'Jungle Me Mangal': Matheran culture fest opens Thursday

 Among the tiniest and the only vehicle-free hill station in Asia, Matheran in Maharashtra will come alive for five days during the first edition of the Matheran Green Festival (MGF) starting here Thursday.

Raigad (Maharashtra): Among the tiniest and the only vehicle-free hill station in Asia, Matheran in Maharashtra will come alive for five days during the first edition of the Matheran Green Festival (MGF) starting here Thursday.

Around 200 artistes, singers, musicians, sculptors, artists and graffitists will paint the hill station, well - green - to highlight its importance as a reserved forest, a bird sanctuary and an eco-sensitive zone, barely 90 kms from Mumbai, and 125 kms from Pune.

"The fest starts May 21, coinciding with the 165th foundation day of the hill station, discovered by the then British collector of Thane district, Hugh Poyntz Malet. It will be fiesta and fun-filled five days at Matheran in the presence of around 60,000 tourists," Ujjwal Gawand, the moving spirit behind the festival, told IANS.

Ujjwal and his wife Prachi are the founders of a Navi Mumbai artists group, The New Bombay Design, and conceptualized the festival in collaboration with Matheran Hill Station Municipal Council's Divya Doiphode, Matheran Pratishthan head Ajay Sawant and the Raigad district collector.

Gawand said this would be the first step towards a dream to transform the metalled road-free hill station with a 6,000 resident population and 460 horses as a model town and holiday destination, discuss eco-sensibility and responsibility of each individual to conserve the natural wealth for future generations.

The event will see artists, musicians, film-makers, environmentalists and activists from India and other countries who will converge in the thick, hilly forests abounding with birds and monkeys to share views on nature and conservation, Prachi explained.

The MGF would be a melange of arts, culture, music, films, workshops, exhibitions, live shows and performances, sports, networking, and communications to spur both domestic and international tourism to Matheran, said IIT Bombay Alumni Association Chairman Deepak Patil, who is one of MGF's guides and active volunteers.

"It will help Matheran residents and tourists understand the importance of conservation, give the hill station a strong global identity, and develop skills for the younger generation and women to explore career options as the people here are entirely dependent on tourism for a living," Patil told IANS.

Under MGF, some long-term green measures will also be undertaken, like creating a sculpture park in a two-acre dumping ground with plastic and beer bottles and cans as the raw material. The artefacts will dot the entire hill station, all directed by Bollywood art director Sukant Panigrahy.

Permaculture sessions would be conducted at the same venue with organic gardens, organic compost, organic restaurants, waste disposal and management, orgiving living demos and workshops.

The main inauguration venue will be the historic Nehru Bhavan that was closed for over three decades but is being reopened for MGF. Events will also be staged at the Dumping Ground, the Paymaster Park, Alexandra Point, Sunset Point, Olympia Ground and the Community Centre.

"Through the MGF platform, our aim is to develop Matheran as an open art-culture hub in India over the next few years and build it up to a global festival," Ujjwal said.

Some of the groups taking part at MGF include Ashis Pahi of Kala Nirvana International Art Centre, Hyderabad, musician Benny Prasad of Bangalore, Tatha Gatha Hazra of Multimedia from Bangalore, Tritha Troupe of Delhi, Nrityanjali Academy, Pune Street Art Crew and many others. Radio support will come from 92.7 Big FM.

Incidentally, a forerunner MGF, the annual Matheran Festival has been organised since 2010 but now it will be on much larger scale to draw global attention to the town, Matheran Pratishthan secretary Santosh Pawar told IANS.

Now 165-years-old Matheran, literally meaning Forest on a Forehead, is designated as a reserved forest and bird sanctuary with no metalled roads and with horses as the main form of transport on its seven-square kms lush green expanse.

It has 28 designated tourist points, self-sufficent with two freshwater lakes, two parks, a race-course, four places of worship, around 50 big and small hotels and resorts with a capacity to host around 15,000 tourists per day.

The 21-km long journey from Neral-Matheran-Neral can be undertaken by the Matheran Light Railway, which was built at a cost of Rs.1.60 million by a Mumbai businessman -philanthropist Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy - and opened in 1907.

Wending through some of the most treacherous curves and steep slopes at an speed of 12 kmph, the journey takes around 140 minutes one-way and efforts are on to to get the UNESCO World Heritage tage for the tiny railway, managed by Central Railway.

However, Gawand and Pawar lament that in the past 15 years (since 2000), Matheran, renowned for its red soil, torrential rains, cool climate round the year and natural beauty, has lost nearly 7.5 percent of its green cover and unless drastic measures are taken by the state and central governments, its sheer existence could be in grave danger.