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Friday, February 6, 2015, 09:11

The idea of India

By Chitralekha Basu

The biggest-ever festival of Indian arts in HK, kicking off next week, promises a glimpse into the multiplicity and diversity of cultures India has come to represent in the present time. A curtain-raiser by Chitralekha Basu.

The idea of India

Sanjoy Roy, director of India by the Bay — the biggest-ever festival of Indian arts in Hong Kong (Feb 10 to 13) — calls Shabana Azmi the “Meryl Streep of India”. It’s a distinction that would probably sit lightly on Azmi.

Azmi has worked with some of the finest filmmakers of the world — including Indian maestros Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal. She went transnational, playing the lead in films made by John Schlesinger (Madame Sousatzka) and Roland Joffe (City of Joy), and has won India’s highest national award for acting five times.

Azmi also has a well-sustained, parallel career in activism. From sitting in on the street to protest the eviction of Mumbai’s slum-dwellers, to speaking up against religious fundamentalism of the most rabid kind — Azmi has been as fearless as she has been compassionate while making a case for fellow human beings in distress.

As a virtuoso performer and a human rights ambassador, Azmi is one of India’s most-recognized faces abroad. One might as well call Streep the Shabana Azmi of Hollywood.

We asked Azmi in the lead-up to her event on Feb 10 at Asia Society if Hong Kong should expect to see more of the actor or the activist.

"The two are not separate in my mind,” she said. “I grew up in a family (she’s the daughter of the poet Kaifi and actress Shaukat — leading lights of the Communist Party of India in its early days) that believed art should be used as an instrument for social change. For me, film and activism are two aspects of a worldview that fights for social justice, equality and human rights of the marginalized sections of society.”

Among the people eagerly awaiting her performance is Alice Mong, director of Asia Society Hong Kong ­— co-presenter of the India by the Bay festival.

"Although Hong Kong has a very vibrant Indian community, there has not been a large-scale festival looking at India’s dynamic contemporary cultural scene,” says Mong. She’s glad that Hong Kong, which “has a tendency to look westward, in the direction of the US and Europe”, will be getting a chance to look closer home. “India, like China, Japan and Korea, has much going on artistically and culturally, whether it is through films or performing arts. I am glad that we are able to showcase a few of the best here in Hong Kong.”

Festival director Roy — whose company Teamwork has been showcasing some of the finest artistes and writers from India across the world in the last 25 years — says the name India by the Bay is a reference to the waterways connecting the two ancient civilizations of China and India, commercially, as well as culturally.

Prashant Agrawal, the Indian consul-general in Hong Kong, appreciates the metaphor of water as exchange. Along with his team at the Indian Consulate, Agrawal is a major rallying force behind India by the Bay — the first in a series of events in Hong Kong to mark “Visit India Year 2015”, a campaign to encourage more Chinese citizens to make the trip. He draws attention to the fact that the festival is a continuation of the “dialogue between civilizations that has been going on since millennia”.

Beyond political boundaries

While India by the Bay is about celebrating that historical link, it is also about giving the Hong Kong audience an idea of India that is perhaps even more diverse, fluid and heterogenous than it has traditionally been.

Indeed, if the programming is anything to go by, the festival indicates that India is probably a lot bigger than the geo-political boundary defining its place on the map. Gilles Chuyen is a French dancer who will interpret the folk performing martial arts tradition of Chhau, the classical dance form Kathak, which was a staple of entertainment in the Mughal courts and yoga — putting a contemporary spin on all three. Likewise British author William Dalrymple — whose books are punctiliously-researched tomes, shedding fresh light on both Mughal and contemporary India — is perhaps more invested in India than a lot many authors of Indian origin.

"In the last decade or so we’ve seen an amazing growth in Indian non-fiction and I am very proud to be one of the writers on India who has been part of this growth,” says Dalrymple, who clearly has no doubts about where he belongs as a writer.

"The issues William addresses capture the essence of an India of yesteryear.” says Roy. Besides, he lets on, Dalrymple is quite the showman. The unlikely pairing of a British historian with the folk vocalist Vidya Shah, from the heartland of rural north India, Roy promises, will create a never-before experience for the Hong Kong audience. Together, they will “evoke a bygone era full of intrigue and romance”, he says.

"India has had a long tradition of oral literature, of bards singing poetry and in Mughal history, the Mushaira where contestants perform couplets to try to outwit each other,” adds Dalrymple. He is pleased to have “revived this old tradition of mixing music and writing and to find innovative ways of presenting a written text”.

One of the most eagerly-awaited gigs is Sonam Kalra’s The Sufi Gospel Project. Born into the Sikh faith, Kalra, a singer of Christian gospels, works with a multi-cultural, multi-faith band in which the keyboardist and guitarist are Christian, the sarangi and tabla players are Muslims and the flautist and percussionist belong to the Hindu faith. Kalra makes the 13th century Sufi musician and poet Amir Khusrau’s words resonate with the chords playing Amazing Grace and the couplets by 15th century mystic poet and humanist Kabir blend in seamlessly with Abide with Me — a Christian hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte, written in 1847. Her show, up on Feb 12 at Asia Society, arrives with the promise of bringing world music to Hong Kong, via India.  

"The festival presents and interprets India’s plural and composite culture in ways that would resonate with a global audience,” says the Indian consul-general. “While Hong Kong is no stranger to Indian cultural performances, it is for the first time that a festival of such dimensions and diverse palette is being held here. We are sure not just the Indians but Hongkongers and expats will enjoy and appreciate it as much.”

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