& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Sawitri Theatre Group's 15 years

Recently, Sawitri Theatre Group celebrated its 15th anniversary at the Art Gallery of Mississauga at a glittering program attended by theatre connoisseurs and friends of Sawitri’s dynamic founders Jasmine and Nitin Sawant.

The theatre group has been an important part of my personal journey in Canada in the last decade. It reintroduced me to the theatre and gave me an opportunity to enjoy the tremendous joy one experiences when actors perform on stage.

The first time I heard about Sawitri was when Jawaid Danish invited me to Rang Manch Canada’s Hindustani Drama Festival in 2011 that he held in Mississauga. Jasmine and Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah were present at the roundtable discussion held prior to the festival Challenges of Staging Indian Drama in Canada and Experiences of Desi Talents in Mainstream Showbiz.

About a year later, Sawirti performed its play Saree Kahaniyaan (The Saree Stories) written by Jasmine, performed by Shruti and Naimesh, with Jasmine as the sutradhar (narrator). Since then, I’ve tried not miss a Sawitri play. The group has mounted a major play and several smaller staging annually.

Sawitri has a frequent presence on this blog. If you’re interested, you may read the blogs of the different Sawitri plays here:

Over the years, the group has created an audience for South Asian theatre and shaped the sensibilities of this audience by providing it with a rich variety of theatre experience in all the major contemporary languages of Bombay – Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English.

Jasmine and Nitin Sawant
Recently, prior to the celebrations of its 15th anniversary, I had the opportunity to sit with Nitin and Jasmine and chat with them at length about their group.

Jasmine is clearly the driving force behind the group, although she readily admits that too many supporters have played a crucial and critical role in making Sawitri the institution that it has become today.  Among their steadfast supporters is legion of friends who have become an integral part of the group and includes the legendary Lata Pada, the globally renowned danseuse and the artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations.

Both Jasmine and Nitin derive tremendous satisfaction from their success and the journey that they commenced in 2003. Shruti has been an integral part of this journey. The group’s first performance was of the classic of Marathi language theatre – तो मी नव्हेच. However, the Group was keen to produce socially relevant theatre; in 2006, it produced the powerful women-oriented play From Here to There (Janice Goveas).  A year later, the group was registered as a not-for-profit, with a board of directors.  

Without ceasing its shorter productions, the Group was now keen to do major plays. In 2011, during the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts (FSALA), the Group met Mahesh Dattani, the renowned Indian playwright who has an awesome global reputation for writing powerful plays on contemporary issues. The first collaboration between Sawitri and Dattani was Where There’s a Will. Subsequently, it also staged Seven Steps Around Fire and Dance Like a Man.

Both Nitin and Jasmine take pride in discovering and nurturing talent in different spheres of theatre – from direction to production design and from stage lighting to costumes. Gabriel Grey, Christina Collins, Joe Pagnon are some of the professionals who are regularly involved with Sawitri productions.

A self-funded entity for most of its existence, the group has managed to get some official grants lately but such grants cover generally about 20 percent of the entire production cost. As a not-for-profit, the group distributes all the extra resources generated amongst the professionals who work to put up the performance.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

SPPPFFy by Anu Vittal

Anu Vittal is an arts entrepreneur and a multifaceted personality well known in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), especially amongst the South Asian community. She recently published a book Create Happiness by Being SPPPFFy™: Millions of happy people in happy places!

SPPPFFy = Spiritual, Physical, Personal, Professional, Financial and Family/Friends!

These six fundamental verticals of focus will change your life to create a happy YOU!
She launched it simultaneously in Canada and in India. The book is a self-help guide to creating self-awareness and shows a path to attaining happiness. In the introduction to the book, Anu asks, “Would you like to create happiness in less than sixty minutes?” And then she responds, “Most of us are born, then grow up, go to school, university, get married, have x number of kids, work till 65 and then retire. And throughout this process, we are always ‘doing’ life with the aim of finding this elusive thing called ‘happiness’.

Anu believes that to live this way is an omission of life itself! “We spend our lives being busy looking for happiness externally rather than internally. The reason for most of life’s issues – health, complicated relationships, poor performance at work, mental depression, financial debt, etc. – stem from a lack of control over one’s feelings, which in turn stems from allowing external circumstances to control us. And this is where we fail in our pursuit of happiness.”

Anu’s recently-launched book introduces a structured program for empowering people with a proven process of being SPPPFFy™ to create “happy moments” in all areas of life. The acronym stands for Spiritual, Physical, Personal, Professional, Financial and Family/Friends! These six fundamental verticals of focus will change your life to create a happy YOU!

In 60 minutes of single-minded focus, you will learn to design moments of joy and how to live life fully in those very moments. It provides an easy-to-follow, step-by-step methodology aimed at daily internal investments in YOU to guarantee the result of valuing your authentic self and improving on it.

You will become a better version of the new you every day. You can have all that you want in abundance – love, wealth, health, a happy family, and lots of loving close friends. It also teaches you how to “create happiness” in the “now” moments so that you can live a more fruitful life for yourself and the world around you.

A Q&A with Anu Vittal

Anu Vittal
Describe SPPPFFy

The acronym spppffy™ stands for spiritual, physical, personal, professional, and financial and last but not least family and friends! This acronym came to me quite by chance. In Canada, we often use the word spiffy (slang for smart) and when I first heard this word from my manager, I was baffled because I misheard it as “scruffy.” And only when my manager understood the bewildered look on my face as I looked down to view my outfit, did he realize that I did not know the meaning of the word spiffy. So he explained it to me and I was thrilled with the compliment, looking very spiffy indeed – in my tan boots, smart kilted skirt, maroon pullover and a tan leather jacket to match my new boots.

Hence the word stuck in my head, and I often thought about it – I said to myself we all work on being spiffy on the outside but what about working from within and being spppffy™ on the inside.

So I invented this step-by-step process by which you are investing in you on a daily basis along six verticals I termed it as “being spppffy™”. So that you can become a better version of yourself every single day in all areas of life. The process itself involves a detailed life audit followed by a swot analysis, and customized smart goal setting methodology to meet the needs of each client.  These types of daily investments in your heart+mind+soul = happiness as you “renew” each day – so shall you reap the rewards of being spppffy™!

How difficult or easy is it to train oneself in controlling one’s mind, one’s reactions to the external stimuli?

I believe the brain is like any other muscle in our body - therefore we need to train it regularly. When we are breaking down a muscle in the gym whilst weight training we experience pain but we tell ourselves to breathe into it and to visualize how strong our muscles are becoming as we tear and build them.

Similarly, all our life experiences are providing us with an opportunity to expand our consciousness and evolve into a better version of our authentic self. This is why our reactions to various life situations make all the difference in realizing your full potential. If you react in a negative way to the same experience, it will provide you with a negative response which will make you unhappy. But by choosing to respond to a life situation in a positive manner it will provide you with a happy state. We all know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Take for example a balloon – you fill it will helium it will rise and if you fill it with air it will drop to the ground. The choice to react is always yours and that’s what makes all the difference. Ultimately, we are the sum total of all your reactions to every experience. All experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us is the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow. And in staying in this awareness of self is the secret to happiness.

That’s why we say happiness is an “inside job”.

Do you think that in the case of most human beings, the problems that the face are a result of their perceived lack of control over the circumstances of their lives? Please elaborate.

Perception is the reality and in most cases, we seem to let our beliefs and perceived paradigms of society guide us forward instead of the actual reality as experienced by us. We tend to want to hang on to what is familiar than to understand and adopt the unfamiliar. That’s why scientists stand apart as they question the reality and create a law based on the “truality” of facts.

The truth is everything we see and absorb from a sensory perspective is unique to each human being even if you are looking at the very same thing or having the very same experience. This is where dialoguing with your brain becomes so important to be able to collaborate and train your mind to tell it what “exactly” you want it to think and do.
We believe that our brain creates thoughts that guide us but the fact is – it’s the other way around. The self or the “I” which is connected to the supreme conscious has the intelligence and the ability to instruct the brain to develop thoughts, ideas which leads to feelings and frequencies we want to bring into our aura.

These will then become the guiding tools to evaluate any life situation or problem in a true manner and then resolve them with ease to give you peace of mind and essentially a HAPPY YOU!

You are an art entrepreneur, how has your entrepreneurialism influenced your perceptions and how did lead to the realisation that resulted in the creation of SPPPFFy?

As an entrepreneur converted into an Artrepreneur I was able to combine my passion for art with my expertise in business innovation. I have always been someone who has based my theories on reality as I see it and on laws of nature or quantum physics or business. Because the neutrality of these laws is based on proven facts or researched scientific discoveries. So in my quest for a spiritual path, I started studying E=MC2 and metaphysics which provided me with a lot of explanations that gave me a clearer understanding as I started to practice spirituality.

I realized as multi-dimensional beings we need to intentional make investments in various pillars of our life to maximize our fullest potential. Therefore the 6 verticals of SPPPFFy, however, I also realized that the secret hiding place of happiness is in the innermost sanctum of self. Hence, I encouraged myself to practice living in each moment or living in the “now” in the best possible manner.  Over the last 5 years, I have realized this is the only way to live life “being spiffy” inside out and right side up!

Sunday, March 04, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 7

Che and Mahrukh on our weekly bus ride
Che in his new glasses

Immigration is all about losing one’s identity and gaining a new one. It is about finding oneself in a new environment, making friends, trusting strangers. Often, this process is not easy. In our case, we came to Toronto without knowing anyone here. So, we had no choice but to trust strangers. And, in retrospect, it’s worked out well.

In the middle of the Sheridan program, Joyce Wayne recommended me to Antanas Sileika, the dean at Humber School for Writers, to volunteer for its week-long intensive writing program conducted annually in summer. My co-students never forgave me for what they subsequently described was "blatant favouritism." 

The program was to commence in July at Humber’s picturesque Lakeshore Boulevard campus. I dressed in my best official suit to meet Antanas, but by the time I could reach the campus, a brief but intense rainstorm drenched me to my bones.

Antanas welcomed me to the program and placed me in an all-women group led by author Isabel Huggan. I Googled her name and went to the Amesbury library to borrow Isabel's linked short story collection The Elizabeth Stories. Reading it before meeting her made my interaction with her easy. My new acquaintance with Canadian literature – thanks to having browsed through the two volumes of Canadian literature in English that Joyce had insisted all her students at Sheridan buy – also helped.

The Elizabeth Stories is a fine collection of short stories. Isabel was pleased that I’d read it and liked it. Her group, which I assisted, comprised seven women, all working on their manuscripts and all deeply engaged in the process of creating. Isabel’s approach to writing was introspective. And she also gave me my writing mantra: “All writing is rewriting.”

The one session that remains etched in my memory even though nearly a decade has passed by, involved remembering a favourite photograph from one’s life and looking for what is missing in that photograph.

With the Humber Summer Workshop group
The exercise took all the participants in different directions, and many of them teared up when describing their experience of talking about their favourite photograph and then for the first time ever looking for what was missing in the photo. I guess Isabel’s purpose for conducting this exercise was to make all the participants understand the importance of unburdening one’s emotions and be true to oneself.

There were several simultaneous sessions going on at that time conducted by illustrious authors. They included Wayson Choy, Martin Amis, and Nino Ricci. I couldn’t have celebrated my first anniversary in Toronto any better. The Humber School’s summer workshop was perhaps instrumental in many ways in determining the course of my life.

I’ve written about the experience on this blog as well in the Canadian Immigrant experience. 

If you’re interested in reading more, please click on these links:
Mahrukh at 1440 Lawrence Ave W

All Writing is rewriting (Canadian Immigrant column)

2009 was turning out to be an extremely fruitful year. My interest in writing had propelled me into a new world and I was making new friends all the time. I signed up for several author groups on email and went to a session of Writers and Editors Network at a nice little traditional tavern in Islington.

Jasmine D’Costa was the president of this association. She is a banker from Bombay and has devoted her life to creating literature since she immigrated to Canada. Jasmine’s collection of short stories was published in May 2009 and it was tremendously well received. 

Over the years, she has consistently encouraged many of us newcomers with aspirations to become writers. She published extracts from my novel as short stories in two volumes she edited.

(Read about Jasmine here: Asian Writers; I used the term ‘Asian’ to describe South Asian writers, without realising then than Asian in North America only meant people from the Far East or South East Asia).

At Jasmine’s event at WEN, the main speaker was Robert Morgan, the publisher of BookLandPress. Subsequently, Robert held a workshop on publishing at the Runnymede branch of the Toronto library. Yoko and I participated in the session (Robert Morgan’s tips for writers).

I learnt that BookLandPress conducted an annual novel competition, which was decided on the basis of the first 50 pages of the manuscript. I decided to build my short story into a novel, by giving a backstory to the four main characters.

I fished out an incomplete manuscript that I’d started several years ago in Bombay when I decided to write fiction after reading my friend Richard Rothman’s collection of phantasmagorical short stories. In a small way, I was instrumental in egging Richard to get his stories published.

Robert’s BookLandPress didn’t accept my submission, but that was only to be expected and by now, I was serious about working harder on my fiction. I got Mahrukh to edit the short story that I’d been working on for several months now and submitted it to the Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto not-for-profit that promotes creative expressions in diverse people, for the short-form mentoring program.

I submitted the short story (The New Canadians) in May 2009 without any expectation of being selected for the mentoring program. But I was pleasantly surprised when I got an email in June 2009 informing me of my selection. It was a moment that I’d been waiting for. 

The Diaspora Dialogues group 
I was among a select few aspiring writers selected by Diaspora Dialogues for the mentoring program; the list included a great group of creative people who have gone on to become acclaimed authors Leslie Shimotakahara and poets such as Michael Fraser, and among them was Dawn Promislow, who is today a dear friend.

Helen Walsh, the head of Diaspora Dialogues, has since then been a constant support in all my efforts to become an author. On several occasions, she has provided me with a platform and put me before an audience. She got Diaspora Dialogues to audio record my blog about my first Christmas in Toronto; she selected me as a speaker at the fantastic Spur festival that she organises annually; she got me interviewed recently when she relaunched Diaspora Dialogues.

And, of course, she’s also had an indirect role to play in the publishing of Belief, but I’ll talk about that later. Julia Chan, then at the Diaspora Dialogues, was also extremely supportive.

I remember when my submission was under consideration at Diaspora Dialogues, I was reading The Assassin’s Song (2007) by MG Vassanji, which I’d borrowed from the Amesbury Park branch of the Toronto library. It is one of the finest novels that I’ve read, and in my humble opinion, one of Vassanji’s best. The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (2003) and The Book of Secrets (1994) got him the Giller Prize. 

Serendipitously, Vassanji was to be my mentor. Mahrukh declared, "Allah only listens to you!" (Needless to say, that assessment riled my atheist sensibilities comprehensively, but for once, I wasn't complaining).

Not entirely unexpectedly, Vassanji turned out to be a tough mentor. He was a Guru in the true sense. I consider him my Guru even today; a status that, I’m sure, he’d find deeply embarrassing, if not entirely offensive.

He’d little patience with niceties, clear, incisive and blunt in his comments. And I was the eager student.

Here’s an extract from the first email I got from him: 

“This story, to be honest, is in the ‘good immigrant’ or ‘grateful immigrant’ mode. It has a message about citizenship. But it is not realistic; it does not dig deep into human motives and behaviour. This, of course, is how I see it. It is the kind of story that may find a place in a community or government magazine. I don't know what you have in mind.”

My interaction with him started in July and continued till September 2009. By then, the story had metamorphosed into a completely different being, vastly improved, with much depth, nearly all the excrescences removed, or at least so I thought. 

In a later episode of this memoir, I’ll write about how he made me rewrite this story, which had become the first chapter of the novel, more than 17 times, and even after that remained dissatisfied.

Read about this unique experience here: Write Stuff (Canadian Immigrant column)

By October 2009, I’d to submit the completed story to Diaspora Dialogues for consideration in its annual short story publication – TOK: Writing the New Toronto. I wasn’t sure whether it’d be accepted, considering there were so many good aspirants. It seemed a long and agonizing wait although it was only two months before I learnt in mid-December from Helen that my story was accepted for TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, the collection was edited by Helen.

2009 was turning out to be a year that I’d remember forever. Thanks to Joyce’s efforts, I got an internship in Ontario government’s ministry of community and social services. It was a temporary job that held the promise of being turned into permanent after some years. I was out of the internship within a month.

Mahrukh in her Medix uniform
And, it was now Mahrukh’s turn to go to school. She decided that she’d do a program in social work and joined Medix College in October 2009. I’d never seen her as excited as she was when she began her program.

Mahrukh has always remained an unassuming person, who shuns any sort of limelight, and never pushes herself upfront to let the world become aware of tremendous and varied skills. She’s highly educated, has remarkable editing skills, and is a natural people’s person; one of the most affable persons. For the first time, she was determined to get what she knew she deserved.

Of course, she can be completely horrible with me when she gets mad, but that’d be true in any marriage that has lasted two decades and more, and one shan't talk about it now. 
Che at his school concert
Che was already a Canadian and was talking like one. When we told his school teacher that he was now speaking with a Canadian accent, she corrected us and said, “No, he’s losing his Indian accent.” Sometime later that year, he also had to start wearing glasses, at approximately the same age as when I’d had to wear glasses. But, of course, Mahrukh blamed me, claiming that it was my preference for warm lighting in our home that'd caused our son’s weak eyesight.

Finally, we’d commenced our process of settling down and setting our roots in Toronto.