Transformation Through Art

When one mentions art in the city, what comes to mind is a sculpture or an installation on a traffic island, a mural on a tall building or graffiti on walls. Most often it is the work of the local artists celebrating some figure, some custom or some moment in the history of the land. Sometimes it is a reputed artist from another place who is commissioned to design an artwork for a particular city. In most cases, art remains the domain of a few: the ‘qualified’ artists.

However, when the community draws about their land, their people, their traditions and all things dear to them, it becomes a form of collective expression of their ideas and aspirations. And art becomes a process, not just a product!

I would like to share two cases – both in the state of Goa in India – both of which happened independently in the same year. An exercise in which art became of the people, by the people and for the people.

The first one is called ‘Nhoi - The Big River Draw’ a project by the Bookworm Trust. Bookworm is a library-based learning centre in Goa with the primary focus on developing reading habits in children. It believes that reading is made more enjoyable when accompanied by activities like drawing and crafts. It runs an outreach programme in underprivileged areas and a more formal intervention programme by collaborating with a number of schools across the state of Goa. The Trust conducts courses to train manpower for libraries across the state and the rest of the country, with the aim to make libraries more inviting and hence impact the reading culture among young people. It has been organising a public ‘read aloud’ programme every year in open parks where children from many

schools come together to read and to draw.

This community drawing project was conceived recognising drawing as a medium to document the stories of the people and as an effective platform of social communication. Leveraging on its ability to connect with various communities, Bookworm undertook this collaborative exercise. Especially in the light of how libraries are being ignored in the present times, it became critical to merge the ideas of drawing and a library. Bookworm collaborated with 13 libraries spread over numerous districts of Goa.

The project was guided by Elizabeth Kemp,  a Scottish community artist who spends her time between Scotland and India, and possesses a tremendous ability to connect with large groups of people. Rhea D’souza, a young architect, passionate about Goa, the natural wealth of  the land and the culture of its people, was the main coordinator.

To provide a focus to the project, it was unanimously decided to work with ‘river’ as the theme. With rivers being threatened by pollution, neighbouring states contesting for waters from the rivers and policy makers talking about ‘nationalisation’ of rivers, there could not have been a more appropriate topic to draw the crowds in, to draw.

And so the project was called ‘Nhoi: the Goa River Draw’, nhoi being the word for river in the local Konkani language. The 13 libraries chosen were state run libraries of the villages located along the River Mandovi and its tributaries. At a workshop held at Panjim’s Central Library, the respective librarians were sensitised to the concept and philosophy of this project. Over nine months spanning from March to November of 2018, the project ran through 13 different locations, interacting with a cross section of people, the young and the old, all eager to draw.

On the designated day, the people from the community came to their library and were made to sit around a cartridge paper roll of around six metres in length and 90 centimetres in width. Provided with soft chalk and oil pastels, they drew. It was a collective expression of their feelings about their river; memories, concerns, aspirations and much more. As the people mapped their river, for almost six hours, stories emerged, dialogue developed and social bonding happened through the medium of art and creativity.

More than 500 people across age groups, gender and educational qualifications participated in these in situ workshops. These are

the people whose access to art is usually limited. The project provided them with a creative and social space where they could participate in the company of friends, family and neighbours. It bust the myth that art was the domain of only a few. It encouraged dialogue; from the local dialects, lost and forgotten words also emerged.

What was produced was indeed a magnum opus. Eighty metres in length, it is the single largest collaborative drawing in India. An expression of the collective memory of the people, it celebrates the people’s connect with their river. A short film and a work book have been put together to document the making of ‘Nhoi’. Interviews with the participants reveal the impact the project has had on them.

The project took its inspiration from the ‘Big Draw’, a UK based organisation. The Big Draw is one of the world’s largest drawing festivals with the goal of promoting visual literacy and art education. It is held by public organisations like museums, schools, galleries, community centres or by enthusiastic citizens in open spaces
accessible to the general public. Through ‘Nhoi - The Big River Draw’, the idea has found its ground in India. Being an open-ended format, it can be adopted in any other place in Goa, or the rest of the country, to map a river or to draw anything else.

‘Nhoi’ got an opportunity to showcase itself in a preview at the Serendipity Arts Festival held in December 2018 in Panaji, Goa. Two of the ‘Nhoi’ panels were exhibited as a part of the ‘Panjim 175’ exhibit at the old PWD Complex along the Ourem creek. On a beautiful riverside setting, under the bridge, the visitors were given an opportunity to draw their river, by the river. The short film about the project ran continuously for the people to watch.

But now it waits for the opportunity to show itself in entirety. After the Big Draw, ‘Nhoi’ looks forward to the Big Reveal. In the next edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival to be held in Goa in December 2019, 80 metres of community art will tell a story; the story of a few hundred people and their river.

The other story…

Date: 19th December 2018, the 58th anniversary of Goan Liberation

Venue: Panjim 175, Old PWD Complex, Panaji, Goa

Eighty-three-year-old Sharada Sawaikar, freedom fighter and a stalwart of the Goan liberation movement visits the art venue where an art exhibit by the young Goan artist Chaitali Morajkar is set in the backdrop of stories around liberation of several women who had lived to see the day. Sharada’s was one of them. A piece of art drawn on multiple panels, where each panel is a hand-written story. It’s poignant that on this very day that marks the anniversary of liberation she visits a place, which during her time stood as an office for public works. For many years this structure of modest proportion built on the banks of the mangrove-lined Ourem creek has been lying vacant, vulnerable to the whims of the government, which might one day decide that a ‘modern’ office building is the need of the day. During the week, the venue plays host to a number of these octogenarian women whose stories make up this exhibit, and to hundreds of other citizens, young and old. They’re all happy that this old structure in the city has found a voice and that many stories close to the hearts of our people are being written and read.

The venue was named ‘Panjim 175’ since it was the year of the city’s 175th anniversary. Brilliantly curated by writer Vivek Menezes and architect Swati Salgaocar, this venue engaged the talent of local artists each interpreting in their own style, the history of the city and its
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people, its legends and lore. The floor and walls of this abandoned structure came alive with strokes of colour, the mud of the land, the faces of our people, the grains of its harvest and verses of its poets. Besides the art work, enlightening talks, theatre and musical renditions infused more energy in these spaces. During the late evenings the bridge and the mangroves were used as a magical backdrop for some scintillating performances by the country’s acclaimed artists.

This art venue was just a part of a much larger picture: the Serendipity Arts Festival held across various impressive venues in the city of Panaji. This festival is an outreach event of the Serendipity Arts Foundation, a Munjal initiative for creativity. Set over a period of eight days, it is held annually since December 2016, this edition being the third. The festival is a nonprofit, multi-disciplinary art event curated by a panel of eminent artists and institutional figures across the visual, performance and culinary world. A cultural project, which hopes to affect positive change in the arts in India, it brings to the city multiple exhibitions, performances and immersive art experiences.

For an event of this nature and scale, Panaji seems to be an appropriate choice. The mixed cultural ethos of the state, especially at a time when the city is decked up for the joyous Christmas season, provides the perfect backdrop for the festival. A charming little city, it boasts some monumental buildings that shaped it under the Portuguese administration along with a quaint Latin residential quarter called Fontainhas.

The oldest neighbourhood of the city, the Adil Shah Palace, a pre-Portuguese structure, was originally the summer palace of the last Muslim commander of this region who was dethroned by the Portuguese in 1510. Strategically located by the river Mandovi, this building, over five centuries, has played various roles and undergone much architectural transformation. After the government secretariat moved out of it a few years ago, it was refurbished as an avante garde exhibition space.

The other premier location in the city is the Old Goa Medical College Complex. Built in 1842 by the Portuguese administration as the Escola Medico Cirurgica da Goa, it served as the medical school and general hospital till the 1990s when the institution moved to a modern complex outside Panaji. An elegantly proportioned structure standing majestically along the river, it is the permanent venue for the International Film Festival of India held in November every year. But, like the Adil Shah Palace, it is underutilised during the rest of the year. These two locations were the main venues for the Serendipity Arts Festival and have hosted some splendidly curated exhibits of visual art, craft and photography by internationally acclaimed artists.

The open-air art park along the riverfront, served as the place for a more relaxed experience
and hosted a food court. A stage, specially set up on an open ground, entertained the public with some terrific musical performances creating memories for a lifetime.

Art festivals such as these bring a gust of creative energy into the city. Besides the artists who find an opportunity, the citizens find entertainment and budding talent finds inspiration. Through the language of art, education happens. Equally gratifying is the fact that it revives forgotten spaces, finding myriad opportunities and unleashing public imagination.

Putting together such an event is no mean feat. A dedicated team works round the year battling every hurdle in the way of curatorial detailing and city permissions. The foundation intends to support, promote and create platforms for creativity and provide the wider public with a unique source of contemporary art and culture. The programmes are designed and initiated through collaborations and creative partners across a multitude of fields and are aimed at using the arts as a means to impact education, social initiatives and community development with a strong focus on interdisciplinarity.

Both the above cases strongly establish the fact that art is definitely a transformative force in community building and city making. Art is a social catalyst, not just an aesthetic one