& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, July 31, 2016

South Asian Canadian theatre

The Toronto Festival of South Asia is fun.

Toronto’s Gerrard Street East which is known as Little India (and should be renamed Little South Asia, because there are a good number of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghani establishments on the street) turns into a mela (village fair), with live performances by high-calibre as well as popular artists, and, of course, street food straight from Bombay’s Chowpatty and Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.

This year, the energetic and enthusiastic Tushar Unadkat helmed the festival as its creative lead. And transformed it completely.

Tushar introduced a literary component to the festival. The first was a discussion on the impact of Hindi cinema and South Asian media on the South Asian diaspora (Meena Chopra’s piece posted in this space two weeks ago was part of that discussion). The panel included Tahir Gora, Pushpa Acharya, Harpreet Dhillon, Meena Chopra and Tarek Fatah and Munir Pervaiz moderated the discussion.

Then, the next day, we had an engaging discussion on South Asian Canadian theatre. I moderated the discussion and was delighted that prominent people involved with theatre and who are South Asian agreed to participate in the panel discussion.

The panelists were: Jasmine Sawant, actor, producer, writer, manager, and the Co-Founder and Artistic Co-Director of the award-winning SAWITRI Theatre Group, based in Mississauga; Jawaid Danish, a playwright-poet and translator, and the artistic Director of Rangmanch-Canada, a not for profit Indian Theatrical Group; Ravi Jain is a Toronto-based stage writer, director, performer who works in both small indie productions and large commercial theatre; and Dalbir Singh, a PhD Candidate in Theatre and South Asian studies at the University of Toronto, and recipient of the Heather McCallum award for Emerging Scholars.

In an attempt to define the subject of the discussion, I exchanged emails with all the panelists prior to the discussion, and all of them came up with interesting insights not just about the subject, but also about themselves. For instance, Jasmine said she has trouble with the term South Asian. She said she uses the term not because she feels like a South Asian but because it is readily understood by the mainstream.

Ravi emphasized that all his work is an in-between space because I am in-between. He said, “As an artist, I’ve actually rejected being called a ‘South Asian’ artist, as I found that title limiting, and not reflective of the scope and breadth of my work. I am an artist. I am an avant-garde artist.” Ravi posed an interesting question, “Is Naseeruddin Shah starring in a George Bernard Shaw play South Asian theatre? More than Anita Majumdar starring in Hamlet? Or less than me onstage with my mom?

Jawaid’s contention during the email discussion brought out the crucial question of recognition and patronage. His question, which we should attempt to answer today, is simple: “Why do ethnic language plays don’t get the same recognition and grants?” Dalbir felt that it would serve us better if we also steered the discussion towards cultural diversity in general and how our stories are adequately reflected today and hopes for the future of theatre practice in this country.

At the panel discussion, we were also joined by Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah of SAWITRI Theatre Group, Andy Hazra of York University, Sally Jones of Rasik Arts, Tushar and many others in the audience.

Jasmine kicked off the discussion by emphasizing that what is material to her creativity as a theatre person is the process of transforming a playwright’s vision from paper to stage. She said content should be equated with creativity not ethnicity; citing the example of Shakespeare, Jasmine said he stays relevant in all translations. Her theatre group involves artists, theatre craftspeople, and technicians of multiple ethnicities. This creates a confluence of many and varied visions that flows into the joint effort that reflects in the final product that is staged.

Jawaid, who has the singular honour of his plays being researched upon in Ranchi and Delhi universities, was unconvinced that honest assessment was being made of the Canadian South Asian theatre scene. He questioned the premise that Canadian South Asian theatre was being given due recognition. Jawaid’s contention was that only plays written in the English language were getting due recognition in terms of official patronage and grants. He said most of his plays had Canadian context and content, but because they were in Urdu, he had never been given any recognition, not just by the establishment, but even by his peers.

Ravi, who has won the 2016 Dora, considered the Canadian theatre Oscar, rejected the categorization of a theatre on the basis of ethnicities. He said he has been associated with the theatre that attempts to portray global experiences. His own play with his mother A Brimful of Asha despite being set in the South Asian milieu proved to be a global success because audiences everywhere could relate to its theme. Ravi also specified that he has tried to bring global theatre into Canada, and has been doing so to create awareness of a universal language of theatre that transcends ethnic, national and cultural boundaries and categorizations.

Dalbir, who has edited several books on Canadian South Asian theatre, also said that his sensibilities are totally Canadian. Although of Indian origin, he was born and raised in Canada and has little to no connection to India. He said South Asian theatre has increasingly been trying to contextualize South Asian diaspora presence in the Canadian society. Sally spoke about the need to have the right connections to be able to stage ethnic content in a multicultural environment.

The discussion veered to Mahesh Dattani, the Indian playwright who has worked in the English language. Andy Hazra drew attention to the absence of recognition (to the extent merited) of Mahesh’s work in India and compared it to the similar lack of attention being given to Canadian South Asian theatre. Nitin Sawant said it is important to understand and properly define Canadian South Asian theatre, and the criterion should be content. If the content and the context is not Canadian, even if the language is English, it cannot be deemed Canadian.

When I discussed the idea with Tushar, I had suggested to him that we also invite Rahul Varma of Teesri Duniya to the panel discussion. However, the festival didn't have that sort of a budget to invite participants from outside of the GTA. However, Rahul offered to send some inputs for the discussion, which I had planned to read as part of my moderator's responsibilities. But, as with all of us, we get busy with a multitude of things, and can't allocate time to all that we want to do. Rahul's note arrived a bit late, and I'm adding it to this blog, not as an afterthought, but as integral to the discussion above.

Rahul's note: "In the early phase of multiculturalism, there was hardly any professional artist of south Asian Diaspora and, producers imported plays from India on an Indian theme. Teesri Duniya Theatre took a different approach – in that it started creating plays from scratch in Canada instead of borrowing from India.  Doing so, Teesri Duniya Theatre undertook a three-pronged approach in its productions:  

(1) culturally diverse plays set in Canada  
(2) locally created plays on local and global themes and
(3) new forms, e.g. dance-theatre that knows no boundaries.

However, global themes mean less to us if Canada is excluded from the plot. Similarly, culturally diverse plays also mean less to us if they are dealing exclusively with material from the playwright’s ancestral country at the expense of intercultural experience occurring in Canada.  Clearly, company’s definition of a culturally diverse play is a play that draws heavily on lives lived in Canada. Such culturally diverse plays maintain a dual vision of the world and transcend differences in culture, color, race, gender, sexuality, and politics."

The panel discussion concluded with everyone agreeing that more discussions needed to be conducted at a regular frequency. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Kundalini: The Union of the Divine

Earlier this month, Ali Adil Khan invited me to the inaugural of an exhibition of the works of Youngo Verma (1938-2015). The exhibition Kundalini Union of the Divine is at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. In Canada, Youngo Verma remains largely unknown except amongst the South Asian community in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Ali and Deepali Dewan of the Royal Ontario Museum have played an important role in getting recognition for Yongo’s art. 

(For earlier coverage on Youngo Verma in GAB, click here: Youngo Verma).

Ali, who is an art writer, in addition to be a curator, says in his introduction to the artist, “Youngo lived and worked in solitude in his Mississauga studio for over 30 years, creating a large body of work that examines and explores the notion of Tantra and its connection to Cosmic Energy.” About the exhibition, he says, “Kundalini: The Union of the Divine presents three distinct and important periods and genres of Youngo’s art. His early figurative drawings completed in Germany in the 1970s that remained with him until his death and have never been shown before. These remarkably innovative drawings explore the notion of duality, as it depicts alien human figures, grounded yet having wings, with vibrant forms of energy emanating from them.”

For the uninitiated yet interested, let me quote Jan Solis on Kundalini. Solis is an author who has written extensively about ancient Hindu practices. She says, “Kundalini refers to that dimension of energy within a human being that is yet to realize its potential. It is a yoga practice and those familiar with it characterize it as the energy that resides at the base of the spine, coiled like a snake and summoned to rise through the chakras to the crown chakra at the top of the head.

Kundalini yoga teachings have been influenced by Shakti and Tantra. Awakening of the kundalini energy is accomplished through regular performances of meditation, chanting mantra, pranayama (control over breath or life force), and yoga asana. Part of the purpose of kundalini practice is to raise your own level of awareness of your entire body. Among the many benefits, kundalini yoga is said to free us from our karma and to help us gain an understanding of our life’s purpose (dharma).”

Youngo’s work has gone through several phases, and the most evocative phase was about 15 years before his death, when he began drawing on graphite paper organic abstract forms representing cosmic energy. The most impressive of these geometric shapes depict Shakti, the female form. Often, there is little to differentiate between two drawings, but that miniscule variance is critical.

A pleasant surprise that evening was an impromptu dance performance by artist Asma Mahmood

Images: http://artgalleryofmississauga.com/YoungoVerma_web.pdf

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hindi cinema, its impact & influence on South Asian diaspora

Guest Post 

By Meena Chopra

(Excerpts from paper presented at panel discussion on impact of popular Hindi cinema and media on South Asian diaspora in Canada. The discussion was part of the Literary Arts segment of the Festival of South Asia) 

'Mera juta hai japani, ye patloon inglistani, sar pe lal topi Rusi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani'

My shoes are Japanese, my trousers are from England, and on my head I have a red Russian hat, and yet, at heart, I am still an Indian

I am a first generation South Asian, living in Canada. I am influenced, and I adore this spirited song of 1955 when I was not even born. I am still a diehard Raj Kapoor fan, of his grand films and melodious music that he produced with his brilliant team of Shankar Jaikishan, Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri and Mukesh.

Tia, my 27-year-old daughter, is immersed in the Canadian ethos and milieu, and yet she still hums this 1955 song along with many others. She enjoys Hindi film music, both of the present times and of yesteryears.

The song is an anthem to many. It is a historical reference point of ‘unity in diversity and nationalism’ which epitomizes the effect of popular Hindi cinema on the Indian diaspora. In spite being uncompromisingly commercial in nature, popular Hindi cinema has been able to sustain artistic elements and emerge as a global phenomenon that transcends time, generations and national boundaries.

Incidentally, this iconic song was introduced in recently released Deadpool starring Ryan Reynolds. It is said that the director Tim Miller simply fell in love with the song when he heard it in a pub in New Zealand, and wanted it in the film. The film begins and concludes with this song.

The impact of popular Hindi cinema is not a new phenomenon. It goes back to 1950s and 1960s. Its impact has become noticeable because globally the South Asian diaspora has grown exponentially. Filmmakers have begun to cater to this demographic by making movies that appeal to this global audience. The mainstream, as well as ethnic media in the western world, has also been instrumental in developing this market dynamic.

The marketing structure of the popular Hindi cinema has always been territory or region based, the newer seventh territory of non-resident South Asians represents a sizeable market for films whose protagonists sometimes are a reaffirmation of the Indian identity transformed by globalization. Specifically for Karan Johar, Subhash Ghai, Yash Raj Chopra this is very true. Films like Kabhi Alvida Na Kahna, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Khusi Kabhi Gham, Pardes, Dilwale Dulhania and many more revolve around a nonresident protagonist.

Quoting from Times of India, “Bollywood popular films are very wisely adapted to meet the emotional expectations of NRIs, as well as to provide Indians with guidelines to liberal modernity, are also part of the larger ambitions of India as a visible country”.  

Primarily, popular Hindi cinema follows a revenue generation model. It focuses on the emotional need of the expatriate who constantly pines for the Indian-ness in a foreign land to be connected with the self. Research says that the cinema theatre in west London is the highest earning screen in the world for Hindi films, and so is the Canadian market specifically for Punjabi films.

Whatever the reason, this dream world of entertainment is a reality of life for nonresidents. It provides an emotional substance to the nonresidents to stay connected to their country of origin. Now this heritage of the biggest entertainment industry in the world is being passed on to the second and third generations of NRIs. The new generation enjoys these films which connect them to the language, music, lyrics, dance and fashions of the subcontinent.

The popular Hindi film industry thrives because of its balanced combination of music, songs with powerful lyrics and choreographed dance sequences. These are amalgamated within the storyline. Choreographed song sequences have been the backbone of this industry which Hollywood started in 1910s and shunned in 1930s. This is what makes Hindi film industry unique and lends it an everlasting image. These songs though independently appreciated are also like cues and clues to the narrative structure of the story.

Popular music, singing, dancing and trendy fashions overpower and have made a place in the everyday life of the expatriate almost next to the religion. This unique Hindi film brand works and surprisingly without any insignia or a logo with a huge mindshare of nonresident community.  

Noticeability and recognition of Hindi cinema by the western world is opening a dialogue between the cultures of east and west. It is a dialogue of appreciating and understanding each other, a dialogue of “unity in diversity”. In turn, this is impacting the entire up and coming generations and giving an emergence to a new way of thinking and co-existence.

This cultural crossover can be observed now in the making of hybrid cinema which is a mix of Hindi film industry and Hollywood. There are many examples. Films like Leela, American Desi, Deepa Mehta’s films, Gurinder Chaddha’s films etc. Not to mention hugely successful films like Bombay Dreams the Andrew Lloyd Weber production which revolve around Bollywood film industry, was very successful with western mainstream audience as well.

American Author and scholar Jigna Desai of University of Minnesota, US, and author of Beyond Bollywood, in one of her articles on the subject states, “productions like American Desi and Bombay Dreams attest to the ways in which these texts suggest that Bollywood plays a feature role in not only constructing South Asian and diasporic identities but also significantly participate in structuring the pleasures and desires of these subjects as well.”

And again as a nonresident Indian, I would like to quote poet Shailendra in the voice of Mukesh, visualizing Raj Kapoor with the lilting music of Shankar Jaikishan

Mera juta hai Japani, Ye patloon inglistani,  sar pe lal topi Rusi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani.
  • Meena Chopra is an artist and author 

Saturday, July 09, 2016

The Mahatma of Pakistan

Abdul Sattar Edhi
My father Meghnad Bhatt was a socialist. For him Pakistan was never an enemy. He wrote glowingly about ZA Bhutto and received letters from the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The first time I saw Karachi was on a map that my father showed me during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The headlines of the newspaper (Free Press Journal) proclaimed the Indian Navy had bombed Karachi harbour.

“And to imagine,” my father dismayed, “both the cities were once part of the Bombay Presidency that stretched from Sindh to Mysore.”

The second time I saw Karachi was on television, when the India Pakistan cricket series was revived after a long gap in the mid-1970s. Bishen Bedi and his boys were beaten black and blue by the “wild Pakistanis”.

If I recall correctly, the last test was at Karachi, and Pakistan won rather handsomely, turning the last hour into a sort of a one-day match, and flaying the famed Indian spin quartet (Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan) out of international cricket.

Pakistan won the series. We discovered Kapil Dev.

As a journalist, my most serendipitous experience was to discover Gujarati businessmen from Karachi who on the invitation of the Indian Merchants’ Chamber came to Bombay (Mumbai) in the late 1980s.

A few of them had experienced the trauma of Partition first hand. They were in tears as they happily recalled their lives in Bombay. The younger among the group were dazzled by Bombay’s buzz.

The older members of the group spoke of long standing and deep commercial relations between Karachi and Bombay that needed to be revived..

Then, years later, my student, who became a dear friend, Ehtesham Shahid, got married to Amna Khaishgi, a resident of Karachi. Both met in Dubai.

Amna wrote a scintillating piece for The Quarterly Journal of Opinion (an online magazine I edited for a year in 2002) comparing Bombay and Karachi.

She wrote, “Mumbai and Karachi reflect the diverse meanings of its disparate inhabitants. Both sit at the crossroads of aspirations and desperation, narrating numerous tales of rags to riches. Both have a thriving underworld, fast moving traffic and throbbing nightlife. Perhaps the biggest similarity is the gap between the rich and poor in both the cities. Violence on the streets of both is analogous too. Both touch the same Arabian Sea from their respective coastlines.”

Another friend, Jatin Desai, a journalist-activist, introduced me to Pakistan India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy. In these cynical times, here was an organization that was at least attempting to do something genuinely good and effective.

Kumar Ketkar, both a friend and a mentor, was part of this group. He suggested I be a part of the SAFMA delegation that would be traveling to Karachi in June 2006.

I visited Karachi as part of a delegation promoting Pakistan-India people-to-people contacts. Our delegation comprised journalists. We had a wonderful time.

Two of the many memorable evenings have remained etched in my mind: one where the inimitable Tina Sani sang ghazals, and the other was when we met the Mahatma of Pakistan – Abdul Sattar Edhi.

Edhi was a simple man, who began his work by providing a decent burial to the poor, and then slowly rising to become the philanthropic face of Pakistan. He narrated his story in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner.

One of our delegates asked him, why, if he believed in humanism more than religion, he went to Pakistan during the Partition. He said Pakistan was not a different land at that time, when he went from Gujarat to Karachi. And he emphasized that he did not regret his decision.

He spoke gently for more than an hour, happy to be interacting with Indians. He spoke of the tremendous work his foundation had done during the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 (at that time it was fresh in memory); he spoke of the Indian government not giving him a visa to do disaster relief and philanthropic work in India. He spoke of his tremendous dependence on his wife.

He did not speak from any prepared text, he did not always complete his sentences, his agile and alert mind racing faster than his speech could cope with.

The organizers gave all of us a copy of his biography.

Today, when I saw my social media feed flooded with tributes to Edhi, I remembered the trip to Pakistan, Karachi, Indo-Pak cricket of the 1970s, and, of course, Edhi.