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Serendipity Arts Festival founder: 'What India offers in terms of art and culture is phenomenal'

We talk to the man behind Panaji’s premier arts event and discover the hard work that has gone into its creation

‘Boundary Conditions’, choreography by Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy for the Serendipity Arts Festival last year. Courtesy Nandini
‘Boundary Conditions’, choreography by Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy for the Serendipity Arts Festival last year. Courtesy Nandini

For the past three years Panaji, the capital of Goa, has come alive as host to the vibrant Serendipity Arts Festival, a week-long multidisciplinary event that showcases everything creative. Helmed by the Serendipity Arts Foundation, the festival has fast-evolved into one of India’s foremost winter affairs, drawing in a who’s who from across the artistic spectrum globally. And at the top of it all is Sunil Kant Munjal, businessman and chairman of Hero Group and an ardent patron who wants to change how India perceives its own cultural heritage. “What India, and indeed South Asia, have to offer in terms of art and culture is phenomenal,” says Munjal.

The tycoon and entrepreneur, a scion of one of independent India’s legendary business families, grew up loving the arts, thanks to his father and uncle who were particularly keen on performance. “We used to have incredible artists come home or to company events to perform,” he says. “We were exposed early on [to that world].”

This love carried on at the prestigious Doon School – often referred to as India’s Eton – where everything from sculpture to painting and batik were part of the fine arts curriculum. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, prominent artists such as Sudhir Khastgir and Rathin Mitra have been part of the faculty at the school. For the uninitiated, The Doon School counts internationally acclaimed artists Anish Kapoor and Vivan Sundaram among its notable past students, and its Department of Art is purportedly the best in India.

At 62, Munjal has worn many hats, from leading the Hero Group to being on the boards of a number of educational, knowledge building, healthcare and industrial institutions. Twenty years ago, he founded the Ludhiana Sanskritik Samagam, which promotes the performing arts in North India, and in 2014 came the Serendipity Arts Foundation with a broader, more contemporary and more interdisciplinary focus. “The idea is to develop the arts as a bridge between regions and cultures, attract more people to the arts as a profession, help artists with traditional forms and contemporise them where needed, make them popular and more desirable,” says Munjal. “We need to expose more people to the arts and make them more accessible and available.”

Sunil Kant Munjal, founder of the Serendipity Arts Festival
Sunil Kant Munjal, founder of the Serendipity Arts Festival

For example, the foundation recently announced its first set of funders for the inaugural grants programme across categories such as visual arts research, performance arts research and travel grants for residencies to the tune of 875,000 rupees (about Dhs45,000). Its Dharti Arts Residency Programme offers four budding Indian contemporary artists the space and means to develop their work and interact with the art community in New Delhi, while in September, the foundation supported powerhouse live performance artist Nikhil Chopra for his show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Art has never survived without patronage,” says Munjal. “In India, the first patrons were royalty, after which temples took over [to some extent], then the British. After independence, the responsibility fell upon the government of India, and unfortunately, it has not been an effective patron. There are very few public art institutions that are well-run.”

Inside the Serendipity Arts Festival last year, showcasing the work of artist Rahab Allana. Courtesy Philippe Calia & Sunil Thakkar
Inside the Serendipity Arts Festival last year, showcasing the work of artist Rahab Allana. Courtesy Philippe Calia & Sunil Thakkar

This lack of support from the state eventually affected the way India consumed art. Indigenous forms lost appeal, artisanal skills began to be perceived as useless because they don’t lead to sustainable employment opportunities and with rising consumerism and the waves of globalisation, tastes became more westernised. “There are creative genres such as fashion, literature and cinema that evolved beautifully, but art, craft, folk genres etc. got left behind,” Munjal says.

But times are changing, and the sheer growth and popularity of the Serendipity Arts Festival is proof of that. Last year, it registered footfall of around 450,000 people, and because admission is free, it draws hoards of visitors with each passing year. Add that it takes place in December in Goa – arguably the state’s busiest season – and you’ve got a winning combination. “I think it’s safe to say that response has been absolutely phenomenal; our size and exposure have doubled over the years,” says Munjal.

It also helps that the festival is entirely “experiential, accessible and inclusive”, with significant facilities for the disabled (wheelchair access, availability of sign language interpreters, Braille catalogues), and curated walks for everyone from orphans to street children, schoolchildren and even the elderly. Sustainability is a key aspect, too, with practices such as banning single-use plastic or providing rubbish bins made of plastic bottles. “Some of our messages are straight, but there’s a nuanced message in everything we do,” Munjal emphasises.

‘Out of Turn’ an exhibition of performance art, audiovisual art, photography and more at last year’s event. Courtesy Nandini
‘Out of Turn’ an exhibition of performance art, audiovisual art, photography and more at last year’s event. Courtesy Nandini

But try as you might, he refuses to pick favourites or even choose some art forms over others, which he believes need more support than others. “Our answers emerge from the experiments we’ve been conducting through this festival each year,” he says. “We’re still a dynamic entity, still evolving, so it’s insensible to pre-decide what requires growing and what doesn’t. I don’t want to fix ideas.”

Over its three events, the festival has taken on a life of its own, and Munjal says there are very few festivals globally that encompass so many fields, have this stylistic and curated quality, and on this scale. In fact, scale was crucial when the festival was being launched because to make a mark with an endeavour like Serendipity, a broad scope is essential. This year, disciplines include culinary arts, photography, visual arts, dance, theatre, music, craft and special projects, and several workshops are already full or fast filling up.

But what of the current atmosphere surrounding liberal arts in India? “Our curators work on the concepts and fine-tune them,” says Munjal. “But while we’re not pushing anything, we’re not stopping where [the art] goes either. It’s growing organically.” He advocates for greater patronage from the private sector and policy-level changes to uplift artists – tax breaks, ease in customs processing and the removal of Goods and Service Tax on art. “If we improve our sensitivity towards artists, our sensibilities will change too.”

Serendipity Arts Festival runs from Sunday December 15 to 22 in Panjim, Goa. More information is at www.serendipityartsfestival.com

Updated: December 11, 2019 04:30 AM

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