The artistic director of Vancouver's Indian Summer festival, Sirish Rao, has a keen interest in the development of language.
In an interview in his bright, second-floor office near the corner of Fir Street and West 3rd Avenue, Rao explains that the meaning of the word festival is "feast". And his goal with Indian Summer is to create a sensual and cerebral smorgasbord—a veritable feast—for those with a curious mind.
This year, the theme is mythmaking.
"In its entirety, I'm hoping to look at 10 centuries of the human imagination,” Rao says. “How have we told stories? How can we continue to tell stories? What stories are important?"
To that end, the 2018 Indian Summer (from July 5 to July 15) will include everything from Sanskrit theatre to a contemporary evening of music, poetry, and song curated by Indigenous producer and CBC Music host Jarrett Martineau.
The centrepiece is a July 14 concert at the Orpheum by legendary Indian classical musician and Hariprasad Chaurasia.
The composer and North Indian bansuri master is perhaps best known in the west for his collaborations and long friendship with George Harrison of the Beatles, who used to stay at his home in Mumbai. But he’s also played with Yehudi Menuhin, John McLaughlin, and many other prominent musicians.
“This album that he did with Shivkumar Sharma called Call of the Valley is what George Harrison used to listen to when he wanted to remember India,” Rao said with a chuckle. “Harrison would put that on and get nostalgic.”
Chaurasia also has a storied career writing music for the Bollywood film industry, and in particular, for multiple-award-winning producer-director Yash Chopra.
With Sharma, Chaurasia wrote and performed songs for Chopra's most critically acclaimed Indian films of the 1980s and 1990s, including Silsila (starring Amitabh Bachchan and Reka), Chandni (starring Sridevi and Rishi Kapoor), and Lamhe (starring Sridevi and Anil Kapoor).
That’s not the only musical event at Indian Summer, which was founded in 2011 in partnership with Simon Fraser University.
The following afternoon at 4 p.m. on July 15, sitarist and composer Mohamed Assani will collaborate with the all-female Allegra Chamber Orchestra for "Songs for Scheherazade".
She’s the famous character and the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, which is a collection of Arabic folk tales. It formed the basis for Arabian Nights, and this event will take place at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby.
Like in past years, the festival will hold its opening party at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre. Beginning at 7 p.m. on July 5, it will feature Indian chef Vikram Vij and a cast of other local culinary stars.
“All of them are going to make dishes they’ve never made before,” Rao says, adding that this is "a form of mythmaking on a plate".
It’s common to see politicians, SFU academics and senior administrators, and people from the media and arts at this annual event, which will again feature international musicians.
Vij has been participating in the festival since its inception. According to Rao, this is not only because the chef wants to reconnect with his culture, but also because Indian Summer treats the culinary profession as an art form.
“If you have a great painter or a great musician or a great chef, then they are valued in that same sphere,” Rao says. “We’ve entered the age of chef as artist, and the restaurant as an experience.”
The event featuring Martineau of CBC Radio will explore myths associated with liberation. Called “Confluence”, it will take place at the Imperial on July 7 and include an impressive roster of participants.
They include celebrated Anishinaabeg writer, academic, and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson with cellist Cris Derksen, singer-songwriter Ainsley Simpson, and guitarist Nick Ferrio.
Also at the Imperial will be Sufi musicians Rajasthan Josh with composer Rup Sidhu and sound designer Adham Shaikh, as well as Caribbean-American poet Aja Monet and musician, writer, and artist Vivek Shraya.
That’s not the only event at the Imperial: it will also be the site of the popular 5X15 event. This year’s five guests—who each speak for 15 minutes—include Martineau, author Charlotte Gill (Eating Dirt), and novelist, essayist, and Vassar College professor Amitava Kumar.
Kumar’s newest work, Immigrant, Montana, has not yet been released. Rao notes that a previous book of essays, Lunch With a Bigot, caused considerable controversy in India.
“He got put on a blacklist by a right-wing Hindutva group that he sat down to lunch with,” Rao reveals. “Sometimes, starting a conversation with those who don’t believe in the same thing as you can have fairly direct results.”
This year’s Indian Summer festival will also feature three events in conjunction with the World Sanskrit Conference.
The first is a performance of Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre on July 9 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
This lush and colourful dance-filled art form has been commonly produced in South Indian temples for thousands of years, particularly in the state of Kerala. Indian Summer and the World Sanskrit Conference will mark the western Canadian debut for the renowned Nepathya troupe.
The second event showcases novelist Vikram Chandra (Sacred Games) at the Frederic Wood Theatre at 6:30 p.m. on July 12 in an event called "The Poetry of Amazement".
Rao points out that Chandra will be in Vancouver just as his Sacred Games is coming out on the small screen as India's first domestically produced Netflix series.
“He’s this amazing thinker, who’s been described as a linguistic gazelle,” Rao says.
Chandra will be followed in the same venue later that evening by yoga practitioner, scholar, and documentary maker Sir James Mallinson.
This is not a complete list of events as more will be announced in the coming weeks.
In some respects, Rao likens programming a festival to preparing a series of stories.
"We do need these narratives to keep us together," he declares. "In that sense, the festival is a narrative act. It's saying, 'Hey, this is the story, this is the society we would like to see, come in.' It's a conversation."
He also relishes breaking down artistic silos, which don't exist to nearly the same degree in India as they do in the West. Just because a person enjoys classical music doesn't mean he or she can't also take pleasure in hip-hop or contemporary art.
"That's what we're kind of arguing for with the festival," Rao says.