The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival has been an annual fixture in Mumbai’s cultural calendar for 21 years now, with people looking forward to a packed programme of exhibitions, film screenings, theatre, and more, every February. This year, though, with the ongoing pandemic having compelled most art and culture events to go digital, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival too has had to follow suit. “There was a big ‘if’ around the festival this year. But with so many things having gone virtual, we felt maybe this is the way forward,” says Brinda Miller, honorary chairperson of the Kala Ghoda Association, a not-for-profit organisation, which organises the festival.
The idea, this year, is to replicate the physical experience while also bringing in something new. “The stalls by artisans are usually a big draw during the festival. This year, we have organised a virtual marketplace, with e-stalls for craftspersons, which will go on till the end of the month,” she adds. The festival will feature a wide array of 70 programmes, including special workshops for children. Some of the highlights include The Truth About Birds and Animals, a walk through with the CSMVS Children’s Museum, followed by a talk by environmentalist Bittu Saigal. A personal favourite is the session with the Amar Chitra Katha team about the genesis of its characters over time, and the UpSkill workshop with Arzan Khambatta.
Besides the children’s programme, the schedule includes screening of international films from the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. One of the sessions to watch out for is a panel discussion on trans representation in mainstream media with Rudrani Chhetri, Benjamin Daimary, and more. There will also be musical performance by T.M. Krishna.
Another interesting session is the Bombay Buffet: Food and The City, in which heritage evangelists Sukhnandan Vohra and Pereena Lamba, exploring the history of a few ubiquitous Mumbai dishes and trace the cultures and communities from which they have evolved. The festival, this year, focuses on the idea of plurality through several of its talks and panel discussions. One such session is called Passion and Plurality, about intersections in language featuring Audrey Truschke and Supriya Gandhi in conversation with Arshia Sattar and Rana Safvi.
Like every year, the festival focuses on the heritage and architecture of the Kala Ghoda precinct. This year, this too has gone virtual. So one can embark on a virtual walk around the statue of the Spirit of Kala Ghoda with heritage evangelist Vinayak Talwar, who talks about the transformation of the neighbourhood into a premier arts district.
The pivot to digital marks a new milestone in Kala Ghoda Association’s history. “A lot has changed since its inception nearly 22 years ago,” says Miller, who joined the association two decades back. It started as an association with local establishments like Chetna Restaurant, Wayside Inn and Max Mueller Bhavan coming together. “There was no Kala Ghoda statue back then. The old Edwardian statue had been removed. People called it Kala Ghoda but had no sense of history of the place,” she adds.
It was not just the locals who formed a part of the association, but also concerned citizens from across the city, such as lawyer Shirin Bharucha, who was part of the team that restored the Oval Maidan. “This was a beautiful area but not an active one. We decided to have an art and culture festival while creating awareness about the Gothic architecture in the neighbourhood,” elaborates Miller. However, the team hadn’t envisaged the kind of love the festival would get in the coming years, with the galleries in the area planning exhibitions for the event, restaurants opening up to host comedy shows, and institutions entering into collaborations. “The festival has brought so much joy to the place, which was earlier a haven for drug addicts,” she says.
The focus of the association through the two decades has been on conservation, with a large part of the festival proceeds going towards restoration projects in the Kala Ghoda precinct. In the past few years, the Kala Ghoda Association has funded restoration of iconic structures such as the Elphinstone College building, the Institute of Science, the Khyber Restaurant wall mural, the Cama Hall exteriors, and the Ruttonsee Muljee Jetha water fountain. “The latest that we did was the Bazaargate Police Station near Crawford Market in 2019. We are waiting for the pandemic to end to start work on projects again,” says Miller.
The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival will take place virtually between 6-14 February. Visit www.kgaf2021.com for more details