Until recently renowned for its laid-back susegado, Goa now brims with cinema, music, literature and art festivals and ambitious cultural events all through the peak months of the tourist season from November-March.

It started with the International Film Festival of India (Iffi), which moved to Panjim in 2004. That year the pleasant riverside capital of Goa came to a near standstill with tens of thousands of visitors thronging the streets to see what all the fuss was about. But now Iffi barely makes a ripple, native Ponnjekars and tourists alike taking in stride another major cultural gathering hosted in the sunshine state.

Besides the five-year-old Goa Arts and Literary Festival (which this writer helps to organize), there was Tehelka magazine’s mammoth THiNK Fest, which has been supplanted by the India Ideas Conclave organized by the India Foundation to “replace THiNK Fest" with a similar jamboree centred around ideologues and allies of the Sangh Parivar. Panjim is also set to host a large-scale food festival and The Story of Light Festival (Thestoryoflight.org), as well as a new international photography festival, Goa Photo (Goaphoto.in).

Right alongside this burgeoning smorgasbord is Sensorium, yet another start-up “festival of art, literature and ideas" hosted in a beautifully restored heritage mansion on the Altinho heights above Panjim. It’s organized by Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, a non-profit initiative of Goan mining-and-casino businessman Dattaraj Salgaocar and his wife Dipti (née Ambani). In recent years the Salgaocars have teamed up with novelist (and part-time Goa resident) Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi to produce increasingly credible programming for Sunaparanta. The new Sensorium is an important milestone in that journey, with Shanghvi as its honorary director and primary spokesman.

The festival’s title is taken directly from Marshall McLuhan’s theories of communication: It refers to the effects of media on humankind’s five senses, a kind of synaesthesia that keeps them all in play. So the new Goa festival’s first edition—ably compiled and mounted by Delhi Photo Festival founder Prashant Panjiar— focuses on photography, but seeks to explore “its intersection with literature, cinema and music". While the exhibition continues through February, several related events are planned—a lecture by William Dalrymple on photographs of ancient cave art, a digital slide show of dabbawalla images by The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra, and a talk by artist Jitish Kallat about how photography allowed him to plan the Kochi Biennale.

Sunaparanta started six years ago, but it has never been used to better effect than at Sensorium. There is professional detailing throughout. All the lighting has been seriously upgraded, and the displays unfold to each other seamlessly. There are separate exhibitions maintaining coherence in various rooms, including the library; two well-conceived installations on the front lawns; and a superb, soulful series of photographs of musicians in concert by Farrokh Chothia that enliven the courtyard housing Sunaparanta’s outstanding café.

A photograph from Farrokh Chothia’s series on jazz.
A photograph from Farrokh Chothia’s series on jazz.

Unfortunately, some of the other text that goes along with Sensorium reverts to the Indian art world’s prevalent penchant for meaningless, self-indulgent blather. Thus, an otherwise charming and unique display of handmade photo books curated by the gallerist and agent Regina Maria Anzenberger (she represents Panjiar) comes larded with “perhaps that’s what a photo book is: a return to quaint. By quaint I don’t mean something atavistic, idyllic in the way of a turnstile to a pasture or sheep crossing a macadam path. By quaint I mean something that has stood still in time, it has stilled with time, into time, and therefore time will respond to it by enduring, with existence".

Mercifully, there are few such moments at Sensorium 2014, where the highlights include Dayanita Singh’s sly appropriation of favourite book titles to accompany a selection of her famous photographs, and a meandering installation of the pages of Sohrab Hura’s forthcoming book Life Is Elsewhere, arrayed along the edge of the front lawn. It is best viewed after dark when each is illuminated by a single light glowing from under a scalloped clam shell.

The main spine of Sensorium is Macondo, a series of nostalgia-infused photographs by Fausto Giaccone (another of Anzenberger’s clients) that seek to recreate the setting of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years Of Solitude—visuals from Colombia which the accompanying text claims “betray more than a passing reflection to Goan villages". In the actual Goan setting however, these come off as contrived and lifeless, especially when contrasted with the “photo-poetry" in the next room, where Subrata Biswas, Adil Hasan and Sudeep Sen “translate" into visuals some poems written by Octavio Paz when he was Mexico’s ambassador to India in the 1960s.

The standout exhibition is Flesh by Gopika Chowfla, comprising 12 backlit UV prints on film, a 90-second slide show and a 4-minute looped video installed together in a small room with its own entrance.

The artist explains: “A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery for the first time in my life. I started working on this project as a means to deal with, and a way to lighten what at the time seemed like an enormous personal calamity. Discussions about replacement and reconstruction surgery brought me closer to the flesh of my own body in particular and the ambiguity and inter-changeability of flesh in general…. In my exploration, the term flesh becomes a non-specific entity."

In order to encounter Chowfla’s Flesh, visitors have to enter a somewhat claustrophobic space where a looped video depicts chicken meat being sliced into pieces in swift, inescapably sensuous motion, then bend to peer through narrow openings at images of the split-open interiors of ripe fruit. It feels uncomfortable and raw, as though forced to enter a gaping wound.

When I happened to meet him at Sensorium, Panjiar told me that he is building a house in Goa, and the state “has the potential to be like a Greenwich Village for India", a place where creative people from around the country get together in a “new kind of community". He says Sensorium “is not for tourists, not for people who fly in for the weekend from Delhi", but for the people who live there.

I headed out, reviewing those intriguing sentiments in my head, and found myself looking around for evidence to back up Panjiar’s claims, some connection beyond the superficial to Goa and its existing layers of culture.

To my extreme surprise, this came staring me in the face in the person of my late grandmother, pictured several times larger than life on the Sunaparanta lawns in a treasured 100-year-old family photograph from Karachi that was submitted by one of my cousins to Anusha Yadav’s Indian Memory Project, a Web project that collects memories and history from across India. Together with other images of other families, they are a rich interweaving of oral and visual histories of India—yes, including Goa too.

Sensorium is on till 5 February, 10am-7pm (Monday-Saturday) and 10.30am-6pm (Sundays), at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, 63/C-8, near Army House, Altinho, Panjim, Goa. For details, visit www.sgcfa.org

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