Modi is bringing New York’s Times Square to Mumbai, in the middle of a heritage zone

Sorry Mumbai, no naked cowboy.
Sorry Mumbai, no naked cowboy.
Image: Reuters/Darren Ornitz
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Just weeks before prime minister Narendra Modi arrives in the United States, his government has given Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, an unlikely gift—New York’s Times Square.

India’s tourism minister Sripad Naik today announced plans to model Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda into a “hub of heritage and culture, mostly open air, the equivalent of Times Square, New York.” And the government seems quite serious about its intention to honestly replicate the American landmark.

So, it is planning to erect massive electronic billboards—perhaps not as big as those on Times Square—that will provide local building owners with additional income, and also entertain visitors.

But unlike skyscraper dominated midtown Manhattan, south Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda is an artsy cultural district, surrounded by museums, galleries and some of the city’s oldest cafes. It also hosts the acclaimed Kala Ghoda Art Festival every year. Visually, it’s all heritage and art deco buildings from the city’s colonial era.

Amid such a setting, the new blueprint proposes a well-lit 15-foot-high Indian flag made of unspecified “hard transparent materials” that’ll provide a glitzy backdrop for tourist photos, presumably similar to the ‘Stars and Stripes’ installation in Times Square, which also doubles up as an U.S. Army recruitment station.

There will also be wide steps—made of transparent plastic and steel—where visitors are expected to sit, while high-resolution video cameras photograph them and project the images on giant screens and a live stream on the Internet.

And of course, there will be costumed characters “preferably from the cinemas of India and cartoons by Indian cartoonists” who will strut around the square in Mumbai’s tropical humidity. They’ll be paid a salary, the tourism ministry explains, so tips will be voluntary.

For all this, the government will initially spend Rs 5 crore (about $800,000), with similar amounts promised for subsequent phases.

The tourism ministry said that the discussions to create this “cultural hub” were held last month between the ministry, Maharashtra’s tourism department and the Mumbai Traffic Police. It remains unclear whether local residents and organisations were consulted.

The Kala Ghoda Association, which undertakes architectural conservation and arranges the art festivals, said the government hadn’t sought its opinion. “We feel that it requires a lot of consideration,” the Association’s chairman Maneck Davar told Quartz. “You can’t deface heritage buildings with sign boards.”

In any case, diehard Times Square aficionados may well be disappointed. For all the government’s intent to replicate the original location, one quintessential feature is likely to be missing in Mumbai’s version—The Naked Cowboy.