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Monday, May 18, 2015

Fsala-15: A report


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

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

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

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

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

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

The performance was a tribute to Professor Chelva Kanaganayakam, the co-founder of the festival. The inimitable Kasi Rao, who is an authority on Canada-India bilateral relations, and is also a brilliant master of ceremonies, with a strong and stage presence, beautifully encapsulated Chelva's personality by quoting Kalidasa.

Kasi said, "Yesterday is but a dream, tomorrow is only a vision, but today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”  Chelva’s life was indeed “well-lived”.  May I acknowledge the presence of Mrs. Thiru Kanaganayakam and the family."

{Read more about the performance here}. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


I will conclude the post by quoting Kasi, who quoted Kalidasa, while bringing the Saturday's dance recital and reading to a close. "We have watered the trees that blossom in the summer-time.  Now let us sprinkle those whose flowering time is past.  That will be the better deed, because we shall not be working for the reward."

For photos of the event, please click here

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