How the Kala Ghoda arts festival adds colour to the streets of Mumbai
Here's what’s on at the 20th annual multicultural festival taking place this week
India’s largest multicultural festival is currently sweeping Mumbai, bringing together a diverse group of creatives to fill the streets with colour and homegrown talent.
Over the past 20 years, Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF) has grown from strength to strength, celebrating the city’s diverse cultural heritage and developing into a world-class event of massive proportions. In its latest outing, the festival takes over 31 venues and encapsulates everything from food to the visual arts, architecture, heritage walks, street performances, music, dance, children’s events, cinema, literature and stand-up comedy.
KGAF is held under the patronage of the Kala Ghoda Association, which was formed in 1998 to preserve the art and heritage of South Mumbai. Festivities stretch across the city – encompassing suburbs historically known as Old Mumbai – from Colaba, at the southern tip of the city, to Mahim and Sion.
The architectural remnants of colonialism are at their charming best in this area; buildings such as the Town Hall – which now houses The Asiatic Society of Mumbai – David Sassoon Library, St Xavier’s College and Victoria Terminus are all found here, remarkably restored and carefully conserved. A slice of this area, now known as the Kala Ghoda precinct, is a vibrant hub of multiculturalism with thriving art galleries, museums, performance centres, quaint restaurants and cafes, and designer boutiques.
The outer half is flanked by Marine Drive, the historic seaside boulevard dotted with some of Mumbai’s landmark buildings, such as the Air India office and Oberoi Hotel, as well as historic Art Deco properties built by wealthy Parisians nearly a century ago.
In a sense, the district is an urban museum in itself. “The street is where the KGAF was born,” says Varsha Karale, the festival’s curator of street performances.
Every artistic section of the festival is curated by a different individual, uniquely placed to bring out the best aspects of participants and performers alike. For instance, the stand-up section is being curated by Jeeya Sethi, comic, producer and founder of FemaPalooza, an outfit that produces women-only comedy shows in India. FemaPalooza has been active for more than three years, and has been widely hailed across the country by women – comics and audiences alike – for creating a more female-friendly atmosphere at shows and live music venues.
The festival’s stand-up nights will boast a bevy of India’s brightest comic talent, headlined by Vaibhav Sethia and Anirban Dasgupta and featuring rising stars such as Sonali Thakker, Anu Menon, Siddharth Dudeja and Niveditha Prakasam.
Down to a fine art
One of the most interesting exhibits this year is the visual arts category, themed A Measure of Time. “[It is] artists’ subjective perceptions of the past 20 years – a continuous progression in which all changes have taken place,” say curators Tarana Khubchandani and Heeral Akhaury in a statement to The National. “Within the space-time-continuum, all statements are relative, depending on the observer.”
Entries include wide-ranging installations that demonstrate time travel, as well as chariots, hourglasses, pictorial reflections of captured moments in time, a wish-fulfilling tree, and even a knight in shining armour.
But Khubchandani and Akhaury say the exhibits to watch out for are Kali Peeli (a vibrant take on the art found in Mumbai taxis); Ulta Sawaal (an installation of mirrored windows where the viewer becomes a part of the work itself; and Kalchakra (two chakras placed horizontally and vertically next to each other, whose shadows reflect the passage of time). Also significant is the range of paintings, photographs and sculptures at the prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.
“One would think after 20 years of art on the street, one has seen it all, but we’re astounded by the interpretations of time that have come through – thought-provoking and refreshing,” say the curators.
'It's full of energy'
The street performance section is another that will draw crowds this year – India’s myriad native genres tend to attract hordes of eager spectators. This year, you can catch kachchi ghodi, nat kartab and bahurupia performances every evening until Saturday at Rampart Row and Cross Maidan.
“[Street performance] is about providing entertainment with a dose of art and culture,” says Karale. “The street category is an extension of this idea, and it is here that local artists find expression. It’s very colourful and full of energy.”
Whereas kachchi ghodi is an Indian folk dance where men don a horse costume, bahurupi (literally translated as “many faced”), is where artists portray several characters in one act, and is one of India’s oldest art forms. Nat kartab is the native art of tightrope-walking, often while balancing objects on the head for good measure.
Cinema-lovers too will enjoy the line-up of events, screenings and exhibitions at this year’s festival.
Of special significance is the public premiere of Hamid, set in Kashmir and directed by Aijaz Khan. It’s about eight-year-old Hamid, who learns that 786 is God’s phone number and tries calling him for answers. Zoo by Shlok Sharma is the first Hindi feature shot entirely on an iPhone, while Bismillah of Benares is a fabulous documentary on the life and music of Ustad Bismillah Khan. Don’t miss acting legend Om Puri in Actor in Law, his last role before he died.
The dance category features classical and fusion performances, as well as Latin dance (tango), folk (chhau), flamenco, contemporary, hip-hop and dance theatre. In music, festival-goers can get back to old Mumbai with a jazz concert; there’s also Urdu and Kashmiri poetry rendered to contemporary music, fusion rock, Sufi music, Afro percussion, Indian classical music, as well as performances by artists like Apache India, Anushka Manchanda, the Kakar twins and Shaan.
Focus on family-friendly activities
But it’s not just an event for the adults. The spirit of this festival is inclusivity, so there’s plenty of activities for children, too. It’s held to raise awareness of India’s diverse culture and to encourage people to donate towards the maintenance of the district.
Children are exposed to fun literature and can also participate in a long list of workshops that teach everything from creating mandalas and dreamcatchers to painting, tribal music and dance, storytelling, writing, ornithology, and science-based activities, from making balloons with dry ice to experimenting with (safe) chemicals and solving maths puzzles.
Meanwhile, the Children’s Literature section will hold hourly story time. “I wanted to make sure that there was something for each child, young and old,” says section curator Yashasvi Vachhani.
“I wanted to pick books that made you think out of the box or enriched our living experience and an understanding of ourselves. I also just wanted children to have a lot of fun with words, pictures and stories. The workshops are designed to get kids thinking and exercise their creativity.”
The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival runs until Sunday
Updated: February 4, 2019 10:20 AM