Friday, January 21, 2005

Earthy whispers

Had it not been for an afterthought three days ago, a final comment to seal the next meeting, the experiences of today would not have occurred. I spent that evening with a friend at a bookstore, continued to a cramped restaurant, and wound up at a coffee shop. He patiently answered my hesitant questions and recommended books that would help understand the world. As the evening came to an end I realised that it could be months before we met again. I groped within for something to say. "I'll probably head to the Kala Ghoda festival in town in a few days. Are you interested?"

He was. So on a light January afternoon we drove to south Bombay for the yearly ritual. He was curious about the festival. I informed him it was a week-long event on art and music. The facts were based on memories from three years ago. It had been night then, and a popular middle-aged sari-clad singer named Usha Uthup had brought a shivering audience warmth with her vivacious voice on the last night of the show. The next morning the stage was in a state of dismantle, and the endless rows of handicraft and photo print stalls were empty. It was like clearing the mind after a massive party.

The festival's charm lay in its openness to the streets. Dancers and musicians performed on a stage built on a sidewalk at Kala Ghoda, the square the festival was named after. I had awaited this delightful weave of art and outdoors with the anticipation that only a sweet remembrance evokes.

I should have known better. Our first sights and sounds of this year's festival were of jostling crowds and blaring car horns. The event had been compressed into an outdoor space that seemed smaller than before, but the visitors had multiplied. There was the bearable discomfort - quite familiar to events that require understanding and patience - of no seats as a dance troupe rehearsed on an elevated stage. They twirled round and round with their arms spread wide like helicopters, while a woman wearing a t-shirt closed her eyes and sang into a mike. Smoke rose from smoke machines beneath the stage. A Frenchman rove among the figures.

Faces around the stage expressed befuddlement and a growing unease with the performance. Remarkably, only a few left for elsewhere. If not for empathy, they stayed out of curiosity. However, we left for the nearby art galleries where an exhibition of paintings and sculptures were in progress.

I was aware that we were in Greenpeace territory. They were persistent volunteers who ground money out of you with a propagandistic ramble. In two years I could not shrug them off. Friend asked one to go away just as his mouth opened. Today was turning out to be excellent.

The galleries left us cold, though I liked a series of paintings which appeared to be insired extensively by anime. "Their faces look the same," he said as we left the gallery. I gave him an obscure reason explaining why these paintings were gorgeous as we walked to the food stalls lined on a road which curved towards the Gateway of India. Along the way on both sides of the pavement, people spread old coins, photos of Bombay, wooden blocks, friendship bands. They called out, arms stretched, hoping to catch your eye, to establish contact. My interest in a wooden block with a paisley design on it caused a flutter. Two women joined the one in charge and goaded me on to keep it.

Placed outside the National gallery of Modern Arts, a few foodstalls were charmingly domestic in their fare. Fish, chicken tikka and rotis were on offer, as was home-made tea. We went Mexican with lots of cheese, silently wiping it off our shirts as the sky turned dark blue.

A short stroll away, the Gateway of India played host to a fusion of jazz and classical Indian dance. The monument towered over the musicians as they provided the dancer notes to move to. Perfect rhythm, I thought, as her feet moved with the beat. The friend, who had reserved his judgement for a while, had a different take. "In english, we were told to avoid cliches while writing. Musicians do it all the time." As we left, the music followed us and I began to understand the patterns of this piece. The flute kicked in where I anticipated, as did the change of beat.

His wife, a quiet one with a broad smile, was wrapped tightly in a shawl when we met her at Priyadarshani Park, half-an-hour's drive from Kala Ghoda. We were here to see an art installation which, by all accounts, was wonderful. As we walked down a winding paved walkway between trees and concrete benches, we saw streaks of colours fluttering against the darkness. The streaks were saris blown by winds from the sea beyond. Purple, blue, pink, yellow, green, all broke through the night sky. I had been here many times before, but it now seemed a different place. A place of celebration, of freedom. To my surprise, the name of the exhibit was 'Celebration'.

We mazed around the installations, admiring Dr Kerkar's aesthetic sense. Once a doctor, he gave up his practice - "I owned a small hospital" - and took up his passion. His passion had resulted in several sculptures dramatised by lights which accentuated and gave new meaning to objects all around us. Triangles in the mud with light bulbs behind them gave the illusion of the sea at sunset.

The January breeze blew inland as we approached him. He broke into a toothy smile and explained how he had been inspired to become an artist. Behind him were a line of metallic fins. Around us a crowd grew, listening to his every word. After a while, we excused ourselves.

But before we left, I turned to ask if he had been to this park before. I pointed an installation in the distance. Titled 'Petrified Lovers', the installation had lovers in various poses carved into terracotta cones. They were petrified of being caught. Which is why I asked Dr Kerkar if he had been here before and seen the lovers. He laughed out loud. "It's my first time to this park," he said. "But how does that matter? In India," he pointed towards the petrified lovers, "it holds true on any beach and any park! Everywhere!"

The people around smiled at this. We've all been petrified lovers.

Update: This needs tightening.

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