Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2012 - A quick bite

I am not much of an arts and culture person.  I wouldn't know a great wine if I were swimming in it, chanting 'There is no 'P' in our pool'.  The only opera I have ever heard is the one on youtube where that fat guy from nowhere shocked Simon Cowell's pants off on Britain's Got Talent.  My considered view on Picasso is that he was anatomically challenged.

Be that as it may, I still found myself complaining in my first year back to India how there isn't much of an arts and culture 'scene' in Bombay.  You know, like one might complain of how there just isn't enough broccoli in the supermarket.  Yes, yes, I do know Bombay streets are an unending series of festivals strung one after another - between Ganesh Chaturthi and Mt Mary festival and dahi handi and eid-ul-fitr and Diwali, and countless other celebrations of forgotten mythologies, it feels like our streets are always being prepared for an upcoming festival, or being cleared of debris from a previous one.  But that is not what I mean - I have been missing a secular, art and culture celebration, readily accessible to the masses, where you can hang out over a weekend day, look at some pretty stuff, eat something 'local', edify the kids' character - the sort of thing that is the mainstay of springtime in America (or fall in New England).

Well turns out, once again, that I have underestimated the city.

The Kala Ghoda Art Festival was first held in Mumbai in 1999 and has since become an annual ritual.  In years past, my suburb-living self, reclining on a comfortable sofa at the end of the week, would consider a visit to Kala Ghoda with the same level of enthusiasm as a stewardess might have for cashing in her air-miles.  So the festival would come and go, and I would read about it in the papers with an other-worldly detachment.  This year, from a geographically more advantaged position, I was more amenable to the suggestion.  So off we went on Sunday, to visit the 14th edition of Kala Ghoda Art Festival.

We decide to walk it up from VT.  Like many things in Bombay, the Victoria Terminus, now reclaimed by the maanus as Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, is an astounding beauty that largely gets ignored in the bustle of daily life.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is 125 years old, and it has one of the most impressive facades of any building you will likely every see.  But for everyday Mumbaikar life, it is just a railway station, and a darn crowded one at that.  When you are in a leisurely frame of mind though, and are strolling gently with kids in tow, the beauty of the structure hits you.  We stand for a few minutes across the street, taking in the view, seeing VT as if for the first time.

A short walk leads us to Flora Fountain.  Another iconic point on the map of Bombay, Flora Fountain is a site of strangely co-existing memorials.  First there is the fountain, after which this spot, and much of the surrounding area take their name.  Older even than VT, the sculpture is of the Roman goddess Flora, or so I am given to understand.  But right there, vying for space, is a much newer memorial, one dedicated to the people martyred during the formation of Maharashtra state.  Jai Maharashtra yells out the sign on the grass.  There is an eternal flame burning nearby that has been sponsored by one of the gas distribution companies, maybe HP.  Under the flame, the sign says 'HP salutes'.  In keeping with the confusing nature of this monument, it doesn't bother to explain whom HP salutes.

Our walk takes us past Kitaab Khana.  The newest bookstore in this past of town has been in the buzz since it came up.  I am wondering if I can get away with a quick sneak inside, when the daughter says "Appa, I want to go to the bookstore."  Attagirl!  Turns out, this is the first truly bookstore experience I have had in this city.  Kitaab Khana is a wonderfully laid out store, with enough lounge space for adults and kids alike.  The collection is a bit strange I have to admit.  But the store is certainly worthy of a longer visit.  Note to self ...

Finally, we are at Kala Ghoda.  

The thing that strikes me right away is how many people there are.  They seem, happily, to be from all walks of life.  From domestic servants to foreign tourists, not quite wed youngsters to toddler children (to which we add our own), every part of the spectrum of Bombay's humanity seems to be represented here.

We hang out at the sculpture exhibits, which is where the festival seems to begin.  My lack of artistic nuance is apparent right away.  I am not sure at all whether the exhibits are brilliant or derivative, subtle or just plain boring.  I go on, nodding intelligently at the large exhibit dedicated to the domestic crow.  There is the shocking exhibit of a super-sized ashtray, made entirely of bones, with mega sized cigarette stubs sticking out.  And the upside down table and chair arrangement, with cash, booze, jewelry and other allurements stuck to the underside, the tide, file laden top of the table reflected on a mirror flat on the ground - the arrangement is called 'under the table'.  And so it goes on.  The sculptures are very Indian in their context and content.  And clearly, the viewing public is having a great time trying to figure out what is what.  This is not a shy crowd though.  They have no problem admitting they don't understand the concept of an exhibit.  "Yaar ye kya hai" you can hear them asking one another, quite unabashedly.  

As you go past the weird guy playing the flute through his nostrils, you get to The Wishing Tree, as it proclaims itself.  Visitors have been playing along, hanging out their wishes on the branches.  "A clean Mumbai", hopes one.  "Safety for my daughters" wishes another, with feeling.  "No more hunger" prays a third.  And then there is the truly heartfelt one - "Ek achhi si girlfriend", pleads Raju, address unknown.  

It is a warm day, though not hot by any means.  Nonetheless, the Bisleri stall seems to be doing brisk business.  I walk over to buy some bottled water.  There are three rates listed on the price list - 1 litre: 20 /-; half a litre: 10/-, and (only in India!) if you get your own bottle and just want it refilled:  5/-.  We get our bottles refilled.

We walk around for a couple of hours, take in a street performance, some dances, and some children's theater.  I know we have barely scratched the surface of Kala Ghoda festival.  There are special screenings of movies; an acclaimed Heritage Walk; high voltage artists coming in to perform.  But I have had my fill of culture for today.  A feeling of holiness suffuses me.  Broccoli did taste good.  

Next time, I promise myself, I will do better justice to Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.

We go home, put on some brainless TV, and order Dominoes.


  1. Please please go on the heritage bus ride next year. It's wonderful. For one, being on the 'upper deck' (yes, that's what they call it) of a double-decker gives you a whole different view of buildings than when you see them from the road, now you can look right in past the wall and see the sculpture in the garden, or the preamble to the constitution on the wall (yes, the police building has it).

    Also, you find out arcane facts such as the place where the gateway currently is not where it was originally built. The original gateway was actually at the circle near Regal, the land where it currently stands was reclaimed later !! Would you believe it !


  2. It's been a while! Here in Richmond at the art museum, our next big exhibit is Maharaja: The Splendors of India's Great Kings.

    The Splendors of India's Great Kings
    May 21, 2012 – Aug 19, 2012

    The first exhibition to explore the extraordinarily rich visual culture of India’s last royal families, Maharaja: The Splendors of India’s Great Kings spans the period from the early 18th century to the mid-20th century, bringing together over 200 magnificent objects. It examines the changing role of the maharajas (“great kings”) within a social and historical context, and reveals how their patronage of the arts, both in India and Europe, resulted in splendid and beautiful objects symbolic of royal status, power and identity.

    I hope all is well. Raj Dutt was asking how you were doing and I wondered the same.


  3. The food for Thought #Eatery in Kitaab Khana ! Adds to the delight !