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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

The Bay Area's first South Asian Literature and Art Festival (SALA 2019)

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

The picturesque Villa Montalvo in Saratoga was the venue for the Bay Area’s first South Asian Literature and Art Festival (SALA 2019) which opened on October 6th.

It was presented by Art Forum, a non-profit that promotes all art forms, visual, literary and performing arts, emerging from South Asia, and the Montalvo Arts Center in collaboration with the UC Berkeley Institute for South Asia Studies.

The festival went from noon to 5pm, with different panels every hour on topics spanning art, literature, non-fiction and film.


Painter Rekha Rodwittiya discussed her reflections at 61 years with Dr. Prajit Dutta of Aicon Gallery, NY.

As they spoke, images several of her paintings appeared on a screen.

Speaking in winding sentences, she painted a colorful picture of her life and art Economically independent from the age of 18, she has been defining "a journey of truth and reality" in her life. She sleeps only three or four hours a day, working 14 hours a day in the studio, “doggedly, stupidly.”

Why do you paint, Dutta asked her. I don’t know how to do anything else, she replied. She took drawing courses as a child, as did many. She found a space where she can express her narrative. She came from a privileged background. Her father was a Parsi, atheist and a fighter pilot. At the age of five, she knew she would be a painter. She described herself as average but determined. In the late nineteen seventies, she was an art student in India, in Baroda. It was "a very fecund and wonderful environment of discourse," but she felt some restrictions. In 1982 there was a “seminal space of change.” Soon after, she read “Midnight's Children” (which was published in 1981), and Alice Walker (who won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple” in 1982.) It was a watershed moment and it gave South Asian artists and writers the confidence to tell their stories differently.

Later, she studied at the Royal College of Arts in London. Her years in London were formative: London allowed her clarifications, re-affirmations. She did not need to validate or explain her history. There she felt that each thread in a fabric is significant regardless of the color you are dyed.

During the audience Q&A, Siddharth Dube, writer and activist who read at a later session, asked her about censorship around the portrayal of eroticism in India. Rekha spoke of an exhibition that went to Venice, some 30 pieces. It was confiscated by upon return to India by the Customs authorities, who found it obscene and threatened to burn them. Read about it on this blogsite. Does she know what her painting is going to be when she starts? She made an analogy to writing: the characters tell you what it’s going to be.

Poetry "Poetry can transport you in a way that prose cannot," said moderator Ritu Marwah in a conversation with poets Athena Kashyap and Tanuja Wakefield. Marwah talked about her unfamiliarity with poetry. She referred to poems we had all learned in school and started to tentatively quote from Wordsworth’s most famous poem on daffodils. A woman in the audience immediately came to her aid, by reciting the entire poem. (Bravissima!)

Athena Kashyap is the author of "Crossing Black Waters" and "Sita’s Choice" and has lived in Bangalore and San Francisco. Her family emigrated from Lahore. She read “Partition Story” based on a true story from her family. She went on to read a poem about Leela, her house help in India.

Tanuja Mehrotra Wakefield, author of “The Undersong,” grew up in Cleveland to Indian immigrant parents, and now lives in the bay area. Wakefield told the audience that she is inspired to write on long walks. She read a short poem “Fear and Reverie.” It seemed too short and ended too quickly: there wasn’t enough to get us lost in the poem.

Wakefield referred to her second poem as speaking the unspeakable. She was a brown girl trying to grow up in a very white environment. The poem is called Skin Hymn. It begins:

Hamilton, you promised me

dung for Valentine’s Day, because it would match my skin.

This poem brought me to tears. My daughter is a brown girl growing up in a white environment, and as a little child encountered similar deeply wounding talk. It broke my heart to see her tears then, and the deep memory of that evoked by Skin Hymn brought tears again. Marwah asked the poets how do we enter poetry, and invited them to tell us about rhythm and poetry, what role rhythm plays when they write.

Kashyap read a poem “Shame” in honor of all the victims of honor killings, and used that as an example of rhythm. On how to enter poetry, Wakefield related that when she was poet laureate in Belmont, CA, she asked people to bring poems in and read them aloud “even if you don’t understand them.” Silence and space are very important to poets, she added, they play in important role in rhythm. She read “The Logical Song,” an exquisite poem about marriage.

An audience member asked, who do you write for? Wakefield replied with an eloquent quote from Yeats. “Out of our argument with others, we make rhetoric. Out of our arguments with ourselves, we make poetry.” "There are no margins." Professor Harsha Ram of UC Berkeley was in conversation with Minal Hajratwala and Siddharth Dube, LGBTQ writers.

Hajratwala thanked Anna Ghosh, who is a literary agent for both writers. She read a poem on her childhood experience of Hinduism, and another, "Insect Koan," drawing from her experience with Zen Buddhism. Dube, a non-fiction writer, was involved in the repeal of section 377, and the consequent decriminalization of consensual adult sex. He read two sections of his book, “An Indefinite Sentence.” The first was personal, about his encounter with the Delhi police department in 1988. As he described the policeman behind the desk, hate-filled and emboldened by power, I was reminded of the policeman in Arundhuti Roy’s “The God of Small Things” who insulted and humiliated Ammu at the police station.

The policeman in Delhi hurled insults at Siddharth, who stood his ground and responded “Just try to arrest me and see what happens.” I was struck by this. A person with a certain amount of privilege or a lot of support, can say this with confidence and not be harmed. But what of those who lack social recognition or support? What of the Ammus and Veluthas of this world? They would be arrested. Or beaten. Or even killed…. I stepped out of the session to run over to catch the end of the discussion around Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games and the making of the Netflix series. (The violence in that series, I must say, is a bit much for me. I soldiered on valiantly for many an episode, and finally said: no more.) The air-conditioned theater was a welcome respite from the warmth outside. The audience seemed quite engaged with Vikram Chandra videoconferencing in, and with those on stage. When I walked in they were talking about the “Original Sin of Partition,” and about financiers with large suitcases of cash.

Fiction: Midnight’s Children and Beyond.

Moazzam Sheikh, writer, translator, and editor of an anthology of South Asian literature and my friend of many years, was in conversation with two local writers, Nayomi Munaweera and Shanthi Sekaran, both with books on motherhood, childhood and immigration. Munaweera’s recent book, “What Lies Between Us“ is about the journey of a mother and daughter from Sri Lanka to America. Sekaran’s book “Lucky Boy,” set in the US, was chosen by the San Francisco library as book of the month, and Sheikh commented how he saw several people reading the book at cafés all over the city.

Munaweera spoke of her first book, "Island of a Thousand Mirrors" about the Civil War in Sri Lanka, as a broad portrait. In her second book, she wanted to write a more intimate story, take a much closer look at a character. The character has committed a terrible crime and is in jail. Her challenge was to make the reader feel empathy towards the character. She read from the second book. “In America, every mother is a failure.” The character doesn’t tell her name until the end, when she also tells the story of "the original sin” when she was a child. The book is a cautionary tale about the culture of silence, and what happens when silence is unbreakable.

Sekaran spoke of Lucky Boy, and her characters Soli and Kavya. She read from a section where a friend tells Kavya “I hear you’re trying to have a kid.” And then proceeds to give her perspective on what it will be like. “They will suck you dry,” she says.

The titular “lucky boy” is preverbal: Sekaran spoke of the research she did into children who were adopted or fostered as toddlers. Their experience is very different from that of an infant, or of an older child who has language. Sheikh asked Munaweera about her homage to Rushdie at the beginning of her book (about the birth of a child, I inferred), how she started with him, and then deserts him and becomes a new chapter in South Asian writing. It can be a difficult balance to strike when one has to discuss some of the plot elements, and yet, try not to give away the story. Sheikh commented that the book ends on a Toni Morrison note, and asked the author if he may speak more of the plot. She demurred, and many of us in the audience cried out against potential spoilers!

This reminded me of a book reading I attended in Palo Alto many years ago, when Vikram Seth came to read from his book “An Equal Music.” The bookstore representative introducing him mentioned that the musician in the book was losing his hearing, an utterance that provoked huge protest from Seth, as it gave away an important part of the plot. Munaweera agreed that in her early writing, she paid homage to Salman Rushdie, Arundhuti Roy etc. Now she claims Americanness: “We are claiming that we are as much American as we are South Asian.” There were two books she was grappling with as she was writing her own book: “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver. Sekaran added that “Beloved” also played an important role in her book: she had researched it.

Sheikh commented that “Lucky Boy” creates a space where two minorities, South Asians and Mexican Americans don’t have to negotiate political space. He referred to the film Mississippi Masala, which he called a remarkable film as it was one of the first to show that all characters don’t have to go through a white character. Shanthi responded that her characters are all South Asians in general, unless there is a need for a non-South Asian. She made Soli Mexican because she wanted to tell the story of crossing the southern border of the United States. She believes we have gone beyond racial identity, to privilege and issues affecting the South Asian community now.

Non-fiction: Raghu Karnad and "Farthest Field" I would have loved to continue to listen to the session, but I was also interested to catch a few minutes of the session with journalist Raghu Karnad on his book “Farthest Field.” I dashed over to the Carriage House, where Karnad was in conversation with Jonathan Curiel a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle.

I was in time to catch the tail end of the conversation, and the start of audience Q&A.

The first question from the audience was whether this was going to be made into a film, with the questioner commenting that “Dunkirk” (a 2017 film on World War II) was very disappointing, underscoring the value of Karnad's perspective. Karnad responded that there was some conversation about it. However filming political history and a war is an expensive undertaking. A woman working on a double biography of herself and her mother remarked on the account in the book that in the spring of 1943 there was a Japanese invasion of India and the same ship that bombed Pearl Harbor attacked Madras. To her comment about the scarcity of stories about women from that era, Karnad responded that indeed women’s stories, which he called “the other half of human experience,” were not captured earlier in history.

Deepti Naval: actor, photographer, poet. In the final session, Harsha Ram, professor of comparative literature at UC Berkeley, was in conversation with beloved actor Deepti Naval. There was a long line to enter the auditorium, and on joining it, it I encountered an old classmate from Kolkata! The line didn’t seem necessary: there was plenty of room for everyone and a few empty rows, into which my newly found companions and I settled in. The session started with a video collage of scenes from several of Deepti Naval’s movies.

Harsha Ram came on stage to introduce Deepti Naval. (My companions commented that with his white shoulder-length hair and white beard, he looked like Rabindranath!)

Ram commented that Naval was the first Indian American girl making a debut in Indian film in the 1980s. She has acted in more than 90 films. A film she directed “Do Paise ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane ki Baarish” is soon to be released on Netflix. She writes poetry in two languages. In 1991 she published a book of poetry called Lamha Lamha, and another book in English in 2004.

Deepti Naval entered to a big round of applause. She talked of coming to the US when she was 17; Her father immigrated and in 12th grade. They settled in New York and she studied fine arts at Hunter College.

On the response to the “art films” in which she made a name for herself, she recounted that film producer NC Sippy said to her “Don’t change: don’t put on makeup, lehengas and do dances. What you have brought is something we don’t have.” On the roles she has played, she said “When you play something, it opens your eyes, makes you grow. I wanted the audience to think about Kamla, or the girl in Panchvati.” When that didn’t happen, she turned to other things. She read a poem in Hindi, "Registan ki Raat" from “Lamha Lamha”, and mentioned that she has posted her poems on YouTube.

Before reading from a collection called “The Silent Scream” in “Black Wind and Other Poems," she talked of observing women at a mental institution. She was in the women’s ward for 23 days, having initially planned to go for three. Women started confiding in her. A moving poem she read ended with “This is not the face she was born with, this is the face we gave her.” She also read a poem called “Goddess”:

“I am Durga, I am Kali, no one can kill me! she tripped the light luminous Blue-templed, dead-eyed.”

Open Space Gallery

I walked through the gallery Open Space before I left. On view was “Revelations: The Evolution of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art”, with paintings by Jamini Roy, Anjolie Ela Menon, M.F. Husain, among others.

“What I wouldn’t give for a cup of tea,” I kept thinking all through the afternoon. I ran into others who also looked as though they would have dearly loved one too. I had managed to get a cup of tea and a bite to eat over the festival’s 5-hour period. The food trucks were terrific: it’s just that dashing out to them meant you would miss some of the talks. With many inviting but concurrent panels, I had to choose which to attend (poetry or fiction? film or non-fiction?) and it wasn’t an easy choice. I didn’t find time to stroll through the marketplace with stalls for books, art and fashion, although I did catch a glimpse of some beautiful Rangoli designs on the ground while heading in hot pursuit of my cup of tea. Perhaps there’s another way to do it next time, so attendees can soak much more in!

It takes a tremendous amount of planning and coordination it takes to put an event such as this together. Tushar Unadkat served as an engaging MC. In keeping with SALA’s support of all performing arts, troupes of dancers (children and adults) came and performed in front of the villa between each session, their colorful costumes, appealing dances and lively music adding a celebratory touch to the event. A terrific festival of South Asian Arts and Literature, the first of hopefully many more to come.

A few more events remain in the festival through October 18, including the closing films, Gurucool and Kaifinama on Oct 13. Visit for tickets.

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