SALA 2019 provides engaging fare for South Asians in the Bay Area

Raji Pillai


The picturesque Villa Montalvo in Saratoga is the venue for the Bay Area’s first South Asian Literature and Art Festival (SALA 2019).

The festival, which opened Oct 6, is presented by the Art Forum SF, a non-profit that promotes all visual, literary and performing arts emerging from South Asia, and the Montalvo Arts Center, in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, Institute for South Asia Studies.

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

Harsha Ram, professor of comparative literature at UC Berkeley, spoke with beloved actor Deepti Naval. The session started with a video collage of scenes from several of Deepti Naval’s movies. 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, and has published a book of Hindi poetry and another in English.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.”

She read a poem in Hindi, “Registan ki Raat” from “Lamha Lamha”, and mentioned that she has posted her poems on YouTube. A collection called “The Silent Scream” in “Black Wind and Other Poems," stemmed from observing women at a mental institution. She read two moving poems from the collection.

On the opening day, painter Rekha Rodwittiya discussed her reflections at age 61 with Dr Prajit Dutta of Aicon Gallery, NY, with images of several of her paintings appearing on a screen.

Speaking in winding sentences, she painted a colorful picture of her life and art. In the late 1970s, she was a student of art at the MS University in Baroda, Gujarat, which then had “a very fecund and wonderful environment of discourse”.

In 1982 there was a “seminal space of change”, she said. Soon after, she read Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” and Alice Walker (whose 1982 novel “The Color Purple” won a Pulitzer and was also made into a movie). It was a watershed moment and 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: 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 it is dyed.

“Poetry can transport you in a way that prose cannot,” said moderator Ritu Marwah in a conversation with poets Athena Kashyap and Tanuja Mehrotra Wakefield.

Kashyap has written “Crossing Black Waters” and “Sita’s Choice”. Her family emigrated from Lahore in Pakistan. She read Partition Story, based on a true story from her family, and a poem about Leela, her domestic help in India.

Wakefield, author of “The Undersong”, grew up in Cleveland to Indian immigrant parents. She said she is inspired to write on long walks. She read a short poem titled “Fear and Reverie”.

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.

An audience member asked whom she wrote for? Wakefield replied with a quote from Yeats. “Out of our argument with others, we make rhetoric. Out of our arguments with ourselves, we make poetry.”

Next, Prof Harsha Ram of the Institute for South Asia Studies was in conversation with Minal Hajratwala and Siddharth Dube, LGBTQ writers.

Hajratwala read a poem on her childhood experience of Hinduism, and another, “Insect Koan”, that draws upon her experience with Zen Buddhism.

Dube, a non-fiction writer, was involved in the activism that led to the reading down of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized homosexuality. He read two sections of his book, “An Indefinite Sentence”. The first was personal, about his encounter with the Delhi police in 1988, where homophobic insults were hurled at him.

Moazzam Sheikh, writer, translator and editor of an anthology of South Asian literature, spoke with Bay Area writers Nayomi Munaweera and Shanthi Sekaran, both with books on motherhood, childhood and immigration.

Munaweera’s first book, “Island of a Thousand Mirrors”, about the civil war in Sri Lanka, was a broad portrait. In her second, “What Lies Between Us”, about the journey of a mother and daughter from Sri Lanka to America, she wanted to write a more intimate story, taking a 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 toward the character. She read a portion from the beginning, and remarked that it is a cautionary tale about the culture of silence, and what happens when silence is unbreakable.

Shanthi Sekaran’s book “Lucky Boy” is set in the US. She spoke of her characters Soli, who is Mexican, and Kavya, who is Indian-American. 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 Lucky Boy of the story is preverbal: Shanthi 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 learned to speak.

Munaweera commented that in her early writing, she paid homage to writers like Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Now she claims Americanness: “We are claiming that we are as much American as we are South Asian.”

When Sheikh commented that Lucky Boy creates a space where two minorities, South Asians and Mexican Americans, don’t have to negotiate political space, Shanthi responded that her characters are all South Asians in general; she made Soli Mexican only because she wanted to tell the story of crossing the southern border of the United States.

Journalist Raghu Karnad, writer of “Farthest Field”, spoke with Jonathan Curiel, a journalist with The San Francisco Chronicle.

During the audience Q&A, a woman 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 India.

On the scarcity of stories about women, Karnad commented that women’s stories, which he called “the other half of human experience”, were not captured earlier in history.

On view in the Open Space Gallery was ‘Revelations: The Evolution of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art’, with paintings by Jamini Roy, Anjolie Ela Menon and MF Husain, among others.

Tushar Unadkat was an engaging MC for the event. 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, charming dances and lively music adding a celebratory touch to the event.

More events remain in the festival through Oct 18.