by Erin Campbell
Mumbai, India – Kala Ghoda Festival
Kala Ghoda, or Black Horse in English, is a café district in the heart of downtown Mumbai and is known for its annual art festival. The festival attracts not only art fans from Mumbai, but from India and the world. For one week per year the bustling café fronts are covered up and the street comes alive with theatre, performance art, dance, literature, music and, of course, visual art.
The theme of this year’s festival was recycling, and people came out in hordes to celebrate. Although India has only recently discovered the importance of recycling, the act of reusing has been a natural part of life here for many years. People reuse anything from water bottles to chicken bones, and recycle out of necessity rather than to fullfil some social responsibility. Recently, however, there has been a concentrated effort to make the city cleaner and greener. This year’s art works paid tribute to the feelings of social awareness and global responsibility now emerging in India.
The atmosphere at the Kala Ghoda festival cannot be described as anything but fun. As you enter the pedestrian street, Rampart Row, you are greeted by an enormous rearing black horse (pictured above) made exclusively of recycled materials, as per the rules for the theme of this year’s festival. Continuing down the street, the festival begins to resemble a carnival: lanterns decorated with flashing sequins and brilliant colours hang from tree branches, street performers dance to traditional music and perform acrobatics, street vendors shout their wares at passersby, and the buzz of excitement is tangible in the hordes of people. Dotting the sides of the street are several sculptures and artistic works all made from recycled materials.
While many of the pieces did present the viewer with some challenging ideas—such as the electronic figure pictured above, which questioned whether the replacement of humans with machinery was progress in the labour market—the art lining the street was, for the most part, conformist and expected. The works did little to engage the viewer beyond the visual and formal sense and gave the festival an air of carefree fun often not present in the highbrow, contemporary art scene of art galleries and museums. Artists often focus so much on drawing powerful emotions from the viewer that they lose sight of the pleasure that can be raised from a beautiful form.
It was clear that most of the people who formed the crowd were there to enjoy rather than question. And the obvious benefit was clear. The Kala Ghoda festival welcomed people of all backgrounds, presented art that was easily accessible, and attracted an audience of millions of people. I can’t help but wonder if the ease of accessibility takes away from the art itself. Does the aesthetic quality jeopardize the message of change that the art attempts to convey? Does the air of excitement surrounding the Kala Ghoda festival belittle the message of conservation? Or did it allow the festival to spread its message to more people?
It is possible that the aesthetic charm and infectious fun portrayed by the Kala Ghoda Festival takes away from its deeper purpose. Perhaps underneath the mass experience of pleasure, deeper connections about the art and environment are taking place. Is beauty, then, an underrated consideration in our contemporary art world?