The Serendipity Arts Festival returns in December in Goa after a two-year gap. Founder-patron Sunil Kant Munjal talks about how the festival serves as India’s cultural ambassador to the world. Edited excerpts:
You talk of art and culture being India’s soft power. How do you plan to exploit this power with the Serendipity festival?
There are three aspects to this. One clearly is the interaction of the outside world with Indian arts and culture. Unfortunately, over the past, say 250-300 years, it’s declined quite significantly, first during British times, and then also post-independence, as arts support and patronage went to the government. And governments, while being a great support system, are not the best equipped the world over as prime sponsors of arts and culture. It has to be for civil society, foundations, structural organisations, artists and the like to take up the task. So that’s one of our attempts. And we find that because of the quality of what Serendipity Arts Festival puts out, we are now able to attract some of the brightest and the best minds in the field from around the globe. We have had top musicologists, academics, galleries, critics, architects from over 20 countries, including Korea, Canada, South Africa, Japan, US and UK. So it’s become a pretty global affair in that sense. That’s one way of demonstrating India’s soft power, because many of them have taken ideas from here to implement in their programming as well, especially the concept of interdisciplinarity, which I believe our festival has certainly had a hand in supporting across the globe.
Are you planning to take the festival abroad in the future?
We have been doing this for a while, with events in the UK and Dubai. Many countries have shown interest and we have also signed some agreements with some of them.
Will this year’s edition of the festival be a nod to 75 years of India’s independence?
Absolutely. In fact, there are two aspects this year. One is to celebrate the human spirit, because of what we saw people do during Covid. Despite the challenges, people came out in help of complete strangers, not just their families and friends, but for people they didn’t know. So, we want to celebrate that human spirit. The second is to celebrate India’s 75th year of independence, on which there will be more than a nod to in the programming.
Since we are talking of independence, do you think artistic freedom prevails in today’s India, and how are you enabling it through the festival?
Our enabling is purely by offering a platform. The best thing one can do is to offer artists the ability to come in and perform and show their works. Artistic freedom itself is a complex term, because there are bounds to what society will accept. We’ve seen issues happen in Iran over the last few days and in Turkey, etc. This is an oft-used term. There is artistic freedom, of course, as poets and musicians are performing all the time, you have theatre and plays taking place across the country. But you also have issues raised when people find things that are not acceptable. So you have both.
While curating a list of not only curators but participants and events, is it kept in mind in any manner to leave out controversial people or maybe something that could evoke a backlash, like what we saw at JLF with the participation of a BJP spokesperson recently?
The programming is done by our curators. The brief to them on multiple levels is how do you make this engaging, how do you make it entertaining, how do you make it inclusive. Our messaging is about our themes. We don’t go to the next step of how they pick a specific project, how it gets presented, etc. That is left to the curators and the artists.
So the curators get complete artistic licence to get on board whoever and whatever?
We have a defined set of criteria and essentially we tell them how to make the festival more inclusive, how to get more people on board. One of the reasons why people find the festival interesting is because it is also very experiential. Interdisciplinarity of the arts is the broad theme that Serendipity works on and that provides a certain amount of novelty and newness, because that’s not commonplace. Second is the method in which it’s presented. Alongside the programme, we are also running workshops, and conclaves and conferences, so a visitor is literally looking at a 360-degree view of whatever issue is being presented in the project itself. There is a research component to it, an intellectual component and an entertainment component to every project. And a lot of this is commissioned work. So it is genuinely new and seen for the first time. And also, there is something for everyone, no matter what the arts. We have 350 projects again this time, and while we tried to keep it a bit contained after Covid, the festival has a natural life of its own and tends to expand.
What about the art economy in the country? Your effort is to promote young artists in the festival and through grants and residency programmes. Do you feel you are able to aid the art economy too with the festival, and how?
All of the above and that is how it should be done. We work with young artists, we work with emerging artists, we work with highly established artists. And we also encourage the highly established artists to give a bit of mentorship and support and ideas to the younger or the more recently emerging artists. The art economy is made up of all of these components. And we’ve also been encouraging craftspersons to contemporise their wares and we help them with ideas, design, colours, materials so that their products become more relevant and viable to use as a livelihood, and that will continue.
You rue a focus on the economy more vis-a-vis the arts in the country. Do you wish other corporates also thought more about promoting arts and culture than just focusing on balance sheets?
I think both are necessary. Without a good economy, your ability to do things gets impaired. So when I’ve said this, I’ve not said one or the other. Many companies, individuals, families and foundations do things other than just business and we have seen outstanding examples of people working in education, healthcare, gender issues, drinking water, etc. Arts and culture, somehow, has never seen that kind of prominence in support, as let’s say, healthcare or education have. I am not saying healthcare, education are not important. I’m saying it’s important also to include this, because this is our foundation, this is our anchor. But to be fair, we are seeing more and more companies pitching in, even at the festival itself.
So have corporate sponsors increased or decreased this year?
I don’t know what the final number will be, but I expect it will be more and not less than previous years, even though it’s a bit more challenging because of Covid. Many companies have cut back on their budgets, etc, but I think we have had enough exposure now for people to realise the real value of something like the festival, which has scale, the eyeballs, the visitors. While the physical presence is high, the digital is of higher magnitude. And for visibility, it’s good, whether people are looking at it as pure philanthropy, or CSR, or for branding, or marketing.
So is the festival going to be bigger and better this year?
We aim to make it better each time, but bigger is not something we set out to do; it just works out that way. There’s just so much interest now that we have to say no to many, because there’s a time limit, there’s a budget involved, there’s space constraints.
Did you ever approach the central government or the state government for support, considering the festival brings gravitas to a state that’s known more for partying and beaches and attracts a completely new set of visitors?
Governments have to be a facilitator. We had an impact study done by an independent agency on the festival’s influence on Goa, and it was quite an eye-opener as to how much of an impact it had on people’s thinking and behaviour. And, of course, the sheer economic activity with the visitors the festival attracts. The facilities and buildings that we use are given to us by the government, which gives us all clearances and permissions for the crowds, the safety protocols, etc.
The past two years have especially pushed digital to the forefront and an exhibition on NFTs is part of this year’s line-up. Do you see the digital aspect to be a bigger part of the arts scene in the coming years or do you think it’s too niche to be understood by all?
We started addressing this in some manner right from the first festival. We had digital art in the first edition too. Technology is something that you can no longer ignore or not engage with. Technology in art has multiple dimensions. Some of them are purely commercial and economic and some are purely creative, and some are a combination. So, we will, over a period of time, try and address all these aspects of technology.
Serendipity is defined as a long-term art project. How do you think you are meeting this brief so far?
The festival is trying to bring awareness to the public at large, especially people who are otherwise not exposed to the arts. And I think that’s an important function. And if you want to make a real impact, you want to have long-term benefit for society, it has to be a long-term project. So while the festival happens only in December, the year round there is work going on, whether it’s research projects, or residencies, or book readings, or movie showings. They may not be as high decibel as the festival is, but they are equally important. They are significant for what they do, and who they reach. So for us, it is essential that it’s not just long term, that it’s ongoing as well. We also aim to help India connect with the rest of the world, which I think is important. India is increasingly becoming an important nation, both as an economy and as a political player. It’s, therefore, critical that India’s strength, which comes from its culture, from its diversity, its core, is then displayed in a manner that’s easy to communicate and easy to understand. And that’s where I think organisations like Serendipity Arts have a role to play.