Vancouver's Indian Summer Festival reinvents itself while remaining true to its roots

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      The cofounder and artistic director of the Indian Summer Festival had big plans this year.

      Sirish Rao launched the annual Vancouver event in 2011 with his wife, Laura Byspalko, at SFU Woodward’s, immediately connecting with those who thirsted for a festival that aimed high, intellectually and artistically.

      One of the highlights of the debut edition was seeing the Bollywood actor Tabu engaging in conversation with Canadian author Yann Martel. In front of a crowd in Vancouver, Tabu described her role in a film adaptation of Life of Pi, two years before it won four Oscars and was nominated for six more.

      For this, the 10th anniversary, Rao was planning his grandest show with the overarching theme “River of Language”.

      “It was going to be the big fat wedding—really the biggest, most intricate festival we’d dreamed up,” Rao told the Straight by phone.

      The number of languages in the world has been reduced by more than 50 percent in the last few centuries, and the festival was going to explore the impact of this on human imagination.

      Then, of course, COVID-19 intruded and changed everything. Guests could not be flown in from other cities and the festival certainly wouldn’t be hosting large gatherings at SFU Woodward’s and other local venues.

      And it forced Rao to rely on jugaad—an Indian term referring to a workaround or innovative fix—to come up with something just as compelling. In the process, he and Byspalko had to really reflect on what constituted the core of the festival.

      “Curiosity about the world—and the kind of dialogue that is unafraid, cheerful, local, and world-embracing—is what we’ve always been about,” Rao said.

      As a result, he’s devised a program on 10 consecutive Saturdays that will continue this tradition. Artists, musicians, and leading thinkers will be connected online on different weeks to address what Rao calls “our human future” in the postpandemic world.

      “We’re going to have to work together,” he said. “And I think that’s the spirit in which we’ve put this festival together. It’s really underlining that.”

      Laura Byspalko and Sirish Rao launched the Indian Summer Festival in 2011 to forge greater understanding and appreciation of different cultures.

      He pointed out that before human beings expressed themselves through language, they had music.

      “It was our way of packaging emotion into sound, Rao noted. “We began to make noises to communicate, so it’s always been the social glue.”\

      In that spirit, the festival’s first event, on Saturday (May 16), is called Beginnings - Sonic Tributes. It will showcase 20 musicians playing 10 different tracks online that Rao hopes will “shorten the landscapes of Vancouver”. It will be available on at 7:01 p.m.

      “It’s kind of an ode to the city that we love, as well as a demonstration that this is not a monolingual city at all, in music or in language,” Rao related. “Even though it might have a monolingual skin, it has a multilingual heart.”

      The lineup includes the Inuit throat-singing duo PIQSIQ (sisters Kayley Mackay and Tiffany Ayalik), Delhi 2 Dublin’s Tarun Nayar, beat-boxer Rup Sidhu, and drummer Ashwin Sood, who will perform with percussionist Sunny Matharu.

      On the same night, percussionist-composer Curtis Andrews will join Carnatic musician Lasya Vankayala in what Rao described as “a sort of Tamil rap”. And sitarist Mohamed Assani will play one of his compositions with Vancouver Symphony Orchestra violinist Jeanette Bernal-Singh.

      The next Saturday (May 23), two of the world’s leading environmentalists, Vancouver’s David Suzuki and India’s Vandana Shiva will engage in conversation over the Internet about why COVID-19 is a wake-up call to the world.

      Indian activist Vandana Shiva is one of the world's foremost critics of multinational agribusinesses.

      Both are winners of the Right Livelihood Prize, which is an international award honouring those “offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today”.

      Rao referred to it as the “alternative Nobel Prize”, noting that Shiva, a long-time activist against genetically modified seeds, and Suzuki have each achieved legendary status in their own country.

      “I think Vandana has convinced Bhutan to go all organic,” Rao said. “They both have large-scale impacts.”

      On the following Saturday (May 30), the festival will host It Could Be Verse: Poetry for a Pandemic, which will bring together 20 poets from around the world.

      Among them will be Renée Sarojini Saklikar and Phinder Dulai, who are based in Metro Vancouver, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a spoken-word artist and Michi Saaglig Nishnaageg scholar.

      “Poets, to me, are like the literary surgeons of the emotion,” Rao said.

      With language like that, the Straight couldn’t resist asking if he’s also a poet.

      “I’ve written poetry, which is not the same thing as being a poet,” he quipped. “I haven’t done the work to call myself that.”

      There will be more events announced in the coming months. And like in previous incarnations of the festival, there will be a strong visual arts component.

      The representation of the theme, River of Language, was created by two Vancouver artists, Mustaali Raj and Minahil Bukhari.

      Artists Mustaali Raj and Minahil Bukhari created this work of art, representing a river of language.

      According to Rao, they're a couple and one is from Pakistan and one is from India—a pairing that would create an uproar among fundamentalists in each of their home countries.

      "They've looked at the script of most languages," Rao said. "And the first word we make is ma, which is for mother...and they've created a sort of calligraphic equivalent of that. It looks like a geographic feature, but it is actually a river of language."

      Rao also offered a shoutout to the festival's sponsors—including pioneering sponsor Simon Fraser University, as well as UBC, Langara College, and Creative B.C.—for supporting the transition to an entirely free event that will be held online this year.

      "We'll still make sure artists get paid, still make sure the crew gets paid," he said. "Because obviously if there's a void in the cultural landscape, it's not only about people getting together. It's livelihoods."