Art for All

February 6, 2012ArtSlant

Crowds are quintessentially Mumbai, as much a part of the urban landscape as the constant construction, the shuddering patrols of black-and-yellow cabs, and the wheeling, cawing murders of crows. But for these crowds to flock to a festival of contemporary art – that is less typical.

Despite being as proud of their city as any population east of Paris, Mumbaikars will admit (if grudgingly) that India’s contemporary art scene has a more vibrant presence in Delhi. So the success of an event like the Kala Ghoda Festival – now in its 14th annual installment at the hub of South Bombay’s growing gallery district – may prove vital to the future growth of the city’s artistic community.

As much fair as festival, the KGF will unfold over the course of nine days in a series of film screenings, open-air theater, dance and music performances, panel discussions, book launches and heritage walks, among other events. But the craft stalls and installations along the broad, leafy street known as Rampart Row form its geographic and thematic core. On Saturday, the opening day, this was the place to see the Festival’s pulsing heart, and to understand its aesthetic and – more to the point – commercial aims.

If the Kala Ghoda Festival aims above all to make contemporary art accessible to, and exciting for, the largest possible audience, then the opening day of the event testified to its resounding success. It also means that the selection of installations along Rampart Row is decidedly populist at best, and sadly banal at worst.

The highlight of the Rampart Row installations is Vikram Arora’s “Under the Table.” A desk and chair hang upside down from a broad-branched Banyan tree, with a collection of items commonly used to bribe Indian government officials – whiskey, a briefcase full of money, a new cell phone, etc. – stacked haphazardly on its underside. A large mirror installed directly beneath the hanging table reverses the sculpture in a two-dimensional plane. In the mirror, the desk and chair both appear right side up, with the ordinary array of office supplies on top. It is heavy handed, but it is also witty, well executed and aesthetically interesting.

Like “Under the Table,” the best works on display engage directly with the quotidian elements of Indian life. Krsna Mehta’s sculpture, “Cutting,” is a pyramid of glass teacups, the type used by chai-wallahs around the country, with no apparent agenda beyond using a familiar object to aesthetic ends.

“Pushers and Pullers – A Homage to the Handcart,” by German artist Tobias Megerle, dresses up a pair of Mumbai’s typical wooden pushcarts, one as a “mobile home” covered in bright cloths and padding, the other as a sort of wheeled palanquin. Along with these, the artist conducted brief interviews with handcart pushers around the city, asking about their work, their reasons for coming to Mumbai and their feelings about their own place within the city. The texts of these interviews, which are both sympathetic and powerful, are in a booklet that hangs next to the sculptures, easily accessible but not insistent. “Pushers and Pullers” allows viewers to decide for themselves the extent of their involvement in the work, a smart move for a piece presented at an event designed more for families than critics.

The real thematic coup of the Kala Ghoda Festival – or at least of its central thoroughfare – is its juxtaposition of art and consumerism. Set among stalls selling regional crafts, slick graphic tees, and well-designed house wares, the installations on Rampart Row bring contemporary art out of the rarefied world of the gallery and into the familiar setting of the marketplace. The emphatically popular tone of the festival makes it necessary for the works to offend no one. This, perhaps necessarily, renders the installations toothless. Mr. Arora’s installation aside, the works that assert a political or social “message” – anti-smoking, anti-consumerist (ironically), anti-noise pollution, what have you – have neither guts nor any particular artistic merit. It makes good sense that, in this context, the most successful installations are those that use vernacular materials to address vernacular experience.

Walking among the shops and installations on Saturday afternoon, I found it difficult to differentiate between those present for the shopping, and those who had come for the art. Probably there wasn’t any – and here, in India’s hub of giddy consumerism, that may prove essential for the development of a thriving modern art scene.

Whatever it means for the quality of the art itself – and however awkwardly the more overtly preachy works might jive with this unabashed commercialism – it is without question a brilliant marketing scheme for contemporary art in Mumbai.

Like many Americans, Mumbaikars are beguiled by Cinderella stories, by the dream of upward mobility, and, of course, by money. That dream – though in many cases a mere myth – is by its very nature aggressively democratic. Here in the City of Dreams, the Kala Ghoda Festival emphatically declares, Art is for everyone. In other words, Art, too, is quintessentially Mumbai.

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