Tag Archives: Neha Kirpal

Left to right: Book - Are You Enjoying & Author - Mira Sethi

Mira Sethi Uncovers the Complexity of Pakistani Culture in ‘Are You Enjoying’

Pakistani actor, model, and author Mira Sethi’s recently released debut collection of seven short stories, Are You Enjoying?, brings out contemporary life in Pakistan, with themes ranging from adultery to politics, class divide, loneliness, patriarchy, homosexuality, #MeToo, religious identity, and national pride.

A graduate of Wellesley and Oxford, Sethi worked as the Books Editor at The Wall Street Journal before returning to Pakistan. Regularly appearing in mainstream Pakistani drama series on television, Sethi is also a contributor to various publications, such as the New Republic, The Daily Beast, and the New York Times. Daughter of journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, Sethi currently lives between Lahore, Karachi, and San Francisco. 

Set in Islamabad, ‘Mini Apple’ is a story about Javed, a divorced actor turned TV journalist, who enters into a relationship with his neighbor, Marianne Almond, an economic officer at the American Embassy. After having dated for a few weeks, however, Marianne leaves suddenly for the US without informing Javed, leaving him heartbroken.

‘Breezy Blessings’, set in Karachi, is a story about Mehak, a 22-year-old struggling actress who lands her first lead role. The story underlines #MeToo and exploitation in the showbiz world. Along the way, Mehak realizes that being a good actor means to “make a pact with yourself that the job came before—and would withstand—the small treacheries detected by the heart.” 

‘A Man for His Time’, set within a university campus in Lahore, highlights, among other things, violence in the name of honor.

‘Tomboy’, a modern story set in Karachi, is the story about two childhood best friends who decide to marry—even though the girl in the pair is a lesbian.

‘A Life of Its Own’, a story in two parts, reflects different facets of the country, such as its politics, patriarchal attitudes, and the huge class divide between the rich and the poor.

The title story ‘Are You Enjoying?’, set in Lahore, is about 27-year-old Soni who embarks on an affair with a 47-year-old married man, Asher. While projecting the secret lives of the super-elite in present-day Pakistani society, the story also draws attention to other complex issues, such as addiction. 

All in all, the book highlights aspects of Pakistan’s culture that not many people are aware of. Moreover, it sheds light on the fact that though life in urban Pakistan is changing every day, people still routinely struggle with ideas of personal freedom and identity, particularly those belonging to more traditional, conservative backgrounds.


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. 


 

Left to right: Book - All The Lives We've Never Lived and Author - Anuradha Roy

Anuradha Roy’s New Book Pulls Us Into All the Lives We Never Lived

Set in World War II India, All the Lives We Never Lived (Hachette, 2018) is a work of historical fiction centering on themes of freedom, love, and loyalty. Ranikhet-based novelist, journalist, and editor Anuradha Roy’s novel about a rebellious Indian homemaker who breaks social convention to seek artistic freedom was longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature as well as shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award.

Author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth, and Sleeping on Jupiter, Roy decided to write the book one afternoon on a street in Ubud, where she was looking for the second home of Walter Spies. Spies, a German artist and musician, spent most of his life in Bali where he met the renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore as well as the well-known dancer Uday Shankar. He had wanted to learn Sanskrit and research Indian dance forms, but unfortunately, drowned at the age of forty-seven as a prisoner of war on a ship that was bombed and destroyed. To some extent, this book imagines what might have been had he made the journey to India.

The protagonist of the tale, Myshkin, is nine years old when his unconventional mother, Gayatri, runs off with a foreigner. Sixty-year-old Myshkin goes back into the past and recounts the various episodes that make up his life story. 

While Gayatri was growing up, her father took her to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Santiniketan, where they visited historical monuments and appreciated different kinds of art, classical music, and dance. In 1927, when Tagore was planning a trip to Java, they decided to sail the same ship, visiting Borobudur, Angkor Wat, and the temples of Bali. Her father wanted to show her a shared cultural universe in Asia which had not been swallowed up by colonization.

During the voyage, they are able to closely encounter Tagore who tells them about Walter Spies. In Bali, Spies takes Gayatri, her father, and their friends to various dance performances, concerts, beaches, and painting schools. Gayatri was attracted to the bohemian life Spies lived — exploring the world, making music, painting, and sleeping on a boat in a lake. 

Soon after the trip, Gayatri is married off to one of her father’s students in a small Indian hill station. Moreover, with the birth of her son, she feels trapped and longs to be free. While the nation struggles for independence against foreign oppression, she fights an internal war for her own personal freedom — dreaming of wandering the world and adventure. In 1937, Spies comes to India to document a book on India’s dances. When he arrives at their little hamlet searching for Gayatri, she decides to escape with him to Bali, leaving her home and family behind.  

Roy’s deep love for gardening, nature, and the outdoors comes across powerfully through the narrative. With exquisite descriptions, the book is set against the backdrop of a picturesque Himalayan town, complete with deodar trees, blue skies, clear streams, and rich forests. Further, as a young man, Myshkin works as a horticulturist and maintains a botanical journal of his wanderings through the mountains.  

Through lyrical prose, the book also allows the reader to virtually travel to Bali of the early twentieth century. In her letters to her son, Gayatri describes the fascinating ‘storybook land’ complete with its medicine men, rainforests, strange flowers, volcanoes, springs, and temples cut from stone. Sometimes, her letters have pressed butterflies, leaves, or dried flowers in them. Gayatri also draws many parallels between Bali and India. When he came there, Tagore too reportedly saw many similarities between the two countries and is believed to have said that Bali felt like what India must have been in ancient times.


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. 


 

'June' Film poster

June: A Marathi Film On Hope and Healing

The first and only exclusive Marathi OTT player, Planet Marathi Cinema, recently went live with the release of its first film June. The first-ever Marathi film to be launched on a Transactional Video On Demand basis, the film has been the talk of the town due to its star cast. Helmed by Suhrud Godbole and Vaibhav Khisti, its story is penned by critically acclaimed director Nikhil Mahajan who has previously proved his mettle with the Netflix Original horror web series Betaal

Directors – Suhrud and Vaibhav

Having been showcased at a number of film festivals, such as the International Film Festival of India 2021, the New York Indian Film Festival 2021 (Winner – Best Actor & Nomination – Best Film), and the Pune International Film Festival 2021, the film puts a spotlight on several trending real-world themes of our times, such as mental health, peer pressure, bullying, self-harm, and suicide. The makers hope that the film helps people struggling with these issues to step out and start a conversation about them, reach out to family and friends, and seek professional help. 

A young woman, Neha (played by Nehha Pendse-Bayas), leaves her husband and goes from their home in Pune to Aurangabad, where she moves into a new house in a colony. Here, she meets Neel (played by Siddharth Menon), an engineering student who has failed his exams and is in his native town with nothing to do for a year. Neel struggles to meet his parents’ expectations and longs to flee his boring hometown where “who’s related to who is more important than how a person really is.” 

As Neel begins to show Neha around the city on his bike, the two bond about their lives and anxieties. Neel confesses that he feels responsible for the suicide of his hostel roommate who was routinely teased and bullied by their classmates. Neha too shares with him the trauma of her miscarriage, which possibly became the reason for her separation from her spouse. As the two begin to sort out each other’s problems, they end up resolving their own dilemmas too. 

Through the protagonists’ stories, the film throws up many emotionally layered moments and highlights various inner frustrations of young people, their doubts, insecurities, and confusions. Along the way, it also offers several subtle messages, such as the fact that we often tend to overrate failure—whether at work or in our relationships—giving it too much importance in our lives, and that people can heal if they open their hearts to each other. At one point in the film, Neha also reminds Neel that “what you are isn’t where you are in person, it’s where you are in your mind.”

Film still from 'June'
Film still from ‘June’

Aesthetically shot, the film also captures the city of Aurangabad extremely well—its landscape, ancient monuments, sights, and sounds. Interestingly, the dialogues are not just in Marathi, but in English as well. Further, the film’s gentle background score masterminded by Shalmali Kholgade consists of some soothing guitar strums and soulful tunes, with heart-touching lyrics by Jitendra Joshi and Nikhil Mahajan. 

To watch the film, one can buy a ticket from the Planet Marathi Cinema app.


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. 


 

Book cover of "V For Vaccine'

V For Vaccine: South Asians Educate Early

One of the hottest ‘V’ words that has the entire world talking about them these days is vaccines. Either someone has recently taken them, is taking them, or is about to take them! Lately, young children have been observing adults around them—their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—taking the all-important Covid-19 jab. Moreover, now in several countries, with vaccine trials for children underway, the book is a useful manual to help them understand what’s going on. 

Artist - Isha Nagar
Artist – Isha Nagar

V For Vaccine: A One-Shot Introduction to Vaccines! (HarperCollins, 2021) is a ready reckoner to tell children everything they need to know about vaccines. Through easy-to-understand language and colorful, quirky illustrations by Isha Nagar, the book explains the preventive nature of vaccines—how they teach one’s body to recognize and fight certain germs such as chicken pox or measles—and what makes them different from other medicines.

Originally from Lucknow, Nagar was born into a family of artists and writers. In 2010, she graduated from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi with a Graphic Design specialization. While working in the publishing industry, she discovered her love for illustrations and ventured into creating quirky, handmade illustrations. Based on the daily activities of Indians, it paved way for her own brand Tathya, which produced lifestyle products and designs. She has also illustrated for the Mini series by Nandini Nayar.

Much of the inputs for the book’s content come from Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a Professor of Microbiology at the Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory, Division of Gastrointestinal Sciences at the Christian Medical College, Vellore. Having worked on the development and use of vaccines for rotaviruses, cholera, and typhoid, she is the first woman working in India to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.  

“Vaccines are a clever way of teaching your body how to fight off germs that haven’t tried to attack you yet, so that the first time these germs try to make you feel sick, your immune system is already prepared!” In this way, the prose highlights the importance of vaccines by reminding us how so many diseases in the past have been eradicated through herd immunity. 

In simplified form, the book also introduces kids to concepts such as antigens as well as antibodies—“a protein shaped like a Y”—one of the most important elements of the immune system. The book also details the process of testing a vaccine in labs on humans and animals once it is created, and describes what the actual process of taking a vaccine entails: whether it hurts, how the body reacts to it and builds immunity, booster doses, and annual flu shots. 

A page from the book 'V for Vaccine'.
A page from the book ‘V for Vaccine’.

The book also lists other ways to stay healthy, including eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, getting exercise and staying active, following basic hygiene like washing hands before meals, sneezing or coughing into a tissue, wearing a mask, and practicing social distancing (particularly for Covid-19). Along the way, the book also offers some fun facts and trivia about the history of vaccines, informing that an English scientist, Edward Jenner, invented the first vaccine around 1796, using material from cowpox to give people immunity against smallpox. 

In all, this short and timely book is perfect to educate young ones about vaccines, and even includes a pull-out vaccine card at the end!


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. 


 

Left to right: Book - A Radiance of Thousand Suns and Author - Manreet Sodhi Someshwar.

Radiance of a Thousand Suns: Pieces of Missing History

“To memorialize, to remember, to sear it in our hearts so we never go down that path again. You think the schizophrenic Indo-Pak dynamic of love-hate-war-peace has nothing to do with ’47? That the path doesn’t intrude upon the present all the time? Did we lay the ghosts to rest? Do we tell the stories? Talk about them with our children and grandchildren? Do we have memorials to honor the ten million who trudged across the Radcliffe Line or a memorial for the one million who died?”

This is an example of just one of many stark excerpts from New York-based award-winning and bestselling author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s book The Radiance of a Thousand Suns (Harper Collins, 2019). The book, which won the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity and the PFC-VoW Book Award for Gender Sensitivity 2020, tells the story of a family through the history of a nation. 

The book’s central character, Niki, was delivered by midwives during the government’s sterilization Emergency, and her mother tragically dies giving her birth. As a result, she is primarily raised by her grandmother and an orphan Muslim girl, Nooran. Growing up, Niki’s grandmother shares with her many personal stories about the Partition, something that would resonate with several Indians whose ancestors had to flee their homes across the border overnight. In a country where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all lived like “spices in a masala box, tossed together for flavorsome food,” people had to be divided during the Partition. Someshwar goes onto trace the turmoil that continued in the 1980s—the encounter killings of militants, curfews, and shoot-at-sight orders.

As Niki grows older, she begins to realize that the world is a terrible place for women, who hide so many stories within them. Through the novel’s women protagonists, the author shares many thoughts about God, war, religion, men, and politics—primarily through the prism of a female perspective. During the uncertain days of the 1984 riots, Nooran becomes a victim of “fate and faith, patriarchy and prejudice.” Then, there is Jyot Kaur who lived through two terrible tragedies. As a six-year-old refugee girl, she survived the brutal Partition, even though her entire family was killed. Further, during the 1984 riots, she loses her family a second time when her husband and children are tragically killed. 

Someshwar writes that one has to sometimes engage with the past in order to grapple with the present. She questions why even after seventy-plus years of Partition—a time when women’s bodies became the battlefield—we haven’t been able to lay the ghosts to rest. Commenting on the fact that the history of independent India has literally been ‘his’tory, she asks the reader, “Does the fact that women bore the brunt of that violence, echo in this time of #metoo?” 

She concludes that while male victims of violence are publicly mourned, casual violence towards women, though hardly talked about, is a recurring theme—whether during the Partition, the stories of the Mahabharata, the ’84 riots, or daily life. “Rapes, dowry, deaths, female foeticide, bride burning, eve-teasing, acid attacks—it was a violence that sought to show women their place, to keep them in that place and if they dared resist, it would smack them back into place again, or take their lives,” she writes.

In 2001, Niki travels to the US where she witnesses another epochal event—9/11, analyzing its repercussions on the South Asian community. She learns that the first victim of a hate crime post the incident was an Arizona-based Punjabi Sikh immigrant whose beard and turban led him to be mistaken for an Arab. The author also goes on to offer some deep insights on racism, such as the fact that violence ultimately stems from ignorance. 

By means of a stark narrative that recounts horrific incidents, Someshwar relates stories and anecdotes from two cataclysmic events in India’s history—the Partition of 1947 and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984—particularly in Punjab. It leads Niki to finally decide to complete her father’s project of making the political personal by cataloging untold stories of the trauma suffered by silent survivors of the ’47 Partition and the ’84 pogrom in the form of a book.

Someshwar draws powerful imagery with her evocative descriptions. For instance, she creates visions of a typically Indian summer: “the lightest of muslins, sweetest of mangoes, blinds of bamboo, bare feet, cool floors, siestas, and stories…” Along the way, she makes frequent references to the state’s favorite lovelorn heroine, Heer, and quotes the ancient Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. Further, she peppers the prose with episodes from the timeless Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, in which the past is forever intruding into the present. 


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. 


 

Film still from Freddie's Piano featuring Aakash Prabhakar (left) and Pranav Mylarassu (right).

‘I Have Always Been Obsessed With Telling Stories’ Aakash Prabhakar Tells IC

Aakash Prabhakar’s English-language Indian film Freddie’s Piano recently made it to the official lineup of North America’s oldest and most prestigious film festival, the New York Indian Film Festival 2021.

Actor and Director, Aakash Prabhakar
Actor and Director, Aakash Prabhakar

Shot in idyllic Pondicherry, the film’s screenplay was written by national award-winning filmmaker Batul Mukhtiar. It is produced by New Hampshire-based independent film producers Somasekhar Kovvuri and Lisa Kovvuri and co-directed by Sudharshan Narayanan who studied filmmaking at the Mindscreen Film School in Chennai.

Prabhakar’s maiden venture in cinema is a music lover’s delight. A young adult film, it is a story about two half-brothers Aden and Freddie. Aden wants to give Freddie a piano to fulfill their father’s dream; Freddie wants to give Aden the freedom he dreamed about when their father was alive. In the end, both brothers learn that what they really need is each other. A simple film about what Aden does to get his younger brother Freddie a grand piano for Christmas, Freddie’s Piano was screened virtually at the Scottsdale International Film Festival last year from November 6 to 15, 2020.  

In this exclusive interview, he talks to us among other things about the inspiration behind Freddie’s Piano, his theater background, and star pianist from Rahman’s music conservatory who debuts in the film.

IC: Tell us about the idea/inspiration behind your film Freddie’s Piano.

AP: I always loved listening to classical music as a kid. I started learning keyboards in my early teens. I remember asking my mother to buy me a keyboard, which was way better and expensive than the one I had. She asked me to wait for some time and eventually bought it for me. Later, she told me that she had to take on more work, put in more hours in her business, and save more to get me that keyboard. The incident really stayed with me.  

Freddie’s Piano came from there. I have always enjoyed reading O’Henry. One of his popular stories, Gift of the Magi, is one of my favorites. It was also at the back of my mind when I was writing the story for this film. That’s how this story came together. An elder brother wants to gift his younger brother a piano for Christmas when he can’t even pay for his bus fees. The film is about all that Aden does to buy Freddie a piano for Christmas.

IC: Tell us a little about Pranav Mylarassu, a star pianist from A R Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory, who makes his debut as 12-year-old Freddie in the film.

AP: I wanted a kid who can play the piano well, and the head of the Conservatory introduced me to him. When he started playing, we couldn’t take our eyes off him. He knew all the classics—Beethoven, Mozart—inside out and played them with so much poise. I sent him the script, he had his scenes memorized and was very attentive throughout the workshops and the shoot. 

This was his first time acting on camera, so he was an empty slate. He really did justice to the part, capturing the innocence and honesty I wanted in Freddie. A very intelligent kid, he loves making origami, practices yoga every day, wants to be an aerospace engineer when he grows up and hopes to make space tourism possible. 

Pranav Mylarassu in film, Freddie’s Piano.

IC: Tell us more about your theater background, and some of the plays you have written, acted in, and directed in Mumbai.

AP: I have always been obsessed with telling stories. I acted in plays in school, directed and acted in plays in college. About seven-eight years ago, I started acting in plays professionally. After doing a few workshops, a yearlong course in theater-making, performance arts as well as acting in a lot of plays in Mumbai, I started my own company, Here And Now. My company has produced Crumpled that I co-wrote, directed, and acted in; The Drum Roll that I wrote and directed; Bull by Mike Bartlett that I acted in; and Cock by Mike Bartlett. My latest was Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron, in which M K Raina and I acted.

IC: Which are some of your all-time favorite films? Who or what are your biggest inspirations?

AP: The Shawshank Redemption, Children of Heaven by Majid Majidi, Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni, Salaam Bombay! by Mira Nair, Nayakan by Mani Ratnam, Bicycle Thieves, The Pianist, The Marriage Story, and A Separation by Asghar Farhadi.

What are you working on next?

AP: I am probably going to jump back on stage with Visiting Mr. Green and Cock by Mike Bartlett as soon as things open up. I am also working on Stephen Belber’s Tape, a really well-written script that also became a film directed by Richard Linklater.

I am constantly reading and auditioning for parts in films and web series. I am also developing a couple of film and web show projects. One explores relationships, mental health, and complicated love stories in urban cities and the other is a feature about the labor migration crisis that happened last year due to Covid.

View the film from June 4-13 here: https://www.moviesaints.com/movie/freddies-piano


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. 


 

Yung Raja (Image by Hans Goh)

‘I’m a Byproduct of Mixing the Vividness of My Culture’ Says Singaporean Rapper Yung Raja

26-year-old first-generation Singaporean Indian, and a prized member of the Def Jam South East Asia roster, Yung Raja‘s debut foray into the US territory commences with the release of his brand new single “Mami”, alongside Alamo Records, home to some of the hottest hip-hop acts such as Lil Durk and Smokepurpp. The artist, who has been dubbed as Southeast Asia’s next avant-garde hip-hop artist known for his tasteful unification of English and Tamil lyricism, aims to reinvent societal views in and out of his homeland, inspire the next generation of cultural conservators, and elevate Southeast Asian hip-hop to world-class stages through his music. Raja’s past few singles have zeroed in on his heritage, identity, and freewheeling way of life in Singapore. In March, he was included on NME’s 100 lists, appearing as the first-ever Singaporean to make it to the platform’s coveted “artist to watch” list.

In this exclusive interview, he talks about spreading joy, positive vibes through his art and his heritage-influenced music.

Yung Raja (Image by Hans Goh)
Yung Raja (Image by Hans Goh)

You just made your debut foray into the US territory with the release of your brand new single “Mami”. What was the idea and inspiration behind it? What response have you received? 

I’m truly inspired by how music can lift people’s spirits, and one of my biggest motivations is to spread joy and positive vibes through my art. “Mami” was a record we made encapsulating that, especially at a time where clubs are closed and people aren’t throwing parties anymore. I really wanted to bring the club to the listener. “Mami” is a banger that’s meant for having fun, and we are super grateful to have the support of Alamo Records in the journey of breaking into the US market.

Tell us how your Singaporean-Indian heritage influences your music. 

It’s what and who I am, really. Being a first-generation Singaporean Indian, my DNA is made up of all the wonderful things that make my heritage special. Being a hip-hop artist, it’s all about showing people your real background and story. I’m heavily inspired by my culture and driven to showcase different aspects of it tastefully through my arts.

Your previous songs have largely focused on your heritage, identity, and way of life. Tell us about some of the cultural issues that you hope to bring to light through your music.

Well, for me it’s all about representation. Being a part of a minority racial group in Singapore, I am very grateful to be able to use my voice to inspire goodness in others. Whilst doing so, I’m focused on shining light on various aspects of my culture in a manner that’s palatable to people all around the world.

Humour, color, and a sense of style always seem to mark your fresh and fashionable music videos. Tell us who or what are your musical inspirations.

I’m inspired by many different artists/people from the west and east – Tyler The Creator, Dennis Rodman, Travis Scott, A R Rahman just to name a few. I guess I’m a byproduct of mixing the vividness of my culture, the pride of my roots, my happy-go-lucky personality, and western hip-hop.

What are you working on next? 

More vibrations for people! Can’t wait to share more when the time’s right… all I can say for now is stay tuned! 


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’.


 

Left to right: Ladybug Film Poster and Filmmaker Abhishek Chandra.

Opening the World to Epics From India: Abhishek Chandra

Filmmaker, writer, and producer Abhishek Chandra‘s latest short film Ladybug has won 16 awards globally and is nominated in 10 others. Produced in Los Angeles under Meraki Studios, the English-Portuguese drama stars Isabela Valotti (who also wrote the film), Mia Drake, and Andre Mattos in lead roles. 

A poignant tale about dealing with the loss of a loved one, Ladybug is based on a heartfelt true story. The 14-minute long film is about Olivia, an artist who struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. As she recalls the tragic events that unfolded and the last conversation she shared with her father, she breaks down and lights a candle in his memory. It leads her to finally face the truth, and also repair the conflicted relationship she shares with her mother.    

Still from the movie ‘Ladybug’

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. We have our own unique ways of dealing with grief. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair—all you need is that one moment,” says Chandra about the idea behind the film. 

Born in Kerala, Chandra grew up in Nepal, studied in Dehradun, graduated in Delhi, and did his post-grad in Mumbai. Chandra who has backpacked across India, claims that his work is informed by his diverse background. He can speak five languages — English, Hindi, Malayalam, Nepali, and Maithili. He believes that his connection to these places and cultures has greatly helped him understand the people and stories about them. 

A huge fan of Indian mythologies, he has read most of the epics and hopes to adapt them into a modern retelling for western audiences. “We have such fantastic stories, characters, and plots in our mythology within these old texts that we can put films such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones to shame,” he says. Currently, Chandra is busy working on scripting two projects—a dark-comedy gangster love story and adaptation of a chapter from the Ramayana for a TV pilot. “Even if you take Krishna, Narad, or Rama, the way he led his life, you can build seasons of great television. I want to open the world to some of the most epic characters and stories from India,” he says.

After graduating from Whistling Woods in 2010, Abhishek co-founded a production house called Joker Films in Mumbai. For the next six years, he produced award-winning audio-visuals and commercials for major advertising agencies. He soon learned that telling stories in the shortest format with a lasting impact requires an impressive command over every aspect of production—from scripting to post-production. 

After shifting base to Los Angeles in 2016, Abhishek completed his yet-to-be-published debut book—And Then There Was One—a collection of poetry. He also collaborated with his long-time friend and artist, Sapra, on two Hindi music videos—“Ishq Nashila” and “Ishq Nashila 2.0”. Further, prior to Ladybug, Abhishek directed shorts in Los Angeles, such as Borders (2017) and Coco (2018).

Recently, he collaborated with LA-based hip-hop artist Jesse Cooley aka FOUR on his comeback album, which Chandra has produced and directed. Bringing together some of LA’s finest talents (including Gareth Taylor, Vihang Walve, and Michael Philpot), its songs are mounted on an incredible scale with a mix of live-action and VFX. The first song “Rock and Roll Soul”, released at the end of March, and the second song, “Love and Hate”, at the end of April. 


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’.


 

Left to right: Avni Doshi and her book, Girl In White Cotton.

Avni Doshi’s Uncomfortable Truths

“How many times must a performance be repeated before it becomes reality? If a falsehood is enacted enough, does it begin to sound factual? Is a pathway created for lies to become true in the brain? Does the illogical eventually get integrated with the rational?”

Avni Doshi’s acclaimed debut novel Girl in White Cotton (HarperCollins, 2020), a story about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, makes for a somewhat beautiful, disturbing read – evocative stories mingled with love-hate emotions. Born in New Jersey, Doshi is an American novelist of Indian origin currently based in Dubai. Equipped with a BA in Art History from Barnard College, New York, and a Masters in History of Art from University College, London, she went on to win the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and the Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia the following year.

Having suffered at her hands as a child, Antara is resentful towards her unconventional mother, Tara. Throughout her life, her mother always ran away from anything that felt like oppression – marriage, diets, medical diagnoses. When her mother begins to lose her memory to Alzheimer’s, Antara is faced with the reality of her situation and is forced to confront the truths of her past and present.

As her mother undergoes therapy, Antara traces her tumultuous life – right from her years of teenage rebellion to her unsuccessful marriage, love affair, and subsequent deterioration – seeking to understand what made her do the things she did, and its repercussions on Antara’s perceptions, complexes, and insecurities that she carried into her own adulthood. Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, the book is written in Antara’s first-person and reads throughout like an intimate, personal diary. While its tone is mostly easy and conversational, its subject matter is intense, often draining.

For some of her most crucial, formative years, Antara lived with her mother in an ashram, when the latter found her way out of the loneliness and boredom of her marital home by devoting herself to a guru. It was here that she perpetually began wearing a white cotton fabric as the means to her truth: “a blank slate where she could remake herself and find the path to freedom.” 

Mental health is on the tip of our tongues these days, and it certainly makes up one of the central themes in this book. The prose is routinely sprinkled with several pearls of wisdom, such as “miscommunications emerge from mislaid certainty,” “intention and reception almost never find each other,” and “caregivers need care too.” In a sense, the story also brings out the significance of good parenting and the fact that painful experiences during one’s impressionable childhood can haunt and scar an individual for life. 

The book also has a strong sense of place. The sights, sounds, and smells of Pune make a powerful backdrop to the story and waft right through its pages. Along the way, there are references to well-known city spots such as the historical Shaniwar Wada fortress, MG Road, Boat Club Road, as well as several bars, cafes, and restaurants, such as Kayani Bakery, the Poona Club, and the German Bakery on North Main Road (which was bombed in 2010). 


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’.


 

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

‘I Was Told to Tone Down My Ethnicity to be Successful in America’ Notes Raja Kumari

Indian-American rapper, songwriter, and singer Raja Kumari is a force of nature. Hailing from Claremont, California, she is best known for her collaboration with notable artists including Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony, Knife Party, and Fall Out Boy. A fearless, charismatic personality and natural-born storyteller, her mission is to create art that blends her Indian roots with her American upbringing.

In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about the challenges she had to face as an American of Indian origin, her latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ and ‘Hello World’ which released on Women’s Day, and philanthropic activities that she participates in through her music.

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)
Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

Being of Indian American origin, tell us more about the challenges you had to face and the uniqueness you bring to your music. 

RK: One of the main issues I faced trying to get started in America was racism. I was always told to tone down my ethnicity, that I was “too Indian” to be successful in America. I struggled to find someone to look up to as a South Asian kid in America. I remember, on weekends I would travel for classical dancing and wouldn’t necessarily share that with my friends. I would come to school with the Alta (painting the palms and feet with a red dye) fading on my hands and they’d ask me, “What is that? Do you have a hand disease?” 

Things are evolving in the US now. I like to call it the ‘brown renaissance’ Indians are more relevant in so many fields, especially entertainment. On the other hand, some people in India called me a ‘culture vulture’. How can I be a ‘culture vulture’ in my own culture just because I’m born in America? I’m not just another South Asian. I still have put in my time to be Indian enough to talk about India without being an appropriator of culture. My family did a really great job of preserving the culture for us. We don’t fake it. We wear sarees for pujas, my mom does Vijayadashami and Navratri, I have studied Indian music and dance. As a result, my style is just a balance between the East and the West. 

I think learning to navigate both worlds with authenticity has helped me become the artist I am today. I have carved a place for myself in the male-dominated music circuit by staying authentic and rooted in my culture. I think there a lot of women in the industry who say a lot of things from the female perspective about relationships, broken hearts, love lost, pain, sadness, happiness, or sexiness; there are so many of those voices. I felt like we were missing my perspective. Of course, I could sing soft and beautiful songs but there are many people to do that.

You are also a trained dancer in Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Bharatanatyam. Tell us more about this passion of yours. 

RK: My passion for Indian dance started at a very young age. My mother had always wanted to be a classical dancer and it wasn’t feasible for her to pursue it growing up, so it was always in her heart to have a daughter who was a dancer so I came out dancing. My attachment to classical Indian dancing really gave me so much of my personality, so much the way I dress and the way I perceive the world, and also the stories that I relate to. Some kids grew up to Batman, Superman and I was really obsessed with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the stories of Hanuman. Those were my superheroes, and so I think classical dance really made that a part of my life. 

Tell us more about philanthropic activities you have participated in in the past through your performances. 

RK: I always believed art should be used for the greater good. Since I was a child, my parents always involved me in a lot of charity work and I was able to help build the meditational hall in Hyderabad and donate a wing for a hospital in Bengaluru. I consistently performed for so many temples to raise funds for building certain temples in Southern California. I think now I definitely use my art to open doors for others to create an opportunity to inspire. There are many philanthropic activities I am a part of but I mostly like to support the charities that support the girl child because I believe in India, we need more attention and more support to encourage young girls to be in art and not just sciences or leaving school as we usher in an era of more creative artists. I think we have enough of everything else and I would hate to lose our artistry as a culture with the idea of modernizing ourselves and lose everything we are, so anything that will help support the art, I am there.

Who are some of your inspirations? 

RK: Madhuri Dixit, Lauryn Hill, Kamala Harris, Missy Elliot, and Beyonce.

Tell our readers more about your latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ (featuring Kiara Advani and Bani J in lead roles) as well as ‘Hello World’ (with Hollywood actor Rita Wilson and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte), both of which released on Women’s Day. 

RK: Both these tracks were created from the inkling to motivate and inspire young girls. Teaming up with Rita Wilson and Claudia Leitte on ‘Hello World’ was amazing, as these are two women I have so much respect for and it was really cool to see how our styles complemented one another. When boAt approached me to write ‘I Am A Rebel’, I was so excited to collaborate with my longtime friend DJ SA on the music. I’ve always considered myself a rebel in my music choice, my career, and my unapologetic nature! I loved crafting the lyrics to depict that energy and I’m so happy to have been joined by so many strong women like Bani J and Kiara on the campaign.


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. 


 

Music From Your Inner Truth: Anoushka Shankar

Last year was a tough one for sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar, in which she dealt with painful milestones such as her hysterectomy and separation. In a freewheeling chat, she bounces back and talks to us among other things about her goals for 2020, her new EP Love Letters, her upcoming India tour and plans for her father Pandit Ravi Shankar’s centenary birthday celebrations.

Tell us about your new EP, Love Letters.

On Love Letters, I focused exclusively on songs with lyrics, creating a collection of songs that directly address heartbreak and its ensuing emotions in a way that instrumental music can only hint at. Also, I feel Love Letters has been part of a longer journey towards a very simple, international sound in which the sitar is no longer exotic or classical, but simply a tool of expression when juxtaposed with the voice and cross-genre elements.

You are coming back to India after almost two years to perform. How does it feel to be coming back?

Yeah, it’s been the longest gap. It feels really weird to have been away so long, so it feels important to be coming back. And I’m obviously looking forward to seeing a lot of friends and to sharing this music. But also, it’s a really interesting time over there right now. There’s a whole other level of engagement that’s going on in a way that I find really exciting and inspiring. I’m looking forward to kind of touching base with that as well.

Tell us about the plans for your father Pandit Ravi Shankar’s centenary celebrations that are being kicked off this year.

It’s hugely exciting. This is really the big event of my year, as my dad would have been turning a 100 this year. We are doing a series of really special concerts that will never happen again. Incredible collections of musicians will be coming together on a stage and playing music that people never get to hear live. The details change in different cities—we are kicking off in London, we are going to America, and we’ll be coming to India.

In some cities, we have some really amazing guests. For example, on his actual birthday, my sister, Norah Jones, and I will be playing together live for the very first time, which is really exciting and special. That will be in London. I’m very involved in putting the shows together, choosing some of my favourite music of my dads, and I am really excited about bringing that back to India later in the year.’

You have found a new path in sitar music, deftly blending classical raga structures with flamenco, electronica and blues. Do you think you would have been dissatisfied doing just classical music, delving only in that world? As vast as it is, did it feel limiting?

I’ve always been extremely interested in the technique and thought required to dialogue with other musical styles at a high standard, rather than just as some casual jam or fusion experiment. I can’t say at all that Indian classical music is in any way dissatisfying; it’s as vast as the ocean! However, like other artists, I need to make music that represents my own inner truth and inner voice. I’ve found myself more able to do that within an international space that has an Indianness at its root but branches out to encompass sounds and cultures across borders.

During international collaborations, what are the points of confluence of Indian classical with other forms that you find?

It depends what style and with whom I’m collaborating. And also depends on my choices—there is an infinite gradient between one style and another, and whether to meet in the middle or closer to one’s root is purely a matter of choice.

You’ve spoken earlier about being tremendously affected by Europe’s refugee crisis. How do you feel about what’s going on currently with the new Citizenship Amendment Act in India?

Protests are an important part of democracies across the world. But what hurts is to read about the violence and fear around it. Everyone has the right to peacefully give voice to their beliefs. What’s been the most beautiful takeaway for me is to watch the people coming together and protesting and using their voices. That deeply filled my heart with hope. I was deeply moved and inspired.

Having watched events play out in America and Europe, how do you see India’s events tying with the global sentiment? Do you think this is part of a global sentiment that is spreading?

Yeah, I personally believe that. I am not claiming to be an expert, but that is my personal experience. Some of the details change—in California, when they talk about immigrants, it might be Mexicans they’re referring to when they speak in these horrifically dehumanising ways; or in Italy, it might be Somalians. But the attitude is the same, as is the process of distraction from the real causes of the problems people are struggling with. In other words, the spreading of intolerance due to fear is the same, and an increasingly prevalent shouty sound byte culture around the world leaves less and less room for respectful, nuanced dialogue. That’s just my opinion.’

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. 

The Light Side of Music

‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’ (Speaking Tiger Books, 2019) is Hindustani classical musician Shubha Mudgal’s first attempt at fiction. The book is a collection of seven heartwarming stories about Indian classical music set against a contemporary backdrop. In the acknowledgements, Mudgal summarizes that “humor camouflages the inevitable sadness that often casts a shadow over the lives of artists.”

While the stories talk about the music business from the perspective of the media, diplomacy and the diaspora, it also addresses it from the country’s heartland—its small towns and villages. The stories subtly delve into how classical music in India has evolved over the years due to various external influences and the struggle among its practitioners of  traditional and modern schools of thought. 

The following is a short summary of five of the vignettes from ‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’.

‘Aman Bol’ is a spoof on The Times of India’s real-life 2010 campaign with The Jang Group. This story involves musical collaborations between artists from two neighboring countries. The story presents a humorous side to all that went on behind the scenes to put together this publicity stunt–a ‘concert of peace.’ 

‘Foreign Returned’, on the politics of foreign tours in the music industry, shows how Indians living in the US perceive Hindustani classical music. The story also touches on some delicate, modern-day challenges that the art is facing, such as clashes between gurus and their shishyas. 

‘Taan Kaptaan’ focuses on a small-town musician who gets into the big, bad world of showbiz once he enters a partnership with a big businessman during a musical talent hunt. When he is duped, he has to, literally, ‘face the music’. 

‘A Farewell to Music’ is about a music label looking to reestablish itself as the country’s number one label. The story highlights how Hindustani classical music is being distorted in the present day, due to a conflict in ideologies between the traditionalists and young musicians, who are experimenting with music and altering it to fit the tastes of current listeners. 

‘Manzoor Rehmati’ is a story revolving around an average harmonium player who meets an influential Ustad in a quest to receive a Padma Shri award. The story sheds light on the prevailing lobbies that act to push for the prestigious national honor. 

While reading the book, it is evident that Mudgal is writing about so many people whom she may have possibly encountered and worked with during her long and illustrious career as a Hindustani classical musician. They all come together and make up an interesting cast of characters in this witty book that could even make for a fun Bollywood potboiler!

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New 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.