Tag Archives: interview

New York to Kerala, American Actress India Jarvis Makes a Malayalam Film Debut

The first time Director, Jeo Baby mentioned her name, I thought I had heard him wrong. It was prior to the release of his film, Kilometers and Kilometers. Requesting him to repeat the actress’s name, I heard him say India Jarvis again. Now I was convinced of my hearing. 

Actress, India Jarvis

India Jarvis might be an unusual name for this New York-raised American actress. And, clearly, her mother had no inkling while christening her daughter India, that one day her little girl would cross the shores to work in the eponymous country. 

Jarvis traveled in 2019 to India on her first visit for the filming of the Malayalam film, ‘Kilometers and Kilometers.’

“My mother named me after one of the characters in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ says Jarvis over email. “She found the name beautiful.”

Jarvis’s love for acting goes back to her childhood when as a 9-year-old, she joined a community theater. And, with a BFA from the Academy of Art University (San Francisco), she moved to New York. She worked there in Off-Broadway shows and short films.

Kilometers and Kilometers is her first Indian feature film where she essays the lead role of Cathy- an American tourist in India. Cathy after winning at a casino is keen on touring the country, but not in chauffeured cars. She is eager on exploring India while riding pillion on a motorcycle.

When the offer to do this Malayalam film came her way, Jarvis despite being unaware of the industry, took it up.

“I have watched Indian films,” she says. “My favorite is ‘Black’ – the Amitabh Bachchan starrer. As an actor, you’re always looking for scripts with interesting stories and characters.”

Like her character, it was her first experience traveling to India. 

“I’ve never worked on anything like this before. I knew it would be a challenge from an acting perspective.”

Talking about her director, Jarvis says, “Jeo had a great vision for this film. I knew it was in great hands.”

In Kilometers and Kilometers, she is paired opposite Kerala’s heartthrob –Tovino Thomas. Thomas plays Josemo, a motorbike mechanic who takes on the work opportunity to drive Cathy around on his motorbike. Being the only son, he supports his widowed mother and younger sister and hopes to clear his family debts with the money thus earned. 

Jarvis was at ease working with Tovino Thomas. 

“While shooting, I found myself lost at times due to the language barrier. Tovino was always helpful,” she recalls.  “There’s one scene where Josemon and Cathy are sitting on the edge of a cliff. We were secured by a rope around our waists. It was terrifying, but I put on a brave face to get through the scene. Pillion riding on a motorcycle was a blast. Despite a hectic schedule, it was almost therapeutic.”

Kilometers and Kilometers is a feel-good film now streaming on Netflix.

Following its release, Jarvis has been flooded with messages on social media. Though she has received offers to work in India, she is unable to travel in the existing pandemic times.


Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India with over twenty years of reporting experience. Besides contributing to leading Indian and international publications including Gulf News (UAE), South China Morning Post, and Another Gaze (UK), she is a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Check out her blog – http://romancing-cinema.blogspot.com/ 


 

‘I Want My Work to Encourage People to Stop & Think’ Says Michelle Poonawalla

(Featured Image: Michelle Poonwalla and Circle of Life Artwork)

Artist, businesswoman, philanthropist, and socialite Michelle Poonawalla recently showcased a series of her new artworks at the Tao Art Gallery’s exhibition The Tangible Imaginative for the Mumbai Gallery Weekend. Michelle’s four oil on canvas works—Blue Wave, Desert Rose, Forest Flutter and Flutter Fly—come from the artist’s Butterfly Series, and feature three-dimensional, sculptural elements affixed to the canvas. Painted in bold colors, the works feature gold-effect butterflies.

Futter Fly

Poonawalla lives and works between London and Pune. Her practice combines cutting-edge technology and traditional artistic mediums, often utilizing sound, video mapping, projection, motion sensors, and other techniques. She has previously exhibited her work at the Saatchi Gallery, London; Alserkal Avenue, Dubai; and as a collateral project at the Kochi Biennale, India. More recently, Poonawalla has also begun exploring work with shorter digital format films.

In this exclusive interview, she spoke to us among other things about her earliest artistic influences, nature as inspiration, her favorite art medium, and the butterfly symbol in her works.

Tell us a little about your oil-on-canvas works at the Tao Art Gallery’s exhibition The Tangible Imaginative for the Mumbai Gallery Weekend.

MP: The four works come from my Butterfly Series which evolves beyond traditional 2D painting, incorporating sculptural elements that bring the artworks off the canvas and into the viewer’s space. A lot of my work features the butterfly symbol which for me represents both beauty and freedom–an ephemeral creature that is the result of a metamorphosis.

What was the idea, inspiration behind them?

MP: The works all have different inspirations and stories behind them. For example, Blue Wave is inspired by Mumbai and references the city through its free-flowing language and color. Desert Rose, which also features butterflies, represents the inherent beauty in nature’s patterns as I allowed the butterfly sculptures to fall naturally on the work before affixing each one where they landed.

A theme often addressed in my work is the strength and beauty of nature and the importance of preserving it. This is perhaps most obvious in Forrest Flutter. Painted in dark earthy hues and greens, the work celebrates the forest. 

You are the granddaughter of the iconic south Mumbai architect Jehangir Vazifdar. Tell us about some of your earliest artistic influences.

MP: From an early age, I was taken to some of the greatest museums and galleries in the world. I have always loved art and painted throughout my life and studied Interior Design at university. I was perhaps most inspired by my grandfather, Jehangir Vazifdar, a renowned painter and architect. My grandfather had a very special technique in oil painting with a ruler which he shared only with me, and it is important for me to carry on his legacy.

Your work is known to explore universal, socially engaged topics. Tell our readers about some of these themes.

MP: Art is a universal language with a powerful voice, and I’m conscious my work is used to spread a positive message. For example, I have recently produced a series of video works that explore environmental change and other issues around us today. I want my work to encourage people to stop, think, and introspect. Be it climate change, water scarcity, or violence in our world, people should always stop and think.

Desert Rose

Which is your favorite art medium? Do you feel that digital art is the future of art?

MP: I enjoy acrylic and work in acrylic for my butterfly paintings. However, I wouldn’t say I have one favorite medium. I’ve worked in oils a lot and I am looking forward to exhibiting some drawings at the 079 Stories gallery in Ahmedabad soon.

Digital art is certainly something we are seeing more of but I think physical painting will always have a place – it is important to be able to physically engage with artwork in person. I’ve always been interested in combining cutting-edge technology and traditional art forms, and digital art has allowed me to create huge immersive installations where the viewer is completely emerged in the visual image. Technology gives an artist the freedom to explore endless possibilities; it allows a greater feeling. I also think digital art speaks the language of the younger generation, and it keeps their interest in art growing.  

What are you working on next?

MP: I’ve got several projects coming up, including showing work in a drawings exhibition at the beautiful 079 Stories in Ahmedabad in February. Later in the year, I will also be showing work in a group exhibition in Delhi. Alongside this, I am exhibiting work online with several platforms including digital work with SeditionArt.com and several new works I have just produced for House of Culture. Hopefully, there are a few international projects on the cards which I will be able to announce later in the year. 


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.

India’s Shooting Star: In Talks With Deepika Kumari

With the changed dates of the Tokyo Olympics to July 23, 2021 – August 8, 2021, the livelihood of Olympians is in question. During this month of women’s empowerment, let’s underscore one of India’s most prominent female athletes.

Ranked World No. 1 archer at the tender age of 18 and at number 9 currently, India’s Deepika Kumari is an inspiration to thousands out there who dream to participate in the world championships but have practically no social or financial backing. If one breaks the mold and steps up to carry the baton of grit, determination, and achievements, many others are bound to follow. 

Kumari, on whom the award-winning documentary Ladies First was based, believes a calm mind is an archer’s biggest asset. Training at the national camp in Pune, India, with an eye on Gold at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, she shares the sweat and toil that goes behind shooting each arrow. Excerpts of a conversation:

IC: What were your first thoughts when the nationwide lockdown happened in March 2020?

DK: I didn’t think much about it initially. About two months later, the Olympics were postponed, which was good in a way as we were unable to do much while at home. But slowly, the uncertainty of when normal life would resume started getting to me. Our first training camp started on October 1. It was a long gap. 

IC: Did you continue training during the lockdown? 

DK: In the first few weeks, I practiced at home with the portable accessories which we use. These allow a shooting range of 3-4 meters. As an outdoor shooter, my range is 70 meters. Our physical exercises and yoga continued throughout though, alongside eating a whole lot of delicious home food. I also got married (to fellow archer Atanu Das) during this period. Lockdown had both good and bad.

IC: What are your most important assets as an archer – do you have a collection of bows and arrows? 

DK: I have two sets of these: two bows and arrows. One set is for daily practice; the second for competitions. In either case, one set I’m using, the second is in reserve. We keep around 6-7 dozen arrows with us made of carbon and wood. That apart, we have accessories/equipment for saving us – helmet, arm guard for elbow, chest guard for half chest, finger tab to protect our fingers from cutting against the thin string, sling so that the bow doesn’t fall, quiver for arrows. 

Atanu (my husband) has made my finger tab in leather – our desi jugaad. The string used on our bows is prepared by us in about 35 minutes using thread and wax. 

One bow lasts for about 1.5 years. It has various parts – the grip, arrow rest, clicker, limb (refer to picture attached) – which we purchase and assemble as per requirement. Different parts have varying lifespan. Limb lasts 6 months, string for 3 months, etc. We thus keep spares for replacement. Once used completely, we give the bow to other needy kids, sell it or throw it. 

We shoot about 450-500 arrows everyday during practice. We cut these arrows ourselves and assemble its various parts – fletch, feather, large and small points and nock. Each and every part of my gear is thus dear to me. 

Archer, Deepika Kumari

IC: Tell us something about your daily routine – what kind of workout and training you are undergoing daily before the Olympics? 

DK: We have our physical (exercises) from 6.30-7.30 every morning. And from 8.30 am-12 noon we practice shooting. We shoot anything between 350-450 arrows in this time and then it’s rest time. Again in the evening, we do physical from 6-7.30 pm, followed by short practice. We take complete rest on Wednesdays and Sundays. I watch movies, listen to songs, sleep, clean my room, wash clothes, and at times play cricket too!    

IC: Does the number of arrows you shoot in a day matter? 

DK: No, especially before competition, as quality matters more than quantity. We have to control the bow, draw the string as many times as the number of arrows shot. It needs physical power, called poundage. It’s significant to maintain that else you wouldn’t be able to shoot that big a distance in windy outdoor conditions. Continuous practice without long breaks is also critical in maintaining the poundage – something that didn’t happen during lockdown.

IC: Which parts of the body do you work on most rigorously? 

DK: The shoulder, since we have to pull a lot. But we require the whole body in archery. Your core should be stable to draw the string. You need energy to breathe through a match/session without gasping. Focusing with one eye is integral to this sport. Thus staying away from eye straining activities like smartphones is a prerequisite in daily life. And finally, mental training. 

IC: Concentration on the target – at what age did you first start this and how do you attain it day in day out? 

(Starts laughing) I am still a baby in this respect. I started mental training only three years ago. I strongly recommend kids should start focus and concentration exercises early in life. It is paradoxical: we run to sports for fun. And now, when as athletes or commoners we are given focus training, we find it challenging/boring. As a child, no one realizes that they are concentrating while playing. You are given a target; you use your gear, hit, and win! But now, as a competitive player, when your experience and expectations have increased tremendously and you are playing for long hours daily, there is pressure from family, media and even your own self to perform, you don’t know how to handle it all. Now I am learning this technique – mental training. Not allowing the mind to jump around like a monkey with hits and misses requires mental training. 

IC: Which skills matter the most in archery according to you? 

DK: You gain skills as a sportsperson, but get drained mentally. The skill that matters the most is being calm.  

IC: Do you think Indian archers need sports psychologists?

DK: Definitely. I started playing 12 years ago. Had I got this support at that time, I would have perhaps achieved much more… now, Olympic Gold Quest (a not-for-profit organization) is giving us mental training. 

IC: Tokyo Olympics would be your first big game since your wedding and you are participating as a couple in it. Excited?

It’s a rare happening for sure. And, perhaps, the first time in the history of Olympics archery at least! I am happy about it. We are each other’s pillar of strength. We want the team to win. 

IC: Which is your favorite match so far in your career? 

DK: I played (and won gold at) the Delhi Commonwealth Games (2010) when I was just starting out in my career. When I went to play the match, I was not aware of how significant a platform it was. My opponent in the finals Alison Williamson had already played six Olympics. It was an electrifying setting. People were cheering for me and there was wind too. The commentary was in perfect Hindi and with every arrow, my morale was getting higher. I had enjoyed it a lot. And I didn’t know or care that time about winning. But I did.

We look forward to a safe and successful 2021 Summer Olympics and send our best to Deepika Kumari on her upcoming competitions!


Suruchi Tulsyan is an experienced Features Writer. She has been on a break for the past few years since the birth of her kids.

Image by Bill Hails and under the Creative Commons License.

 

 

Aki Kumar Fuses Blues With Hindi and Makes It Familiar

Aki Kumar is a blues musician and artist from the Bay Area. Over the years he has developed his identity as a musician and what it means to be Indian in a traditional Blues world. Now as a well-established musician and artist, redefining and breaking the barriers of genre, I chat with him to understand his growth and work as an artist. 

“Toxic masculinity is the biggest hurdle in my world. It’s the ‘macho bravado’ that I needed to get out of myself.” 

He elaborated on the importance of getting out of the man box and how the presence of toxic masculinity has affected many women in the Blues world. He details his understanding of appreciation vs appropriation, the importance of the Indian community and the barriers of toxic masculinity in the blues world, and how he overcame the divide in the music world, to create a fusion of those worlds. 

IC: Where do you feel you stand in music right now and going ahead? Where are you headed? 

AK: I’m headed towards running away from the label of ‘genre authenticity’ which is really what caused me to first try to not represent my Indianness and then go completely the other way. Blues has been heavily appropriated in the US by the white audience that consumes it. When I was starting out in the Blues scene, I played and performed with my white peers, following their tastes and catering to a white audience. But even they know in the back of their heads that they’re not the authentic torchbearers of this genre. It’s always been Black music and in fact, black musicians have been denied their rightful ownership for several decades. I realized I was chasing an authenticity that these guys (white musicians) were not going to find. What’s authentic for a Desi boy is to be Desi as best as you can. But moving forward I’m going to try and break away even more from these predefined notions of what is authentic and what isn’t. The only authentic thing to me is just me and if a song comes to my head I’m gonna represent it my way. 

IC: What message do you have for the people that look up to you? 

AK: I hope someone is inspired by what I’m doing. The thing I would like to tell people is to really find yourself in your art. I myself didn’t realize this when I was starting out because I came from a traditional standpoint. But despite that, you have to find your voice. It’s a journey and when you find it is up to your circumstances but it is the most important aspect of artistry, otherwise you’re just reduced to an authentic mimic of something that already exists. 

IC: As an Indian immigrant in the States, how important is it to speak from an Indian perspective, in your music?

AK: It has been a journey to be honest because the first ten years of existing in the US was just ‘hey do I have my visa? Where’s my visa? Is everything stamped? I don’t want to get a drunk driving ticket cause then I’ll get deported.’ Until I realize that there are more people here (in the States) and there’s a history here. It’s a process of growth and I think everyone goes through it. 

One of the things I find with the Indian community is that we can be caught on the fence. A lot of folks are not sure about how to thread this needle where they want to be nationalistic in the Indian sense but they can’t embrace American nationalism cause that’s toxic to them. So they end up being liberal in the United States in many ways and embracing the freedom they enjoy here and then being rigidly conservative in India. This is a liberalism of convenience where you’re saying ‘oh I’m going to embrace the aspects of a democracy or being liberal when they benefit me but if they’d not benefit someone else I don’t care’. This is something I would like to address because they need to be aware of this. If you care about inequality it has to be in all aspects. 

IC: Where do you think the rise in fusion music puts India in the global music market?

AK: I think India is going to be a powerhouse, it already is. There is so much variety and talent in India and the consumer market is also in India. If all the music was made in India and listened to in India, it would be a powerhouse even if no one knew about it. The next century belongs to India culturally speaking. There’s so much regional music and so much potential for fusion, which has already been happening. Bollywood, for example, is fusion music. We are a masala of cultures. Everything gets blended in and we make something good out of it. However, it is important that we don’t appropriate cultures in fusion. If you’re going to bring cultures together through music, be aware of what you’re doing and educate yourself on the genres and history behind styles of music. If you want to do fusion, be a master of your domain.

IC: You explore a lot of genres and with fusion, there is bound to be criticism from both communities of Bollywood and traditional blues. How do you deal with that?

AK: There has been a lot of support, which I was really worried about in the beginning but a lot of folks got what was going on primarily because musically what I did with the fusion, worked. Most people who listened to it without prejudice found it smooth. The criticism comes from people who are so fixated on genre-centric music that they have established rules for what is and what isn’t fitting of blues music. In fact, all of the criticism has been from white people. Black people typically won’t go that way because they themselves have been oppressed in the ownership of the genre they created. So I don’t pay much attention to that part. In Bollywood music, it’s mostly people who say ‘oh that’s Kishore Kumar and he’s my favorite artist, but you don’t sound like him.’ I’m not Kishore Kumar that’s why I don’t sing like him. Nobody has really criticized me in a way that has stuck and after five years, if no one has found a way to give you truly insightful criticism, then maybe you’ve done something right. 

IC: Your track Zindagi that you released this year, is extremely comforting and hopeful, what made you release such a song during this time?

AK: I wrote the track a year before I actually did a video. I’m very proud to say that I wrote it in Hindi which has been a bit of a tricky thing for me because I don’t speak Hindi fluently. But it was part of the process of trying to write something more positive because typically I write cleverly worded attack songs to express my frustrations with the political or social climate. But then I thought that as an artist I need to find myself a more positive form of expression. Given the pandemic and how we landed last year, I had a feeling that if I put something positive right now it’s gonna seem lame cause people are not feeling positive right now. But there was hope of vaccines and the administration changing. Everything was building up to a more positive year. So I feel now is a time to put zindagi out there to help people feel hopeful. 

IC: The song was more reggae than blues, was there a reason for that?

AK: I’ve been on this old school Ska and Rocksteady journey which are precursors to reggae, and I’m the kind of person that steadily listens to one genre of music in extreme depth to really find its roots. I realized the things that appealed to me about the blues— the core nature of the rhythm being in place and this tonal vocality that just cuts through with a message, all of that is in ska and rocksteady because that’s the foundation of black music. I know reggae has kind of been a part of my musical listening even before I moved to the US like A.R Rahman’s Dil Hai Chota Sa’ is complete reggae, so I knew the genre and I just thought it would be perfect for the song.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Help Your South Asian Community Respond to DV

We need to pay attention to domestic violence in the South Asian community.

Providing support, resources, and intervention to those experiencing abuse is incredibly necessary, but what do we need to do to get to the point where fewer and fewer South Asian people experience domestic abuse?

Working towards a culture where we begin to acknowledge and break down the hegemonic structures that have shaped our community requires active engagement from all of us, regardless of if our lives have been directly affected by domestic violence or not. In one of the few notable studies on the topic, survivors emphasized the need for community empowerment and education to address gender-based violence in South Asian communities.

This summer, Narika, in collaboration with researchers from Harvard, is conducting a study in order to change this status quo. By collecting this data, we will be able to communicate the prevalence and severity of this issue through statistics, which is essential in engaging the community. 

If you would like to participate in our ongoing research project and help us begin to make this change, you can take the anonymous five-minute survey here, and sign up for an anonymous 10-minute interview here. Participating will also enter you in a raffle for up to $100 in gift cards to a Black-owned business of your choice.

Data shows that South Asians experience domestic violence at higher rates than other groups in America. Information is skewed due to the reality of underreporting in our community –– the variety of social and cultural barriers that South Asian survivors face to even report their abuse, from immigration to familial stigma. 

In one study, 42% of the 160 women surveyed reported that they had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners in their lifetime; 36.9% reported having been victimized in the past year. However, only 11% of those South Asian women indicated receiving counseling support services for domestic abuse.

Organizations like Narika begin to fill this gap of support services by providing culturally-informed counseling and programming for South Asian women and families. But one of the most significant obstacles of this work is how in the dark it is: there is very little academic research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities, despite the unique barriers and situations this community faces. 

This lack of data and statistics to support the necessity of their work prevents us from understanding this issue completely and, by extension, doing all that we can in order to build a culture of empowerment and allyship to address domestic abuse at its root. 

If you have any questions, concerns, or would like to learn more about this work, please contact bhargavi@narika.org.

Bhargavi Garimella is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Neuroscience. This summer, she is interning at Narika where she is conducting research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities.

IC Interviews Abhishek Bachchan on New Prime Show

As a prelease to Breathe: Into the Shadows on Amazon Prime, India Currents’ writer, Monita Soni, had the privilege of exclusively interviewing Abhishek Bachchan via Media House. The actor shared his personal insights about the series:

Monita Soni: Hi Abhishek, we are all eagerly awaiting your digital debut in Breathe: Into the Shadows. The trailer looks stunning and very edgy! Please tell us a little about this series?

Abhishek Bachchan: Thank you! Well, we are about to release an Amazon Prime original series which drops later tonight in India! It is the story of my character, Avinash Sabharwal, his wife Abha, and their young six-year-old daughter who sadly gets kidnapped. And the kidnapper, instead of money for ransom, asks and makes Avinash commit murder in order to save his daughter. So the basic theme is how far are you willing to go for your family and for your loved ones. It’s a wonderful, emotional story. Although it has been built as a psychological thriller, I like to think of it as a family drama. I really enjoyed playing this fantastic complex and nuanced role. I’m very anxious to know what people are going to think about it. 

MK: Tell me one thing, how did you prepare for this particular role, it is a very challenging role. You have to commit a murder to save your daughter’s life. How did you get into the skin of your character?

AB: Well, there was an extensive prep that went into this role. Because, what was really nice, Monitaji, is that as compared to film, in which we get 2-3 hours to tell our story and justify it, over here we get almost 12 hours (because there are 12 episodes). So you get that much more material that you get to work on and that is very exciting for me. This is the first time you have been given the liberty of time (as an actor).

MK: Did you have to change your physical look for the role?

AB: No, thankfully I didn’t. I had to get rid of my famous beard look that I have had. 

MK: Well that suits you! Do you think playing this role has changed you emotionally, or do you look at life a little differently now?

AB: Well, you know, like I told you, the basic theme of the show is such that it does beg you to ask certain questions of yourself. For example, how far would you go for your loved ones? It’s a very nice question to ask on face value, but it is very difficult to put in practice, that’s when the problem starts seeping in.

MK: I think the kind of bonds we share in India with our family/children are special and (this role) would put a lot of emphasis on that aspect when we see this streaming. I think it’s our roots and love which make us think in a particular manner.

AB: Yes. Very possible! And I will agree with you on that.

We have admired his talent in numerous Bollywood hits for the last 20 years and we get to see him once more in a very different role. I am partial to his light-hearted roles with his own unique, heart-warming, comedic timing. But after talking to him, I could not wait to binge-watch this series and see him perform in this distinctive genre.

The trailer of Breathe: Into the Shadows, has a Quentin Tarantino like feel and the series delivers cyclic, edgy, cinematography. There is a fragile backstory about family bonds and the meaning of love and nurture is emphasized. After binging, I have replayed the interview in my mind, and now am even more impressed by Abhishek’s deep interpretation of a complex and flawed character. I can see why having more time in filming this series helped with character development which can be seen through his facial expressions and mannerisms. Abhishek admitted to reading a lot of plays at a young age and this series pulls from theater as a nod to Hamlet’s revenge.

The script tackles a myriad of awkward human behaviors linked to developmental psychology. And as a physician, I like the interplay between characters and their unscripted awkwardness. Nithya Menen’s performance as a young mother whose child has been kidnapped for several months is heart-wrenching and Amit Sadh’s performance as a poker-faced police officer, Kabir Sawant, is noteworthy. I also liked Hrishikesh Joshi’s character, as Kamble with a ”b”! 

The last episode promises that the story is to be continued…To take slight liberty as a fan, I misquote: “Breathe is like money and I can’t wait to spend it!

Wishing Abhishek Bachchan a quick recovery from COVID and the entire team of Breathe: Into the Shadows a resounding success.

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

Diksha Basu: ‘Immigrant ExPat Is a Spectrum, Not a Binary’

“It was easy for my parents. They wanted to live in America when America was the clear choice, they wanted to get married when marriage was the only acceptable option, and then they wanted to get divorced right around when divorce became socially acceptable. The times rolled with them. Now there are no rules. I can do whatever I want, be whoever I want, and I don’t know if I want that freedom.”

– ‘Destination Wedding’ by Diksha Basu

Internationally bestselling author and actor, Diksha Basu is originally from New Delhi and currently based between New York City and Mumbai. She holds a BA in Economics from Cornell University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. In a phone interview, Neha Kirpal recently spoke with Basu about her experience writing about immigrants in a globalized world, the great Indian middle class, and using humor as a tool to explore contemporary India.

Diksha Basu

Neha Kirpal (NK): Your new book Destination Wedding is all about “family, careers, and belonging.” Tell us how you came up with the idea for the story.

Diksha Basu (DB): One of my points of inspiration was my own big wedding in New Delhi a few years ago, which was such a wonderful and mad experience with all my loved ones from all around the world for one week in one place where I had grown up. It was such a whirlwind in a way, and this book was a way for me to relive parts of that. I didn’t quite get to live in the moment, because the bride and the groom never really get to enjoy their wedding the way their guests do. This book gave me the chance to go back and experience it all over again. 

NK: Tell our readers about how you use humor as a tool to explore contemporary India.

DB: I live in Bombay most of the time. A lot about India can be so frustrating, and I think that if I didn’t write about it with humor, it might be easier to get angry or annoyed. That said, I feel a deep and great affection for the country and all my characters. And I think my humor comes from affection and never through mockery. I write about my characters with a big heart. I love my characters, cities, and settings. I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged in both India and America—I split my time now between New York and Mumbai. I understand now that home is an idea, not a place. My feeling of home comes from my family. That also allows for humor and comedy.  

NK: Your book The Windfall reportedly started off as a collection of short stories that you were writing during your master of fine arts (MFA) at Columbia University. How did the structure change to a novel? What elements of the story collection do you think remain in the final book?

DB: Yes, that’s right. The book started off as a collection of short stories that I was writing during my MFA and it slowly became a novel in the year and a half after I graduated. From the original story, hardly any of them remain. But that’s when I discovered my characters. I needed to write the stories in order to understand, know, and love my characters as deeply as I now do. But the structure of the novel changed completely.

NK: The Windfall is about the changing aspirations of an average Indian couple. How did you come up with the story?

DB: Before I started working on The Windfall, I was stuck in the void of writing about twenty-something women, because everyone says “write what you know.” Twenty-something women were just not interesting to me, and other writers had done it much better than I ever could anyway. I handed one of the first short stories from this collection very nervously to my professor Gary Shteyngart. Not a lot of people at Columbia were writing through humor but Gary came back to me a week later saying that he read it on a flight to China and found himself laughing out loud on the plane. I am so deeply indebted and forever grateful to Gary for reading and giving me the encouragement—and the permission, really—to write from the perspective of a middle-aged Indian man. His feedback gave me the confidence to keep writing these characters and to keep using humor as a tool to explore contemporary India. Later, I am forever grateful to my agent Adam Eaglin for reining in some of my attempts at humor. The book, I hope, is very different from a lot of the work coming out of the subcontinent right now. 

NK: How do you think your books speak to the current moment in India? What worlds, or collision of worlds, are they invoking?

DB: We live in a globalized world where the terms “immigrant” and “ex-pat” are quickly losing meaning. Indians in America no longer live afraid. They’re not on the peripheries, and non-Indians visiting or living in India are doing so for reasons other than tourism or volunteerism. There are a large number of immigrants that now defy definition and stereotype. There are people from all over the world who choose to live in countries different from those of their birth, but they still carry within themselves a sense of self-identity that isn’t necessarily tied to a nation or a race—and even if it is, it’s a source of confidence rather than a reason to apologize. 

There’s a global tongue emerging that goes beyond language. While parts of the world are also getting increasingly divided and frightening, some boundaries are also dissolving. The points of reference for a certain wealthy global elite are all the same. We live in the era of global citizens and that is a world that I really like to explore, which is what I do in my books. I know I’m making heavy generalizations here, and of course, I know there’s a worrying global refugee crisis on, there’s a lot of racism that the world is being forced to confront and contend with, and the luxuries of global citizenship feel so indulgent to speak about—but that is the world that I happen to write about. Fortunately, there’s room for all stories. Immigrant ex-pat is a spectrum, it’s not a binary.

NK: In a sense, your books bring out the plight of the great Indian middle class—neither rich nor poor. Please elaborate more on this “middle ground”, one that is “too confusing to explain to an outsider”.

DB: I write about a cross-section of society. My characters are never sitting in ivory towers. They live, breathe, and interact with the cacophony of the cities where it’s impossible to stay separate. The reason I like to write about and am currently living in a very urban Indian city like Bombay is that you have to be a part of the complicated fabric of the city—you can’t avoid it. The crossroads of property and wealth, the haves and the have-nots, the blurred line where the marginalized meet the mainstream—this is what I’m most drawn to in my work. There are so many windows through which one can look at the world, and this is the one that I choose. I love exploring how people from different worlds connect with each other, what humans have in common when there seems to be nothing at all in common. Do we surround ourselves with people who are mirrors or windows? How does that change how we see the world around us? I don’t have an answer for that. But it’s something I like to explore and keep coming back to in my work.

NK: One of the characters who is featured in both your books, Mrs. Ray, is a young widow who defies the stereotypes of widowhood. As someone independent and unconventional outside of social norms, what was your inspiration behind her character?

DB: Oh, I love Mrs. Ray! The idea of widowhood, and especially young widowhood, fascinates me. Women of Mrs. Ray generation in India are so often defined in terms of their relationships with other males—their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. What happens if you end up without any of those? Who are you? Who gets to define you? And what if it happens to you when you’re still young enough to have more years ahead of you than behind you? It’s almost as if Mrs. Ray has to keep it a secret that she is okay being widowed, that she’s happy living life alone, that she has her own sense of self that she doesn’t want to apologize for, and that she enjoys drinking whiskey!  

NK: Your father, Kaushik Basu, was India’s Chief Economic Advisor. You also studied economics at Cornell University. In a sense, was it inevitable for you to write books about Delhi’s explosion of extreme wealth?

DB: My father and I are very close. I’m very inspired by him when it comes to making things accessible. My father is a very technical economist. When he writes for newspapers or gives talks, he has the ability to engage people who have no background or interest in economics, and I’ve always admired his ability to do that. He’s an economist while also being a storyteller. Growing up, he often helped me with my math homework, and I developed a real love for math while studying it with him. He doesn’t allow his own breadth of knowledge to make it boring for others. So, I suppose I have grown up thinking about and discussing economics at home—but more on a micro-level, not on a macro level. So, I don’t know if the stories of my books are necessarily because of my conversations at home but definitely the fact that I am a writer is very much because of my parents who are also storytellers and readers. 

NK: Apart from being a prolific writer, you are also an occasional actor who has reportedly acted in two plays, a TV show titled Mumbai Calling, and a film called A Decent Arrangement. Does your acting help your writing, or the other way round?

DB: I love writing dialogue. I love the space between what people say and what they think they are saying and what they actually want to say. That space is where the stories are. In mainstream Bollywood, the stories are not in the space between the lines—and there’s no room for subtlety. I really like the television and film industry and I think the entrance of streaming networks like Netflix and Amazon are changing the kind of television and films being produced and consumed.

The Windfall is currently in pre-production with anonymous content in Los Angeles to be turned into a TV show, and I’ve also just signed a development deal with a very exciting team for Destination Wedding. I am going to play a more active role in the screenplay of Destination Wedding, because I think that’s a very obvious progression for me—combining both my career in acting and fiction.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.

Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak: Behind The Scenes

With her latest film Chhapaak, Deepika Padukone addresses vitriolage, shatters gender stereotypes, and attacks modern-day misogyny.

Malti (Deepika Padukone) was attacked with acid on a street in New Delhi, in 2005. Through her story, the film makes an attempt to understand the on-ground consequences of surviving an acid attack in India, the medico-legal-social state of affairs that transpires after the acid has been hurled and the face is irreparably burnt. Beyond its cinematic sphere, movies like Chhapaak are characterized by their sheer necessity in our society where women are forced to grapple with heinous acts of violence in real time.

This movie helps to raise awareness about a key societal issue yet also helps to shatter stereotypes that surrounds its victims. Deepika’s character is searing not because she is wildly different but because the movie proves that she is just like the rest of us. Chhapaak opens Friday, January 10 in theaters across North America.

Watch this new behind-the-scenes video featuring interviews with Deepika Padukone and director Meghna Gulzar about the making of this acclaimed motion picture.

To find out more about this movie, click on the subtitled trailer here.

Local theatre and showtime information is available here.

 

 

Ghazal Singer Roshan Bharati in the Bay Area

India Currents got the opportunity to speak with Dr Roshan Bharti during his recent visit to the Bay Area. “I was born in the family of professional musicians for 17 generations. I am carrying the torch of my family legacy – my grandfather was Ustad Jamal Khan, a famous vocalist who belonged to the Senia gharana (also known as the Kalavant gharana) of Hindustani classical music, which traces its roots back to famous musician Miyan Tansen, one of the nine jewels of Emperor Akbar’s court in the15th century,” says Dr Bharti. “Ustad Jamal Khan is known to the world as the legendary ghazal singer Jagjit Singh’s teacher.”

Bharti has served as Associate Professor of Indian classical music for the last 25 years, imparting knowledge to a new generation of students, He has performed with on stage with the world-renowned great ghazal maestros and legends Ustad Mehdi Hassan, Ustad Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh and Abida Parveen. Associated with Doordarshan and All India Radio as a “Top Grade Artist” he has composed and recorded numerous ghazals. 

——-

SF Mayoral Candidate Angela Alioto Talks to India Currents

Angela Alioto, mayoral candidate, was born and raised in San Francisco. Her parents are former San Francisco Mayor Joseph L. Alioto and Angelina Genaro Alioto. During her service on the Board of Supervisors, Angela was elected President of the Board. She served as Vice-Chair of the Board’s Finance Committee, Chair of the Health, Public Safety and Environment Committee, and Chair of the Select Committee on Municipal Public Power, a committee she created as President. On January 8, 1997, Alioto left the Board of Supervisors due to term limits.

Her campaign reached out to India Currents and we the opportunity to talk to her one on one. Here is a transcript of the interview:

Vandana Kumar (VK):  I publish India Currents magazine. We’ve been around for thirty-two years. India Currents is devoted to the exploration of Indian culture as it exists in the United States, as well all issues of interest to the Indian community. Also on this call is my partner, Vijay Rajvaidya.

Vijay Rajvaidya (VR): Angela, hi. I am a thirty-five year tech veteran from the Bay Area. I joined India Currents five years ago to actively engage with the Indian community.

Angela Alioto (AA): Hello.

VK: One of the things that interested me was that you have really deep ties to San Francisco. You were born here, raised here, educated here, you’ve done years of public service here. Your father was the mayor of San Francisco. So, you must have been influenced by his service. Can you tell us of any incident that may have left an indelible mark on you or something that prompted you down this same path of public service?

AA: I think that the fact that my father was a coalition builder really impressed me in my youth. One of the most important things that stands out to me is when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, we were there with the black Baptist ministers and the other cultures and they all stood together on the steps of city hall and made it very clear to the public that wanted to riot that it was much better to do a peaceful march. So as a consequence of the coalition building that my father did with different communities, we were the only city that did not riot. I think that’s one of the best talents any mayor can have: being able to put communities together so they work for the betterment of the people. That is absolutely essential and that is something that is totally missing today in today’s government.

VR: That’s true.

VK: What year was this?

AA: 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated. Two months later Bobby Kennedy was… those were very tumultuous times.

VR: Angela, I have a question a little bit more to the ground here. I was looking at the last Census numbers and according to the 2010 Census one-third of the population in San Francisco is Asian and there is a growing population of Indian-Americans there, largely young, highly educated, second-generation Indians who have made San Francisco their home. Their main concern is adequate and affordable housing. Can you tell them how this is going to happen in your administration? In particular, if you could elaborate on your idea of prioritizing “density over raising height limits?”

AA: Well, first of all, affordable housing is the top priority problem in San Francisco. And it’s because we have so many new employees that have come to San Francisco who can afford higher prices and, as a consequence, so many people were worked out of the available housing that we have.

VR: Correct.

AA: The only way we’re going to be able to do anything about this affordable housing crisis in San Francisco is by building more density. We absolutely need to build the 5,000 units that Mayor Ed Lee suggested and along with that we have 17,000 units that are in the pipeline. But as far as it ever being really affordable, depending upon someone’s salary, that’s going to be the problem of the future, trying to figure out what is affordable. Right now, they’re calling affordable housing for any one project that’s done, let’s say they do 25 percent or 30 percent affordable housing, well affordable housing is $130,000 a year salary. That’s not affordable for a lot of people.

VR: Correct.

AA: The question is where are the people who make $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 where are they going to live? I believe that you have to do dedicated buildings and developments for them. It’s just terrible what’s happened in San Francisco. We have young kids that are making so much money that the price of an apartment, it goes up three to four thousand dollars for a single bedroom, I mean, people can’t afford that.

VK: That is very true. You know, in the last few weeks, there has been much conversation around the issue of San Francisco as a sanctuary city. Can you explain to our readers what is different about your position on this versus the other candidates and why.

AA: I am very surprised that the other candidates came out against me on this. I wrote the original sanctuary city law. I never included dangerous felons. So, in 2016, they amended it and they added dangerous felons. So what my ordinance does is it takes the protection of the sanctuary law away from dangerous felons. In other words, if you’re going to kill somebody, if you’re going to rape somebody, if you’re…going to create mayhem, then you are not going to be covered by San Francisco’s sanctuary law, as you are not covered in the State of California. So, I was very surprised to see my opponents come out against it. Why they want to protect dangerous felons I do not understand.

VR: Yes, that can be of quite a bit of interest to a younger generation as I believe because they also take a certain kind of pride in this position. It’s a good thing to explain the difference and we’ll try to do that. I am going to move onto a different subject matter here.

You know, the Indian-American community is now getting involved in the political process all over the country, as a matter of fact. Currently, we have five Indian-Americans serving in the U.S. Congress. And, this year alone, eighty-eight people are running for various public offices and yet there is no Indian-American county supervisor. You have been one, so I thought I would ask you, how does one become a county supervisor?

AA: Well, first of all, San Francisco is a city and county, so we don’t have a city council, so you’d be a supervisor for the whole city. What one has to do is get involved with the grassroots organizations. Get involved. Go out and register people to vote. Go out and get involved in the community and help with the homeless. Help with the drug abuse situation and the dirty streets. You have to organize and get involved and then put your name on the ballot and run in a district. It should be absolutely foreseeable that a person of Indian descent would be able to be able to be a supervisor in San Francisco. I know that as mayor of San Francisco I will appoint a large diversity of supervisors when an opening comes because I totally believe in the cultural diversity of our city.

VR: That would be of great interest to our readers, yes.

VK: So, Angela, you have run for mayor twice before, but not succeeded.

AA: I just missed it in 2010. I just missed it.

VK: So, what made you decide to run again? I imagine it was not an easy decision?

AA: No, as a matter of fact I have a wonderful life. I am a civil rights trial lawyer, I have four children and five grandchildren, I live in Italy during the summer. I have a wonderful, wonderful life.

I decided to run for mayor because first of all I know how to take care of the situation with our homeless population and it’s so totally out of control that I can only imagine it getting worse and worse and worse. And I know I am the one person that has the experience to actually get the job done. As you can see with all the tent cities throughout the city, you desperately need someone who knows what they’re doing. Same goes for the drug and alcohol abuse that’s occurring in our city, and our dirty streets. That’s why I decided to get into the race. There’s no question homelessness was the key for me.

VR: You touched on homelessness, so that prompts me to ask you this: you know this is related to the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco. This statistic was interesting to me – a minimum wage worker would have to work 4.7 or approximately 5 full time jobs to be able to rent a two-bedroom apartment. San Francisco has several thousand homeless residents despite extensive efforts by the city government to address this issue.

AA: Right.

VR: And you know, this thing is still there. I have read your position and little bit on the homelessness, how you want to do it, but can you elaborate a little more to address this, because this impacts people living over there and also the tourists. It directly affects the tourists also.

AA: I’m sorry, that question is, the first one is about being able to afford to live here?*

VR: How do you plan to address homelessness?

AA: My homeless plan is phenomenal. My homeless plan worked. From 2004 to 2012, we housed more than 4,600 chronically homeless people. It absolutely worked. And they’re still in those apartments. But when things started changing in 2012 and they moved the homeless buildings to affordable housing buildings and then they moved the money around, that’s when we started picking people off the street and we had nowhere to take them. So, that’s the major problem. My plan is on the city website. Just put in the key word “Alioto” or “chronic homelessness”. It’s there, it’s extremely extensive and it absolutely works. It’s a huge success story. I have no idea why they stopped, no idea.

VR: Well, that’s why they have to elect you again, so you can…

AA: I’m telling you, I know how to do it.

VR: Yes…

AA: I’ll do it again, you’re absolutely right. It’s a matter of taking people off the street, which in 78 hours you know exactly where to put them because you can tell what kind of category they go in, whether it’s drug abuse, substance abuse, or whether it’s mental health, or whether it’s just someone who couldn’t pay the rent for two months and is down on their luck.

VR: Yes, that’s right.

AA: There are very different types of homeless people. And you have to decide what type they are before you start moving them.

VR: I was discussing exactly this with Vandana this morning!  Homeless people, they have to spend full-time of the day to just satisfy their basic needs, and it doesn’t leave them any time to think about how to get out of this situation.

AA: Right, right…

VR: You know, the basic requirements can be focused somehow, for taking care of basic needs…

I think being homeless is like…a full-time job.

AA: Oh, it absolutely is.

VK: Angela, so are you saying that the plan you had implemented and suggested earlier as something that worked and then they stopped it? Who stopped it?

AA: The city. When tech started moving into town, the city stopped everything we were doing. And moved the money and moved the buildings.

VR: Okay, we hope we can get control of this problem soon because it’s a beautiful city.

AA: I think working together we can, because, you know, you said something nobody ever says, and that is homeless people are working all day long just to survive, not to get out of homelessness. That’s an excellent observation.

VR: That’s true. That’s why I was telling if we could provide them with basic facilities like where to take showers or where to do things, that itself will leave some time so that they don’t have run around and look for the place…

AA: Right, right, right…

VK: People say, “get off the street, get a job.” Well…

VR: How do you get a job? You don’t have time to look for that.

AA: Right…

VR: So coming to the end, I have a kind of capping question. Many candidates for public offices have made special efforts to connect with our community, the Indian-American community, by going to their events, engaging with them culturally and socially, so I was going to ask you, do you have any specific message for our readers and do you have any plans to go and engage with this community in San Francisco?

AA: Oh, absolutely I do. First of all, I’m a third generation San Franciscan. San Francisco has always been an iconic cultural city. We need to cultivate all of our different cultures. So, I have actively, throughout my life, been going to the individual cultures to see how we can get them involved in government, to see how their small businesses are, to see how the quality of life is for them in San Francisco. I have always been actively involved in the Indian community in San Francisco, going back years and years and years. The Indian community has always been very supportive of me, especially the restaurant businesses.

VR: Yes.

AA: Always, always wonderful, wonderful. And, of course, we have commissioners. We have many Indian commissioners, not enough, but we have many that have been there for quite awhile that are my very, very good friends, so I have always interacted with the Indian community and I will do that as mayor…

VR and VK: Very good to know that.

VK: My sons actually live in San Francisco and I was asking them, “Are you going to vote?” Of course, they are my kids, so they are registered to vote, but when I mentioned your name, they said “well, there’s a restaurant by that name, …”

AA: Yes, that’s my cousin’s. Those are my rich cousins.

VK and VR: [laughter]

VK: So, that’s what they knew! … but I think it’s worth you doing an outreach to a lot of younger demographic as well.

AA: Absolutely. I hope your sons vote for me. It’s very important.

VK: I will tell them.

AA: This is a very crucial election. Crucial. All throughout the last five months, the other opponents have been saying they wouldn’t take money from outside sources, and now, the last three days they’ve all taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside sources. It’s just really been a terrible experience of dishonesty.

VK: What do you think is the difference between you (the candidates)? I see London Breed as polling higher, but we know a thing or two about polls!  In what way has your campaign been different from hers?

AA: I’m a very people person. I haven’t missed one panel, one debate, one interview. I have been everywhere. London is a very nice person, but she hasn’t participated very much in the election because she has so much money.

She has millions of dollars, over two million dollars they’re spending. Our campaign doesn’t have that. As a matter of fact, we didn’t get the public money that they all got. But having said that, we’re very, very different and I think you can see that in our platforms.

VK: Okay, sounds great. Thank you for spending this time with us.

AA: Thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

 

Sarod Maestro Rajeev Taranath Interview

One of India’s foremost classical musicians, Rajeev Taranath is a master of the sarod. His career spanning over four decades, has drawn accolades from critics and audiences throughout the world.

A distinguished disciple of the late legendary maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, he also received guidance from the great sitarists Ravi Shankar and Shrimati Annapurna Devi . Rajeev Taranath is the recipient of many honors including India’s highest government award in the arts, the esteemed Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2000.  He has received critical acclaim for his deep introspective style that melds imagination and emotional range combined with technical skill, and a highly disciplined approach to the development of a raga. “Rajeev Taranath’s sarod improvisations mixed the spiritual and the spirited…the raga began with introspective meditation and proceeded into an exuberant rhythmic celebration.” said critic Edward Rothstein of The New York Times   A noted linguist, he speaks eight languages fluently. From 1995 to 2005, Taranath served on the music faculty of the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Currently living in Mysore, India, Rajeev Taranath travels worldwide teaching and performing.  Given below is an interview with this esteemed musician. 

Did you grow up in a musical family?

My father was deeply interested in music. He used to sing and play the tabla. Although he was not a professional musician, I grew up with a lot of music around me. He started teaching me very easy songs. When I was around 3 years old, he made me listen to a lot of classical and vocal records and performances. I soon started singing and gave my first public performance at 10.

So, how did you leave singing for the sarod?

The most vivid moment in music I remember is the first experience of hearing Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, it was electrifying. I was and am a great admirer of Ravi Shankar’s music, so I used to attend every performance of his when he came to Bangalore, the city in which I lived. That particular time, he came with Ali Akbar Khan, who said that he would play the sarod along with him. Before that, I had heard very little of the sarod being played and definitely I had not heard Ali Akbar Khan play. It was a life-changing experience when he played his first movement on the sarod. That was my moment of epiphany, a moment of total grace.  As I was listening, my life changed. Music moved to the centre of the universe.  I was hooked and never looked back.

 Can you explain why it spoke to you so much?

Well, you know, it’s like falling in love. How can you explain it?

So, one performance changed your life?

My life changed direction after that point. After I heard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for the first time, it was a year and a half or more before I got introduced to him. I was just past 20 when I went to him and he soon accepted me as a disciple.

Please describe the training.

It was daily, sometimes twice a day, but then there would be periods with no lessons for a month or more, because he would be away, performing. By the time I went to him, the demand for his public performances was very high. I started practicing one hour, two hours. Then, for some time, it went on for up to 12 hours a day.

How do you work when you’re practicing music for 12 hours a day?

At that point, I was a beggar. I couldn’t find a job, but there was a benefactor Mr. P.K. Das of Kolkata. This man had nothing to do with music, but he gave me a room, and not very much later, he and his wife insisted I should have my meals with them. I had some sort of job afterward to keep me going, but they took care of me for six more years. That gave me an opportunity for which I am profoundly grateful, to practice many, many hours a day.

You had a very successful career as a vocalist when you were young. You were even described as a child prodigy. I have heard that you were and are profoundly moved when listening to the great vocalist Abdul Karim Khan. Why did you decide to switch to sarod? Many people say that the voice is the ultimate instrument for Indian music.

There is no doubt that vocals are at the center of our music. But Ali Akbar Khan is for me the paradigmatic example of excellence. I would say that in his sarod playing there is a kind of vocalism. He has a flexibility and versatility to his imagination, all of which have vocal sources. It’s not that he actually plays vocal bandishes. There are sarod players that do that, but he is not one of them. Vocalism is for him an abstract, silent, but immediate storehouse for the movements of the raga. It’s the thing that makes a raga more than a scale. I can almost say that given two very good instrumentalists, the person who is the better vocalist—in this special metaphorical sense—is the one whose music will have more “juice.” He might not be the fastest, but that’s because he would have no need to be the fastest.

Has Hindustani music changed over the years?

To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to compare music to both language and physics. If you compare the English of Shakespeare’s time to modern English, you can see that it’s essentially the same. There are noticeable differences, but we can still understand Shakespeare. The physics of Shakespeare’s time, however, has been completely replaced by modern science. Throughout the history of Hindustani music, there’s been the same kind of growth and change that you can see in a language. But you don’t have the new completely replacing the old, as is the norm with scientific progress. For example, Ali Akbar Khan made profound changes in the sarod. Before him, the instrument sounded quick and staccato, with lots of trills. Khansahib still uses those trills, but his innovative playing gives the instrument a new profundity and depth.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in playing Hindustani music?

First, of course, you must practice and study diligently. If you do that, you will become either a competent or an incompetent player, and you will get to know which very soon. But once you have crossed the bar of competence, in about three or four years, what do you do then? You know how to play the raga correctly, but then what? At that point, playing the raga is rather like spreading butter on bread. You’ve got to see how well you can spread it, and how widely you can spread it. You must push at the frontiers of the raga, and yet see that it doesn’t break. If the raga breaks, you are in a kind of melodic anonymity, which ultimately breaks you as a musician.

Have you managed to stretch the borders of any of the ragas you play?

I try. When I play Patdeep, it’s difficult to make it long. You can feel very comfortable playing Yaman long, because
it’s quite spacious and flexible. So is Bhairavi. But Patdeep is very brittle, and can’t be stretched easily. The rules for Patdeep are very strict, which is why it makes such an immediate effect. Once you’ve heard the identifying phrases, you know exactly what it is. But that’s a double-edged sword, because the audience is immediately “Patdeeped,” and it seems to be near closing time right away. Then you’re left with the challenge of where to go from there. For Patdeep, I try to unfold the scale of the raga a little bit at a time, so you can hear every nuance. You have to hold the raga back, stop it from exploding through you. That enables me to stay inside the raga, and not let the raga go, even when I’m playing for a long period of time.


Last month I did a concert in which I played Patdeep for the alap-jor-jhala, and then switched to Madhuvanti for the gat. Madhuvanti has almost the same notes as Patdeep, and many of the same note arrangements. But Madhuvanti has tivra ma (raised fourth) and Patdeep doesn’t. Even though the notes are similar, the mood is very different, and these differences have to be kept. I wanted to create a natural change in mood, while still maintaining a sense of unity in the performance.

When you play two ragas together, how do you decide which ragas to combine?

There’s a kind of dialectic involved between a technical closeness, and yet the need and challenge to keep the moods different while playing in very similar scales. There are also other factors not as capable of tidy articulation. You might combine a raga that has a certain kind of gravitas with something that is not quite so serious—moods that are contrasting, yet still very close.

Can you speak about your approach to developing a raga throughout the many years of riyaz?  

There’s a kind of patience that you learn to take with you to the raga. If you’re patient, the raga will speak to you eventually.

Can you discuss the ideas you have regarding teaching Indian classical music?

 When it comes to teaching of music, there is a trio – a teacher, a learner and an instrument. The teacher demonstrates how he has put the instrument to use and what he has been able to achieve. The attempt here is a give and take of such experience. This exploration of possibilities, initially in the form of bits and pieces, as alankaras or tabla bols or whatever, later on turns into an exercise in bringing together these little experiences to construct a creative whole. Further on, it is a kind of invitation to the learner to live with the teacher in the common world of music and in this journey together, the learner may even reach beyond. Each one’s style of playing is guided by one’s own possibilities, difficulties and impossibilities.

What is special about your gharana?

Unlike other gharanas which for many years remained closed-door, teaching freely with openness is a major preoccupation with the Maihar. Allauddin Khan, the Paramahamsa-like saint-musician took to vigorous teaching. This can perhaps be traced to the difficulty he encountered in learning and the fact that Allauddin was compelled to choose the sarod in a veena-dominated tradition which confined its veena–teaching to its kin alone. But his ingenuity incorporated the possibilities of veena into the sarod, remodelling it for the purpose. Several nuances of the veena came into sarod-baaj and later years saw the promotion of sitar, sur-bahar and sur-singar.

The Maihar-Senia gharana, which traces its lineage to Tansen in the 16th century, was one of the few schools that taught women music and we find historically the presence of many distinguished women instrumental performers within it from Saraswati, Tansen’s daughter, to Annapurna Devi, the daughter of the legendary Allauddin Khan.

In the context of our guru-sishya parampara and the oral/aural tradition, you once mentioned the ‘mediation of the eye’ in western classical music. Don’t you think a guru’s role is equally vital there in guiding….?

Mediation of the eye is important in Western classical music because of the reliance on the system of notation. The journey is from note to note but nothing as much may happens between the gaps. It is in the movement between notes that one’s culture operates. Mimesis is the basis of our music-teaching. Our music fills up with meends, gamaks, bols and these cannot be written down. We clutch the guru’s imagination, his mind that is so private. A guru gives good active seeds… but can one teach creativity?’ The artist or maestro, as T.S. Eliot says, lives at a conscious point where past and future are gathered. He has all the richness of the past, waiting to pass it on to the future, for his students to gather it all.  So I try to teach, but a problem which I have repeatedly faced is this: I can transfer musical information but I don’t know yet, how to transfer the sense of relish. This is important in the kind of music we play and teach because the given is so tenuous.    

Can you explain the artist’s process or desire for mastery?

To make better music– there is a desire, which is a life-long process- to create a match – to bring the thought and performance nearer and nearer.  Actually it is the desire to translate what is happening in your mind into your fingers – even without that gap. The finger itself becomes imagination.  But curiously the more you master, the more your imagination becomes active. Because what strikes you or me is seriously limited by what we can execute in singing or playing.  And as that capacity improves, your imagination improves. The more you go toward mastery the more you see, the more you climb, the more you see. So there is no end to that – they feed on each other.  Because you see, you want to climb more. Because you climb more you see much more. And so it goes on.  And that act itself is a matter of very profound satisfaction – a  fullness, which I suppose is why you are really after this exploration of mastery.   In music it is more obvious perhaps, but it is there in everything.

In the education of a performing art, there is the finding of greater and greater satisfaction in the possession of the knowledge you are seeking. The same art can be treated as a discipline or can be treated more casually, mechanically as a subject.  When music becomes a discipline, that’s your life, when music is a minor subject, it’s very different.  If anything becomes a discipline, you seek a fuller kind of satisfaction.  Simply being well- trained in something is not enough.  Often many are well-trained for a purpose which quite often lies outside the central subject.  Their own interests are elsewhere.    When something becomes a discipline, that becomes a center of interest.  If it isn’t, it shows.  And in some artists it becomes obsessive.  And when it isn’t obsessive or the central interest you can make out at some stage.  

How would you describe mastery in this art form?

If given more time, I will go more and more toward radiant simplicities. Those simplicities are the product of a lifetime. Any durable experience has to arrive into a state of simplicity. Courtship is complex, a durable marriage is simple.

This article was compiled from several interviews by Leslie Schneider and is reprinted with permission from the Canadian South Asian magazine, “AAJ” (Oct 2016).