Serendipity Arts Festival: We tread the streets of Panjim to bring highlights of India's biggest multi-disciplinary event
From dance, music to theatre, the festival shined the best talents of the country and we speak to some of them.
Enter Panjim in mid-December this year and you’d be bemused with immense hustle and bustle. Local, national and international tourists leading to jam-packed boulevards, streets turning to flea markets, neglected heritage buildings around MG Road once again coming into spotlight, parks turning into public art spaces and a carnival of sorts bedecking the serene banks of river Mandovi — all in the name of Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF). This year, SAF marked its fifth edition after a two-year lull because of the pandemic. Needless to say, the celebrations thus appeared bigger, more impactful and championing inclusivity.
We were invited to be a part of this cultural fiesta and jumped with joy as we got to witness various music genres ranging from classical, folk, indie pop to rock, then theatre, storytelling, dance-drama, workshops, talks, eco-walks, culinary events, film screenings, and more. With so much on plate, we have sifted what made SAF special this year— from its events and curatorial vision to interesting venues and new ways of public engagement — read on to delve deeper into this haven of art that concludes today.
Theatre is mostly looked upon as one-way communication — where artistes act and audience is the silent spectator. However, the various dramas at SAF broke the archaic form of theatre, paving a way to new styles. For one, we saw freewheeling theatre in show The Money Opera curated by Amitesh Grover. It brought stories of universal emotions — love, desire, fear, guilt, ambition narrated in the form of a monologue that transported us into a dystopic world. The style was particularly unique, where each room had actors narrating their stories and audience having the full liberty to choose the story they want to listen.
The fact that the act was housed in a desolate five-storey building rather than a stage added to its unique format, letting us zone in and zone out easily. Another play, Hunkaro curated by Quasar Thakore Padamsee and directed by Mohit Takalkar, piqued our interest. Rather than actors enacting on stage, they sat on gaddi (flat seat cushions) dressed in ethnic Rajasthani attire and narrated stories of hope borrowed from the works of Vijaydan Detha, Chirag Khandelwal and Arwind Charan. The performance was brosught to life in Rajasthani by performers Ajeet Singh Palawat, Ipshita Chakraborty, Puneet Mishra, Bharati Perwani, Mahesh Saini and Bhaskar Sharma who hooked us with their infinity gaze and intense expressionism.
What’s a festival without dazzling dance performances! This year’s edition of the dance shows was curated by Mayuri Upadhyay and Geeta Chandran who ensure there is no dearth of variety. Thanks to their curatorial vision, the event had an impressive line-up of folk, classical, multi-disciplinary and contemporary dances.
If Sari: The Unstiched brought the quotidian evolution of sixyards with spectacular arial acts and free-flowing contemporary moves, Panchabhutam took a classical turn with a stellar Mohiniyattam performance, themed around five elements that make our body. Further amplifying the ultimate Rasanbhuti was Vistaar choreographed by none other than Padmashree Madhavi Mudgal. We reached the packed Nagalli Hills arena for this stellar dance and found the huge ground packed with both national and international spectators. The performance opened with a vivid graphic background provided by visual artist Gyandev Singh. His dexterity in lighting and projection compounded the effect of synchronised physical movements of the dancers. The act had a tight choreography of four dance pieces encompassing movement patterns, aural designs and musical architectonics that earned it a standing ovation for its multidisciplinary format.
Geeta’s two curatorial acts, Naachiyar Next and Game of Dice added to the kitty of mesmerising acts. The former was a Bharatnatyam performance navigating through female desire, devotion and modes of transgression while the latter focused on an episode of Mahabharata performed in Kathakali, Chhau and contemporary dance forms. Besides, she also curated the musical puppet theatre Rumiyana based on the works of great Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi. We spoke to Geeta at SAF about her concept and curation. “When I was asked what will be my curatorial vision, I said it will be about claiming spaces. The idea was to bring things on track after COVID as many people rethink on whether to go ahead with dance. A lot of dance companies were also shut at that time. So I curated acts like Rumiyana, Naachiyar Next and Game of Dice.” Further telling about the role of a curator, she elaborated, “It is to use their own wide understanding of arts and try to see what will work best and where. For instance, one has to understand the requirements and limitations of various venues that are different from one another. A curator has to decide what will go well in which space. Another thing is to keep on finding new voices for performances and ensure no repetitions.”
On being asked how we can break barriers in performing arts and make them progressive, she told us, “I think in the last 20 years, we have wired ourselves to live in silos. We have become more specialised; for example, if you are doing Bharatanatyam, you are taught to only get exposure in that arena or if you are doing theatre, you are only doing that. So a creative dialogue or multidisciplinary aspect was shrinking in the past few years. That’s why festivals like SAF become very important. While here, we are trying hard to break the barrier, things also need to change at pedagogical level. Teachers should encourage students to be receptive towards various performing arts and styles to make learning of dance much more inclusive.”
Kaleidoscope of music
Our ears were treated to a symphony of pulsating percussions, classical tunes, fusion notes as well as global music at the festival.We attended some curations by the pioneer of fusion music Bickram Ghosh. His project Ghatam Tarangini brought the melodious potential of the humble clay pot as a musical instrument.
It saw a full house with world renowned percussionist Suresh Vaidyanathan and his disciples performing high-octane compositions on traditional ragas like Saraswati, Sudda Saveri, Hamsa Nada melded with a few folk tunes at the Old GMC Complex. Bickram also experimented with new format of music shows and brought River Raag at Santa Monica Jetty following the footsteps of erstwhile curator Shubha Mudgal. The musical performance starts like this: imagine a crowd of listeners cruising on melodies of percussions in the centre of river Mandovi amid a surreal sunset!
We spoke to Bikram at SAF about such an attractive conce pt and he shared, “River Raag is originally a concept by Shubha Mudgal and I have expanded its ambit by bringing different musical instruments every evening on cruise. From sitar and santoor to violin, there is music of all kinds. That way, I liked making an interesting divergent canvas of what classical music looks like.” When asked about his favorite part of curation, he told us, “It is the fact that I was able to present a lot of diversity. I did not restrict myself to a certain kind of modus. We had River Raag presenting classical notes, Tiranga that brought diversity of Indian music on one stage to Ricky Kej bringing world music to Sanjay Mondal spotlighting street drummers. At SAF, it’s not just music meets music, it’s about music meeting films with an RD Burman tribute show, then there is Sufi tunes meeting folk vocals and music meeting social change. That speaks volume about the beauty of the festival.”
Harbinger of inclusivity
One of the most laudable aspects of the festival was its focus on inclusivity. It had performances by most neglected sections of society — the transgender community, regional artistes from North East India, underprivileged children, paraplegic performers and more. In theatre, we saw the play Nava performed by nine urban trans women who portrayed the nine rasas (Navrasa) in dramatic depiction that won a standing ovation.
The play mocked the ignorant attitude of society towards the trans community and was a socio-political commentary on them reclaiming their rightful place. In the music section, guitarist Ehsaan Noorani of the famous trio Shankar Ehsaan-Loy curated many performances from North East India such as Tetseo Sisters, Takar Nabam, Avora and others. We spoke to the curator about picking acts from the North East, “I have always been aware of the fact that there is good musical talent from this region — be it musicians, songwriters, or singers. Whatever music is emerging from the North East is very original. However, they don’t get the attention that they deserve maybe because of the geographical location. So when Serendipity asked me to be the curator, I thought it was a good idea to let them shine.” The artistes hailed from Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya and brought a medley of alt-rock, Himalayan folk music, blues, reggae, funk and more. But apart from festivals, Ehsaan felt that music companies also have a big role to play to spread inclusivity and promote independent artists. He told us, “It would be good if music companies could support independent voices. Also, we should have more places and platforms to have more artistes perform. We have some hubs in Mumbai and Bangalore, but it will be better if their talent reaches other cities as well with musical tours. Radio stations too can promote independent artistes in a more pronounced way by playing their music on their channels.”
Apart from the performers, even the audience belonged to a wide spectrum. We sat with the founder of the festival, Sunil Kant Munjal who told us, “We wanted every section of the society to find accessibility to this festival. From children from the streets, orphanages, to elderly people and those with special needs –— we have programs for all of them. For people with special needs, we show them around the festival in the first two hours of the day to give them a wideangle exposure. We have facilities like ramps, tactile braille network, sign language experts and on-ground accessibility team to help them see the artworks.”
Sustainability entered a snazzy face at SAF with eco-friendly shopping at Mercado: The Green Community Market located at Art Park. The marketplace was bustling with small Goan businesses who have strong belief in sustainable practices. We scoured through the stalls that had eco-friendly home decor, jewellery, clothing, personal care range and more. We brought some of the artworks made of hand-made paper and listened to the stories of these small brands that are making a big impact. Apart from that, the eco walks at SAF was another experience to connect with nature. Visitors could delve into Mangrove forests, avenue trees of Panjim, beach forest at Miramar beach or learn about medicinal plants with scientists, educators and naturalists.
Goa is the only place where East meets the West to manifest its most beautiful coexistence, despite having a history of colonialism. This emerald stretch of state along the Arabian Sea is a cultural hub known for its potpourri of cuisines, celebration of festivals and carnivals, presence of heritage architecture and much more that till date attract historians, art collectors, travellers, culinary connoisseurs and more. And art fests like SAF play a monumental role in illuminating the history of Goa with its venues that are remnants of colonial era architecture. This year, SAF was spread all across Panjim at 14 venues. Some of these venues added layers of depth to the works on display cushioned by their own rich history.
To begin with, the Old Goa Medical College (GMC) complex was the centre of attraction buzzing with a lot of activities like exhibition, theatre, musical performances, talks, film screenings and more. GMC also happens to be the first medical colleges in South Asia. Another venue with a rich story is the Post Office Museum. The heritage building is the first in the state to be converted into a philatelic museum showcasing 180 year old rich history of Goan Postal Stamps that date back to Portuguese era.
Given its old world charm, the building was the perfect space to host archival exhibitions and projects like Camera Obscurra — an installation for viewers to understand basics of photography. Apart from that, the Excise Building which was previously occupied by Goa’s State Tax Department became the go-to spot for contemporary visual and digital arts.
Serendipity Arts Festival ends today, December 23, 2022 at Panaji, Goa.