In every sense: Groundbreaking projects at Serendipity Arts Festival 2018

The Serendipity Festival has established itself as a platform for artists to collaborate, with a view to create something truly unique, inter-disciplinary and appealing to each of the human senses.

For an arts and culture festival, the hosts of the annual Serendipity gathering sure set themselves an exalted purpose.

Led by Sunil Kant Munjal, Chairman of Hero Enterprise, the Serendipity Arts Foundation has repeatedly emphasised its intention of offering equal opportunities to artists, artisans, indigenous and folk art forms, performers and creative practitioners from all over India.

The Serendipity Arts Trust, in fact, is one of many social projects by the group aimed at reviving patronage in the arts. Munjal remains exceedingly forthcoming and ambitious about his plans, which make him a thought leader and social entrepreneur, over and above his business interests.

The foundation is not-for-profit and works statedly to foster the development of artistic communities, while making the arts inclusive, educational and accessible at the same time.

In no less terms, this is the vision set out for the Serendipity Arts Festival, held in Goa, from December 15-22, 2018: [To be] “A catalyst for cross-cultural exchange, fostering a sense of unity across disciplines and artforms whilst also erasing regional divisions in the country.”

To drive home the point, the hosts insist that they’re looking at “a long-term cultural project that hopes to instigate positive change across the arts in India on a large scale”. No trivial task that, by any stretch of imagination.

While Goa did provide adequate room for the festival’s monumental spread of events, the clinching factor was easily in the hosts’ choice of curators — an epic assembly in itself, of eminent artists and figures including Rahaab Allana and Ravi Agarwal (photography), Ranjit Hoskote and Subodh Gupta (visual arts), Rahul Akerkar and Odette Mascarenhas (culinary arts), Leela Samson and Ranjana Dave (dance), Atul Kumar and Arundhati Nag (theatre), Aneesh Pradhan and Sneha Khanwalkar (music), as well as Annapurna Garimella and Rashmi Verma (craft).

In addition, a host of collateral projects were led by Shubha Mudgal, Ayush Kasliwal, Hanif Qureishi, Meenakshi Thirukode and Sabeena Gadihoke, among others.

<em>Cutting-edge performance art</em>
Cutting-edge performance art

Forging a new path
If a tad chaotic at times, the results were certainly inspiring, especially given the concerted efforts directed towards inter-disciplinary projects. 

In essence, the festival witnessed the emergence of an incredibly mixed canvas — one that revealed the theatre of music, witnessed the drama of photography, showcased the culture of faith, and also spotlit the sheer craftsmanship that goes behind a stage show, all the while melding the visual with performance arts, and even articulating the unbounded aesthetics and acute sensorial pleasures of radical culinary experimentation. 

From improvised theatre at the homes of Goan locals, to music jams in a park, dance on the streets, photography and film alongside the most skilled indigenous arts and crafts, Serendipity Festival has successfully achieved one highly improbable goal — to inspire the entire arts community of the country, and pave the path for further collaborations.

In many ways, this ought to serve as a go-to guide for groundbreaking arts and cultural projects. For this feature, thus, we weren’t as interested in picking out the festival highlights, as much as identifying the projects that will serve as benchmarks for artists this year, and hopefully, lead to more initiatives of the kind. 

<em>The dance intervention, Stop Look Go</em>
The dance intervention, Stop Look Go

To reinvent oneself
For a start, a large part of the attention was evidently drawn towards the stage-bound events, which witnessed tremendous amounts of readings, versions and re-interpretations across various cultural contexts. 

Karalsman, for instance, presented a folk performance from Kerala in a way that almost compared itself to, and resembled, the fabled Greek Opera, picking up expressions from the dance form of Chavittu Natakam, which is native to the coastal belt of Western Kerala and closely connected to the forms of Koothu and Koodiyattam.

There was also a Kathakali performance named To Die Upon a Kiss… based on the tragedy Othello by Shakespeare, apart from Karnatic Kattaikkuttu Karnatic, a unique collaboration of Carnatic music and Kattaikkuttu theatre, featuring vocalist TM Krishna along with actor, director Perungattur P Rajagopal, among others, in a truly interdisciplinary and wholly exhilarating performance.

<em>A new benchmark for cross-cultural collaborations</em>
A new benchmark for cross-cultural collaborations

Sonnets c 2018, directed by Anirudh Nair and produced by A Guild of the Goat, attempted to reinvent the Bard’s sonnets for contemporary sensibilities, in a bilingual medium, keeping notions of sexuality and gender in mind.

In Love Prufrock — An interpretation of TS Eliot’s literary masterpiece, director Neel Sengupta, along with A Third Space Collective, brought the focus on the human body, and the aspect of inter-play between people.

Atul Kumar extended the idea of examining the physical dimension in The Lost Wax Project, with four players — Dipna Daryanani, Kamakshi Saxena, Maithily Bhupatkar and Preethi Athreya — entangled in a trajectory of thought within a circular space.

As each actor moved to explore the negative space around them, they would reach out towards an undefined something, being constantly involved in the act of creating different relationships with everything around. 

Choreographed by Preethi Athreya, The Lost Wax Project served as an elaborate exploration of human sensibilities and perceptions, reinforcing an unstated aim of the festival — to capture the constant need to reinvent oneself.

<em>The visual arts project, Dharti</em>
The visual arts project, Dharti

As the spirit moves 
A significant portion of the festival was dedicated to concerns of gender, while hosting shows by artistes from the community.

The workshop Parayan Maranna Kadhakal (Untold Forgotten Stories) was unprecedented in scope, with a number of transgender participants stringing together and presenting stories of their childhood, of growing up, and adult life in a manner that was supremely engaging, and delightfully human as well.

The play Akshayambara, written/directed by Sharanya Ramprakash, questioned the multiple interpretations of gender, while exploring the representation of the feminine within the male-dominated practice of Yakshagana.

And The Gentleman’s Club, one of the most anticipated events on the calendar, brought the house down on a few evenings with a series of fabulous shows, following the lives of drag kings in Mumbai.

The production Queen Size, on the other hand, showcased a choreographic exploration of intimacy between two men in a rather unusual performance rid of most rules and restrictions associated with the stage.

Enacted entirely on a charpai, the show ran in a 45-minute loop, played out over two and a half hours, where the audience was allowed to enter at intervals, and stay for as long as they liked.

<em>A still from Akshayambara</em>
A still from Akshayambara

Lavani Queens, directed by Savitri Medhatul, foregrounded the lavani form of song and dance that involves aspects of gender and sexuality, whereas Say What? choreographed by Avantika Bahl, presented the idea of “communicating beyond words”, examining the role of gestures, and offering an exploration of making new meanings, in ways that are both embodied and visceral in nature.

In keeping with the unspoken criterion of revisioning existing cultural definitions, the festival also witnessed a bunch of stated “site-specific interventions” that were anything but serious, and altogether fun and enjoyable, lending a carnivalesque aspect to the proceedings.

For Look Left, Turn Right, curator Ranjana Dave took to the busy traffic intersection outside the Immaculate Conception Church, letting loose a bunch of highly agile young dancers to engage with people stuck at the lights. The result was the making of “a dynamic passing audience”, even as great care was taken to ensure that no commuter was injured during the course of the show.

<em>A Music in the Park concert</em>
A Music in the Park concert

Cruising for a tune
For special mentions, the exhibition The Sacred Everyday: A Journey Across Images held its own in a special display at the Museum of Christian Arts, exploring the inter-relationship between the divine and the human realm. The setting, for many viewers, set the contemplative and tranquil mood for the rest of the festival. 

Among the workshops, we couldn’t help but pick The Assamese Pickling Affair, led by Monalisa Baruah, on flavours of North-East India brought to the coastal region of Goa. The workshop Sugarcane and Art was based on a popular tale of elephants rampaging through fields across the borders.

Grandmother’s Recipe: Feni as Medicine was among the more innovative events, involving street theatre, and the characters of a grandmother and her grandson, to discover the benecial nature of the spirit Feni.

The strains of improvisation also made their way into The Bartender, with classic Bollywood tunes remixed and set to jazz, while Songs of Nature featured Qawwals, Bauls, Langa and Manganiars responding to nature through music.

The Insurrections Ensemble sought to create a musical-poetic performance around the idea of the lament, as shaped by voices and instruments in different times and places, while Sneha Khanwalkar’s project, Sounds in My Head, was radical and remarkable in its own way, creating a unique aural and physical experience.

Ultimately, the best moments at the festival had to be on the River Mandovi, in one of the many River Raga concerts, of traditional classical music, all held on board a cruise boat.

The writer was in Goa to attend the festival by invitation.

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