& 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. 

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