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Serendipity Arts Festival 2023: New language of creating art

The sixth physical edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival will prompt visitors to unlearn set ways of engaging with and creating art to allow for newer languages to emerge

An abstract performance, ‘ASMR’, that raises profound questions about our core being and desires
An abstract performance, ‘ASMR’, that raises profound questions about our core being and desires

Words like “un-theatre”, “non-dance” and “poetry of food” come to the fore while speaking to the 10 curators of the Serendipity Arts Festival. Each year, the annual event—held in Panjim, Goa, in December—focuses on interdisciplinarity of art forms, ranging from music, dance, theatre, food, and craft to visual arts. In the sixth physical edition—being held across venues in the sunshine state till 23 December—this idea has been taken a notch further.

Through collaborations and dialogue, you can see an unlearning taking place—of set ways of engaging with and creating art—to allow for newer languages to emerge. So, you have the centuries-old mobile folk art form of kaavad katha from Rajasthan come together with the classical dance form of Mohiniyattam in the piece Manthan to create a new form of storytelling. Or you have plays and performances finding home in unlikely spaces such as on rooftops and in parking lots.

The festival seeks to offer a new lens of looking at the world around us through 150 such events, works by over 300 artists and 15 commissioned projects. “Art in every form stands as a potent and transformative tool to illuminate changes or events that reflect the cultural churns a society is undergoing,” says Smriti Rajgarhia, director, Serendipity Arts Foundation. “A festival like ours gives us a wonderful opportunity to focus on these pertinent conversations and showcase them through visual or performing arts.”

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One of the focus areas this year is sustainability, which is being manifested across different segments. For instance, the culinary arts curation, put together by chef Thomas Zacharias and his team at The Locavore, an initiative to champion regional food through storytelling, recipes and events, is advocating “doing good through food” through an array of sub-themes such as zero-waste cooking, agrobiodiversity, food heritage, food memories, and community.

A special 30-minute film called Jowar Gatha by Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) Community Media, which works in the field of agriculture and livelihood at the grass-roots in Madhya Pradesh, is being screened to show the decline of jowar and other millets due to changing cropping patterns in the drylands of central India.

“We are also covering subjects related to the environment through our exhibitions related to the craft exhibition, Bamboo: A Way Of Life, and Blue Carbon And Time As A Mother which looks at the intersection of art and ecology. Additionally, we aim to be sustainable through our messaging and the materials we use, as much as we possibly can,” adds Rajgarhia.

The idea of the soil and the fertile ground is serving as an inspiration to many, including Delhi-based Vidya Shivadas, who has co-curated the visual arts segment. In the exhibition, Turning: On Field And Work, she is working with eight artists, whose practice engages with the ground and is rooted in materials and objects, like Benitha Perciyal, Gram Art Project and Rangoato Hlasane, Sanchayan Ghosh, Babu Eshwar Prasad, Tahireh Lal and Northeast Lightbox, Niroj Satpathy, Amol Patil, and more.

“The field is a breathing, morphing and regenerating organism—constantly changing and evolving. We are extending that idea into the way artists excavate and write through their practices. The rich fertile ground becomes a metaphor for the different kinds of creativity that is emerging, be it songs, text, testimonies,” elaborates Shivadas, who is the director of the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, a non-profit arts organisation that works in the field of art education.

Ghosh’s work in the exhibition is particularly interesting. He has looked at the songs of the women roof tile makers of Santiniketan, West Bengal, whose manual process of making tiles became obsolete by the 1970s. Then there are Ambedkarite compositions carried in a portable trunk as part of the Ambedkar Age Digital Bookmobile, or played from a radio carried by a sanitation worker in Amol Patil’s moving video work. Perciyal has created library shelves with wooden books. Made with recycled Burma teak wood,these books mimic the leather-bound tomes of the colonial period.The material carries forth the message that Perciyal wants to convey. “The exhibition also looks at the relationship between language and image. So, you have a lot of sound and text. A highlight is the performance by the Panjeri Artists’ Union from Bengal, a collective of 15 who work in different mediums ranging from sculpture, textile, poetry, rap music, drawing, book making, video,” says Shivadas.

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‘River Raag’—a unique sunset cruise featuring classical performances curated by Bickram Ghosh and Ricky Kej
‘River Raag’—a unique sunset cruise featuring classical performances curated by Bickram Ghosh and Ricky Kej

Several of the curators of the various segments, such as Mayuri Upadhya, artistic director of Nritarutya dance company, and Quasar Thakore Padamsee, artistic director of the Mumbai-based arts management company QTP, have returned to their roles as curators at the festival this year. “This is the third year in a row for me. Serendipity has given me a lot of insights not only as a curator but also as an artist and audience member. I am trying to look at dance in relation to other mediums of art,” says Upadhya. She wants to see how the form changes when looked at through the lens of context, gender, medium and space. “What happens when we add non-dance elements to it, like craft forms, poetry or stories, or can we explore dance to tackle social issues,” Upadhya asks.

In Manthan, performed by Akhshay Gandhi and Divya Warier, Upadhya wanted to look at dance and craft, and how dance can empower an endangered form. “Many artists rejected this collaboration. Usually, for two dancers to share space is a more viable idea. But, here, to share movement with sound in a storytelling format was challenging. With kaavad art being all colourful, and Mohiniyattam ethereal in white, the performance has worked beautifully. Divya is learning more about kaavad katha, and vice versa, which is empowering both the art forms,” says Upadhya. So, you have Cartoon Natyam, a digital initiative by Veena Basavarajaiah, an interactive work that engages the audience through conversations in the art space.

You find a mix of the personal and the political at the festival. In the theatre segment, the themes range from a global concern around the brutality of war to more intimate subjects such as loneliness, gender abuse, queer histories. Thakore Padamsee’s curation has followed a two-fold process: One, to find out what is out there, what is the kind of work that people are making; and secondly, where are we at in the world.

“In this process, we stumbled upon a loose concept, which we term as “untheatre”—unique theatre, which offers an unusual experience to the audience. For example, we started to question how to put formal work in informal spaces and vice versa,” he says. So, a play like Jump, which is about the contemplation of suicide, unfolds on the rooftop of a building. Postcards From Goa, directed by Vikram Phukan, excavates stories that contextualise the queer experience in Goa and takes place along a walking trail on the streets.

"Afghanistan Is Not Funny has so much heart and soul, and is told in a beautiful way, using photos. It gives the audience in India a window to the world we may not really know of well. Lives Of Clay (performed by Vidya Thirunarayan and directed by Tim Supple) takes place in the middle of a garden. It features Bharatanatyam, ceramics and theatre to tell myths around relationships with clay from gods to construction workers,” says Thakore Padamsee. “Theatre veteran Gopal Datt’s Aur Theatre Karo is a collection of songs that he has composed for the stage over time. So, there is a lot of new work which shows new ways of looking at theatre.”

‘Holy Flux’, curated by The Packet
‘Holy Flux’, curated by The Packet

Serendipity was one of the first platforms to recognise food as an art form. Some of the leading chefs from the country such as Manu Chandra and Rahul Akerkar have served as curators for the culinary arts segment in the past. “This year, at the festival, we are building awareness, introducing people to new ideas, and changing perceptions. Our programming is unique and yet integrated into the overall ethos of Serendipity,” says Zacharias. So, there are workshops on zero-waste cooking by chef Radhika Khandelwal of Fig & Maple, Delhi and Goa.

She is exploring the journey of food waste from farm to households, and also the impact of wastage at the restaurant-level. In 2.7-Billion-Year Story Of Chicken Curry, author Krish Ashok breaks down the Goan chicken xacuti in terms of evolutionary biology, biochemistry, physics and cognitive neuroscience. “We will journey back to 2.7 billion years ago when the emergence of Eukaryotic cells, resulting from a symbiotic event, set the stage for complex multicellular life and the evolution of plants and animals. This discussion, led by Krish Ashok, will guide us through the cosmic event of an asteroid impact 65 million years ago, which dramatically reshaped Earth’s fauna, indirectly paving the way for the availability of chicken meat, a key ingredient in our curry,” states the curatorial note. And while Ashok delves deep into history, Zacharias will be cooking the xacuti live and serving it to the audience members.

The segment has also become a platform for Zacharias to showcase hitherto little-known stories. "We stumbled upon an organisation called Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) Community Media. They have empowered the locals to create films, and we are showing ten of those at the festival. A few of those films highlight one ingredient that is rooted in that village. They are getting those to the festival; we will cook with those ingredients and serve to the audience,” he adds. There is a workshop by a farmer, Anandram Nagareddy, from Karnataka, who grows ragi on his land. However, for a long time, a part of his farm would be destroyed by elephants. He figured out a way to coexist with them and kept one part of the land aside for them. As he tells the story, Nagareddy will be cooking ragi mudde with sambar.

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“There are sessions such as paint with food, in which each person has to pick a local veggie, turn it into a character and bring alive a part of its life cycle. Through such activities, we aspire to encourage festival-goers to discover the transformative potential of mindful food consumption and production,” says Zacharias.

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