The South Asian Literature and Art Festival (SALA) returned in style and with considerable substance on October 29 and 30, 2022 at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, CA, after a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The theme of the festival was “Humanity.” As it explored the ways in which the world puts people in boxes, for example by caste, the festival aimed to highlight our shared humanity.
The art in the festival was breathtaking and thought-provoking. In the Portrait Gallery, artists Tanya Momi and Chandrika Marla, and sculptor Priyanka Rana exhibited their work. Rana’s scultures were from her series “Memories are the Antidotes” which inquires: if memories could take physical shape, what would they look like? During the pandemic shutdown, she probed found that memories helped anchor her, and this led her to ask, are we planting enough happy memories for tomorrow?
Several pieces from Tanya Momi’s Social Realism series were on display with poignant portraits such as this one of a woman dreaming of a life with agency “Independence Day and Vision of Her Future” where the checkbook represents money she herself would earn and keep, and not just manage. “Each One Teach One” is about a longing for learning, where the moon indicates that this is still a dream.
Chandrika Marla’s paintings reflect the feminine form, and she paints the soft curves of a woman’s body in simple shapes and bold, bright colors. She explained that she has been taking photographs of women in front of one or more of her paintings, and invited this visitor to stand for such a photograph. As I moved to the side of the painting, she urged me to the center, wanting an immersive effect.
Artist Jaishri Abhichandani spoke with author Vikram Chandra in a session entitled “Breaking Barriers: Sculpting a New Vision,” projecting images of her work onto the screen behind the stage. In “Kamala’s Inheritance,” a lotus hangs its head in shame beside an eagle with a broken wing, representing India and the United States. In “Alchemist” she depicts women transmuting their pain into beauty. Having renounced Hinduism, she represents queer feminist subversive deities in her art.
A few sessions focused on the topic of caste: the deep-rootedness and widespread prevalence of caste-based discrimination, and the cost to society, including a conversation between scholar Suraj Yengde and journalist Davan Maharaj.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, and author of the soon-to-be-released The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition (North Atlantic Books) spoke with interviewer Rajasvini Bhansali of her organization’s efforts to add caste as a protected category in Santa Clara County. This was met with vigorous opposition by those she referred to as upper caste Hindus. At a hearing on this topic at the City Council, an opponent stated dramatically, “Are you ready to have the blood of Hindus on your hands, Santa Clara County? Do you want to see the genocide of Hindus?” Following an incident where she was disinvited from speaking at Google in response to protests from Indian Hindu employees, she travels with security detail, as she has received threats to her life and person.
On how caste oppression, like white supremacy, sustains itself, she presented a somatic perspective: “It is in the body.” She referred to Savarna fragility, a parallel to White fragility used in race discussions in the U.S. Dalit people, she said, did not consent to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. The instinct to dehumanize others must be recognized and confronted, and “you might lose a little privilege, but you might gain a little humanity. To be told that we are not spiritually equal causes a terrible wound. All we are asking for is implementation of law.” She ended powerfully with “I choose life, and I hope you will too.”
Vocalist and activist T.M Krishna spoke with Anjali Arondekar about his efforts to democratize Carnatic music, which has stayed resolutely in the realm of Brahminism. He has encountered considerable opposition in his efforts, and has not shied away from controversy. A few years ago, he aimed to compose a song every month in Carnatic music, dedicated to Jesus and Allah. This led to the Sri Siva Vishnu temple in Maryland withdrawing its invitation to him. Even this event at SALA was almost cancelled, he said, pointing out that one-fourth of the budget for Hindu groups such as the RSS comes from the diaspora. On interviewer Anjali Arondekar’s request, he sang a song dedicated to Allah, in keeping, interestingly, with a tradition of songs about Jesus and Allah in Carnatic music by various composers.
In a session about political strife in writings which I moderated, journalist Salil Tripathi and author Chaitali Sen discussed books and events over the years that highlighted oppression of free speech and the deepening of divisions. In response to a question about how we can understand one another’s perspective, each exhorted the audience to read more: history, non-fiction and fiction.
As I was moderating, I could not take a photo, but here is a photo of me with my panelists Chaitali and Salil (far right), with Moazzam Sheikh and Amna Ali (second and third from left) at an earlier event.
Works in Translation
Jenny Bhatt, founder of Desi Books, and the Newsletter We are All Translators, spoke of translating from regional languages as reclaiming one’s voice from a colonial past. “Translation is recovery,” Bhatt said, “it is literary activism.” Her recent translation of Dhumketu’s short stories in the collection The Shehnai Virtuoso is the first book-length translation from Gujarati to English published in the US. She grew up hearing her mother tell Dhumketu’s stories, and translated them for her family as a way to remember her mother. She spoke of a language pyramid, where some languages are translated more than others. Citing funding as the biggest issue, she mentioned Armory Square Ventures and their recently announced prize for South Asian literature in translation.
Amit Majmudar who gave an animated reading on the verandah from Godsong, his translation of Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit, spoke with Vishal Ganesan about what inspired him to translate the Gita. Having read three or four translations, he wanted to be immersed in it. He spoke of the musicality of the Gita, from the immortal opening lines “Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre.” His efforts to convey this musicality in translation led him to first use verse, then prose, and even craft a play with extended stage directions. On the lines describing how Arjuna is overwhelmed by a glimpse of the Visvarupa, the cosmic form of the divine, Majmudar quoted the thunderous “sa-sadgadam bhitabhita pranamya” and his own translation in which he imposed similar alliteration with consonants: “Kneeling, he spoke / To Krishna in a terror-struck stutter.” He spoke of the widespread influence of the Gita, and how Walt Whitman read it and replicated it in Song of Myself.
The rapid readings on the verandah of the Montalvo Arts Center were a real treat, allowing attendees to listen to writers they may have missed due to overlapping sessions, including poets such as Shikha Malaviya, Sarah Fathima, Monica Korde, Urvashi Bahuguna and Umar Muhammad.
Daisy Rockwell, winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize with Geethanjali Shree for her translation from Hindi of Shree’s novel Tomb of Sand, read from the novel and described translation as an act of love. Moazzam Sheikh read from Hero and Other Stories by Nadir Ali which, with Amna Ali, he translated from Punjabi. Other readers included Neerja Raman and Jenny Bhatt.
Books adapted for the Netflix screen.
Alka Joshi was as captivating in person as her books The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur. The Henna Artist, bestselling novel and Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick, is being made into a Netflix series starring Freida Pinto. The Perfumist of Paris, the third book in the Jaipur trilogy will be released in March 2023. Joshi gave an engaging account of the evolution of her first book over 9 years, and her journeys with various editors. “The book will be ready when it’s ready, she remarked, you can’t force it.” This was reminiscent of Junot Diaz’s memorable and oft-quoted exhortation to writers, “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”
Vikram Chandra spoke with Salil Tripathi about the origins of Sacred Games, the first South Asian Netflix series. When asked what about Bombay resonates with him, Chandra responded that South Bombay is populated by elite, moneyed people. But the suburbs house people such as Dawood Ibrahim, a police constable’s son who became a criminal and fugitive wanted in many countries. Chandra described the process of making movies, in which financiers delivered money in suitcases, and you made the movie with it. Later, once the movie was made, they showed up and demanded their money and “if not we will kill you.” Chandra started wondering about the economics of this, which led him to write Sacred Games.
What invokes our shared humanity and brings people together more than food? Fittingly, the festival included conversations with cookbook authors, food writers Chitrita Banerjee, Madhushree Ghosh, Nik Sharma, Vina Patel and Hetal Vasavada, as well as chefs Ranjan Dey, Preeti Mistry, Ajay Walia, Neeta Mittal and Ayesha Thapar.
The festival closed with actor Poorna Jagannathan in conversation with Puneeta Kala. They were introduced by bay area thespian Ranjita Chakravarty, who played the role of Nirmala, mother-in-law to Jagannathan’s Nalini Vishwakumar in the Netflix series Never Have I Ever. Jagannathan’s first movie was Delhi Belly which she called a game changer. Her play about Nirbhaya, the 23-year-old Delhi woman who was gang-raped on a bus and subsequently died, won critical acclaim and raised awareness about violence against women. The impact of it on audiences worldwide reminded Jagannathan of the Black Lives Matter movement when everyone was called into action. A clip from Never Have I Ever of the teenaged Devi caught kissing a boy by her horrified mother provoked an amusing story from PJ about her son in real life, who went from being a sweet 16-year-old to “a criminal, having sex in their house!”
Multiple compelling sessions were held in parallel tracks, making choosing just one very difficult. I found myself longing for the spell mastered by Hermione Granger which allowed her to turn back the clock and attend multiple classes all occurring at exactly the same time. The colorful marketplace offered art, clothing, as well as beauty and relaxation products. Food trucks offered casual fare, as well as piping hot chai.
Rain had been predicted, but it appeared that organizers Ambika Sahay, Mayuranki Almaula and Kiran Malhotra extended the magic they displayed in putting together this outstanding festival to the weather itself, turning it into a glorious California weekend.
A shorter version of this review was published in Indica News on November 11, 2022.
Bonus content! Here are some photos with various speakers, attendees as well as the organizers.