Serendipity Arts Festival: Goa to the World and the World in Goa

Jonathan Kennedy, Director of Arts, at the British Council takes us through the highlights of the Serendipity Arts Festival and its many uniquely resonant performance spaces.

The Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF) held in December for nine days each year in Panaji, Goa is more than just a happy confluence of arts and culture. It is a place for different artforms to come together and create new ways of seeing the world and addressing global challenges. By being pluralist and inclusive, and crossing culture and arts with diverse audiences, Serendipity has become a fertile ground for arts experimentation.

SAF is the brainchild of Sunil Kant Munjal who founded the festival in 2016. This year, after a two-year pandemic break, the festival creative director Smriti Rajgarhia and a team of ten curators in visual arts, music, theatre, dance, crafts, film and culinary arts handpicked some of the most exciting and dynamic arts and culture programmes from India and abroad. Serendipity can truly be touted as India’s largest annual festival of interdisciplinary arts.

Freedom from Fear by Mayco Naing, Curated by Rahaab Allana

Celebrating new ideas

In a balmy December breeze in Goa, the hippy trail of the 1960s was a long distant memory as Serendipity showcased cutting-edge NFT-generated arts and the coming together of digital installations using Artificial Intelligence. One Hundred and Eleven, a wheelchair dance theatre collaboration from the UK between Joel Brown and Eve Mutso and Made in Ilva, a physical theatre performance from Italy, were among the highlights. The festival also comprised an Art Park, a children’s area bordered by wicker and cane-made arts, buzzing sound installations across the crafted archways leading to a curated selection of local craft stalls, a veggie Goan thali stand and a music stage.

The festival took over some of the crumbling Portuguese buildings at the Old GMC Complex and the Post Office Museum. A deserted five-story concrete building was transformed into a home for the new opera and the Nagalli Hills ground came alive with the Arena, a mainstage for large-scale evening concerts. Serendipity Arts Festival is a celebration of Goa’s routes and its current national and international connections.

Internationalism with India and UK in Goa

As the British Council celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence with the India/UK Together, a Season of Culture in arts and education, we were delighted to bring together BoxOut.FM and the Celtronic Festival to showcase India and UK electronic dance music artists. Kaleekarma from Goa and The Fully Automatic Model from Derry, Northern Ireland shook the palm trees with a rustling live gig for the chilled-out crowd with Delhi to Derry, Together in Sound. The pair had already played together at the Celtronic Festival in Derry before touring to perform at the iconic Red Fort in Delhi and in the sand dunes of the Rajasthan desert at Magnetic Fields, before performing in the wooded forest of the Art Park at Serendipity.

World-class visual and digital arts

In 2022, the visual arts programme was particularly strong, world-class even, with some astonishing leading-edge installations, some from Serendipity’s own artist residencies in Delhi, culminating at the festival in Goa. Different audiences were considered by the festival’s inclusive programming and the ‘Senses’ tent was brimming with workshops and masterclasses by Access for ALL, an initiative aimed at fostering an inclusive experiential culture for differently-abled children, young people and families.

Installation image, “Kindling Change Fired” by Kristine Michael

With my background in theatre, before joining the British Council, two performances stood out for me. The experimental Money Opera commissioned by Serendipity and directed by Amitesh Grover was a dystopian take on the world of cash, consumerism and modern India. An experimental production where audiences enter a building and spend time with characters played by actors and real-life professionals in a dystopian universe, Money Opera was performed in Hindi. The English audiences meanwhile were invited to shift from floor to floor to experience the deeply dark and disturbing tapestry of talks, songs and stories.

In complete contrast to the excoriating Money Opera was the joyous romp in the festival’s temporary theatre, Lavanya Katta. The interactive performance narrated the story of Lavanya and Tamasha theatre and their early influence on Hindi films – now feeding Bollywood and TV talent shows. The fabulous theatre producer and documentary filmmaker Savitri Medhatul sang, lip-synced and sashayed through the introduction informing the seated crowd this is ‘not for intellectuals; it’s full of sexy women with all the best lines.’ Part documentary, the performance paid tribute to some of the founders of Lavanya Katta and Tamasha ‘billboard’ theatre with wonderful tongue-in-cheek sketches. One could see the seeds of Bollywood being sown in this jaunty pantomime feminist tribute.

THE BRIJ in Delhi is launched

Serendipity Arts Festival is just one part of the Foundation’s expanding world where interdisciplinary arts are the essence. With fanfare, over the coming years, the Serendipity Foundation is investing in a major new arts complex called THE BRIJ in Delhi. Launched at the festival, THE BRIJ promises to be a game-changer in India by being the country’s first dedicated multidisciplinary arts centre with a theatre, black box space, galleries, library, artists’ studios, residences, museums and outdoor performance spaces. THE BRIJ named after the late Brijjmohan Lall Munjal, Indian industrialist and father of Sunil Kant Munjal, aims to bridge Indian arts and world cultures. Earlier this year some of the British Council’s leadership undertook a tour of the giant site and the sequence of buildings yet to be made. 

The BRIJ pays homage to Indian architecture, stepwells, and handmade skill with a series of interconnected and distinct new buildings. It is climate conscious and socially inclusive for research, education and interdisciplinary arts. It was designed by British architects at Crab Studios with a host of UK specialists and consultants drawn from across the world. The British Council is delighted to have an MoU with the Foundation to broker connections with the U.K. ahead of the mega culture centre’s phased openings. It’s a very exciting proposition destined to change the agenda for arts in India and for international cultural collaborations.

The future of both, Serendipity Arts Festival and THE BRIJ, revolve around representing the best in experimentation through interdisciplinary arts, valuing diversity and inclusion of artists, participants and audiences and setting the agenda for others to track and trace. 

Keep a lookout on Festivals from India the digital platform, made possible by the British Council, as THE BRIJ and Serendipity Arts Festival unfolds with plentiful UK and international partnerships to come. In the meantime, block your calendars for Serendipity Arts Festival, which returns to Goa in December 2023.

Jonathan Kennedy is Director Arts India at British Council.

For more articles on festivals in India, check out our Read section of this website.

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