& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, May 18, 2015

Fsala-15: A report

Even as the economic efficacy of globalization comes under increasing scrutiny, its cultural influence remains strong and potent, especially in the manner in which it has given a commercial dimension to the question of identity and creativity.

This is especially true in the developed world which has failed in preventing the unwashed masses from amassing at its shores. As immigrants, both legal and illegal, struggle perennially in an alien and unwelcoming environment, a hyphenated existence has become both the cause and impetus for creative upsurge.

For three decades and more, politics of identity has dominated the creative discourse, even though it has remained on the margins. The impact of globalization has been the cooption of identity politics into the mainstream, and its successful commercialization.

At the just-concluded Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts (Fsala-15), the issue of identity, different dimensions of its politics, and its commercialization, dominated the discussions in different forms. Some discussions were heated, some were not, but all were immensely engaging.

The festival hosted over 40 authors from across Canada and from the developing world (Caribbean, Africa, South Asia, and the Philippines) in Toronto. Spread over three days, the festival’s fourth edition had over a dozen literary discussions and four music and dance performances. 

The festival’s highlight was the world premiere of The Book of Sandalwood on 16th May. It was a Bharatanatyam recital by the inDance. The recital included selections from Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara (Sanskrit), Sivakkolundu Desikar’s Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuranvanji (Tamil), and Chtrakavi Shivram Rao’s Tanjavuri Hori Lavani (Marathi). 

{Read more about the performance here}. 

Prior to this performance, three authors – Tololwa Mollel (Tanzania-Canada), Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad-Canada-US), and Jose Dalisay (the Philippines) – read from their literary works to an appreciative audience.

The festival commenced on 15th May with an animated discussion between theatre practitioners Diana Tso, Jasmine Sawant, Jawaid Danish, Rahul Varma and Shailja Saxena on the evolution of the ‘New Theatre in Canada,’ with Rahul Varma emphasizing that display of diversity has often been confused for the content of diversity. 

Thereafter, a global panel of authors that included Walter Bgoya (Tanzania), Jose Dalisay (Philippines), Asma Sayed (Canada/Gujarat), Geetanjali Shree (India), and Dannabang Kuwabong (Canada/Ghana), had a lively discussion on ‘Writing for the West,’ and how writing for a western audience molded creativity.

Sheniz Janmohamed, the ebullient and effervescent poet and performer, was the master of ceremonies for the formal inaugural of the festival later that evening where Olivia Chow, former MP and former Councillor, and Toronto’s hope during the last mayoral elections, delivered the keynote address. Olivia spoke about the tough circumstances during her formative years as a new immigrant in Toronto, and how her love for books helped her cope with her adversities. After a brief interlude of African guitar by Tichaona Maradze, three authors – Shauna Singh Baldwin, Madeleine Thien and Kagiso Molope – read from their literary works.

Day 2 began with a discussion on ‘Growing Diversity, Untold Stories,’ The Changing Modes of Writing & Publishing: the impact of self-publishing on the telling of stories. The panelists included Charles Smith, Tasneem Jamal, Sang Kim, Dawn Promislow, and Safiz Fazlul; Narendra Packhede moderated the event. 

Concurrently, Cheran (Tamil), Harish Narang (Hindi), Anar (Tamil), Walter Bgoya (Swahili), and Jose Dalisay (Tagalog) discussed ‘The World, and English: The Challenges of Writing and Publishing in Another Language,’ Is the audience shrinking in the face of growing English influence?. Arun Prabha Mukherjee moderated the discussion. 

Thereafter, Dannabang Kuwabong, Anand Mahadevan, Olive Senior read from their works and Elizabeth Nunez moderated the discussion that followed the reading.

The final panel discussion on Day 2 was a first for the festival when Canadians authors of East Asian origins discussed on the relevance of hyphenated identity. The panel included Denise Chong, Madeleine Thien, Terry Watada, Diana Tso and C Fong Hsiung. The inimitable Sang Kim moderated what turned out to be one of the most nuanced debates of the festival, and provided different (and differing) dimensions to the concept of hyphenated identities.

Day 3 was the day of South Asia, and Meena Chopra set the tone by moderating a discussion on ‘Is their Unity in South Asian Writing?’ Harish Narang, Geetanjali Shree and Anar participated in an energetic debate that explored the politics of identity, race, gender, religious orthodoxy and growing intolerance in South Asian societies. 

Kamini Danadpani, who has performed at the last three festivals, gave a brief but evocative Carnatic vocal recital that included a Tamil poem by Subramania Bharati. 

Suman Ghai chaired the final session on ‘South Asia in Canada.’ Cheran (Tamil), Aparna Halpe (Singhala / English), Gurdev Chauhan (Punjabi), Nasim Syed (Urdu) discussed ‘Can w define a South Asian Canadian identity through literature?’ The session provoked a lively debate on the definition and the relevance of South Asia, the dominance of the idea of India on the South Asian identity, the hegemony of the state, and the status of people in South Asia without a state.

Fsala has emerged as a truly global arts festival with a difference, promoting writers from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, and those not writing in English, who are major figures in their own countries though not always known to the global “mainstream.” 

For photos of the event, please click here

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Love in a time of Technology

My friend Sasenariane Persaud sent me his latest collection of poems Love in a time of Technology (Tsar/Mawenzi 2014) several months ago.

I’m no literary critic, and my understanding and appreciation of poetry is non-academic. I like poetry that touches my heart and makes me misty eyed. And by those simple standards, Sase's latest collection is one of the most exquisite collections of poems I’ve read in recent times. 

I read it and re-read it several times.

I wanted to review it in April, which is celebrated as poetry month in Toronto.

Divided into four parts, the poems are about love, longing, and belonging; about remembering, nostalgia, and memory; and about desires that are both carnal and chaste. The poet is on a journey and wants to take you on the ride of a lifetime.

In the first section – Love in a time of technology – the poems that stay with you for a long time are 'In Hickson Park: Tampa on the River,' and 'The Promise.' 

In the first, the poet wants to take you “where laughter fills the night.” And in the second, the poet reminiscences longingly about the girl who has transformed, as he reminds her that “the apology wounding as much as it heals.”

In Hickson Park: Tampa on the River

I want to take you
where white lights
glow on deleafed winter
 oaks like icicles,
where the dark river
floats a rubber slipper
inland – away from the bay
invading our souls,
where water erupts
under spotlights
like our love once
I want to take you
where laughter fills the night

The Promise 

The falling coin striking tiles
rolls into a corner
you have ceased looking at.
Where is the girl who gave
unreservedly whose eyes held
promises you could not keep;
where is she whose silence
freed and trapped you
in a sub-tropical garden?
The fallen disc rests on cold ceramic –
your pocket is laden with plastic
that slide in and out of readers
accepting your promise to pay tomorrow –
is today a circle cartwheeling out of reach,
the apology wounding as much as it heals.

The section Elsewhere is about places that the poet hails from and / or belongs to both physically and metaphorically. The poem 'In Our Heads' captures the ephemeral essence of the section.

In Our Heads

Fireflies light our heads
in an afternoon
when there are none
must be pre-festival fireworks
or the stars that light
journeys to other worlds

This feeling of an immigrant’s loneliness is exemplified manifold in the next section – Storm, where in 'Tulips,' the poet laments

And if in spring
I sing promises to tulips
instead of marigolds
 daffodils instead of oleanders
or at my desk bite
an apple instead of a turmeric
mango – not concealed pleasure
on the side – it is because
I have no country
but the country of Gandhi’s Gita.

The two masterpieces in the collection are 'Returning to a Far Country' and 'Georgetown,' and both are about a time that has gone by, a time that won’t return. Although 'Far Country' concludes triumphantly, it’s a tragic remembrance of a time that won’t return:

and there was no greater rain
and there was no greater city
on no greater country
in no greater time
than this time of our love

Georgetown is the most evocative poem in the collection


For evenings on the seawall
drinking soup thickened with coconut milk,
melting cassava, sweet potatoes and plantains;
for your smile in the mornings, a wave
from your platform as we pass, the trade wind
in our faces; for parched peanuts jumping
out fingers unto sand and breakers exploding
on old brick groynes jutting into the Atlantic’s
belly and tempering tides as stars flick on;
for conversations on galaxies, or monologues,
what if we are from beyond beyond,
aliens in this space and the ocean spray
sprinkling spectacles and moistening lips;
for a first kiss, or second riding around
the bandstand, the dance of street lights
in your eyes, I would return. I would dare all gun-wielding bandits to walk, linked fingers
with your ghost on the sapodilla brown sand.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Prabhat Pheri

We live by popular misconceptions and myths, and then when we encounter the truth, we become a bit more aware and better informed, but also a bit sad that our myth turned out to be baseless.

I'd always believed that V. Shantaram was the founder of Prabhat Film Company in Poona, and that Prabhat wound up when Shantaram moved to Bombay and started Rajkamal Kalamandir.

Earlier this week, I saw an interesting documentary Prabhat Pheri (Journey with Prabhat) at this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto that enlightened me about the real story of Prabhat Studios.

The documentary, directed by Samarth Dixit and Jessica Sadana, takes a languid, unhurried look at Prabhat’s history.  It’s replete with innumerable stories, and derives its strength from firsthand accounts, and nonlinear narration.

A brief digression: Prabhat played an important role in developing cinema in Marathi, and provided a platform to V Shantaram to make some of the most socio-politically relevant cinema in the early era of the Indian film industry, which included classics such as Aadmi (1939) and Padosi (1941).

Padosi, which is relevant even today, should be seen in the context of the rising Hindu-Muslim tensions in pre-Independence (and pre-Partition) India that were set in motion after the Pakistan resolution of 1940; it predated the Quit India Movement (1942) and foresaw the tragedy of Partition.

Those who grew up in Bombay during the era of mono-channel television of the 1970s would recall having seen both these classics on Doordarshan on Sunday evenings at the neighbour’s home.

Of course, Prabhat Pheri is not just about Shantaram. It’s about Prabhat Film Company and all its founders – Vishnupant G Damle, K. R. Dhaibar, S Fatehlal, S. B. Kulkarni. It’s also about the Film and Television Institute of India, which is what Prabhat became after it ceased operations as a film studio.

The story of the glorious legacy and heritage of the pioneering studio emerges from the narratives of some of the technicians who are still alive, and from the stories the former officials of the Film and Television Institute of India.

Samarth and Jessica have been student of the institute; and the documentary is the duo’s personal and often idiosyncratic paean to their alma mater. It is at once a gloomy and enervating portrayal of the inexorable march of time and the changes it wreaks on individuals and institutions. But equally, it is also an exhilarating episodic account of both Prabhat and FTII.

A technician, who had worked with the founding stalwarts (and who despite his unassuming demeanour turns out to be extraordinarily knowledgeable), recalls the woman who became Prabhat’s logo (see film).

Another recalls the “real reason” why Shantaram had to leave Prabhat. Apparently, the founders had an unwritten code of conduct – if they fell in love with a heroine, they’d have to leave. And Shantaram fell in love with Jayashree.   

And yet another recalls an argument between Ritwick Ghatak (who served as the vice principal of the institute) and Mithun Chakravarty (who was a student) that ensued when Ghatak caught Mithun drinking alcohol.

Prabhat Pheri is an interesting and unusual look at an institution that has played an important role in Indian cinema; kudos to Toronto’s Hot Docs for bringing Prabhat Pheri to Canada.

The Innis Town Hall in downtown Toronto has been a venue for great cinema. Coincidentally, a couple of years ago, it was the venue for the Satyajit Ray festival, where I saw Ray’s documentary on Tagore. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A new social contract

Keep it in the ground is an evocative campaign that The Guardian newspaper (London) launched recently. Advocating strict policy measures to tackle climate change, the Guardian Media Group divested its entire £800 million portfolio (about $1.4 billion) from fossil fuels, which it will re-invest in socially responsible alternatives. It is urging the world’s two largest charitable foundations — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust — to stop investing in oil, coal and gas companies.

The debate over climate change is the only one that should dominate our century. Nothing else matters. Two recent events in Toronto focussed on the urgent need to focus on climate change not merely from an environmental perspective, but as an economic, social and moral imperative. On April 7, Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, presented Literature Matters that featured Canadian author Thomas King, and Naomi Klein, the author of a series of books on the exploitative nature of capitalist economy, who’s most recent book This Changes Everything Capitalism vs The Climate, has comprehensively changed the debate. 

On April 12, as part of the Spur Festival, Imre Szeman, Canadian Research Chair in Cultural Studies and professor at the University of Alberta; and Chris MacDonald, Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program discussed the Moral Economy – Canada’s new social contract; the intersection between public permission to operate and important sectors of the Canadian economy. Konrad Yakabuski of the Globe and Mail moderated the debate.

The two events overlapped on several key issues.

Klein believes that we are dealing with a profound failure of imagination, even though nobody is disputing the claim that capitalism is destroying our planet, there is no attempt to find an alternative to capitalism. There is a near-universal sense of defeat. The two prevailing thoughts that have contributed to inertia are: We screwed up, but we’re God’s species, so we’ll eventually fix it. The other is: We did it, and it’s too late to fix it, so we should let it all burn down.

Klein characterized it as either defeat or war. The idea of peace with the planet is not part of the narrative.

She attributed the policy paralysis in terms of tackling climate change to the increasing fundamentalism of market-driven economics. The dominance of capitalism as a determinant of global economics has left us without any alternatives, and this has stifled both debate and action. 

A few days later, at the debate over Moral Economy, Szeman emphasized that the policy paralysis stems from a paradigm shift. It’s not just our economics that are market driven, market philosophy has taken over our way of life, and it has now become an integral part of every human endeavour.

The debate over social licence – the new social contract that governments and corporates need to negotiate with the society – is acquiring dimensions that appear to question even the democratic basis of our societies. Szeman, in fact, stated so rather bluntly. The issue of climate change is no longer about individual choice, it is a collective responsibility. By embracing globalization, western societies have outsourced pollution.

Klein quoted Andreas Malm, who has termed climate change as an “atmospheric expression of class warfare.” Writing in Jacobin, Malm says, “Few resources are so unequally consumed as energy. The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. The difference in energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold — and that is an average Canadian, not the owner of five houses, three SUVs, and a private airplane.”

The debate also needs to factor the traditional rights of people over their lands. In Canada, it’s the first nations people, who have been systematically deprived of their economic right as their traditional resources have been usurped by the government and the corporates that profit from extractive resource sectors.

The debates were both insightful and disturbing; and Thomas King, the critically-acclaimed Canadian author, gave it a human dimension. The academics and the journalist marshalled facts, arguments and statistics to prove their contention, the author touched the audience’s heart by telling a simple story of the greed for more candles. As part of Literature Matters program, Lee Maracle, one of the first indigenous authors to be published in the 1970s, ‘robed’ Thomas King with a handmade blanket she had woven together from pieces of cloth gathered from around the world. Later, Joseph Boyden paid a tribute to King.