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I was already interested in the new Goa Open Arts Festival (Goaopenarts.com) when, just before it opened, Dayanita Singh jolted everyone’s attention with an extraordinary endorsement. The global art superstar (and part-time Goa resident) wrote on Facebook, “Absolutely delighted that finally we have an arts festival in Goa, which is just about artists living in Goa, with Goan artists in the selection committee, determining what they want the festival to be!!! I cringe when I hear about festivals/biennales/exhibitions that parachute in, with their own artists and even audiences, using Goa as a backdrop, completely disregarding local artists and or even the issues and needs of the place…Full support to you."

There’s considerable context here, which made Singh’s post both remarkable and intriguing. In recent years, India’s smallest state has emerged an alternative cultural hub for the country, with show-stopping events arrayed throughout winter: the International Film Festival of India, Goa Arts and Literature Festival, Serendipity Arts Festival (disclosure: I have been involved with all three). Simultaneously, many of the country’s creative and intellectual luminaries have moved to live in Goa. Singh was among the first, and her opinion counts. Thus, as soon as possible, I went to check out what she was talking about.

Priyal Woodpecker’s ‘moving’ poetry performance.
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Priyal Woodpecker’s ‘moving’ poetry performance. (Photo: Goa OpenArts Instagram)

The newest festival in Goa’s crowded cultural calendar was held from 13-16 February at the sprawling Don Joao Heritage House & Lawns in Nagoa, roughly equidistant from the beach belt and the state capital city of Panaji. On the evening I attended, an inclusive, exceedingly tranquil vibe reigned, with a wildly diverse audience ambling through.

One big difference from similar events was instantly appreciable: Almost every participating artist was present. Thus, instead of being guided by curatorial preoccupations, visitors experienced a constellation of conversations. The discursive element was perfectly suited to Goa, where pleasant social intercourse is a bedrock cultural value. You wandered, took long pauses to absorb appreciatively, then connected directly with the creative soul whose work was on display. The cumulative effect was utterly delightful.

Because its organizers and participants were gathered in informal conviviality, you could have been deceived about the festival’s professional, artistic intent. In fact, it included some masterpieces of the highest international standard. For example, while I was there, Nikhil Chopra (whose spectacular career now includes being the 2019-2020 artist in residence at The Metropolitan Museum in New York) delivered a characteristically spellbinding durational performance. Be Like Water was created to “evoke our critical relationship to water, its vitality and our vulnerability".

Chopra in full flow is exceptional viewing, powerfully expressive in a manner that permeates the very atmosphere around him. At one point, still engrossed, I went across the space in which he was working to stand in the entranceway of what was evidently the festival shop. It was not, even if double and triple takes still left the lingering suspicion. This was Reading Through by Rujuta Rao, a sly, subversive, tour-de-force sculptural installation made up of what looked exactly like alluring couture, but upon examination revealed itself as pure satire. It’s one of the most irresistible, era-appropriate 21st century artworks I have ever seen.

Rao grew up in Goa, before studying at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and the Parsons School of Design in New York. Last year, she won the Goan artist’s grant from the Serendipity Arts Foundation, and showed her work at the festival’s 2019 edition. When I asked her about the difference between the events, she told me: “The Goa Open Arts Festival was of a manageable scale and it was reflected in how well the space was designed, which made it possible to do justice to all the works. Respect for the artworks and their installation wasn’t based on how established or experienced the artists were, and in my experience, there was no tokenism when it came to the inclusion of those who identified as Goan artists."

There were several other standout contributions. I loved Pakhi Sen & Renuka Figueiredo’s Agoh, Let’s Play No?, an affecting, bittersweet evocation of the artists’ shared childhood in the village of Aldona (where they met in class 1), and the new Goa-based restaurant Edible Archives’Chacun A Son Gout (Each To Their Own Taste), which invited visitors to gauge their emotional responses to intensely flavourful morsels of food. Gopika Chowfla’s The Other Soldiers was another showstopper: Viewers were invited into an everyday Goan parlour, but here the other locations were animated by surreal backlit images featuring gorgeously painted women sentinels (repurposing the plaster soldiers which often sit guarding the gates of village homes), and the objects themselves. Blink, and suddenly you recognized Yayoi Kusama.

The veteran photographer Prashant Panjiar (he co-founded the well-regarded Delhi Photo Festival) was previously curator at the Serendipity Arts Festival, before joining hands with Gopika Chowfla, Gurpreet Sidhu, Diptej Vernekar and Sitara Chowfla to organize the Goa Open Arts Festival. He told me, “We had a self-imposed mandate, which stems from the fact that we all live in Goa, which has such a vibrant arts community. While we hoped the spirit of the event would be good, it turned out absolutely joyful, which is so unexpected and invigorating. I really did not expect that people would participate with so much enthusiasm. We are going to keep going now. The momentum is so good!"

Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.

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