Of festivals and politics
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: shanta.serbjeetsingh@gmail.com

April 16, 2010

Twenty five years ago, the vibrant, if hitherto sleepy relationship between France and India took a new turn with the historic first Festival of India in France. October 1985 in Paris was a heady autumn, the maple trees lining the boulevards of Paris aglow with golden colours, the table and chair arrangements still out in the open, in front of cafes, uncaring about the winter snows that would soon push them inwards for a long spell. They invited one and all with the aroma of coffee au lait and fresh breads.

It was a young Mallika Sarabhai who then made waves as Draupadi in Peter Brook's Mahabharata at the Avignon Festival. Avignon, in the south of France, is a magical festival space and the play was staged in a nearby quarry whose rock-hewn contours framed the epic battle between two warring clans. I was there, a young arts writer, thrilled to be a part of the official delegation that accompanied the young and handsome Prince of Camelot, the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi and his shy and beautiful wife, Sonia Gandhi.
    'Namaste France,' the reciprocal Indian Festival in France for the just over Festival of France in India called 'Bonjour India,' marked, as I said earlier, the lapse of a quarter of a century. And of course a lot of water has flown under the bridges of the Seine since. The romance of Paris in all seasons endures and its artistic life is dynamic, as ever. And yet some things don't change. Like? Like the heady mix of culture and politics! 'Namaste…' the 15-month long event started with Aadi Nritya - a dance tableau presented by Mallika Sarabhai and Darpana Academy troupe. It was held in the Musee du Quai Branly against the backdrop of an exhibition of indigenous Indian arts - "The Other Masters of India" at the museum.
The festival will close with the exhibition of original paintings of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the Museum of Modern Arts in July 2011. One suspects Mallika was doing the opening honours as much because of the statement the selection makes against Narendra Modi as her ranking as a Bharatanatyam dancer!

Cut to 25 years ago. Mallika's several months long apprenticeship with Peter Brook may have been one major reason for Mallika finally settling her personal see-saw of should she manage the family business or should she join films or should she put to more professional use, her training in Bharatanatyam and the legacy of Mrinalini Sarabhai in favour of the last choice. She stuck to this choice through the rest of her life, even when son Revanta was too young to be put down from the mother's lap and her choice of a foreign partner, though married, invited raised eyebrows. Good for her!

Brook's original 1985 stage play was 9 hours long, and toured around the world for four years. In 1989, it was reduced to under 6 hours for television. Later it was also reduced to about 3 hours for theatrical and DVD release. The screenplay was the result of eight years work by Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carrière and Brook's partner, Marie-Hélène Estienne. For the casting, an international group of actors, black, brown, and white was intentionally chosen. Together they did show that the nature of the Indian epic is the story of all humanity. In 1990, the film version won the Performing Arts of the International Emmy Awards and the Audience Award for Best Feature at the São Paulo International Film Festival.

For Dr. Karan Singh who did the political honours at the "Namaste France" inauguration, it was a nostalgic trip of a personal kind. He was revisiting his birthplace for it was at Cannes, the great capital of international cinema, that he was born. His parents, Maharaja Hari Singh and mother Maharani Tara Devi were camping in Cannes when the baby Karan Singh decided to make his way into the world!

Speaking at the opening, Dr. Karan Singh said, "India has emerged on the global stage but in culture, it has always been a Super Power. It is said that India and Greece civilized the whole world with four of the world's great religions being born in India. Culture transcends religions and I have seen the Ramayana of Indonesia performed by Muslims, compare favorably with our own in India."

He went on to add, "There are three different kind of Diplomacy - Political Diplomacy which entails Government to Government contact; Economic Diplomacy with Corporation to Corporation contact, and Cultural Diplomacy with People to People contact, which is ICCR's mandate. In the last four years, there has been a multi faceted expansion in our activities. We would constantly go around Delhi looking for a Hall in the Central Business District for our events. When I first saw the ICCR Auditorium, it looked as if a bomb had hit it. It has now been transformed into a state of the art auditorium with the latest technology."

Dr. Sahib was talking about the newly furbished Azad Bhavan auditorium. ICCR has launched Horizons, which is a platform for budding artists. The 339 seat Azad Bhawan Auditorium meets safety standards and has smoke detectors which sound hooters that automatically switch on the water sprinklers. It has a 22 feet by 30 feet stage with motorised curtains and cyclorama screen. The wings facilitate performers' entry and prevent the Green Room from being seen from the front seats. The walls and doors have fire proof sound absorbing panels, new lights, and an LCD projector in the centre of the ceiling which can be linked to your laptop.

Why am I mentioning an auditorium in this piece? Because while great festivals are wonderful, at the end of the day when it comes to our young performers and their urgent needs, it is infrastructure of this kind that goes a long way to improve the scene.

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.