SALA Festival 2023 Changes Narratives

Soaring temperatures in the San Francisco Bay Area did not deter the hundreds of art and literature fans who flocked to Menlo College in Atherton, CA for the fourth edition of the South Asian Literature and Arts Festival (SALA) on October 7th and 8th. Over the weekend, attendees heard from accomplished entrepreneurs, award-winning authors, and luminary artists through panel discussions, special interviews, and performances curated under the theme “Changing Narratives.”

Four people smile at the camera at SALA Festival 2023
Kiran Malhotra (SALA co-founder), author Dr. Abraham Verghese, and guests at the opening night of SALA Festival 2023 (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

Ambika Sahay, Executive Director, ArtForum SF, described the event as “a space to tell our stories, to highlight our social issues and to celebrate our contemporary culture! South Asian Culture is evolving and how does that relate to us South Asians in today’s world? We explore these concepts at the SALA festival in a light and open-minded atmosphere.”

Sahay added that the response from both speakers and audience members was wonderful. “SALA 2023 had 22 amazingly curated panels, 65+ speakers, several South Asian contemporary small businesses, and over 1000 audience members in attendance. We couldn’t be more proud.” 

A woman in a saree at a mike
Ambika Sahay greets guests at the SALA Festival 2023 Opening night ((image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

Quintessentially Indian Exports

In keeping with the overarching theme ‘Changing Narratives,’ two notable panels dealt with quintessentially South Asian exports – chai and cricket -that are becoming part of the American narrative because of the diaspora.

Chai GPT featured South Asian entrepreneurs Sajani Amarsiri, Monica Sunny, Mou Dasgupta, and Ashmit Patel, who are noted for introducing many flavors of tea to Americans. In a panel discussion moderated by Madhushree Ghosh, they shared their commitment to elevating tea as a beverage in the United States, promoting sustainable tea cultivation in India, and promoting the cultural moment India is having in the world right now. 

In a similar vein, panelists on From Colonies to a New World, shed light on the colonial origins of cricket and its emergence as a cultural phenomenon across South Asia. The discussion featuring historian Prashant Kidambi and cricket administrator Jagannath, was moderated by Tipu Purakayastha and served up heavy doses of nostalgia, cricket trivia, and speculation about the future of cricket in the United States. 

  • A group of guests at the opening night of the 2023 SALA Festival
  • A woman speaks into a mike onstage
  • A food truck
  • Three men having a discussing onstage

A Focus on Film and Entertainment

Film and television play a huge role in shaping cultural discourse Unsurprisingly,  this year’s SALA festival dedicated two panels to film. The first, Diaspora Panel: Voices, Scenes and Heard, featured screenwriters Simran Baidwan, Reenita Malhotra Hora, and Shruti Tiwari, three South Asian women who are scripting a narrative of their own in the American entertainment industry. 

The second panel, Parde Ke Peeche (Behind the Scenes) moderated by Anjali Arondekar, featured actor-director Konkona Sen Sharma, lyricist Kausar Munir, and writer-director Tanuja Chandra.  They tackled the subject of inclusivity within the Indian film industry, the contribution women are making in technical areas of film-making, and the challenges and changes caused by OTT platforms. 

The Undaunted Konkona Sen: In Conversation 

For all attendees, the first day’s highlight was the brilliant actor-director Konkona Sen Sharma in conversation with Dr. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena. Sparkling and insightful, Sen Sharma gave audiences a glimpse into the many roles in her life – daughter, mother, filmmaker, and actor on a path-breaking journey to explore issues related to caste, the LGBTQ community, toxic patriarchy, and surviving rape. Alluding to her childhood with her progressive film-maker mother, Aparna Sen, Konkona Sen said, “I was raised by a single mother who was also a working woman wearing many hats – she was an actor, director, and the editor of a women’s magazine – but at home, she kept us as grounded and intellectually stimulated as possible. We were surrounded by books and intelligent conversation.”

Two women onstage having a discussion
Konkona Sen in conversation with Dr. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena at the 2023 SALA Festival (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

For Book Lovers

Open mic poetry and book readings kept people entertained between different panels over the two days. 

  • A woman speaks into a mike onstage
  • A woman danceswondtage
  • Books on a table

But the main event featured a  packed auditorium, standing-room-only, with people sitting cross-legged on the floor who welcomed Dr. Abraham Verghese, author of The Covenant of Water. In a conversation peppered with humorous anecdotes, Dr. Verghese spoke with Dr. Ajit Singh, a Board member of the ArtForum SF, about his writing process, being a physician with a human touch, and the importance of listening. He responded to questions from Dr. Singh and the audience about his views on fiction and the experience of being chosen as the 101st pick for Oprah’s Book Club. 

Two men on stage having a discussion
Author Dr. Abraham Verghese in conversation with Dr. Ajit Singh at the 2023 SALA Festival (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

Other literature panels on both days discussed muses and strong women characters, as well as what it takes to challenge and change narratives of the South Asian perspective.  In First Country: Our Mothers and Fathers, moderated by Dr. Raji Pillai, authors Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan (The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life of Lily Tharoor) and Kalpana Mohan (Daddykins: A Memoir of My Father) shared anecdotes about how writing books that shared  their parents’ stories changed their perspectives as writers. 

Raji Pillai (moderator), Kalpana Mohan (author), and Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan (children’s poet and author) at their panel at SALA Festival 2023 (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

In Subverting the Story: Contemporary Literary Voices, moderated by Srisruthi Ramesh, novelist and essayist Soniah Kamal and Sonora Jha discussed changing narratives and perspectives in South Asian literature. 

In Triumph of a Woman, poet Shikha Malaviya and novelist Ava Homa discussed the roles of strong women characters in their writing as seen in Malaviya’s poetry book Anandibai Joshi: a Life in Poems, from which she read extracts during the open-air poetry sessions. 

Shelf Aware with VR Feroze and Vikram Chandra focused on the authors’ love of books, the craft of writing, and intellectual property rights in the age of digital publishing/self-publishing. 

Two men speak at a panel at a literature festival
Authors V.R. Feroz and Vikram Chandra at the 2023 SALA Festival (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

Evolving Art

One of the very first panels at SALA – Art Panel: Art and Steel, featured a discussion around art and its ever-evolving nature with Tarik Currimbhoy, who uses steel, and Chitra Ganesh, who uses paint. The panelists, prominent artists from India and the U.S., spoke about their inspirations, connection to India, and the deep desire to connect to humanity with their art forms. Robert Mintz of the Asian Art Museum moderated the panel.

Three people onstage at a panel at SALA
Art Panel: Art and Steel, with Tarik Currimbhoy, Chitra Ganesh, and Robert Mintz at the 2023 SALA Festival (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

Nikhil Abraham and Madhu Vudali participated in Intersection of AI & Art, an art panel moderated by Zehra Cataltepe to examine the relationship between AI and art, and how technology could change the narrative for immigrants and the diaspora. The panel also discussed how AI redefines human endeavors in the context of its effect on Hollywood.

One of the final panels on day two, Crafting Conversations, discussed the impact of traditional crafts on today’s culture and community, and if its narrative has evolved over the years. 

People stand in an auditorium
Standing room only at the 2023 SALA Festival (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

Cultivating Your Inner Quiet with Deepak Ramola

Deepak Ramola  describes himself as a “collector of life lessons.” In his standing-room-only workshop, Cultivating Your Inner Quiet, Ramola, an author, poet, and Ted Talks speaker, encouraged his audience in a fun and playful way,  to introspect on life lessons from their own experiences. Ramola is the Founder of Project FUEL, an innovative education organization that engages with individuals in over 195 countries to draw life lessons from their stories of strength and resilience, and shares them through workshops and seminars. His book, ’50 Toughest Questions of Life’, is based on the extraordinary life lessons learned from ordinary people around the world. 

  • The audience at a literature festival
  • A woman listens intently
  • Two women talking on a panel
  • Guestsat a literary festival

Diaspora Discussions

The Diaspora Panel, Arranged to Love, another standing-room-only event moderated by writer Ritu Marwah got younger attendees scrambling for a seat. In an animated discussion, speakers, Anjali Jhangiani, Shalini Singh, and Jasbina Ahluwalia analyzed the attitudes of young South Asians caught between choosing traditional arranged marriages or waiting for love.

Another Diaspora Panel, In Partition: The Invisible Line, Dr. Guneeta Bhalla, archivist of 1947 archives was in conversation with Ritu Marwah, a historian of stories. Partition survivors, 92 year-old Krishna Bhagat, Neeraj Khurana and Ramesh Nakra shared personal stories of their survival through Partition and taking the train from Pakistan to India. Marwah, who calls herself a SALA matwala, said, “Interest in partaking and participating in stimulating conversations is so high here that both ‘The Invisible Line, Partition of 1947’ as well as ‘Arranged to Love’ were oversubscribed. How lucky we are to have a festival of this nature in our area!”

A packed crowd at a festival
A packed crowd listening to Konkona Sen in conversation with Dr. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena at the 2023 SALA Festival (image courtesy: SALA 2023/ArtForum SF)

The Inimitable Shobha De: In Conversation 

“I hear a lot of the F-word here as well!” The inimitable Shobha De had the Bay Area audience sitting up in their chairs before she added, “…and it is the word Funding!” Hoots of laughter followed. Speaking to author and columnist Salil Tripathi, De, author of more than 25 books, regaled her audience for the rest of the afternoon with witticisms and razor-sharp insights into Silicon Valley’s Indian diaspora. 

De, still impeccably stylish at 75, talked about her book  Insatiable and gave attendees a glimpse into personal memories from her life and marriage.

The Aesthetics of Hoskote

In this session, Sahitya Academy awardee poet, art critic, cultural theorist, and author of 25 books, Ranjit Hoskote, talked to  Monica Mody about the future of poetry and art in contemporary South Asian culture. 

No Trafficking with Saket Soni was another housefull, standing-room-only discussion moderated by M.R. Rangaswami. Soni, a labor organizer, human rights campaigner, and founder-director of Resilience Force discussed the prevalence of human trafficking of South Asians in the U.S., as reported in his book, The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America. 

Grand Finale:  Dr. Amitav Ghosh in Conversation with Raghu Karnad

The grand finale to the festivities featured award-winning author, Dr. Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Raghu Karnad. Dr. Ghosh spoke about his forthcoming book, Smoke and Ashes, a sequel to the Ibis Trilogy, which continues the exploration of how 19th-century European superpowers used opium to shape the history of the Asian subcontinent. “The Europeans were the main sponsors of the opium trade and, at that time, they were the most powerful entities on earth. The British, as late as 1935, ran the largest opium factory in the world from India,” said Dr. Ghosh who also spoke of the impact of climate change on marginalized communities.

SALA by ArtForum SF gets bigger and better each year. Kiran Malhotra, Board member, ArtForum SF, said,  “It was gratifying to see that whether it was the authors like Abraham Verghese or the smaller discussion panels there was interest in all the panels! In some panels emotions rose high, sparks flew, settlements were made and some agreed to disagree. To me, that was a  win –  to see standing room only in most panels.”

Photos from ArtForum –  Credit – SALA 2023/ArtForum SF

Nandita Chowdhury Bose is Contributing Editor at India Currents. In Mumbai, she worked at India Today and Society magazines, besides other digital publications. In the United States, she has been a communications...

Tanay Gokhale is a Community Reporter at India Currents through the California Local News Fellowship cohort of 2023. Born and raised in Nashik, India, he moved to the United States for graduate study in...

Prachi Singh is the Audience Engagement Editor at India Currents. She is a journalist who worked at Bay City News for audience engagement. She was a Dow Jones News Fund intern and part of the inaugural...