Earlier this year the first Matheran Green Festival took place within the hilltop forests of an old railroad station 80 kilometres southeast of Mumbai. Over the course of a week, around 200 local and international artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, poets, t'ai chi masters, and people with all kinds of unique skills came together and volunteered their time in an effort to bring awareness to the increasingly unsustainable human impact on our environment and its precious ecosystems. Megan King was there!
It’s a sweaty summer’s evening at Mumbai’s airport. I’m struck by the Arrivals passage filled with artefacts and tributes to national culture, resembling more of a museum than an airport. The usual advertisements from investment and insurance companies are absent. Already there is so much more for the imagination to play with, so much more intrigue than those usual images of impossibly handsome people wearing diamonds and tuxedos, drinking triple distilled whiskey on a yacht somewhere no one you know has ever been.
A car awaits my arrival at the airport pickup. In a climate of chaos and extreme urban density, patience is essential. Being on the roads of Mumbai is like edging through a minefield where cars, buses, motorcycles, rickshaws and pedestrians battle it out. There are no obvious rules to the untrained eye, only the suggestion of an unspoken collaboration between people. I’m on my way to Matheran, a tiny hill station just outside Mumbai, within the tall forests a festival is waiting...
Initiatives that combine travel, art and the natural environment are becoming increasingly popular amongst travellers.
It’s late at night when we safely reach Matheran. We stop at the base of the railroad station as no cars are allowed to enter the eco-sensitive site. The air is thick with summer’s humidity, offset by the fresh oxygen provided by thousands of trees. We pass the surreal scene of horses grazing amid the forest, the moonlight piercing through the branches and illuminating their beautiful coats.
Sukant and his team had arrived in Matheran nearly two months earlier, where a clean-up of gigantic proportions took place. He tells me that a thick layer of trash covered the forest floor, and that most of the litter arrives on the ground via the tourists who visit Matheran from the nearby cities. High in the mountains, the forests are a popular holiday destination for Indian families seeking respite from the big city and the sweltering summer heat.
Sukant is an award-winning art director and production designer in Bollywood, his reputation for making things happen and his unique perspective on things make him one of the most sought after in the industry - an artist, social activist and dreamer. The Matheran Green Festival is the manifestation of his vision that started to take shape more than five years ago.
“I was drawn to the innocence of Matheran.” He fell in love with the way people still talked to each other and the simplicity of their lives. He had found a little piece of earth that was still relatively run by nature, although things are beginning to change quickly. “Whatever transformation happened in Mumbai, or any other metropolis 50 or 100 years ago, Matheran is on the verge of that same development. They’re starting to tar the roads, big business people have brought land to develop into large hotels and some people are pro putting vehicles on the roads.”
The local villagers rely solely on tourism for their livelihood. They sell shoes, small trinkets and snow cones, carry luggage between hotels and set up games in the street. The red-earth roadsides look like a regular 60s funfair, with everything from shooting water balloons with darts to playing dice. Whatever tiny gap of opportunity exists, the community finds a way to be resourceful and summer is a vital time for them to earn a living.
An ambulance is the only vehicle allowed in the town, making horseback and hand-pulled rickshaws the usual mode of transport, providing a main stream of revenue for hundreds of drivers and horsemen.
According to Sukant, “If people here can be proud of who they are without wanting to change things and compete with city lifestyles, Matheran can be spared the same fate and be kept as an example for future generations that we can still live in sync with nature.”
To represent this, Sukant makes art that tries to incorporate the deepness of humanity, and the preciousness of life on earth through whatever medium he’s drawn to. For Matheran Green, his team created larger than life installations of dragons and bulls, and a Pegasus made from trash and other lost and broken treasure. By virtue of the universe, he met a French traveller and after the pair had exchanged dreams, they got to building a magnificent wooden geodesic dome that would become the centre stage of the festival.
However, it’s about so much more than just the artworks at the festival, as participants create a testing ground for new ideas and altruistic ideals, a space to connect through art, music and nature. Skills development workshops were set up with woman and young girls from the village, with plans to develop a formal curriculum between participants and the community.
“The whole cycle of life is like a moving train, and we’re a little bit off the tracks,” says Sukant. “The first way to get back on track is to slow down and make people think. I used to be impatient and feel so frustrated thinking nobody cared, that nobody was listening. Now I believe in working slowly to change things.”
Initiatives that combine travel, art and the natural environment are becoming increasingly popular amongst travellers. They are part of an emerging ‘experience economy’ in which young people are not so eagerly running towards job security and pre-planned lives and are willing, for now at least, to trade things for real experiences. Grounded in practical education, human connection and awareness of the planet, it becomes easier knowing that there is a community of people seeking similar alternatives around the world.
Take Greenpop, a Cape Town based tree-planting enterprise that migrates their entire organization to Zambia each year to set up an eco-village from scratch. During June and July, the ‘Zambia Festival of Action’ gathers hundreds of people from all walks of life to participate in workshops on environmental and waste education, planting thousands of trees and invites anybody with a creative streak to contribute to the atmosphere of the camp. The festival has just moved into its fourth year, having planted over 11 000 trees in the area since it started in 2012. It’s another space where people are given the opportunity to show up, to participate, to heal and to learn.
People from around the world are becoming more attracted to a kind of voluntourism that combines hands-on hard work with music concerts and upcycled art making, as an authentic experience for people to learn something about themselves and a space for connection and creation among strangers.
According to Sukant, the man that started it all in Matheran, “We are all different but when we sit together, eat together and work together for a common purpose we forget about all that.”
For more information about Greenpop’s Zambia Festival of Action, visit www.greenpop.org/projects/trees-for-zambia