There's plenty going on at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, with programmes covering music, dance, books, kids workshops, films and heritage walks. Although loudspeakers have been forbidden this year, the list of events is still substantial. Notwithstanding the impressive and dedicated work the organisers have done, a few questions have arisen in my mind about the festival's future.
When the KGAF was first mooted, it was built on the idea of an arts precinct in South Bombay; and that idea, in turn, based itself on the many art galleries in the area. The KGAF was, in other words, primarily a visual arts initiative at its inception, and was meant to be an intensive, seven day immersion in the sorts of events that took place in the area as a matter of course. Its other purpose was to raise awareness of the built heritage of the district. The first couple of attempts missed the 'festival' bit in 'Kala Ghoda Arts Festival'. In succeeding years the organisers did a fantastic job of fostering a festive atmosphere, but now I've begun to wonder if the 'Arts' part of KGAF is lagging.
Part of the reason is that the idea of Kala Ghoda as an art precinct is dead. Gallery Chemould has moved out from the Jehangir Art Gallery; Bodhi opened and closed after sponsoring some impressive KGAF installations while it flourished; and the NGMA is somnolent. Colaba is now the centre of Bombay's visual arts world, with The Guild, Chatterjee & Lal, Volte and Lakeeren, clustered together and Gallery Maskara, Project 88, Sakshi, Mirchandani + Steinruecke and Art Musings not far away. Without the participation of top galleries, the visual arts component of KGAF has suffered badly. It's worthwhile giving relative unknowns an opportunity to make a mark, but the quality of this year's public installations is pretty mediocre. They all have a similar didactic and symbolic intent. A few years ago two artists made a fun machine they called a Helicoptook, a cross between an autorickshaw and a helicopter. Since then, mutant machines have become a staple feature of the festival, and none has been as successful as the Helicoptook. Another artist (I'll get names soon, just putting down this first draft) used to mould giant feet at the base of the trees on Rampart Row, making the tree trunks seem like enormous legs; it was an excellent example of what street art can be; not trying to drum some lesson into passersby, but simple and visually compelling, just like the Helicoptook. Now we have trees draped in all sorts of material to create awareness of the environment and stuff like that. It all looks like a godawful mess, frankly.
The film festival has a Basu Chatterjee retrospective, but this is mixed in with a selection of films one can watch on the telly any given day, or movies that have just finished a theatrical run. I can't understand the point of a festival dominated by these sorts of films, except as a publicity vehicle for UTV. Of course, there are people who go and watch them, but that's to be expected; any popular, free films will always find willing viewers. The question is whether it furthers the cause of an arts festival to screen stuff like The Social Network or Tere Bin Laden. It might make more sense to show movies which the KGAF-going public would be unlikely to view in the normal run of things, say a selection of regional films for example. Or to weave a specific theme into the selection and bolster it with discussions.
The literature section also appears a bit tired this year, not for the first time. There are plenty of discussions I'd like to attend, of course, but the names involved are very familiar. If I recall correctly, there was a panel on food writing last year. Another one has cropped up this year. A couple of the participants have featured in every single festival going back as far as I can remember. Again, it might make sense to create a more close-knit, well-thought out, formal programme, even if it means a smaller set of events.
The main Rampart Row stretch and the traffic island of Kala Ghoda is far too commercial for my taste. Unilever and the Times of India, plus subsidiary sponsors, have plastered every possible surface with branding. I know Indian sponsors demand the maximum bang for their buck, but the Surf Excel shamianas are way over the top. The road itself is a bazaar full of stalls. A careful vetting process is followed so only people who are furthering conservation of some kind, whether of wildlife or craft traditions, get to sell their wares. It's fun and makes for an evening well spent despite the crowd, but this year the commercialism of it all made me uncomfortable.
KGAF does take over a very busy road in the city's business district, plus an important parking lot, for a full nine days. I wonder if it might be time for the festival to become less of a mela and more of a serious arts event, held mainly indoors, spread out in more locations. After all, with the heritage buildings of Kala Ghoda having been restored one by one, the Kala Ghoda Association has already achieved its primary purpose. There is such a thing as being trapped in your own success and, judging by this year's event, the KGAF is running that risk.