January 13, 2009

Anyway a crow

If you fly JetLite this month, and if en route to Guwahati or Chennai you reach into the seat pocket in front of you and pull out their inflight magazine "FlyLite", and if you turn the pages idly, you will at some point find yourself on a page that mentions my name. That's because the January issue of the magazine contains my article on next month's Kala Ghoda Festival in Bombay. (February 9 to 17: Be there or be elsewhere).

Please read it.

Then again, you don't have to get on a plane to do so. You will find it appended below for your convenience and reading pleasure or otherwise or something. I titled it "Anyway a crow: Kala Ghoda and Me". The magazine dropped the "Anyway" for reasons known only to them.


Your thoughts welcome.

Postscript: Several of the photographs that make my words more palatable in the magazine are by friend Charu. So I would say, please do get on a plane and grab the magazine.


Why go to the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, you ask? I'm sure everyone has their own special reasons. Mine include crows. My favourite birds, and in 2006 they were a prominent part of the Festival. Not just because they were in the trees above, but because there was an entire art exhibit about these chummy black creatures.

I mean, there were photographs, paintings, poems. And one painting of a splendid specimen had these enigmatic words on a sheet of paper appended below:

"Crow always sit on wire, even in Himalayas. This time he sat on Banyan which one is sturdy and strong. Crow wants stableness, not ZULA.

Crow found place for meditation in cool atmosphere arch of Temple, which gives him stableness and strong foundation. He is not interested in Zula.

Crow is the only bird who cleans city by eating all types of waste food. After his strong efforts he wants STABLENESS, STRONGNESS and MEDITATION. Not flicker mind & ZULA

How could I not return to KGAF every year, even if I am yet to figure out what ZULA is? What's more: that year, a Berlin artist named Antje Görner had an "installation with rice flour" next to the crow display, titled "Bombay Calling (In one single moment)". Stencilled on the pavement, in what was presumably the rice flour, was the word "anyway". Not just one "anyway", not even two "anyway"s, but ... 792 "anyways". I know this because I counted the rows (33) and columns (24) and multiplied, elated that my maths training had finally proved useful.

Really, how could I not return? I ask this in complete seriousness. In my mind, the crows and the 792 "anyway"s capture something of the slightly zany spirit of this festival, this sometimes eccentric ode to the throbbing heart of a great city. At the best of times I stay away from museums and art galleries -- there might be treasures in there, but to me they always seem sterile in those spaces. But at KGAF, there are little treasures everywhere, under huge trees and bathed by the gentle February breeze. Not just art that comes alive, but a whole panorama of little experiences that make a festival memorable. And that, it seems to me, is how you revitalize a familiar but fading district of a city, make it mean something to people once more.

Named for a statue of King George on a black charger that once stood there, the Kala Ghoda area is suffused in history. The Prince of Wales Museum, the Jehangir Gallery, the David Sassoon Library, Max Mueller Bhavan, Regal Cinema and Rajabai Tower only several dozen yards away -- these are landmarks that everyone who grows up in Bombay practically breathes. They are that much a part of us all. Especially in a time of terror attacks and uncertainty, these are almost anchors in our lives. Perhaps we don't think about it, but their solid presence is what a sense of city is built on.

And yet -- over the years the area was starting to fall into disuse, become a little seedy, feel that bit unsafe in the evenings. I remember walking through Kala Ghoda just past dusk many times in the early '90s, wondering about shadowy figures lurking here and there, clumps of men murmuring and watching, piles of garbage. You might call it a classic case of slow downtown decline.

Until someone hit on the excellent idea of this festival. For several days in early February, Kala Ghoda has outdoor gourmet food, bookstores, art, dance, theatre, music, kids events and walking tours. At several indoor venues in the surrounding buildings, there are films, workshops, literary discussions, exhibitions and more theatre. People flock from all over the city to experience this smorgasbord. And sure enough, it has sparked a definite revival in the area. Year-round, the streets are generally cleaner, the ambience generally safer.

And the festival is a whole lot of fun.

Take the man with a table, some bottles of paint and a small mound of rice. The "Name on Rice" dude, always worth watching. The way he chooses an appropriate grain, then swiftly and surely paints your name onto it, is breathtaking. One KGAF day, I thought I'd test him, with a longish made-up name. He charged me sixty bucks, and did it with aplomb. Small smile as he handed it over and I goggled in astonishment.

I should have really tested him. I should have given him the Sri Lankan fast bowler, Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushanta Joseph Chaminda Vaas's name. Or college buddy Arshanapalayam Srinivasa Raghava Chari Dorai Swamy Kayar Chakravarti Sanjay Sampath Iyengar's.

No doubt he'd have painted those with aplomb too. After all, he had just no problems with Kanakadurga Tirthraj Govindarajulu.

Or take one lazy Saturday morning at KGAF. Two men sit on the stairs at the amphitheatre, whispering. Seeing them, I stop short -- from that angle, with the vast branches of a tree spreading above, they are the only two humans I can see. And there hasn't been a moment at any KGAF when I could have said that; in fact, I can't remember a previous moment in Bombay when I could have said that.

Empty taxis wander past, turn and wander back. Like caged animals, pacing.

Another afternoon, the mirrors on the outside wall of a clock stall are an attraction to many. From where I sit, it's like looking through a tunnel, even giving me the odd sensation of looking back in time, at distant people doing distant things. Then a young lady in a shocking yellow dress stops to preen and I'm suddenly back in the here and now.

Until I take the opportunity to wander to the asbestos shed behind nearby Elphinstone College, where I look through a hole at one of my favourite Bombay sights. Favourite, precisely because it's in this shed. Gathering dust and cobwebs in there are two much-larger-than-life statues of British somebodys -- Kings or Generals or some other somebodys. Once presumably on view with King George on his Kala Ghoda.

There's plenty to say about the Festival, about the momentous events and splendid displays there have been over the years. Yet for me, it's in the small touches of almost personal whimsy that KGAF speaks loudest. It's in those that I understand what it has done for this city, for its residents, for me.

And it's in those touches that I grow to understand, maybe even love, my city. That is why, come those crisp days of February, I will head down to Kala Ghoda again.


Winnowed said...

A beautiful article. I used to live in Mumbai and never missed the KGAF when I was there. Your article made me feel nostalgic about Kala Ghoda and Samovar and a few other things! Thank you

Kavi said...

I am looking forward to the festival ! This is a wonderful account ! And that the name of rice dude will flourish for many years !!

Wonderful !

Anonymous said...

ZULA could be swing (jhoola) and or zulum (oppression)? Anyway, what dates, or did you mention that any where?

Mayank said...

Thanks Dilip for tweeting this link. It is an interesting read - strangely almost criminal of me not to have made to KGAF ever.. this year I made one serious attempt but failed to find parking and realized was getting late for an evening flight.

I am now wondering what has kept me away - perhaps KGAF has always been a Town thing for the South Bombay folks. My life from college days in Andheri West has oscillated between Andheri and Powai, but for little less than 2 years of working with Tata when every day trip to town was an ordeal i would want to forget.

But next year it would be - for sure, and hope i will be around till then.