& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, October 02, 2017

‘Canada offers stories of different diasporas’: Mariam Pirbhai


Mariam Pirbhai’s collection Outside People and other stories, published by Inanna Publications, will be launched this week. She is Associate Professor, English and Film Studies at the Wilfrid Laurier University. Mariam explains, the stories in her collection explore “what it means to have to experience forms of migrancy (even as someone impacted by another’s immigration) at different levels of precarity or isolation”


Q. Your soon to be launched collection of short stories 'Outside People and other stories' is your first foray into fiction. How different is the experience of writing fiction compared to academic writing?

There is great cross-over, for me, in my academic and creative life so I don’t find this difference—between fiction and academic writing—as delineated as others might. There are many similarities between the two experiences, in fact. I can find myself wrestling with one sentence for days on end in both forms. I have to research many of the subjects that drive both my fiction and academic writing.

Both are outward expressions of the things that matter or come to matter and thus need to be said, in varying degrees of urgency. Having said this, when I write creatively, I find myself thinking more about the writing process: of such things as style, technique, form, etc. But here, too, it would not be such a far stretch to say that my academic training as a literary scholar is working on me and through me as well, putting me in the rather schizophrenic position of both writer and critic.

I can only hope that when one kind of writing--the creative or academic—starts to cross over into the other, however subconsciously, the end result delivers a coherent self or at least a collaborative fusion.  

Q. Outside People includes Pakistani Canadian perspective and also touches on issues of Islamophobia and recent legislation targeting Muslim Canadians, among other minority perspectives. Please tell us more about the collection.

As a Pakistani-Canadian who has lived in Canada for thirty years—since my late teens--it is impossible for me not to be concerned with the issues and struggles impacting Muslim Canadians. Having said this, I do not necessarily identify with any one community, ethnic or other, and I have grown up in various parts of the world, including England, the Philippines and Dubai, all of which have influenced this collection in various ways.

What really brings the stories in this collection together, then, is not so much a Muslim-Canadian point of view or a Pakistani-Canadian point of view, but rather what it means to have to experience forms of migrancy (even as someone impacted by another’s immigration) at different levels of precarity or isolation.

If minority-hood is already one kind of outsidership, how is this experience further compounded by gender, socioeconomic disadvantages, precarious forms of citizenship, religious beliefs, etc. In each of these stories, various states of migrancy (the temporary worker, the second-generation, the family members left behind, etc.), are filtered through the perspective of those (predominantly women) who find themselves facing dilemmas that are created at the nexus between the personal (e.g., fears, hopes, challenges, regrets) and the public (e.g., those larger forces like Islamphobia that govern our world).

For instance, one story takes a look at the anxieties of a domestic worker becoming increasingly estranged from her children living at the other end of the world; another story delves into the insecurities of a factory worker in Brampton undergoing cancer treatments who distances herself from the Muslim community for reasons of shame, as her son (a second-generation Canadian), her sole caregiver, starts turning to the very same community for support; another story that is loosely inspired from one of the worst road accidents in Southern Ontario’s history, traces the unlikely bond that arises between two agricultural labourers from the Caribbean and Latin America as they wait out a snowstorm on a chicken farm; and another story is told from the perspective of a young Pakistani-Canadian woman who is trying to forge her own cultural and sexual identity independently from that of family and state, as she witnesses a protest march against Québec’s proposed Charter of Values bill targeting Muslim Canadians’ religious freedoms).       

Q. You are a scholar on the subject of immigration fiction genre and have specialised in fiction by the diaspora from South Asia, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean. What do you find dissimilar in terms of the narrative styles and the sharing of experiences between authors from different diaspora?

One of the gifts of living in a country like Canada is the opportunity to hear or read the stories of people from so many different diasporas. One of the first patterns that start to emerge is how very mixed up we all are, in the best possible way. Very few of us arrive here along some linear trajectory consisting of Point A to Point B, a fact that is sadly not always reflected in stereotypes about migration or the émigré. More often than not there is also a great deal of overlap from one diasporic community to another.

For instance, South Asians might be coming from anywhere in the world, not just the Indian subcontinent, and thus could belong to several diasporas, including Africa (someone like M.G. Vassanji or Tasneem Jamal) or the Caribbean (someone like Shani Mootoo or Cyril Dabydeen). To further complicate such geographic permutations, writers are further influenced by the particular traditions reflected in the hybrid constellation of their own diasporic communities.

Thus, one might find a Caribbean writer of any origin (African, South Asian, etc.) deeply influenced by the Creole languages of the region. Or one might find the sacred epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana providing the mythological and cultural landscape of a writer from Malaysia as much as that of a writer from Trinidad or India.

I try to reflect this cross-pollination of peoples and styles in my own writing. In this collection, for instance, a Mexican man meets an Anglophone woman of South Asian origin from Guyana, and this confuses his mother to no end because, as she says, “she never thought of Latin America as anything other than Spanish.” I guess it comes down to this: narrative styles can be as highly variegated as the circuitous ancestral routes or cultural genealogies of our diasporas and, invariably, of ourselves.

Q. What future does multiculturalism hold in Canada, considering it’s been summarily rejected in Europe and the US?

This question arrives on what appears to me to be a very hopeful day: the day after Jagmeet Singh, a lawyer from Brampton who bears all the outward symbols of his Sikh religion, just became the first “visible minority” to head one of this country’s major political parties, and thus holds the potential to serve as the future Prime Minister of Canada. Did the principles of multiculturalism have something to do with this landmark event?

Is this recent win a sign that we have entered a “post-multiculturalist” Canada? Or did the force of this individual and his convictions have something to do with this incredible achievement? I am inclined to think that however many racial or other barriers positive events such as this suggest we have broken through, we should never become complacent.

We need to keep reminding ourselves of the principles of equity, diversity and social justice that must be advocated for and protected, not only in spirit but also in law. Without a legal system to defend and ensure those rights, multiculturalism, like any rhetorical policy or set of ideals, falls short of the mark. 

To buy the book online, click here: Other People...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sachin – A Billion Dreams




Finally, many months after its release in India, I saw the docudrama on Sachin Tendulkar (Sachin A Billion Dreams).

It’s a measure of my utter ignorance of contemporary cricket that during my recent India visit I had to ask a co-passenger the identity of a young man at the Bombay airport that everyone was eager to click a selfie with.

He’d caused a minor flutter at the Delhi airport when he sauntered in casually. A couple of young women shrieked, giggled and ran to click selfies with him. The same sequence repeated at the Bombay airport when the flight landed.

This time, men as old as me were eagerly queuing up to take selfies, and the charming fellow was happy to oblige. As he was led away to a waiting vehicle, I asked a man who had a satisfied grin on his face, having just succeeded in capturing a selfie with this young man.

“Who is that?” I asked him.

He looked at me as if I had landed from Mars.

“That is Shikhar Dhawan.”

I nodded politely and walked out, where this Dhawan was talking to another young man who was surrounded by people clicking selfies. The gentleman, who had informed me about the identity of Shikhar Dhawan, was readying himself to take a group selfie with this Dhawan and the other young man. He rushed past me and hurriedly said, “That is Bhuvaneshwar Kumar.”

In the Cool Cab that I took home from the airport, I Googled both Shikhar and Bhuvaneshwar on my cell phone and discovered that both are star cricketers representing the Indian team.

I hadn’t heard of them.

As I was watching the docudrama on Sachin, I remembered this incident. My love for cricket effectively ended after Sachin Tendulkar retired. I mean, I follow Indian cricket off and on and admire Virat Kohli’s awesome determination, but I have absolutely no information about most of the other players who comprise the Indian team. My interest is limited to who's winning and who's losing. 

On occasion, I get to hear of some astounding exploits by cricketers but am clueless about who they are. I’ve heard that Hardik Pandya has done some amazing stuff, but I wasn’t sure whether he’s a batsman or a bowler.

Fortunately, we live in a world made easy by Google.

The docudrama on Tendulkar is good but should have been extraordinary, which it is not, primarily because it attempts to encapsulate a legend’s achievements in his long career and mixes it with his personal life.

Sachin’s career requires a documentary of its own. There’s just too much to say and everyone in India (and especially in Bombay) knows everything there is to know about the legend. I’m sure, all of them must have felt that they missed something that was (according to them) vital to Sachin’s career graph.

For instance, I sorely missed in the docudrama the nugget that Sachin’s international debut was as a team member of Pakistan, with Imran Khan as his first captain.

But perhaps I'm being overtly critical. The docudrama does introduce the person behind the persona rather effortlessly. And to cricket fans, that information goes a long way in creating a wholesome picture of the icon. 

The docudrama also brings out the supreme adoration that a billion plus people of this planet have for this diminutive yet determined man who changed not only the way Indians played the game of cricket but, also in a large measure, the way Indians saw themselves and their India.

Sachin never had the brashness so typical of the north Indian style of cricket first seen in Kapil Dev and perfected by Virendra Sehwag.  Sachin's aggression was always understated. It personified a self-assured confidence that in cricket was only seen in Sunil Gavaskar.

The generation that grew up watching cricket on television in the 1970s and the 1980s would perhaps be a bit biased in favour of Gavaskar. After all, he played the terrifying West Indian pace bowlers without a helmet.

But Gavaskar played in a different era (and along with Indira Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan created a unique Indian identity that symbolized an India that had emerged from the long shadows cast by the generation of leaders that fought for its independence). 

Sachin's rise, on the other hand, coincided with the rise of India's economic prowess and a growing realisation that it was time for India to take a leadership position among the comity of nations, and which had been deprived by colonialism and then by a defeatist, fatalistic attitude that considered karma as the sole determinant of results. 

Sachin gave Indians the confidence to change their mindsets. He showed Indians that they could boldly go where they hadn't gone before, take charge of their destinies and change it for the better.


Mukkabaaz - 1


If Uttar Pradesh were to be an independent country, it’d be the fifth largest country in terms of population.

One of the most ingenious arguments against the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in two and eventually three countries that I’ve heard was offered by a friend in Toronto who is a Punjabi from Pakistan. He said Partition divided the two most populous and cultural homogenous regions of the Indian subcontinent – the Punjab and Bengal between two newly-independent countries (India and Pakistan) in 1947.

According to this argument, the idea of Partition germinated in the then United Province, and its direct fallout was to propel Uttar Pradesh to a preeminent position of political influence in independent India.  This is evident in the number of prime ministers that the state has given to India (eight out of 14, and nine if you count Modi, who is elected from Varanasi). 

Punjab and Bengal were politically more progressive, where the confluence of cultures was a lifestyle choice that was never touted as exceptional. It was a way of life. In Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, the religious fault lines ran (and run) deep.

UP's Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb undoubtedly contributed to the formation of a syncretic identity that dominated the cultural and social discourse at least in the initial post-Independence decades, but caste has been an integral part of the social fabric in Uttar Pradesh, and the Hindi belt. 

Caste has often skewered the social discourse and made it toxic.  Since the late 1980s, especially in the post-Mandal India, caste has intensified its stranglehold on the region, turning Uttar Pradesh into a cauldron of angry caste politics.

The subalterns – the lower castes – have had to find different, innovative means to circumvent the dominance of upper castes and rise above the narrow confines of social hierarchy that is both rigid and stifling. The simultaneous rise of Mandal and Mandir politics brought a demographic awareness of the caste and its electoral significance.

Despite the political mobilization of the lower castes, a process that has now been going on for over two decades, the social dynamics of caste have seen little fundamental change.  Socially and culturally, the upper caste dominance remains largely unchallenged especially in everyday life of the people. The influence of Hindutva has, it’d seem, actually enhanced the dominance of the upper caste in the society.

It’d, therefore, seem inconceivable to many unfamiliar with the social composition of northern India in general and Uttar Pradesh in particular that even today, more than a decade-and-a-half in the 21st century, caste constriction is a stark reality.

Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz is supposed to be a film about boxing. Indeed, it is that. But at its core, it’s a film about caste. Caste and its horrors.

Mukkabaaz - 2


Cameroon Bailey of Tiff talking to Anurag Kashap at the screening
of Mukkabaaz along with the lead actors Vineet Kumar Singh,
Zoya Hasan & Sadhna Singh 
In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (The Brawler) which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, caste permutations get unencumbered playout, bringing up close the always unsettling and often ghoulish aspects of caste orthodoxy that continues to dominate the practice of Hindu religion. 

A not-so-young lower caste aspiring boxer Sharavan Rajput from Bareilly is keen to get a break at the national level. To get ahead, he has to serve the upper caste coach Bhagwan Das as his personal aide, doing odd jobs for the coach and his family – from buying vegetables to being a masseur to the coach.

Bhagwan, a Brahmin, is a local gangster who has made it good. He controls the local district boxing establishment and rules it with an iron hand. Sharavan is in love with Bhagwan’s niece, Sunaina, a young woman who is mute. An unexpected turn of events leads the headstrong Sharavan to beat up the coach, and in retaliation, Bhagwan takes it upon himself to ruin Sharavan’s boxing career.


The small town ambience, which includes small-town attitudes, is beautifully and sensitively etched in almost every scene. Sunaina is constantly made aware of her status as a woman, as a mute, both by her parents and especially by her uncle, the brutish Bhagwan, who slaps her for having the temerity of not immediately giving him a towel when he wants it.

Sunaina’s parents are at Bhagwan’s mercy, and unable and even unwilling to protest their continued mistreatment. Sunaina’s defiance is manifested in her carefree love for Sharavan, who despite his wayward ways is committed to her, and is willing to brawl his way through till he succeeds in getting married to her.

Sharavan’s extreme poverty and low social status prevent him from effectively challenging his coach, and being a realist, he makes reconciliatory gestures to assuage the coach’s ego, but the coach is in no mood to compromise. 

In a scene that is stunning in its depiction of the utterly casual callousness with which the upper caste treat the lower caste in India, the coach pisses in a bottle and asks Shravan to gulp it down if he is keen to develop his boxing career.

In another scene, another ‘lower caste’ supervisor takes immense pleasure in making a relatively ‘higher caste’ Sharavan work as a janitor and a peon in his office and records on his cell phone the menial jobs that he orders Sharavan to perform. 

The film also depicts the laggardly, lethargic and indifferent sports administration of the country of a billion plus people, that routinely produces ‘also-rans’ in international sports competitions.

However, the real deal in the movie is the filmmaker’s slap across the face to the proponents of patriotic nationalism, the cultural revivalists, the revisionists who are at present ruling India with unbridled power, and without regard to any democratic or civilizational norms or niceties.  

The film begins with a mob of gau-rakshaks (men protecting cows from turning into beef) almost lynching Muslims who are herding cattle. The mob records this act of violence on their cell phone and the video goes viral instantly. Later in the movie, when Sharavan gets an opportunity to get even with the coach, he punches the daylights out of him while muttering repeatedly 'Bharat Mata ki Jai!'  

The guileless love between Shravan and Sunaina slows down the film a bit, but its depiction is not romanticised. It’s love of a couple who is battling severe physical and circumstantial odds. The extreme violence (which is a constant ingredient in most of Anurag Kashyap oeuvre) is often too stark and makes one uncomfortable because of its brutality. The boxing bouts are as real as they can get. 

The performances of all actors are excellent. Jimmy Shergill as Bhagwan hams a bit. Ravi Kishan, one wishes, had a meatier role but excels in the bit part that he has in the film. The film, of course, belongs to Vineet Kumar Singh, who enacts the role of Sharavan, with panache and chutzpah that is at once fresh and breathtaking. 




In general, Anurag Kashyap’s cinema portrays India that Indians often don’t want to see. In his cinema, one can smell India in all its gory. Mukkabaaz portrays This is the reality of India that Indians want to forget and not change. It's a reality that foreigners are only now beginning to realise and question. 

One has come to expect cinematic miracles from Anurag Kashyap, and in Mukkabaaz, he nearly performs one.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Omerta - in the skin of a terrorist

Rajkummar Rao is Omar Saeed Sheikh
To journalists familiar with South Asia, Omar Saeed Sheikh is a known name. The British terrorist who killed Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist in 2002, has been extensively covered in the media. 

He also nearly caused a war between India and Pakistan by making a hoax call pretending to be India’s then Foreign Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the then Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari threatening stern action in response to Pakistani-inspired terrorist attack on Bombay in November 2008, when terrorists held India's commercial capital to ransom and killed hundreds of people.

Omar’s career in terrorism began in the early 1990s when he abandoned his privileged upbringing in Britain and quit his studies at the London School of Economics (LSE). He volunteered to seek justice for the Bosnian Muslims being massacred in the rapidly disintegrating former Yugoslavia.   

A local Muslim priest in England assisted Omar in convincing his father that Omar’s quest is genuine, and then helped him reach Pakistan where he joined a training camp and met  young men from different parts of the Muslim world who had all gathered together to be trained to wage a war against perceived and real injustices being perpetrated against Muslims.

In Hansal Mehta’s Omerta (which means the Mafia’s code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities) Rajkummar Rao portrays Omar with ice in his veins, and with a chilling realism that is unnerving, and at times even difficult to watch without feeling queasy. 

Rao, indisputably one of the finest actors to emerge from India in recent years, lives the role of the British terrorist and immerses himself in the character. He follows the minutest nuance and smallest quirk of the character with complete involvement and utter conviction. 

During his training in the AfPak border, Omar is made to realise that Kashmir needs as much attention as any other region where Muslims are being persecuted. He decides to focus on Kashmir's liberation by fighting the Indian state. He is arrested in the kidnapping of foreign tourists and spends five years in an Indian prison. He is released in exchange for Indian Airlines passengers who were hijacked by Taliban-backed terrorists in 1999.

Back in Afghanistan, Omar begins work with the Pakistani intelligence the ISI, and kidnaps Daniel Pearl, eventually butchering him. His subsequent arrest is seemingly orchestrated by the Pakistani establishment and his death sentence is never carried out and remains under suspension until his appeal is heard. According to some authoritative sources, the British intelligence is also interested in protecting Omar.

There is a passionate commitment in Rao's eyes and his voice especially in scenes which depict the courage of his conviction as when he harangues a cellmate for not observing the ritual fast during Ramzan or arguing with his father on the logic of being a Muslim necessarily implies fighting injustice against Muslims. The scene where Omar is having sex in a hotel room with a Caucasian hooker is one of raw passion mixed with red hatred.

Mehta deftly conveys the transformation of a young Muslim man in Britain into a committed militant in a few scenes that show the horrendous mayhem in the former Yugoslavia, where the Serbs massacred the Muslims, as nearly all Europe passively watched, preferring silence to action until it was too late.

In another scene that stays long after the movie ends, Mehta brings alive the human rights violations in conflict zones such as Kashmir where the state’s power is misused to subdue people’s aspiration. 

In a poignant moment, a young Kashmiri jihadi is resting with Omar in the terrorist training camp. He shows Omar a photograph of himself as a child with his parents. When Omar asks him whether he misses his parents, the young jihadi pulls out another photograph, showing blood-soaked corpses of his parents killed by the Indian armed forces. What the media reports turn into faceless and abstract tragedy, suddenly becomes all too human and real.

It is rare for a film to be made entirely from the perspective of the terrorists, without being morally judgemental. Mehta is tremendously successful in bringing to screen the smouldering subterranean anger in Omar which motivates him to dedicate his life to the cause. And Rao brings to life a terrorist’s menacing efficiency with which he puts everything at stake in an all-out attempt to win at all costs. For Omar and his ilk, no sacrifice is small and none is too big in their pursuit of their cause.

The deep-seated and ingrained anti-India anger that Omar harbours is on evidence repeatedly throughout the film and bubbles over periodically such as when he sees the Indian currency and angrily mutters, “Bloody Gandhi”, or when he urinates leisurely inside his cell, exposing his buttocks, while the Indian national anthem is playing in the Ghaziabad prison. 

Omerta is convincing because it depicts the most horrendous acts of violence with coldblooded equanimity and without fuss, creating an overall effect that is at once riveting and repulsive.  

At present, Omar apparently languishes in a Pakistani prison, and in recent days, news reports have also been published indicating that he attempted to commit suicide (in 2017) because of a fragile mental health condition.

Omerta’s world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2017. I saw the film on September 16, 2017.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Shakespeare in the Park

Cordelia & Lear in prison, painting by William Blake (1779)
Shakespeare in the Park has been on my bucket list of things to do in Toronto since I first heard about it. Finally, earlier this month, we went to see King Lear (actually Queen Lear) at High Park.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s more violent tragedies. Tolstoy hated it, Shaw loved it. Those who have read the original will agree it is one of the most engaging of Bard’s plays.  

Lear is driven to insanity by what would these days be described as elder abuse by his two older daughters Goneril and Regan to whom he bequeathed his entire kingdom based on their false flattery of his virtues. His younger, honest daughter Cordelia gets nothing because she chooses not to lie about Lear’s qualities.  

The older daughters quickly banish the doddering old Lear into the wilderness, where he is accompanied by the Fool and Earl of Gloucester, who has similarly been betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund. The tragic death of Cordelia even after her victory both moral and in the battlefield, and of Lear at the climax of the play, makes King Lear one of the most devastating of Shakespearean tragedies.

The subplot of revolves around the Earl of Gloucester and his sons – the bastard Edmund and the legitimate Edgar. The Shakespearean establishment (in classrooms, not stage) consider the Earl’s blinding (3.7) as the most pivotal moment of the play.
Screen grab of actor Hannah Wayne-Philips during
the play's rehearsal 

CORNWALL:
Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?

GLOUCESTER:
All dark and comfortless. Where's my son Edmund?
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature,
To quit this horrid act.

REGAN:
Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call'st on him that hates thee: it was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us;
Who is too good to pity thee.

GLOUCESTER:
O my follies! then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!

REGAN:
Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.


Lear at High Park was rejigged and King became Queen. Diane D'Aquila, who I learn from the internet, is a veteran, much-acclaimed actor, performed the role of Queen Lear without affectation and with the right degree of lunacy.

Any actor performing Lear needs to know that he is a totally self-absorbed royalty who doesn’t see anyone but himself, even when (actually especially when) his condition is rapidly deteriorating. And he is a crazy monarch long before he is actually driven over the edge by the cruelties of his daughters.  D'Aquila instinctively conveyed this self-absorbed lunacy in her performance.

Jason Cadieux’s performance as the Earl of Gloucester’s role is compelling, too, especially while delivering his blind soliloquy.  

 Jason Cadieux and Diane D'Aquila

The reinterpretation of the play with a woman protagonist was planned to coincide with the imminent rise of Hillary Clinton to the US Presidency, which, of course, did not materialise. However, Lear retains its essential anguish and regret even with a woman protagonist. In fact, it acquires an intimate, profound pathos.

Shakespeare in the Park is a great way to enjoy Shakespeare. It's obviously quite popular, considering it is celebrating its 35th year. It’s Canada’s largest and longest-running professional outdoor theatre experience, attracting over 30,000 people each year. 

Credits:
Creative Team
Director: Alistair Newton
Assistant Director: Sadie Epstein-Fine
Set designer: Claire Hill
Costume designer: Carolyn Smith
Lighting designer: Rebecca Picherack
Sound designer: Lyon Smith
Fight director: Simon Fon
Production stage manager: Elizabeth McDermott
Stage manager: Krista MacIsaac Barclay
Assistant stage manager: Sandi Becker
Apprentice stage manager: Cole Vincent

Cast
Countess of Kent: Jenni Burke
Earl of Gloucester: Jason Cadieux
Edmund: Brett Dahl
Queen Lear: Diane D'Aquila
Oswald, Duke of Burgundy: Peter Fernandes
Duke of Cornwall: Kristiaan Hansen
Duke of Albany: Richard Lee
Edgar: Michael Man
The Fool: Robert Clarke
Cordelia: Amelia Sargisson
Goneril: Naomi Wright
Regan: Hannah Wayne-Phillips

Meena Chopra's Eyes of Time

Meena Chopra’s bold figurative work has self-assured certitude. But her abstract work is perhaps more interesting because it has a liminal quality. It’s a reflection of her tenuous, hesitant, self-conscious process of freeing herself of creative excrescences and finding her core as an artist.

In her latest series of paintings ‘Eyes of Time’ on display at Heritage Mississauga, Meena has attempted innovation and has experimented with digitalization, and in doing so she has abandoned the ponderous ruminations that have marked her earlier abstract work. This freedom has transformed her work and given it a numinous, mythical quality.  In this series, Meena takes an untrodden artistic path by infusing her paintings with a touch of the mystique.

‘Eyes of Time’ is Meena’s boldest work technically. In its technique, it’s breathtakingly original. In her words, the paintings in the ‘Eye…’ series are “digitally manipulated…in some paintings I have used scanned images of my own artworks and then digitally combined them with some other images to make the final artwork. I have used different filters to get the right effects. These are then digitally printed on the canvas. To achieve a certain level of artistic satisfaction and to get the desired effects and results I used acrylic paint for the enhancement of the artwork.”


Meena has been experimenting with digitalisation since 2000, but this is her first exhibition of digital paintings. The layers and the hues that she has been able to achieve with her experimentation give the paintings a haunting quality. While the tangible manifestation is figurative – it’s the eye – all the paintings have innumerable layers of the intangible, often just interplay of light and shades. The different filters that Meena has used give each of the painting a distinct texture.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Diana Tso at Stratford

A scene from Diana Tso

Diana Tso is a performer, playwright, poet, storyteller and an artist in education. As the artistic director of the Red Snow Collective (www.redsnowcollective.ca) Diana’s vision of theatre merges the east and the west storytelling art forms through music, movement, and text.

I spoke to her in June to find out about her work at the Stratford Festival, where she has roles in two important plays – the Euripides tragedy The Bacchae, reinterpreted as Bakkhai, by director Jillian Keiley and based on poet Anne Carson’s 2015 version of the Greek classic, and The Komagata Maru Incident based on Sharon Pollock’s play and directed by Keira Loughran, which re-examines the historical event that defined racial relations and tensions in Canada in the early 20th century.  

In Bakkhai, Diana is enacting the role of one of the seven women in the chorus, and in The Komagata Maru Incident, she is Evy, a sex worker, and lover of William Hopkinson, the immigration officer.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is it to be performing at Stratford?

A scene from Bakkhai
I'm living the dream. I've met so many artists and actors. The unique part of performing at Stratford is to have coaches that enrich one’s journey and build stamina to work as an actor. There were coaches to help us vocally, with our text, with our movement. The sessions help actors perform in two or three plays in one season.

How did Stratford happen?

I auditioned for the character of Evy in Komagata Maru, and simultaneously I was also offered the role of one of the seven women in the chorus in Bakkhai. Rehearsals began for Bakkhai in March and the final preview was in June. For Komagata Maru, the rehearsals began in June and the play opened in August and will run through until September.

What is Komagata Maru all about?

This is Canadian history. It’s an exciting role because it explores the situation of a person of colour in the Canadian society in the early 20th century and how she is able to stand up for herself against the stereotypical characterization of both a sex worker and a person of colour.

The character is able to seize her independence and be brave enough to make a positive change in her life; to do something better for herself and for others. Evy’s character has to be seen from the perspective of the early 20th century when women were scarce in Vancouver and almost seen as prized possessions.

The original play was written in the 1970s but this version has been re-contextualised to reflect the South Asian element which the director felt was missing from the original version.

It is particularly poignant at this juncture in Canadian history when we are rediscovering our native heritage and putting it back up on a pedestal where it belongs; when we are acknowledging the native roots of our nation and recognizing its value both in terms of what was snatched from them as well as what we need to do to give it adequate representation in our cultural mainstream. 

It is this process that also finds a reflection in Komagata Maru.

The play is especially relevant in the present context when we are seeing a rise in white supremacist ideology in the United States and also in Canada.

To buy tickets to The Komagata Maru incident, click here: Komagata Maru at Stratford

To buy tickets to Bakkhai, click here: Bakkhai at Stratford
Images take from Stratford Festival website

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Weston Village

Saturday mornings is my time. I generally leave home to go to do my weekly groceries and buy my weekly transit pass.

When I have to also go to the bank at Keele and Lawrence, I stop by at the Flame restaurant for one the best home-style omelette, toast and tea. It’s owned by a Greek-origin gentleman. Some months back (in April) I took a photo of the grilled cheese veggie omelette I was having and posted it on Google maps. It’s got an overwhelming number of hits (135,900 at the last count).

Then, on some Saturdays, I have to visit the pharmacy at Weston and Lawrence, to get my medicines from Mohamed Ahmed, the Somali pharmacist with a Poona connection (he studied in there), or to meet the other Mohammed from Afghanistan, who runs the laundry and alteration place.  On such days, I usually walk down Weston to be in the midst of one of the most interesting streets in Toronto.

Weston has a history and heritage. I’ve developed a sense of belonging to this stretch of road from Lawrence Avenue to Highway 401. To its immediate west is the Humber River; to its east is the railway line on which the new Union-Pearson Express operates. The village was an industrial hub long ago and has changed in its composition and character over the last century (as has most of other neighbourhoods in Toronto). Wikipedia has some fascinating historical information about Weston village.

On some weekends when both Mahrukh and I are at home together (which is rare) we go to the P&M Restaurant on Weston. It’s also a Greek place and serves delicious breakfast and lunch. Since I stopped having meat, I restrict myself to omelettes, and this place, too, has arguably one of the finest omelettes in Toronto. The place is family-owned and everyone tries their best to make you feel you’re a part of their family.

Earlier this summer, Mahrukh and I walked down Humber River into the ravines and crossed the river on a wooden bridge. In autumn the trees on the river bank turn yellow and transform it into a surreal, magical psychedelic place that you’d only find in children’s storybooks.



Further to the north is the Weston Library, which celebrated its centenary in 2014-15. Originally constructed through an Andrew Carnegie endowment in 1914, the library occupies a heritage building. Entering the building is like taking a journey into the past because it evokes a sense of being in an early 20th century wood and red bricks home with stained glass windows. The original structure was expanded and extended to accommodate the growing need for space sometime in the 1960s.



(Read about the original building here and about the extension here). 

Since I made Toronto my home in 2008, I’ve regularly visited four libraries – the main Toronto Reference Library (at every given opportunity/excuse), the North York library when my workplace was at Yonge and Sheppard; the Amesbury Park library when I lived on Keele and Lawrence, and now the Weston library. The Toronto Reference and the North York libraries are grand architecturally, and the Amesbury Park one is functional. The Weston library makes me feel at home because of its ambience. It’s not at all like a library. It’s a place that encourages browsing of books arranged in neat rows of bookshelves, with the original section of the building housing fiction books.


Today, I went to the library to return a book and borrow another one, and while browsing through the rows of fiction books, I saw my novel Belief nestled between David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers and Rachel Billington’s Perfect Happiness on the shelf. That made me smile. I took a photo on my phone and showed it to the library assistant. She peered into the phone, and smiled and said, “Is that you? Your book? That’s great! You must write another one now.”

Sunday, August 06, 2017

GRAMMA


It’s only in the realm of fiction that the past and the present can be made to coexist. Both on the screen and on the stage, interspersing of the past and the present compels the audience to willingly suspend disbelief and, when the playwright and/or the director gets it right, this commingling of time and space creates incredibly poignancy that is heartwarming.

As GRAMMA, the latest offering by Sawitri Theatre Group reached its climax, I was disappointed that the play would end soon. Yes, the grandmother had passed away, but, I argued with myself, the play could’ve gone on for a bit with by switching over to the story Samantha and Raj. In these two characters, playwright Jasmine Sawant created characters that were endearing in their youthful innocence.

And as far as I could tell, they couldn’t have been part of the original memoir. 

The play is based on Dr. Jane Fraser’s memoir of her grandmother Lillie Carberry (1865-1949), and Jasmine makes it relevant to our times by incorporating characters in the present. Adopting an Indian theatre tradition of having a narrator (sutradhar), Jasmine turns Samantha and Raj into narrators of the story of the eponymous GRAMMA’s life.

Lillie’s story epitomises the lives of Canadian women and families living in Mississauga from mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. But she's not the docile and domesticated archetypal woman of her times. Lillie's an independent woman with a steely determination to do whatever she wants to do. Out of necessity, such strong-willed people (and especially women) lead a life that to others may seem lonely but that's not so. They prefer their solitude without feeling lonely. Lillie’s best pals are trees outside her the many homes that she lives during her lifetime.

The gradually changing dynamics of human relations between all the characters are evocatively portrayed and the witty and perceptive exchanges between Lillie and her daughter and her mother make the characters come alive. Lillie’s relationship with her mother and daughter also reveals her deceptively dominant (and manipulative) nature, all of which is conveyed in a few pithy lines. Her late marriage and relatively early widowhood strengthen her character even more.  The loss of her babies makes her a hard woman, who has learnt that it's only she who can adequately console herself to overcome her immense losses. 

Lillie's an intelligent woman with strong opinions on worldly matters; she doesn’t mince her words expressing unconventional views such as the futility of war. She lives through two World Wars. Jasmine makes that early 20th century period relevant to present times and makes a strong political statement by including in the narrative the contribution of Indian armed forces (then part of the British colonial army) to the war efforts. Although it’s a part of prattle between Samantha and Raj, it underscores the fact that this contribution has never been adequately acknowledged (the latest example is Nolan’s Dunkirk).

The material progress ushered in through technology that the Canadian society experiences in the early 20th century (such as the telephone and the automobile) and the growth of urbanisation in Mississauga (localities such as Derry Road and Meadowvale) in particular and the Peel region in general personalises the play for the local audience, nearly all of whom would’ve been familiar with the geography.  

Both Sawitri Theatre Group and Jasmine need to be acknowledged for producing a play that is as Canadian as it can ever be. It's a welcome departure from what the group's been doing in the past few years. I’m sure this is the first of many such efforts to follow. 

Credits:

GRAMMA's author - Dr. Jane Fraser
Playwright - Jasmine Sawant
Director - Christina Collins
Producer - Nitin Sawant
Production Design - Joseph Pagnan
Sound Design - Christina Collins & Sid Sawant
Costume Design - Shruti Shah
Projection Design - Nitin Sawant
Choreography - Akhila Jog, Shruti Shah & Raina Desai

Cast:

Lillie Carberry / Little Brown - Amy Osborne
Samantha Fraser - Ivana Bittnerova
Raj Nilan - Carlos Felipe Martinez
Isabelle Carberry & Grace Brown / Grace Emerson - Lucy Winkle
Henry Brown & Luther Emerson & Rag and Bones Man & Janitor - Jesse Anderson

Makeup - Akhila Jog
Stage Manager - Jeremy Pearson
Technical Director - Keyoor Shah
Production Assistant, Props & Wardrobe - Raina Desai
Makeup Assistant & Wardrobe - Forrest Jamie
Assistant to Stage Manager - Devansh Shah
Set Build - Keyoor Shah & Nitin Sawant
Marketing & Administration - Jasmine Sawant

Postcard & Cover Design - Arti Bakhle
House Program - Shamy Kaul
Period Costumes / Props - Courtesy Heritage Mississauga
Antique piano and table - Carol Ambrault
Antique chair - David Huband
Piano Tuning - David Patterson
Rocking chair - Emma Ryan