After escaping the brutal Delhi winter, walking towards the ocean blue doors of Harkat Studios for the C3 Mumbai showcase was a welcome relief. From the 13th - 15th of January, 2023 after more than a year of collaborating online the C3 Mumbai Showcase was held for 11 artists representing 9 Open Source projects at Harkat Studios.
A STUDIO IN THE HOME OF STRUGGLE
Harkat Studios is nestled in a corner of Aram Nagar, a neighbourhood populated by casting agent's offices and small performance spaces. Harkat Studio's blue door and boutique appeal sets it apart in the hustle and bustle of the neighbourhood. Defined by a commercial approach to the arts, Harkat Studio's Bollywood centric and cinema based appeal is a point of attraction for local artists presenting their work. Which is why it was a perfect place to showcase our projects. By the time I had arrived the Be Fantastic team and other artists had already set up an elaborate showcase of material all under the watchful eye of Harkat Studio's massive projector.
It was only appropriate that the first person I saw as I was trying to find Harkat Studios was Karthika Sakthivel. The person who has most had our backs, communicated expectations and patiently answered our questions was standing outside with the everpresent flower in their hair. One of the oddest things about coming out of the pandemic lockdowns is meeting the persons we've only known online, for the first time. It's odd because it doesn't feel like the first time. And with Karthika even more so. It's a very exciting moment to meet someone who has done so much for ours (and everyone's projects) and to see that they now will have your back for the next three days. The moment I saw Karthika everything began falling into place and I relaxed. Until I started setting up the presentation space for our two projects.
Our first successful pitch for the C3 programme, was India Arts Funding Forum (IAFF): a portal built on user contributions to shine a light on the notoriously exclusive, elitist, and mysterious world of writing successful grant proposals to receive funding for arts projects. By asking users to share their successful grant applications to our portal, we wanted to use the Open Source philosophy of freely sharing ideas, to bring transparency to a process that takes place behind closed doors, controlled and curated by a handful of gatekeepers who never share insight into their selection process. Since 2018, our team, Kaivalya Plays, has received a total of more than a dozen grants, commissions and scholarships from cultural institutions and even we would struggle to define a "magic formula". But what we do have is an insight into the writing and documentation process that goes into these applications. We also realised that sharing our knowledge and our areas of artistic interest with anyone on the internet could only benefit us. While initially wary that putting our best ideas out there would open us up to being plagiarised, we figured out early that having a written record of an idea on a public forum, would make it easier to prove that the idea belonged to us. But secondly, and more importantly, we often struggled to find collaborators on projects that require multiple or international partners. If we had our ideas in one place, then instead of looking out there, collaborators could find us.
Buoyed by the excitement of successfully pitching IAFF we pitched a second project idea that also received support from the C3 programme. The India Arts Education Forum (IAEF) continued to build on our values of transparency, collaboration, and visibility. A passion project for Kaivalya Plays General Manager, Gaurav Singh, IAEF asks arts educators and arts institutions to upload information about their programmes. This includes the basics: name, duration, dates, syllabi, and location. But we wanted to take it a step further. We wanted to connect profiles of alumni and educators to the different programmes. This would allow the users to review the programmes, the educators to answer questions from potential students, and even allow former students to rate and review the programmes.
So far, we had successfully built the two portals and had gotten most of the necessary functionality up and running. But after tragic setbacks in 2022 for two of us (we both lost a parent), we had not been able to dedicate enough time to the most important aspect of the project: outreach. The C3 Mumbai showcase was an opportunity to connect with people to talk about our project, learn from them about problem areas and pain points, and encourage ordinary people to engage and contribute to the projects.
Once I was inside Harkat Studios, I was greeted very warmly and kindly by Amruta Nemivant. Amruta is the Senior Programme Manager at Goethe Mumbai and has been championing our work since Day 1. To say that I was a little star-struck at meeting Amruta would be an understatement, but Amruta immediately put me at ease by coming up to me, saying my name and expressing a visible excitement to meet me. What Amruta managed to do for all of us over the three days of the showcase was to motivate us to give our best as presenters and make sure we had everything we needed. But above that, Amruta constantly made time to talk to us about anything we might be curious about and shared their time with generosity. Every day, Amruta and I had multiple conversations which gave me insight into my own and other's projects, but also about Goethe Mumbai, its other programmes and goals, Amruta's own work as a writer on the visual arts, and as an artist in their own right. One of the things I'm most grateful for out of this whole experience is the time that Amruta made for myself and everyone.
PROJECTS AT C3 MUMBAI
Meeting the creators of the other projects was a huge point of excitement. I had been following many of these online for more than a year. Over the next few days I re-discovered the benefit of actually being in a room with other artists. Some of the most useful ideas for my own project came out of discussions with the other artists. Projects like DELTA LIVES, represented by Barnamala Roy, whose project occupied the most space physically but whose voice was the softest when presenting. I also got the opportunity to admiringly witness FLY BY EAR's Suhit Chiruthapudi explain his incredible project, invite people to engage with it and patiently listen to their feedback. Suhit, a music composer and sound designer from Mumbai, imagined Fly By Ear as an audio based game that aimed to be accessible to people with visual impairments. His demeanour and kindness only highlighted the spirit of accessibility in his project. POOJA IS CALLING was represented by Radhapriya and Hasan S. I was a big fan of the project on scams before the showcase and getting to be in a room with Hasan, who also celebrated his birthday on the first day, was a moment I had been waiting for a long time. It's truly special when you manage to make friends with someone you deeply admire, and Hasan and I got to spend a ton of time together. One of my favourite parts of the whole experience was to go and get handmade ice-cream at Sancha every day with Hasan (based on Amruta's recommendation). Also, Hasan was very helpful as I dealt with technical issues during set-up. And by helpful I mean, he turned my struggle into performance art as I made bad decision after bad decision on how to present my work. The laughs between us brought many of us in the room together.
A truly special moment of showcase was the presentation on the second day of WHALE TALES by Uma Khardekar. Whale Tales is described as an immersive audio visual narrative experience highlighting carbon sequestration of whales through empathetic game play, using real life whales as main characters. The online and physical artefacts are interconnected with audio visual pieces, choice based games and augmented reality experiences. Over a calm Saturday afternoon, Uma carefully and lovingly explained her love for the environment and her desire to create a project where whales could be the protagonists of their own stories. Towards the evening, Uma approached me and expressed her admiration for my team's two projects. The conversation we shared meant a great deal to me. We talked about our mutual love for animation and how it has the power to reach very young minds and make them aware of the world around them. We talked about the work Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary co-founder of Japan's Ghibli studios, and traipsed through the auteur's filmography especially Nausicaa, The Valley of the Wind. Spending the time in each other's companies made me feel validated in my work, knowing that it had an impact on others and inspired them in some form.
All our projects were built in some degree of isolation. Thrown into a room with other creators suddenly accelerated the ideating process immensely. The meaning of Open Source became heavily apparent, especially in regards to idea sharing. Even as I tried to set up my project, Hasan, Barnamala (her friend Mini), Karthika and Karen crowded around to watch me have technical issues. During this process all of them asked and suggested ideas for the project. Well, most of them suggested great ideas. Hasan just kept pointing out my obvious mistakes, then trolled me as I made more mistakes to fix the easy mistakes.
One thing Karen Haydock suggested really stayed with me. The idea for India Arts Funding Forum (IAFF) came after Gaurav Singh (the General Manager of Kaivalya Plays) and I kept meeting multiple artists who wanted to pitch us a production or a performance, but didn't have any idea how to do it. They didn't know how to budget, write a concept note or statement of purpose. They struggled to even schedule a calendar of activities and would give up. What hit us the most was that these were, oftentimes, graduates of some of the most prestigious Arts Institutions in the country. And none were equipped to create opportunities for themselves. So, we (with Winnu Das) built IAFF to share succesful grant proposal, starting with our own, so others could learn by example.
But then Karen made an excellent point. What if the artists weren't interested in writing the proposal themselves but hiring us to guide? And a lightbulb went off. We were already working as arts managers. Now, we could potentially work as production consultants for people who wanted a bit of help in putting together a proposal, or take over the documentation responsibilities of a project entirely. For a fee. Karen gave us another route to make our idea sustainable. The moment she put this seed of an idea in my head, the floor of Harkat Studios and the C3 showcase became enriched with the nutrients of great ideas and our projects began to evolve at breakneck speed.
The following day we were visited by the 2nd year architecture students of NMIMS Balwant Sheth School of Architecture. Their presence got us all activated. Students tend to call out bullshit very quickly, so you have to really make sure your offering passes the smell test. However, it is also evident that most students in India (unless they have opportunities to train in the arts, especially theatre) aren't used to having a platform where their ideas are heard. After a bit of gentle nudging and probing, the students started opening up to me. When they realised that India Arts Education Forum (IAEF) could work as a forum to raise issues and get responses in real time, you could see the glint in their eye. When I asked them about their favourite architects, their future plans and how they planned to achieve them, it only hammered home the point further for why transparency and real-world training has to be requisite in their education. The revelation that their choices are dictated by their parents and peer groups made it clear that having access to a global forum of ideas and information on education in the arts (IAEF), or one where they could see the most exciting ideas proposed (IAFF), could be the catalyst that inspires them to seek out their own goals.
But amongst the students, one solitary figure set himself apart. Ammar walked around the space by himself, wearing a kufi hat with a beard longer than mine at half my age, clearly carving out his own path. Initially, his conversation with me was to challenge my assertions, to assure me that he already had enough personal contacts in his chosen field to advance himself. He didn't need to look up information from others.
I tried telling him that IAEF lists multiple courses in the arts. That people could look up different schools, read the course syllabus, contact the institution, and read reviews by alumnis or connect with registered professors. I told him how we were looking to get institutions interested in managing their own pages, so they could be more reachable than they are now. I sold to him like I was pitching to a VC, but with a polite smile he just asked rather unimpressed, "Don't listing sites exist already?"
Rather than debate the idea, I asked him, "Well, since I have already made the site, can you suggest how to improve it?" The moment I said this his energy began to shift towards generosity. He gazed intensely at the options on IAEF. He look at the contribute section and institutional information.
"Have you heard of Practo?" he finally asked. I shook my head.
"It's a medical app. So, if I have to see my dentists it sets my appointment, and then it keeps all my info stored through my registered user. When I have to go back, all my information is already there. Do you follow?"
I nodded half-shruggingly.
"When I need to look up my medical history it's all in one place. Have you thought of adding an option on your education portal for students that can do the same. Instead of just having access to listings, they can sign up for the course through your site, maybe even pay for it on your site. Then you can keep a portion of the registration and also any time they take a course through IAEF they can..."
I interrupted excitedly, "Keep all the certificates in one place!"
"I was going to say," Ammar tried to continue.
"Never mind what you were going to say. If a student registers on IAEF, then they can sign up directly for the course, and when they get their certificate they can store it in one place. When they sign up for multiple courses, they get all the certificates in one place. You know, potentially they could even..."
Now it was Ammar's turn to interrupt, "Export it into a template that makes it..
"Look like a resume!" we said together. A big high-five followed.
In the near distance, Padmanabhan from Whale Tales chimed in, "So, it's Linkedin for arts education?"
"Yeah, that'll work!" I had made a new friend, someone whose input had excited me about my own idea. And had given me a brand new direction to take it.
This is that elusive value that CEOs insist they want people back in the office for: interacting in-person rather than from behind screens. Grab someone walking by, ask for their input and anyone who overhears can put a beautiful little bow on it. I was thrilled!
As exciting as this interaction was the final day still had one big surprise in store for me. Hasan and Radhapriya were presenting Pooja is Calling, sharing a podcast and we were all sharing sordid details of phone and online scams we had endured. It seemed everyone in the room had a story to tell of a disembodied voice trying to rip them off. Once the horror stories wrapped up I returned to my show area and a voice called out to me.
"Yeah?" I turned around to find a face that looked very familiar, but nothing else.
"Asawari," they said and a bolt of realisation hit me.
Asawari Jagushte is a talented filmmaker I first met during Goethe Mumbai and ArtX Company's Cultural Management in the Digital Age. That programme connected me to three very valuable people: Kritika Dey, who joined our IAEF project as communications director; Arnab Banerjee who asked us to join Intercut Labs as performance mentors. Intercuts was funded by British Council's "Connections Through Culture" grant to put Welsh and Indian artists into a collaborative space. The third was filmmaker Asawari Jagushte. Asawari is an independent director, producer, editor, QPOC change maker based in Mumbai, also a co-founder of Star Hopper Studios, a trans led cross-disciplinary collective based in India with a focus on narratives that are about- by, women, trans, intersex, non-binary, and gender diverse individuals.
Asawari is also a member of the C3 community and had encouraged both me and Gaurav throughout the process of building our project, while subtly nudging us to keep thinking about accessiblity and inclusivity. Asawari's prodding was why we decided to request a top-up to IAFF, so we could hire translators and receive grant proposals in multiple Indian languages. Everything Asawari said to us was said in kindness, encouragement and admiration. They came across as both a fan and a watchful guardian.
After more than 2 years of collaborating on different projects, this was the first time Asawari and I were standing face to face. I don't know if this has happened to you, but the people I have first met on Zoom during the pandemic don't seem any different when I meet them in-person. At least, I have to ask myself, "Wait, is this the first time we're meeting IRL, or have we already hung out?"
This wasn't the case with Asawari. I was very aware this was the first time we were meeting. Some people have that aura, a quiet strength that halos their frame. It's intimidating but also makes you feel like someone's got your back, if you get in trouble. Even though we were all starting to pack up, Asawari wasn't going to let me get off the showcase floor without updating them on the progress of our projects.
Asawari had pitched a project during the first round of C3 named "Language & Personal Pronouns" which would have invited anyone to contribute to an English language repository for ways of communicating that would be inclusive of individuals and groups who do not identify in the binaries of gender. Their pitch did not advance into a build phase, but Asawari continued as a member of the C3 programme and contributed valuable insight to other projects, especially ours.
Now, face to face in Mumbai, we would finally be able to look at our projects in the same space. Except, I was out of time and running to the airport. But Asawari would not waste the opportunity and took advantage to look at the project and check on its progress. I hurtled through the presentation, adding the ideas that had been generated to the progress report, as well as trying to make room to see if Asawari wanted to add anything that still could be worked on. But what Asawari was simple and far more powerful to me. Just a simple reminder.
"Varoon, what you are doing here is important."
Even as I tried to brush off the "compliment" in my rush to pack, Asawari reiterated this point. And then it hit me. I looked around the room and remembered that all of us were here because we believed in the work we were doing. We had pitched these ideas with mixed expectations, but all of us were passionate about the need for these projects. Somewhere along the process of building and reporting on them, I had lost sight a little of why I cared so much in the first place.
India Arts Education Forum and India Arts Funding Forum had come from a place of frustration, as a reaction to the lack of transparency, accessibility and inclusivity in the arts world. We had come together with the belief that if everyone's work, ideas, outcomes, research, and discoveries could be shared freely that everyone could benefit and lead to the kind of systemic change that all of our institutions need. In a world where it increasingly feels that we are divided, that we don't listen to each other, that we have are moving away from each other, the C3 Open House in Mumbai reminded me that real strength comes from working together, failing together, discovering together. Whether it's laughing at me struggle through technical issues, wandering into conversations about representation while indulging in a daily Rs. 90 waffle cone, remembering our love for Tom & Jerry manifesting in an important message about climate change, I would walk away with this singular thought.
"What you are doing here is important."