How the South Asian Literature and Arts Festival changed narratives in the diaspora

Ritu Jha–

Over 1000 people attended the South Asian Literature and Arts (SALA) Festival 2023 to listen to 65 artists, writers, directors, screenwriters, and lyricists from both the US and India who talked about their work, women’s issues, free speech, human trafficking, narcotics, and why voting matters.

The two-day festival, held at Menlo College, Atherton, California on October 7 and 8, was themed ‘Changing Narratives in our Diaspora’. The first edition was held in 2019.

Kiran Malhotra, of the Art Forum SF, and the arts curator at the festival, told indica, “Any festival worth its name has to grow in some ways. Only when you are recognized will established artists, authors, poets respond to your invites.”

Given that it happened in the heart of Silicon Valley, it was remarkable how the crowd for an arts festival included veteran venture capitalists and former and current CXOs who were present in a packed room listening to much-awarded author and physician Abraham Verghese, who is professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine and Vice Chair of Education at Stanford University Medical School.

READ: indica’s interview with SALA delegate and leading Indian actor and filmmaker Konkona Sen Sharma

Malhotra said, “SALA provides the largest platform for South Asian voices, this is where known and unknown voices are heard. Changing narratives is the process of altering or reshaping ideas. This leads to shifts in public opinion, policy changes or societal transformations as different perspectives gain prominence.”

Ambika Sahay

Ambika Sahay, who co-founded SALA, and is a member of the board and executive director of the Art Forum SF with co-founder Mayuranki Almaula told indica, “Jaipur Literature Festival is big and not focused on South Asians. Our event is unique in that we focus on our community and social art issues. We celebrate contemporary work coming out of our diaspora.”

Apart from Verghese, the festival included personalities such as Amitav Ghosh, Shobhaa De, Konkana Sen Sharma, and Varun Grover.

READ: Noted lyricist and stand-up comedian Varun Grover wows SALA audience

During a panel discussion chaired by Anjali Arondekar, Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, asked a question on diversity, lyricist and screen writer Kausar Munir replied, “When I think of diversity, I keep thinking of the city that I was born in, that I belong to and the one I’ve never lived away from for more than a month, and that is Bombay. For me, it has always been a tableau of diversity. I was born in a culturally Muslim family with a father who could talk about both Stephen Hawking and Persian poetry, and offered namaz multiple times a day. But I’m Godless. So in a Muslim household, I am an atheist woman who went to a convent school.”

READ: Author and columnist Shobhaa De speaks to indica in an interview at SALA

From left: Anjali Arondekar, Kausar Munir, Tanuja Chandra and Konkona Sen Sharma

“I cannot replace the Ganapati celebration from the city that I was born in. This all sounds kind of facile, but it’s true. One of the songs that I wrote for a film called Bajrangi Bhaijan was sort of a retelling of the Qawwali. I was delighted. This year, in a Ganapati procession in Mumbai, the song was being played, and that is, for me, diversity.”

Munir has written the lyrics for films such as Jawaan, Jubilee, Ek Tha Tiger, Dhoom 3, Main Tera Hero, Dear Zindagi, and in 2022 was the first woman to win the Filmfare Award for Best Lyrics. As script and dialogue writer, some of her films are Phantom, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Begum Jaan.

Simran Baidwan, a San Jose-born criminal prosecutor left her cushy job to pursue life as a TV and film writer. She has scripted hit shows like ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and Netflix’s “Manifest,” and currently serves as Showrunner and Executive Producer alongside TV legend Norman Lear on Amazon Freevee’s hotly anticipated half-hour single-camera comedy “Clean Slate” starring Laverne Cox and George Wallace.

When indica asked her whether she lost sleep over this remarkable changeover from law to screenwriting in Hollywood, she replied, “I actually did sleep after taking up the new profession because I think I may have been sleepless when I was not trying the screenwriting, and not trying to go break into Hollywood. I love film and television.”

Baidwan said that when she got into Hollywood, her friends and family members supported her. “For a lot of positions in Hollywood and probably in lots of industries, employers want diversity. The umbrella of diversity includes all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of  Color) people, sometimes all women, LGBTQ, disabled, and people who are neurodivergent. They say, we’ve picked one of all of you, but we’re not all the same. Oftentimes they just pick one person from one category and put them in some position. I’m trying to break that practice. Why should there only be one of us.”

Shruti Tewari, another awarded  writer, filmmaker, and actor from the Bay Area, has spent over two decades in the creative arts with acting projects ranging from a Bollywood blockbuster to numerous award-winning independent films. After her stints in investment banking and tech, she changed course to authentically represent minority voices. Her latest project is a feature film based on South Asian women. “I wrote a screenplay that highlights the suppressed trauma among South Asian women and the different approaches women use to deal with these issues. One is to absolutely skirt the issue, and that I address in a short film named Stain Resistant, which is playing at the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific Film Festival later this month,” Tiwari told indica on the sidelines of the SALA Festival.

From left: Simran Baidwan, Reenita Malhotra Hora and Shruti Tewari, the panelists for Diaspora: Voices, Scenes and Heard

Tewari knows what she is talking about. “I was often told that I’m not Indian enough. And I was not getting cast as an Indian character unless the director was of Indian origin and knew people like me coming out of India. I felt the need to start writing more narratives to represent this authentic element of the Indian diaspora that is not being covered by Hollywood yet.” This year, she was selected for the Women of Color Filmmakers Lab and was awarded the YBCA Artist Power Convenings grant and a BraveMaker Pitch Fest grant for her short film, Stain Resistant.

Sonia Kamal, another participant, is the author of Unmarriageable Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan. She hails from Atlanta, Georgia. She said, “This is my first published book in the US published by Penguin Random House. It is a post-colonial parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and it’s set in Pakistan. The reason I’ve written this is to write back to the Empire, as Salman Rushdie said in his essays. We are post-colonial — the whole subcontinent: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And we’re all speaking in English. I wanted to take a British classic and re-put it in our countries. So instead of bonnets, there are dupattas. Instead of sandwiches, there are samosas. I wanted to give our culture more importance in this storytelling. It’s fiction.”

Sukhi Singh at her panel

Local artists and entrepreneurs like Sukhi Singh, CEO of Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Foods, Payal Saha, Founder and CEO of The Kati Roll Company Inc. and Mani Krishnan, founder of Shastha Foods who have made their mark in the gourmet industry were at the Epicurean Panel: Served on a Platter moderated by Sanjog Singh, spoke why they got into business and how they won the mainstream palates.

indica reached out to a few attendees. Abha Shukla, an attendee, said she was impressed with Abraham Verghese’s talk about his latest book. “I have read all of his books. ‘Covenant of Water’ is a huge book, over 700 pages long. It’s an epic. It’s about three generations of Kerala Malayali Christians. They are the Syrian Christians. The originals came, were converted 2000 years ago. It’s about this family that has a certain affliction where they are scared of water and many of them end up drowning. Kerala is full of lakes and rivers. There’s this kind of mystery. Why do they have this addiction? And through the generations, the last one, the last girl becomes a doctor. Granddaughter of the original generation. She kind of solves that mystery. And it’s an epic that it’s just so beautifully written, full of humanity. And yes, there’s a lot about medicine.”

Ishika Shukla (middle)

Standing in a queue with a bunch of books was another artist Ishika Seth, co-founder of Ishami Dance Company in the Bay Area. She told indica she had almost read all of Amitav Ghosh’s books. “I love the way his way of writing, the language is so beautiful, his research. The festival is great but I think it would be nice to have a little more south Asian representation not just Indian,” Seth said.

Vinita Sud Belani, founder and artistic director of EnActe Arts, told indica, “SALA has grown amazingly. I love that the speakers are curated with a lot of thought and due to their relevance today. SALA makes an effort in putting together Bay Area local talent with global talent… it really shows and commitment to local artists.”

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