A gentle breeze wafted across the sprawling ‘Cross Maidan’ as the crowd cheered the live band playing at the 16th edition of the Kala Ghoda Art Festival (KGAF) in Mumbai. Every inch of space was taken, forcing latecomers to sit on the back lawn in front of a giant screen. Anuradha Pal, the tabla virtuoso, set the tone of the evening. The night advanced to a rollicking affair as singer-musician Amit Trivedi took charge of the stage.
This was just one of many top-notch performances. With 450 events, spread over the first nine days of February showcasing 12 art forms, each cutting across genres, the fest was open to all, free of cost, to be enjoyed on the streets, in gardens and in public heritage buildings.
Brinda Miller, KGAF Committee Director, remembers how dangerous the area used to be in the early days: the streets were dark and drug addicts roamed the place freely. There were no restaurants. Now the annual fest has turned the area into an art and culture hub with private art galleries, boutiques and fine dining options galore.
Whether it is music, dance, cinema, theatre, literature, heritage walks, workshops, food, street fests and stalls, visual arts, urban design and architecture, KGAF has something for everyone.
The moment we stepped into Rampart Row, the most-frequented venue at Kala Ghoda, the revellers’ rush lifted our spirits. From 19th century museums, library, gardens and natural society heritage buildings; hosting the cultural events, it was a pleasure to walk by Mumbai’s colonial past. The architecture in Victorian neo-Gothic and Indo-Saracenic styles was a visual treat.
'Whatever money we make from KGAF primarily comes from the stalls and goes into restoration of the heritage structures in the vicinity,' said Miller. Recent revamps include the David Sassoon Library garden and the ongoing restoration of Bombay Natural History Society building. Every year they contribute to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sanghralaya (museum). They have already restored the Horniman Circle garden, Elphinstone College building and the Institute of Science and built an amphitheatre.
However, for some, the search for the elusive ‘Kala Ghoda’ came to naught, as the equestrian statue of King Edward VII — from which the place derives its name — was removed long ago. Some spotted an equestrian art installation and posed excitedly for photographs at Rampart Row.
We took a leisurely stroll along the various stalls and promptly stopped for the delicious Burmese Khow Suey straight from the steaming pot and freshly-made waffles served with dollops of whipped cream, luscious strawberries and yummy chocolate sauce. Quirky art installations conveyed social messages of justice, equality, gender discrimination, women’s rights and women’s health. A lopsided weighing scale showed women not getting justice. Young artist Sidharth Somaiya painted a large guitar model replete with pasted surgical bands 'to create breast cancer awareness.'
With over 50 stalls offering a range of products, visitors could indulge in some guilt-free shopping since they were directly supporting traditional artisans. Take for instance the NGO Avani. The organisation has been reviving traditional crafts of weaving and spinning in Berinag village of Pithoragarh district in Uttrakhand. An allied project gets villagers to extract dyes from 80 plants and ploughs back the profits into community welfare.
Among the well-known artists and writers who took part in KGAF this year were William Dalrymple, Cyrus Mistry, Welsh harpist Georgia Ruth, singer Nikhil D’ Souza, sarod players Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan, Mallika Sarabhai and Farhan Akhtar. For the first time, an eclectic bunch of English, Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi plays were staged to reach a larger audience. Brinda sums up the essence of KGAF: 'It is a mix of everything and we want to make it as diverse as possible.'