The artistic director of Vancouver’s Indian Summer Festival, Sirish Rao, likes to describe writer Amitav Ghosh as “part archaeologist, part museum curator, and part chronicler of people’s stories from inside large movements and the debris of empires”.
That’s because the Kolkata-born Ghosh, a towering intellectual, has written novels and nonfiction books on monumental topics, such as the British opium trade, the colonial history of Burma, and the failure of contemporary fiction writers to address climate change. Along the way, Ghosh has won a multitude of awards for Sea of Poppies, The Glass Palace, The Shadow Lines, and other titles.
In an interview with the Straight, Rao revealed that Ghosh will be one of the headliners at this year’s festival, which runs from July 4 to 14 in Vancouver.
“Very often with Ghosh—when he writes something—you feel like ‘How did I not even know that this massive piece of history that has shaped my life exists?’ ” Rao said. “For me, The Glass Palace and that whole story of Burma is my personal family story.”
That’s because Rao’s grandparents, a doctor and nurse, were both in the British Indian Army in Burma during the Second World War and had to flee to escape the Japanese. They ended up in a refugee camp in Punjab just before Partition divided the state between Pakistan and India, leading to massive bloodshed.
Ghosh's most recent book, The Great Derangement, looks at the failure of modern literature to seriously tackle the issue of climate change. He will be at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s on July 9 as part of the SFU Vancouver Speaker Series.
“This is a very happy collaboration,” Rao noted.
Another celebrated writer coming to Indian Summer is the U.S.–based world traveller Pico Iyer. His essays regularly appear in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s, but he may be equally famous for his TED talks. Rao noted that Vancouverites can pay a far lower price to see Iyer at Indian Summer on July 7 than they would to attend a TED conference in Vancouver.
But Rao stressed that the Indian Summer Festival is more than a literary gathering. It’s also made a mark with its musical, visual-arts, and cultural activities, themed this year as “Tricksters, Magicians, and Oracles”.
The festival launches every year with an opening party at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, featuring “culinary magicians” like Vikram Vij. According to Rao, there are also “tapas for the brain” at the 5X15 event at the same location on July 5. It will showcase five eclectic artists—including Iyer and Trickster trilogy author Eden Robinson—who each speak for 15 minutes.
CBC Radio’s Reclaimed host Jarrett Martineau will curate an evening of trailblazing music on July 6 at the Imperial Vancouver, bringing together Indigenous, queer, Filipinx, and South Asian artists.
Another major musical event will take place on July 12 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts with Amjad Ali Khan & Sons and three-time Grammy winner Sharon Isbin, one of the world’s greatest classical guitarists.
“I think it’s really important because with the Khans being Muslim and her being Jewish, this is not just a fretted guitar meets fretless sarod or an East meets West thing,” Rao said.
This year, the festival has added a comedy component called Trigger Me This, but it's not just a group of standups cracking jokes.
This will be overseen by Richard Side, creator of CBC Radio One's The Debaters, and will include well-known comedic talents Zarqa Nawaz (creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie), Yumi Nagashima, and Darcy Michael.
They'll interact with the audience in an effort to determine when jokes cross a line.
"We're working on some technology for that on...how we measure how an audience moves along that journey," Rao explained.
And it wouldn't be Indian Summer without art. So the festival will be collaborating with the Vancouver Art Gallery, Surrey Art Gallery, and Audain Gallery at SFU.
That's in addition to the free programming, called PAUSE, which returns to sən̓aʔqʷ, which is the Indigenous name for Vanier Park, from July 8 to 14.