Indian Summer Festival presents the innovative and unusual this July

Festival's fifth year brings creative collaborations and unique offerings for all

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      Vancouver’s Indian Summer Festival returns this year from July 9 to 18, and like a carefully crafted curry, the ingredients that make up this year’s series of events blend together perfectly to create a host of flavourful offerings, with something to meet everyone’s interests.

      Founding and artistic director Sirish Rao, who created the festival along with his wife Laura Byspalko, says the festival’s fifth year is all about the idea of breaking geographical boundaries and “cross-pollenating ideas” that foster global citizenship, all while keeping a local approach. 

      While the events that make up the festival may have what Rao calls a “tenuous link” to South Asia, visitors to the festival shouldn’t expect events be traditionally Indian.

      “India is interesting to us in the way that jazz is. It’s this crazy hybrid which people often think of as old and steeped in tradition, but actually, it’s steeped in interactions and in democracies and in multiple voices that have seen trade and interaction with so many things over the years,” he explained at a media preview.

      “How do you explain jazz? It’s this and that and the other thing, and it could be this and maybe that…  it baffles definition, and we see it as a good thing.”

      And so it makes sense that the events that make up this year’s festival cover a host of topics that truly do baffle definition.

      With nearly 20 presentations, concerts, dialogues and exhibits occurring over the 10-day festival, Rao’s top picks are events that expose both unique and unusual niches that suit Vancouver’s culturally diverse landscape to a ‘T’.

      A favourite among many local foodies, Vikram Vij will be taking part in the festival’s Opening Gala, which will take place at the Roundhouse Community Centre on July 9. The gala will see the Roundhouse – which historically housed Vancouver’s own great steam locomotives – transformed into The Great Railway Food Bazaar, where Vij has challenged a handful of Vancouver’s top chefs to put their spin on Indian-inspired street food. The set for this event has been designed by award-winning art director Aradhana Seth, who was responsible for the set of Wes Anderson’s film, The Darjeeling Limited. 

      Known as one of India’s greatest living musicians, Amjad Ali Khan, accompanied by his sons Amaan and Ayaan, will play the Orpheum on July 15 during a show called The Strings that Bind Us. A master of the sarod, a 19-stringed instrument that Rao describes as “a cross between a slide guitar and a sitar”, Ali Khan and his sons will create a 57-string symphony for what Rao assures will be a treat for even the non-musician. Local musicians will also partake in this genre-bending performance.

      “Music is the easiest way other than food to cross into something you don’t know, and I always feel like no matter what it [the event] is, if someone is the best in the world at what they do, go see it.”

      The unlikely pairing of a Nobel prize-winning geneticist and a sought-after jazz quintet comes together seamlessly in Genes & Jazz, which will be held at the Vancouver Playhouse on July 17.  The collaboration between Dr. Harold Varmus and his son Jacob Varmus – who failed science as a young student and went on to become a jazz musician – will be “part scientific lecture and part jazz concert”. 

      “He [Dr. Varmus] will be talking about cells as symphonies and orchestras, and how mutation is as necessary in science as it is in art,” says Rao.

      When asked what separates this year’s festival from previous years, Rao says that acknowledging their strength of playing to the unusual has allowed them to program events that “could never be in another festival”.  

      “We want to carefully offer what we think we’re good at, which is sitting on a threshold, being on the cusp, exploring a line of tension, and hoping for good friction. 

      “We fit somewhere between a big festival and a small festival: big enough to host large scale productions at the Orpheum, but small enough that each event really has a reason for being.” 

      For the full schedule of events and to purchase tickets, visit