December 22, 2017


By Georgina Maddox

The Goa Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF) laid out a tapestry of aesthetic provocations

Driving down the sunny road in Goa, lined with palm trees set against bright azure skies, is always a pleasant experience, especially when the rest of North India is freezing over. However, this sojourn gets elevated beyond a touristy visit when one encounters public art along this drive. Larger-than-life paintings of Goa’s ‘aunties’ in their typical colourful house dress, or a technicolored sculptural replica of Rodin’s Thinker, strategically placed at a traffic crossing, is just the beginning of the spectacle ahead. The festive air is heightened by posters and banners that announce the Goa Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF). At night it is the echo of drums pealing through the salty air that tells you, this is not just the usual Christmas celebrations in Goa but something more is going on. This December 2017, SAF brought the port town alive with a splash of colour, the throbbing of drums and theatricality that spilled over from the proscenium and onto the street.

The festival, which is bigger this year, boasted of over 100 events and 14 curators who represented the visual arts, music, dance, theatre and the culinary arts. Accomplished in their respective disciplines they comprised of classical singer Shubha Mudgal, poet Ranjit Hoskote, artist Riyas Komu and Vidya Shivadas, Sabih Ahmed, historian Jyotindra Jain, photographers Dinesh Khanna and Prashant Panjiar, the Alkazi Archive, musician Ranjit Barot, chefs Manu Chandra and Odette Mascarenhas and actor-director Lillete Dubey.

What was most encouraging about the festival was that it showcased art to a crowd that was not the usual suspects. There were several local and fresh faces, many young adults and kids who flocked to the venues that were dotted across Panaji. These included unconventional locations like the PWD offices, the old GST building near PVR and the stately Adil Shah Palace, which lent its discreet charm to the displays. Anchored opposite the Palace was a large black barge, which played host to the Ground Beneath My Feet curated by Sabih Ahmed, which showcased performances by Nikhil Chopra among others. In the evenings performances were staged at the DB grounds like Rhythm Divine, choreographed by Astaad Debo. The scintillating performance with his troupe which was a reflective piece on life in the North East.

“It was very exciting and challenging to curate the exhibitions at these spaces which were once offices and store rooms,” says Komu who worked with his team for 15 days non-stop to transform the dour space into an exciting and cutting-edge venue. The exhibition, that showcases young, emerging artists’ work from across South Asia was spread over five spaces. It featured artists from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and India. “The cross-border journeys in search of new artists collapses the artist/curator divide into a mode of mentorship, creating new creative processes on both sides,” explains Komu. Notable works were ‘Transcendence Kochi’, by Biju Ibrahim, who documented over 400 communities in the region through his interestingly displayed photographs. Contrastingly Latifa Zafar Atta from Kabul Afghanistan masked the identity of her protagonists through embroidery done over their faces. Karan Shrestha from Nepal’s work spoke of impact on the Maoist revolution, the fall of the monarchy and its impact on the local population of young Nepali’s who were looking for new ways to express their identities.

At the Adil Shah Palace, the crowds thronged and took selfies with vintage film cameras, cutouts of Devika Rani and vintage spotlights. The exhibition, Director of photography highlighted the integral role played by Josef Wirsching in the history of Indian cinema. Wirsching who was the director of photography worked closely with director Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies and created immortal films like the 1937 film Izzat featuring Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar. The exhibition was curated by Rahaab Allana, Debashree Mukherjee and Sudeep Chaudhari and created a visceral experience of the era that followed silent cinema, through photographs, film clips, lobby cards and a few props. 

Another journey back in time was Prashant Panjiar and Naresh Fernandes curation titled The Music Stopped, But We Were Still Dancing. It showcased the 1960s, early era of Jazz in India through photographs of Chic Chocolate, born Antonio Xavier Vaz, a Goan trumpeter (clearly modelled on Louis Armstrong) who led a Jazz band at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay and was one of Bombay's better-known jazz musicians. There were also photographs of a young Louis Banks, Pam Crain and Braz Gonsalves who were all the rage in the 1970s. A few music clips on ear-phones ensured that it was not just image but sound that took one back to that era.

Dayanita Singh’s works created a presence with both her mobile boxes from Museum Bhavan that holds over three decades of her works in portable accordion books that are placed in a box and her iconic photographs on Saroj Khan was presented as a slide show taken from her exhibition titled ‘Master Ji’. Singh recalls that she began following Khan in the 1990s while accompanying Anupama Chopra.

“Saroj Khan was called ‘Masterji’ by everyone on the set, including the big stars. People touched her feet and greatly revered her. I followed her for three weeks till my film was over,” she writes. She kept these works in hibernation for years. In 2016, Singh happened to show them to her friend, Mark Morris, a New York-based choreographer and he curated (or even choreographed) a set of 30 images that play on loop with Carnatic Nadaswaram music for the White Light Festival at the Lincoln Center. This body of work was shown for the first time in India at SAF.

Hurtling from those nostalgic black and whites, one was thrown into an explosion of colour as photographers Arati Kumar Rao, Dinesh Khanna, Arup Shah and Navtej Shah explored the slow violence of environmental degradation. Stories from the Largest River, brought to the fore the personal and ecological loss from the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. Rao’s moving photographs speak of the tiger-widows, whose husbands have disappeared or been found dead due to the shrinking spaces between human settlements and the wild habitat where tigers of the Brahmaputra region reside. Khanna throws light on the fishing community and the loss of vocation for indigenous fishermen, while Navtej Singh’s aerial photographs depict India’s coastline.

Strategically placed outside the old GMC building painter and sculptor Hemi Bawa’s installation The Enriching Journey drew inspiration from the myriad ecosystems and mechanisms essential to the production of wine. Following the path of the grape from its cultivation to its ageing and ripening, Bawa is interested not merely in the final product, but in how this little fruit has sustained communities, economies, and landscapes for centuries.

In the same premises of the old GMC building, one came across ‘Detritus: Matter Out of Place’, an exhibition curated by Vidya Shivadas. The exhibition showcased works by artists exploring the idea of waste and discarded objects. Baroda-based artist BV Suresh’s immersive installation ‘Chronicles of Silence (Khamoshi Ki Daastan)’ explores a dystopian landscape. The viewer is engulfed by grunting pig noises, radio speeches, kinetic machines, crashing weights, cotton gins and laser beams. The sculpture of an albino peacock presides over the whole scene, a blanched version of the national bird. This wasteland speaks of the unexpressed rage of the farmers whose livelihood has been sacrificed at the alter of so called ‘progress’.

“Detritus emerged from the kind of work many artists are doing around us in the contemporary art scene. Artists are taking cognizance of the materials around us that are filling our cities and engaging with their material, social, cultural and political connotations,” says Shivadas.

“I chose artworks as much as artists for the range of engagement with the subject at hand which was around the generative possibilities in what is seemingly waste,” she adds.

Vivan Sundaram’s, ‘Gagawaka, Making Strange’, fits in nicely with the idea of refuse as it recycles waste materials to create sculptural garments in collaboration with designer Pratima Pandey, underlining that one man’s waste may be another man’s treasure.

Sheba Chhachhi’s installation Neelkanth: Poison Nectar, a collection of 200 Aluminum light boxes with photographs and 4 Translite Light boxes juxtaposes the human sensory organs of ears, nose and eyes, with gargantuan heaps of waste surrounding the city of Delhi. It also references the ancient myth where lord Shiva swallowed the flaming mass of poison, which threatened to destroy the universe holding it within his throat which turned blue. It speaks of holding the poison of minds, bodies, psyches and societies.

Sudharak Olwe captures the unsung saviors of the mosh pit, combatting the stench of sludge filled gutters and overflowing bins. He focuses on all those living on the edge in his arresting photographs of the conservancy workers, also known as sweepers who work for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and who work in below human conditions. Other artists featured in this exhibition are Kaushik, Mukhopadhyay, Benitha Perciyal, Ruby Chishti, Moonis Ahmad and Jehangir Jani to name a few.

Overall SAF laid out a tapestry of provocations that moved well beyond the ambit of drawing room conversations, presenting art that was visceral, gripping and provocative. “The ambassadors of our festival are artists and people who attended last year, and I am so glad to see that the word has spread, and the festival is growing. This is an ongoing process,” concludes Komu.

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