& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mahesh Dattani festival in Toronto

Mahesh Dattani (l) and Girish Karnad (r),
interviewed by Dalbir Singh (c) at 2011 edition of
Toronto Festival of South Asian Literature & the Arts

Koi Pun Ek Phool Nu Naam Bolo, is a Gujarati play by Madhu Rye (better known to non-Gujarati audience as the writer of Aushtosh Gowarikar’s 2009 film What’s Your Rashee where Priyanka Chopra enacted 12 roles). 

A young Mahesh Dattani accompanied his parents to see the play in Bangalore as a child, and was awestruck. 

“Anything that can shut up a thousand Gujaratis has to be impressive,” the playwright recalled at talk he gave at Toronto’s Munk Centre last week.

The talk – Me & My Plays – was based on his forthcoming memoir (to be published by Penguin, which has also published Mahesh’s collected works in two volumes). Chelva Kanaganayakam, the former head of Centre for South Asian Studies, who chaired the session, introduced Mahesh.

A seminar on his plays Staging Identity Across Nation, Family and Sexuality in the Work of Mahesh Dattani preceded the talk. Speakers included Anindo Hazra, Margaret Herrick, Rahul Sapra, and Naisargi Dave. The Centre for South Asian Studies and the Asian Institute organized the Munk Centre program.

Mahesh’s talk was deeply personal and yet very objective. He spoke of his passion for dance, his gurus and the discipline they inspired in him, the role of his mentor Alyque Padamsee and Lillete Dubey in his success, his zeal to give voice to a voiceless people.

I’ll not report on the talk here. We’d rather wait for his memoir due early next year.

Towards the conclusion of his hour-long talk, Mahesh said he feels most connected to three of his creations – Dancing Like a Man (1989), Morning Raga (2004), and Where did I leave my Purdah (2013) - these creations encompass his love for dance, music and theatre.
“They form my triptych,” he said.
With the playwright

Overcoming my general reticence, I said the plays that really form his triptych, plays that he will really be remembered for are Final Solutions (1993), On a Muggy Night in Mumbai (1998), Seven Steps Round The Fire (1998) all of which evocatively deal with the issue of minorities (religion, sexual orientation, gender).

Mahesh admitted he hadn’t really thought of them as such, but agreed that they do form a unit.

Last week turned out to be an embarrassment of riches for the Dattani fans. Thursday the Sawitri Theatre Group staged Seven Steps Round the Fire, originally a radio play.
Bhanji &Sawant
Directed by Christina Collins, the play, which brings to life the in between world of India's  transgender hijra community, was enlivened by bravura performances by Jasmine Sawant (Champa) and other members of the cast that included Farah Bhanji (Uma Rao), Siddhant Sawant (Munswamy), Amit Mohan (Anarkali), Aryan Ahuja (Suresh Rao), Naimesh Nanavaty (Mr. Sharma, construction worker, and beggar), Shafik Kamani (Salim, prisoner, hijra at intersection), Andrew Ravindran (Subbu, prisoner, hijra at Champa's), Ivana Bittnerova (Kamla, hijra at Champa's and sweeper), Nicole Balsam (bride).

Sawitri's actors lived the characters. The performances were uniformly superior, a major feat for the group considering nearly all the actors have a day job, and do theatre because they love the art form. The play was originally meant for the radio, and so didn't need any major props. What makes the production memorable is the nuanced understanding of each character and the motivation that each of them have to do what they do, leading to a tragic climax. 

The minimalist stage design, depending more on the lighting, enabled the audience to directly connect with the characters on the stage, and moreover, enabled for a smoother flow of the narrative. 

The technical credits include: Nitin Sawant, Producer; Joe Pagnon, Set and Lighting design; Shruti Shah, Costume; Brooklyn Doran, Stage Manager; Keyoor Shah, Technical Manager.  Dancers at Wedding: David Primeau, courtesy Shiamak Davar Dance Company - He also plays 'other hijra rehearsing at Champa's. Sachel Metoo of Samsara Dance Company and Namita Dandekar.

Sawitri Theatre Group’s repertoire of staging Dattani plays also includes Where There is a Will (1988) which was staged last December.

Then, Friday evening, University of Toronto’s the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, in collaboration with the Centre for South Asian Studies and the Centre for Comparative Literature organized a staged reading of Mahesh The Big Fat City (2013).

The play is about a couple who are facing imminent eviction from their flat in Mumbai for missing multiple mortgage payments, and involves a banker friend, a television actor whose career is on the decline, a paying guest, her lover and in an unexpected climax the paying guest’s brother.

It examines the crass superficiality of the middle class social climbers in a housing society in Mumbai.

Mahesh directed the staged reading, Dalbir Singh was the sutradhar. The performers included: Rebecca Biason, Christine Mazumdar, Jaleel Siddiqui, Shak Haksa, Brian de la Franier, Mirabella Sundar Singh, Aaditya Aggarwal, and Sally Jones.

Mahesh Dattani was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for his Final Solutions (1992-93). 

For an academic study of Mahesh's work, see Bipin Parmar's thesis here:

Images: FSALA-2011, Sawitri Theatre Group & Dalbir Singh

Monday, September 23, 2013

International Festival of Authors Markham – 2013

IFOA Markham is an event organized by the Markham Arts Council, a non-profit organization in Markham that focuses on supporting, promoting and fostering the arts in our community.

Each year, IFOA Markham has been held in different locations across Markham.

IFOA 2011 took place at the Markham Museum and featured authors Francisco Goldman, Shilpi Somaya Gowda, Dany Laferriere, and Bharati Mukherjee (host: Thom Ernst).

IFOA 2012 was held at Flato Markham Theatre and featured Ayesha Chatterjee, Marjorie Celona, Chan Koonchung and Giller-winner Vincent Lam (host: Bert Archer).

Generally About Books was a community partner for IFOA Markham 2012. Read the blog on IFOA-2012. Click here: An evening of rain & readings.

This year, Markham Arts Council is proud to host IFOA Markham at the newly inaugurated Cornell Community Centre and Library- and we’re thrilled to celebrate women’s literature with an all-female lineup of authors: Janie Chang, Lauren B. Davis, (Dame) Margaret Drabble and Nicole Lundrigan (hosted by Bert Archer).

Generally About Books will be a media partner.

So, what's the Third Annual International Festival of Authors 2013?

It'll be an evening of delicious food and drink, stellar author readings and book signings, a curated literary exhibit and much much more.

Date: Friday November 1st, 2013,

Venue: Cornell Community Centre and Library (3201 Bur Oak Ave, Markham).

The evening will begin at 6:30pm (doors open at 6pm) with a Meet & Greet the Authors Reception, followed by readings and book signings. ($50.00).

If guests prefer to only attend the readings, they can opt for the readings-only ticket, and arrive at 8pm for a night of stories we won’t soon forget!($18.00).

For more information click here: ifoamarkham

Author profiles 

Janie Chang (Canada) spent her childhood living in the Philippines, Iran and Thailand, and now lives in Vancouver. She has a degree in computer science from Simon Fraser University and recently attended SFU’s Writer’s Studio. Chang presents her unforgettable debut novel, Three Souls, which was inspired by the tragic story of her grandmother, whose life, like so many generations of women in China, was not her own. Readers meet the ghost of young Leiyin, who must sift through her memories to uncover what is binding her to this world and denying her entrance to the afterlife.

Lauren B. Davis (Canada) is a critically acclaimed novelist, essayist and teacher whose bestselling books include The Stubborn Season, The Radiant City and Our Daily Bread, which was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and named best book of the year by both The Globe and Mail and The Boston Globe. Davis will present The Empty Room, a story about a woman whose worst enemy – and only friend – is the bottle. The result is an unforgettable portrayal of the turmoil and pain of alcoholism.

Margaret Drabble (UK) became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2008 for her contributions to contemporary English literature. She is the author of The Sea Lady, The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth and The Needle’s Eye, among other novels. She wrote biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson, and edited two editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Drabble presents The Pure Gold Baby. Jessica Speight is on the cusp of a promising academic career in 1960s London until a relationship with her married professor leaves her the single mother of a darling – but very unusual – daughter.

Nicole Lundrigan (Canada) is the critically acclaimed author of four previous novels, including Glass Boys, which received glowing reviews and was a NOW magazine top 10 and an Amazon.ca top 100 book of the year. Unraveling Arva was selected as a Globe and Mail top ten, and Thaw was longlisted for the Relit Award. Lundrigan presents her latest novel, The Widow Tree, which finds three teenagers facing life-altering consequences after they conceal a valuable discovery in a small village in post-war Yugoslavia.

Images: Courtesy IFOA-Markham. 
Copyrights: Lauren Davis (c) Helen Tansey, Margaret Drabble (c) Ruth Corney,

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Moor's Last Sigh

I’ve been re-reading Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. Many agree that this novel is a sort of sequel to Midnight's Children.

Probably because Rushdie wrote the novel when he was hiding from the world under a fatwa from the Iranian clergy, the novel is sombre, less hopeful and realistic. 

Also, in many ways, it’s a truer picture of India as compared to the one Rushdie portrays in Midnight’s Children, which is an alarmingly hopeful novel. 

The Moor’s Last Sigh accurately captures the rootlessness of the post-Nehru generation that grew up in an India where hope was receding quickly and was being rapidly replaced by despondency.

I enjoyed The Moor’s Last Sigh more than Midnight’s Children also because it is focussed on the Bombay of 1970s and 1980s – a time and a place that I relate to. It’s easier to relate to Moraes (Moor) Zogoiby than Saleem Saini because Moraes is my generation. Saleem is my mother’s generation.

The novel – as with most of Rushdie’s novels – is replete with innumerable fanciful characters, including historical figures such as Nehru and Indira, cricketer Abbas Ali Baig, and other thinly-disguised then contemporary figures, who have now passed into history. Two that immediately come to mind are right-wing politician Bal Thackeray, and artist and one of the pioneers of the Baroda school, Bhupen Khakkar. Then, there are others whose names have been slightly altered – Crocodile Nandy – and the personalities transposed. It’s great fun reading the novel and trying to decipher who the real life person is.  A page reproduces the face of RK Laxman’s Common Man.

I know that is an insufficient and a subjective way to assess the greatness (or the lack thereof) of a book. 

Rushdie understood this, and wrote about it on the 25th anniversary of Midnight’s Children in the Outlook magazine. “One day, I knew, the subject of Mrs. Gandhi and the Emergency would cease to be current, would no longer exercise anyone overmuch, and at that point, I told myself, my novel would either get worse—because it would lose the power of topicality—or else it would get better—because once the topical had faded, the novel's literary architecture would stand alone, and even, perhaps, be better appreciated. Clearly, I hoped for the latter, but there was no way to be sure. The fact that Midnight's Children is still of interest twenty-five years after it first appeared is, therefore, reassuring.”

For me, Midnight’s Children is history. The Moor’s Last Sigh is nostalgia. There’s a big difference between history and nostalgia. Nostalgia is personal. History can be, but is more formal. 

An excerpt from the novel on Bombay

BOMBAY was central, had been so from the moment of its creation: the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities. In Bombay all Indias met and merged. In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black water to flow into our veins. Everything north of Bombay was North India, everything south of it was the South. To the east lay India's East and to the west, the world's West. Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories; we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once.

What magic was stirred into that insaan-soup, what harmony emerged from that cacophony! In Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, Meerut--in Delhi, in Calcutta--from time to time they slit their neighbours' throats and took warm showers, or red bubble-baths, in all that spuming blood. They killed you for being circumcised and they killed you because your foreskins had been left on. Long hair got you murdered and haircuts too; light skin flayed dark skin and if you spoke the wrong language you could lose your twisted tongue. In Bombay, such things never happened.--Never, you say? – OK: never is too absolute a word. Bombay was not inoculated against the rest of the country, and what happened elsewhere, the language business for example, also spread into its streets. But on the way to Bombay the rivers of blood were usually diluted, other rivers poured into them, so that by the time they reached the city's streets the disfigurations were relatively slight. – Am I sentimentalising? Now that I have left it all behind, have I, among
my many losses, also lost clear sight?--It may be said I have; but still I stand by my words. O Beautifiers of the City, did you not see that what was beautiful in Bombay was that it belonged to nobody, and to all? Did you not see the everyday live-and-let-live miracles thronging its overcrowded streets?

Bombay was central. In Bombay, as the old, founding myth of the nation faded, the new god-and-mammon India was being born. The wealth of the country flowed through its exchanges, its ports. Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay: that was one explanation for what happened. Well, well, that may have been so. And it may have been that what was unleashed in the north (in, to name it, because I must name it, Ayodhya) – that corrosive acid of the spirit, that adversarial intensity which poured into the nation's bloodstream when the Babri Masjid fell and plans for a mighty Ram temple on the god's alleged birthplace were, as they used to say in the Bombay cinema-houses, filling up fast – was on this occasion too concentrated, and even the great city's powers of dilution could not weaken it enough.

And a clip of the author reading the above passage

Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/26/Last_sigh.jpg

Saturday, September 07, 2013

A city & its festival

Bombay will turn into a bride for the next 10 days as it celebrates the Ganapati festival.

It’s a celebration that has come to define the city both negatively – crass, commercial, loud and gaudy, and positively – bringing about community camaraderie, remembering the values of freedom, independence, self-reliance, and rising above casteism.  

These days, Ganapati celebrations are held across India, most notably in Hyderabad, but it’s Bombay that really takes the festival to a different level.

Bombay’s identification with the festival is a bit surprising considering when it was started in 1893 by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, it was held in three venues in Poona and only one in Bombay.

But students of history will agree that Bombay was known to frequently steal Poona’s thunder in the late 19th century. For instance, the first session of the Indian National Congress launched by Allan Octavio Hume was to be held in Poona in 1885, but had to be moved to Bombay because of the sudden outbreak of the plague in Poona.

Tilak started the public celebration of the festival in 1893 largely to resuscitate his dwindling political fortunes.  As the leader of orthodox Hindus, he had met a series of political reversals – the biggest being the passage of the age of consent bill by the English governor Sir Andrew Scoble, raising the marriageable age for girls from 10 to 12.

Historian B. R. Nanda, tracing the uneasy relationship between the moderates and the extremist elements of the Indian national movement in the 19th century has observed, “Pherozeshah Mehta, Dinshaw Wacha, and indeed the entire Bombay group of moderates had a lively distrust of Tilak. Its origins lay partly in ideological and partly in temperamental differences. For at least fifteen years there had been a sort of cold war, which hindered not only mutual understanding, but even mutual comprehension between the Congress establishment in India – of which Pherozeshah Mehta was the virtual chief – and Tilak.”

In the first year, the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav was held at three centres in Pune and at the Keshavji Naik chawl, Girgaum in Bombay. It was widely perceived as directed against the Muslims of Bombay. However, A year later, In October 1894, the English acting commissioner of the central division of Mumbai, commenting on the festival wrote to his seniors: "I must confess that my convictions lead to me to support the view widely entertained in Poona by the more respectable natives that the agitation fomented by the Deccan Brahmins is directed in reality not against the Muslims but against the government."

To read about the history of that tumultuous era, click here.
Many writers have described this festival and Bombay’s unique relationship with it. And none has done it better than Salman Rushdie. Here are two passages from his two best novels: Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh.

“Our Bombay, Padma! It was very different then, there were no night-clubs or pickle factories or Oberoi-Sheraton Hotels or movie studios; but the city grew at breakneck speed, acquiring a cathedral and an equestrian statue of the Mahratta warrior-king Sivaji which (we used to think) came to life at night and galloped awesomely through the city streets-right along Marine Drive! On Chowpatty sands! Past the great houses on Malabar Hill, round Kemp's Corner, giddily along the sea to Scandal Point! And yes, why not, on and on, down my very own Warden Road, right alongside the segregated swimming pools of Breach Candy, right up to huge Mahalaxmi Temple and the old Willingdon Club…

As for Mumbadevi – she’s not so popular these days, having been replaced by elephant-headed Ganesh in the people's affections. The calendar of festivals reveals her decline: Ganesh – ‘Ganpati Baba’ – has his day of Ganesh Chaturthi, when huge processions are 'taken out' and march to Chowpatty bearing plaster effigies of the god, which they hurl into the sea. Ganesh's day is a rain-making ceremony, it makes the monsoon possible, and it, too, was celebrated in the days before my arrival at the end of the ticktock countdown – but where is Mumbadevi's day? It is not on the calendar.”
Midnight’s Children

“Once a year, the gods came to Chowpatty Beach to bathe in the filthy sea: fat-bellied idols by the thousand, papier-mâché effigies of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha or Ganpati Bappa, swarming towards the water astride papier-mâché rats – for Indian rats, as we know, carry gods as well as plagues. Some of these tusk'n'tail duos were small enough to be borne on human shoulders, or cradled in human arms; others were the size of small mansions, and were pulled along on great-wheeled wooden carts by hundreds of disciples. There were, in addition, many Dancing Ganeshas, and it was these wiggle-hipped Ganpatis, love-handled and plump of gut, against whom Aurora competed, setting her profane gyrations against the jolly jiving of the much-replicated god. Once a year, the skies were full of Colour-by-De Luxe clouds: pink and purple, magenta and vermilion, saffron and green, these powder-clouds, squirted from reused insecticide guns, or floating down from some bursting balloon-cluster wafting across the sky, hung in the air above the deities 'like aurora-not borealis-but-bombayalis', as the painter Vasco Miranda used to say.”

The Moor’s Last Sigh

I’ve been fascinated with the festival since I was a child, and vividly remember standing on the balcony of my mother’s home at Prathna Samaj watching the processions of Ganapati idols vending their way to the Chowpatty beach for the immersion of the idols into the Arabian Sea at the end of the ten-day festival.

Over the years, even as religion has lost its relevance to my life, I continue to enjoy the festival, and especially the way it transforms to the mammon-worshiping metropolis into a city that comes together to be good.

Ganapati is worshipped as the god of knowledge, and is the first scribe who recorded the Mahabharata as Ved Vyas narrated the epic.

Incidentally, 1893 is also the year when Mohandas Gandhi left Gujarat for South Africa and returned two decades later to become the Mahatma.

That year, Swami Vivekananda also addressed the World Congress of Religion in Chicago, addressing the congregation with the now famous salutation of ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, leaving the largely Caucasian audience bemused presumably because it had never been addressed thus. 

They gave him a resounding standing ovation.