& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, August 31, 2015

Unstitched - Meera Sethi

Draped around in many different ways (apparently, more than a hundred), the Sari is that quintessential South Asian woman’s garment which evokes innumerable images. Sari is both tradition and fashion in the way it is made and in the way it is worn. It is as old as the Indian civilization, and has remained largely unchanged – contemporary women drape the sari in almost the same way as women did in the Indus Valley civilization.

To my generation, saris evoke memories of our mothers. There are many references to the Sari in Hindu mythology – the main (and the most disturbing) being Draupadi’s vastraharan by Duhshasana in the Mahabharata.

Sari remains the sheet anchor of the Indian womanhood, epitomizing the values and virtues that define a philosophy and a mindset. And therefore, the discarding of the sari in favour of other garments is (was?) considered a march in the direction of women’s liberation.

It is said that even men wear saris (I could only think of the yesteryear politician NT Rama Rao who self-confessedly wore saris at night).

Sari’s loose end – called the pallu – is probably the single most significant piece of cloth that has inspired Hindi movie lyricists. Moreover, saris in (Hindi) movies have acquired distinct characteristics, and some actors and directors have come to be identified specifically with trends. For instance, Mumtaz and the chiffon sari, and Raj Kapoor and the white sari. 

Sari is at once personal and public, sensuous and sterile.

The Toronto-based artist Meera Sethi is on a quest to discover stories that surround the sari. Her project ‘Unstitched– the Sari project’ will take a sari (the same sari) to 108 women wearers in an attempt to create a community among South Asians. She will use photography, the social media and personal journaling to track the sari’s journey around the world. The project that commenced in August will traverse the world for the next couple of years.

Meera is a Canadian visual artist who has been engaged in investigating identity and diaspora through dress and popular culture. She explains, “Each participant will tie the sari in their own way. For those who have never worn a sari before, this performance offers an opportunity to discover…the project explores the unstitched ties that connect diasporic South Asians. It will foreground the role of family, community, culture and identity in shaping style.”

At the launch of the project earlier this month, Meera spoke about her fascination for the sari, and the indelible influence her mother’s collection of saris left on her. Emphasizing the cultural dimension of the sari, she said that the decision to have 108 participants was not religious, but signified the complete set of ceremonial beads on a mala (rosary).

To watch a short introduction to the project by the artist, please click here: Unstitched

Narendra Pachkhédé, an academic, also gave a lecture on the subject on the occasion.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Comfort - a play by Diana Tso

Diana Tso is a performer, playwright, poet, storyteller & artist in education. She’s a graduate of the University of Toronto in English Literature & of Ecole Internationale de Theatre de Jacques Lecoq in France.  She’s worked with diverse theatres internationally for 18 years. As artistic director of www.redsnowcollective.ca her theatre vision merges east & west storytelling art forms through music, movement & text.  

Upcoming: as a playwright, her the production of her new play, Comfort, premieres 2016; as an actor, she’ll be performing in Chimerica, directed by Chris Abraham at the Royal Manitoba Centre & at Canadian Stage in their 2016/2017 seasons.  Diana is grateful to the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council & Toronto Arts Council for supporting her playwriting, developments & productions.

Diana Tso’s Comfort, a new drama play, honoring the resilience of women in war and inspired by the comfort women of WWII in Asia, will have a free public reading this Thursday August 20th at OISE auditorium of University of Toronto @ 7pm at 252 Bloor St. West (by St. George subway).

It is directed by William Yong with music composed by Constantine Caravassilis.  This event is part of ALPHA Education’s one-week “Remembering Resilience: History + Art = Peace" series, commemorating of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two.  

Comfort is the love story of two youths from Nanjing, brought together through their passion for the music of the opera, “Butterfly Lovers”.  Separated by their differences in social classes, they elope to Shanghai to stay together, only to be separated again by the horrors of a comfort house where they survive until the end of the war through the power of love and the transformative power of music.

Comfort is a sequel to Diana’s other drama play, Red Snow, inspired by the survivors of the Rape of Nanking, which was produced in 2012 with critical acclaim in Toronto and continued on its international premiere in China at the ACT Shanghai International Contemporary Theatre Festival in that same year. 

Diana Tso
Diana discovered this part of WWII history while watching a documentary film by Nancy Tong, “In the Name of the Emperor” in 1997.  It awakened her to the lopsided manner in which history is taught in Canada. For someone who was raised in Canada and went to school here, she learnt about World War II; “but it was all European history; the Asian history and stories of the ‘World War’ were excluded.”

As an artist, whose stage is her public platform to speak creatively, it was imperative for her to write Red Snow to give voice to a forgotten holocaust in WWII.  Diana struggled with her research on this subject because there was no history written about it and when she approached people in the community they did not want to dig up and relive the horrors of the past.

However, her research was furthered in that same year when she met Iris Chang who was touring across Canada launching the first North American book about this history, The Rape Nanking, the forgotten holocaust of World War Two.  Reading Chang’s account of the harrowing experiences of Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese army (the women were euphemistically termed comfort women), further ignited Diana to write Red Snow – that encapsulates the tragedy of what happened in Nanking, as experienced across three generations in a family. 

It is about one Canadian woman’s recurring nightmare, which drives her on a quest to dig through her family’s buried history in China. When she meets a Japanese man, she must confront historical forces that threaten her own personal journey towards love.  The play brings the message of collective healing and global peace.

In 2007 while sitting in the dentist office Diana came across a magazine with an article about ALPHA (Association for Preserving & Learning the History of WWII in Asia).  She contacted the executive director, Flora Chong and gave her a copy of Red Snow.  Ms. Chong was deeply moved by Diana’s play and helped her arrange contacts in Nanjing to interview a couple of survivors in 2008.  Then in the following year Diana participated in ALPHA’s Peace and Reconciliation for educators to tour China and Korean to meet the survivors of WWII and to see the historical sites while learning more about the WWII in Asia.  

This was a life-changing experience that heightened Diana’s writing and continues to do so in her current play, Comfort.

Diana’s further research on the comfort women was furthered by the recent publication of a compilation of 12 survivors’ testimonies, which were enslaved as comfort women.  Chinese Comfort Women – Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, edited by Peipei Qui with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei, and was published in 2013 by the University of British Columbia press.

The book describes the experiences in the Japanese military “comfort stations” and their continued suffering after the war. These women are: Chen Yabian, Huang Youliang, Lei Guiying, Li Lianchun, Lin Yajin, Lu Xiuzhen, Tan Yuhua, Yin Yulin, Yuan Zhulin, Wan Aihua, Zhou Fenying, and Zhu Qiaomei.  This book will be available for purchase at the public reading of Comfort on August 20, OISE U of T, 252 Bloor St. W auditorium.

Find out more at www.alphaeducation.org

Remembering Resilience part of the "History + Art = Peace" series of events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII

Other “Comfort” related events in the peace celebrations:

Saturday August 15 @ 7pm

“Remembering Resilience Commemorative Ceremony”

Join us for a candle light vigil and an evening of music, performance art, film, and special guest speakers.  This commemorative ceremony is held to remember the courage and strength of those that suffered during the Asia-Pacific War. Performances include a song from Diana Tso' play, "Comfort” (music composed by Constantine Caravassilis; musicians: Patty Chan -erhu/Chinese violin, Marjolaine Fournier- double bass, Phoebe Hu-Chinese flute) and a performance piece showcasing Comfort's costume designer, Erika Chong’s 2015 collection, inspired by the comfort women.

School of Management, Theatre Hall - TRS1-067  @ 55 Dundas Street West
This event is free and is co-sponsored by Unifor Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, Ryerson University.  Seats are limited!   Please RSVP here: http://www.eventbrite.ca/e/remembering-resilience-commemorative-ceremony-for-the-70th-anniversary-of-the-end-of-wwii-tickets-16905306226

Friday August 21 @ 1:15pm, 3:15pm & 5:15pm

Birds of a Feather Storytelling Event with Diana Tso, Rubena Sinha & other storytellers.  Join us at the gazebo in Mel Lastman Square 5100 Yonge (at North York Centre subway stop) We welcome the community to share their stories of peace & reconciliation, remembrance & love.

The post below is Lei Guiying’s narrative of her life in the comfort station.

Lei Guiying’s experience inside a comfort station

I turned thirteen in 1942 and I began menstruating that year. Mrs. Shanben (Japanese landlady) smiled at me. “Congratulations!” she said, “You are growing now!” I remember that it was a summer day and a lot of Japanese troops came to the Shanbens’ house. I saw them picking out good-looking girls and mumbling something. Mrs. Shanben told me to change into a Japanese robe that had a bumpy sash at the back and to go that large room. Before I could figure out what was going on, I was pushed over to the Japanese soldiers. I was frightened. A Japanese soldier pulled me over, ripped off my clothes, and threw me on the wide bed. I resisted with all my strength. My wrist was injured during the fight and the wound left a scar that is still visible now. The Japanese soldier pressed my belly with both his knees and hit my head with the hilt of his sword while crushing me under his body. He raped me.

I suffered horrible torture in the comfort station. One day a Japanese soldier came in the afternoon. He put his two legs on my abdomen, which hurt me badly and made me bleed. I resisted hard as I could, trying to push him off my body. The Japanese soldier then beat me and stabbed my leg with his bayonet. I used all my strength to crawl towards the door. Several people saw me and one young woman who was a distant relative of mine saved me from being killed, but the bayonet stabbing crippled me.

I realized that, sooner or later, I would be tortured to death by the Japanese troops at Gaotaipo; I was determined to escape. I worked as the nanny in the house, so I knew the way out. When my wounded leg recovered and I was able to walk, I made up my mind to run away.

I did so in the early morning one-day towards the end of 1943. The weather was very cold. I sneaked out the back door of Gaotaipo Comfort Station when the rest of the people were still sound asleep. Running for my life, I dared not look back. I ran all the way to my mother’s house in Ligangtou Village. After a period of hiding, I settled down in the village.

After liberation, my life changed. I worked hard and became the leader of the local women’s work team. At seventeen, I married a man of the Tang family, but I was unable to bear a child. We adopted an abandoned boy who was very sick and almost dead. I held him in my arms and felt very sorry for him, so I brought him home from the local police station.

I haven’t been to Gaotaipo again since my escape. For about half a year I was raped by Japanese troops there; I never want to see that place again. When I escaped from Gaotaipo, I brought a few things with me, including a Japanese lunchbox and some Japanese clothing. I didn’t keep them because they made me angry and upset when I looked at them. Now I only have this left. I saw the girls in the comfort station use it. I thought it must be useful medically, so I took it with me. But I didn’t know what it was.

[Lei Guiying showed the interviewers a small bottle with dark powder in it. A test conducted later indicated that the powder was potassium permanganate, which must have been put in wash water for hygienic purposes in the comfort station.]

[Lei Guiying died on 27 April 2007 at age 79]

Excerpt from Chinese Comfort Women - Testimonies from Imperial Japan's Sex Slaves

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Best of Enemies

Having been out of India for the last seven years, I have not been a witness to the rise of gladiatorial television that has swept the country off its feet, and made mega stars of news anchors. The quality and character of news has metamorphosed with talking heads spewing venom has become a norm, turning the staid business of news into rambunctious entertainment.

There is an erroneous perception among the practitioners of this craft that Indian television has taken a leaf from the West, and more particularly from America, where influencers holding diametrically opposing views slug it out on television to entertain the audience.

I say erroneous because in most cases the chat shows on American television do engage in a bit of slugfest, they aren’t devoid of substantive content. Among the best exchanges that I’ve enjoyed are between Fareed Zakaria and Bret Stephens – on the opposing sides of the ideological divide – and who combine finesse, sophistication, etiquette, and a deep conviction of their ideological position to convince the audience as well as the opponent of the validity of their point of view.

The little that I get to see of Indian television – mostly from snippets shared by journalist friends in India on Facebook – seems to be utterly devoid of substance, and relies more on all-round hollering with everyone, including the news anchors, speaking simultaneously. But this may be a view based on insufficient evidence. There are some fine journalists in India whom I’ve known and whose professionalism I respect, and a number of them are on television.

This rather long preamble to this post was necessary to provide a context to the excellent documentary I saw yesterday at Tiff Bell Lightbox – The Best of Enemies. It narrates the historic debate between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal on ABC in 1968 that created television history, and set the tone and the format for television debates globally. It is a format that has remained more or less unchanged even after nearly five decades.

Both Buckley and Vidal were failed politicians perhaps because they were intellectuals who couldn’t relate to voters, but could relate more to each other despite their strong personal animosity and equally strong ideological antipathy for each other.  

The documentary made by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville narrates how ABC – then a lowly third in the pecking order of America’s national broadcasters (or as one of the interviewees of the documentary says, “it would’ve been fourth, had there been a fourth broadcaster”) was able to redefine television journalism when it engaged Buckley and Vidal to exchange views on first the Republican convention, and then the Democratic convention leading up to the Presidential elections of 1968 that eventually saw Nixon being elected as the President of the United States.

The documentary traces the ideological underpinnings of both Buckley and Vidal. The former was the superstar ideologue of American conservatism, the editor of the influential National Review, and a man much sought after by the then Republican leadership, especially Ronald Reagan. The latter, on the other hand, was the voice of liberal America, boldly exploring taboo themes of transsexuality, feminism and continuing patriarchy in his novels such as Myra Breckenridge (1968).

Buckley, the supremely gifted debater, with a perpetual supercilious sneer, was seemingly confident of demolishing Vidal in a jiffy. But Vidal had worked long and hard on understanding his opponent, and proved to be tenacious. As the debate progressed, the effete verbal jabs were replaced by venomous and vicious spitfire insults and repartees. It must have made for riveting television then, and doesn’t lose the sting even now.

The documentary intersperses the ten debates between the two with their biographies and their ideological pursuits both pre and post the debate. It interviews people known to them personally; people involved with television broadcasting at that time; academics and media studies experts to piece together a compelling story.

The debate, of course, ended disastrously with both debaters turning abusive, and Buckley threatening Vidal with violence. Vidal, of course, is the provocateur; he calls Buckley crypto-Nazi, and Buckley, the ever calm and collected lofty intellectual, crumbles to pieces, and retaliates by calling Vidal a queer, and then threatens to sock Vidal in the face.

Although the debates ended then, the issues that both raised – race relations, rising economic gap between the rich and the poor – continued to remain relevant for a better part of the next 20 years. It would seem, especially with the rise of Reagan and Reaganism that after all Buckley’s point of view had eventually emerged triumphant. But that triumph has, of course, led to unmitigated disaster, as is becoming evident by the unending economic recession and the rising inequalities between the haves and the have-nots.  

For all those interested in journalism and the perennial debate between the right and the left this documentary is not to be missed.