Mumbai | Govandi Arts Festival: the young step up

The five-day Govandi Arts Festival aims to create a ‘safe space’ in this neglected Mumbai suburb and highlight the talent of its youth

Updated - February 04, 2023 05:22 pm IST

Published - February 03, 2023 11:15 am IST

The youth of Natwar Parekh Colony painting a mural ahead of the Govandi Arts Festival

The youth of Natwar Parekh Colony painting a mural ahead of the Govandi Arts Festival | Photo Credit: Community Design Agency

It began with a simple statement: “My identity is my right.” It was February 2021, right after the lockdown had lifted. The youth of Natwar Parekh Compound, a slum relocation and rehabilitation colony in Mumbai’s Govandi neighbourhood, had convened at the community library for a workshop about reclaiming public space.

One of the most neglected suburbs of Mumbai, Govandi is home to a number of poorly-planned colonies, flanked by factories, a thermal power plant, and a large open landfill. It isn’t a part of the city most people would have cause to visit, but it is home to a large percentage of the city’s blue collar workforce.

Govandi Arts Festival has come from a long engagement between Community Design Agency and the residents of Natwar Parekh Colony

Govandi Arts Festival has come from a long engagement between Community Design Agency and the residents of Natwar Parekh Colony | Photo Credit: Community Design Agency

Since 2016, Community Design Agency (CDA) has been working closely with the colony’s residents to improve their built environment. One such improvement was Kitaab Mahal, the community library, built out of the bones of an old apartment. Another was a street-redesigning project that the youth of Govandi designed and implemented, but which petered out during the lockdown. Workshops that solicited the community’s feedback were integral to CDA’s process. At one such workshop, a conversation about identity culminated in an especially striking sentiment: the youth, tired of the stigma they faced for where they hail from, were ready to stake their claim on their neighbourhood. “My identity is my right,” they said, and the echoes carried far beyond that closed group.

The pace had already been set by Moin Khan, a Govandi-based filmmaker and rapper whose video ‘Haq se Govandi’ (Govandi, my pride) has nearly 80,000 views on YouTube at the time of writing. Since then, the sentiment has inspired an eponymous mural in Natwar Parekh Compound, and now, a community-driven art revolution.

Photography mentees with mockups of their works

Photography mentees with mockups of their works | Photo Credit: Community Design Agency

Art as resistance

The Govandi Arts Festival — a youth-centric initiative that will be up in the streets of Natwar Parekh Compound between February 15 and 19 — is simultaneously a celebration of the neighbourhood’s spirit and a form of gentle protest. “A public art festival [both performative and visual arts] felt like a very natural route to working with the youth and giving them the freedom of expression that they were yearning for,” says festival co-curator Natasha Sharma.

One of the many workshops for Govandi Arts Festival

One of the many workshops for Govandi Arts Festival | Photo Credit: Community Design Agency

She recalls how, at the very first festival-focused workshop, when the kids were asked to consider what art means to them, they replied, “Art is a form of creative resistance.” Sharma says: “These were some of the thoughts they shared candidly during our first discussion. Imagine what they could do with different tools, like theatre, or rap.”

Since last July, professionals from fields such as theatre, film, photography, and music — think filmmaker Pankaj Rishi Kumar, photographer Tejinder Singh, beatboxers Danish and Tash — have been mentoring 45 youngsters. Storyteller and visual communicator Jerry Antony, for instance, is working with participants on an animated film that will eventually be projected onto the facade of the Natwar Parekh Compound buildings.

Jerry Antony conducting a stop motion animation workshop at Govandi

Jerry Antony conducting a stop motion animation workshop at Govandi | Photo Credit: Community Design Agency

“People look at children from the slum, and assume we don’t know anything, we don’t have any skills, and so we don’t deserve opportunities,” says Sana, a 19-year-old Govandi resident and filmmaking mentee. “But if you see the quality of the work we are producing, you’ll see we can be better than some top-class people!” Affan, an 18-year-old, adds, “We don’t always get the right kind of support, but this festival has shown me there is a lot of talent in Govandi.”

The final animation projected on the neighbourhood buildings

The final animation projected on the neighbourhood buildings | Photo Credit: Community Design Agency

An equal space

CDA is organising the festival in collaboration with UK-based organisations The Lamplighters (who is working with youngsters to create a lantern parade) and Streets Reimagined (who is advising them on parade planning and digital projects), as part of the ongoing initiative, ‘India/UK Together, a Season of Culture’.

“For five days, we want to create a safe space, an equal space, where the rest of the city and the residents of Govandi can come together in the spirit of art,” says co-curator Bhawna Jaimini. “We don’t want to pander to the outside gaze that might look down on working-class communities, but the hope is to create a space where all our socio-economic identities can dissipate as we share our experiences through art.” Eventually, CDA hopes to make the festival a bi-annual event, as well as be an inspiration to other communities who might want to adopt the format in their own neighbourhoods.

The freelance writer and playwright is based in Mumbai.

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