such force that it set time in motion. History churned ahead; Methwold died; and in 1660, Charles II of England was betrothed to Catharine of the Portuguese House of Braganza - that same Catharine who would, all her life, play second fiddle to orange-selling Nell. But she has this consolation - that it was her marriage dowry which brought Methwold's vision a step closer to reality. After that, it wasn't long until September 21st, 1668, when the Company at last got its hands on the island ... and then off they went, with their Fort and land-reclamation, and before you could blink there was a city here, Bombay, of which the old tune sang:

Prima in Indis,
Gateway to India,
Star of the East
With her face to the West.

staging silence ii

In his short film 'Staging Silence II' (2013), Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck creates and destroys model worlds with godlike obsession. The sheer artificiality of these landscapes, constructed and manipulated by the artist's ghostly hands, makes us wonder whether the world around us might not be a backdrop as well. But then there are moments when his creations become magically, cinematically real... and we suspend our disbelief.

Staging Silence II - 1

'Staging Silence II' starts where its predecessor, 'Staging Silence' (2009), left off, with a barren landscape of trees. Both films share the same basic concept, though the second part feels more fully articulated. They show the painstaking creation of a succession of miniature natural, urban and interior landscapes on a studio table, filmed in black and white.

In many cases the landscapes are made using ordinary materials - a potato rock garden, a chocolate bar alley, a sugar cube city - adding to the magic when they are transformed into 'real' scenes. Another key component is the film's soundtrack, composed by Scanner, blending ambient music with a sound design that subtly enhances the landscapes' illusion.

Staging Silence II - 2

But realism is not what Op de Beeck is after. Rather, he shows us the unstable, temporary quality of the spaces that surround us.

As carefully as it is constructed, each landscape is also deconstructed again, revealing the controlled environment of the studio where the artist patiently builds up a new illusion. With its static frontal perspective and the artist's hands constantly seen working on the mise en scène, the film thus becomes a performance, greatly condensed of course, as each scene must be the result of hours, days, weeks of tinkering. It's like we're watching an existential puppet show - minus the puppets, all we get are the backdrops - of continuous creation and destruction.

This also explains the film's title, as the scenes are all conspicuously empty and devoid of people. Op de Beeck stages the silence of empty spaces - the meditative quiet of a Vermeer interior, the stillness of a Japanese garden, or even the after-hours desolation of a Tati cityscape.

At the same time he keeps reminding us of the stage.

Staging Silence II - 3

'Staging Silence II' is currently shown as part of Out There, a Viewmaster exhibition in Rotterdam of video and photography focusing on landscapes. It features classic works like the serenely metamorphosing landscapes of Driessens & Verstappen's 'Kennemerduinen 2007 scene B' and Michael Najjar's 'the invisible city', or the caleidoscopic manipulation of Las Vegas cityscapes in Nicolas Provost's 'Storyteller'.

Most works are exhibited outdoors, which in subzero weather makes attentive viewing a challenge. Then again, landscapes usually require some effort from their beholders.

Update: More on Out There at Trendbeheer (in Dutch).