Close your eyes for a second. When you do, I want you to paint a picture for me, one that answers a simple question: what is India like?
Pencils down. Odds are, when we look at your picture, we’ll see the usual tropes: Bollywood dance numbers, people doing yoga, maybe a sitar or two, colorful saris, cows, bindis, driving that makes Mad Max look like a Drivers’ Ed teacher, and, of course, the food. But while they are correct representtions, these images are but a few tales of a country whose story goes back millennia. And it is this massively intricate story that Eye on India has been dedicated to telling us for these past six years.
Among the countless angles with which to tackle this behemoth of a narrative, which ones do they choose to tell? To paraphrase a friend of mine, simply put: “they are taking the story of contemporary India and bringing it to life right at our doorstep”. For the past few weeks, starting on September 18th at the Chicago Poetry Foundation and ending October 1st at the Field Museum, in Chicago, some of the best artists and writers with their wares in modern Indian literature, theatre, dance and art have graced our shores. They brought with them, their stories of human struggle, dignity and shared human experience: all told through their unique creative and cultural lens. Through this unique festival and their local partners, these tales came together with those of the Midwest to instill a sense of shared community, an education, and a fascination in all of us who were lucky enough to attend, no matter the background.
The experience began with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Vijay Seshadri and award-winning novelist Anuradha Roy. Thanks to the efforts of new `Eye on India’ partners the Chicago Poetry Foundation and the Chicago Public Library, Chicagoans were able to meet these internationally acclaimed creators, listen to them, interact with them while discussing everything from the current election cycle to their creative process and back. For some audience, it may have been surprising: after all, they sounded and behaved like normal people. Now, this can be a stunning realization with many creative types, much less ones half a world away, writing about social contexts that we cannot begin to imagine appreciate . . . and yet, we do. Roy wondered that, when she found out her novels were being translated, she was a bit skeptical of why anyone else outside of India would be interested; after all, her novels are steeped in Indian culture, settings, contexts and subtexts with little handholding.
Yet these same novels are successful the world over, because underneath those contexts lay stories of universal human emotions, motivations, and frailty: they are fascinating because they give us a slice of another world and yet have character with whom we can empathize and also relate at some level. In a nutshell, this is the beating heart of the festival: celebrating differences and commonality all at the same time.
The tone set, a wide range of events with this same theme followed: the Xenophilia art exhibit, curated by Megha Ralapti took artwork from eight Indian artists, all of whom had moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute and explored the notion of affection for the unknown or the foreign; the Sari Project collaborated with the fashion students from Columbia College Chicago, and examined the notion of blending traditional and contemporary aesthetics, of bringing together Eastern style with Western perspective with the stunning results; the East meets Middle East concert where expert musicians of classical Middle Eastern and Indian instruments including Chicago’s own Ronnie Malley and George Lawley, came together and while improvising and feeding off one another’s passion, played their hearts out to a diverse yet indulging audience; and at the Field Museum, attendees were fascinated by how kolams- intricate patterns created with rice powder common in Southern India- actually aligned with much of an abstract mathematical theory while making their own powder by crushing rice in stone grinders.
Far and away the most popular and apt demonstration of the festival’s theme though had to be the sold out performances of India Company Theatre Mumbai’s internationally renowned adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — Piya Behrupiya. An event several years in the making ‘Eye on India’ worked together with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to present a Shakespearean adaptation like no other, one that had debuted at the legendary Globe Theatre no less, just in time for the playwright’s 400 years anniversary. Despite being performed only in Hindi with English subtitles, audiences of all backgrounds roared with laughter as they watched these new versions of familiar characters bring a unique and amusing aesthetic to Shakespeare’s tale. While much of the linguistic nuance went over our heads, most of us were able to see the event for what it was: a celebration of storytelling, of theatre, and of a man whose works have expanded to and been incorporated by cultures all over the world. The woman sitting next to me said it best: “I don’t understand what they’re saying, but you can tell that, at its core, it’s still Shakespeare, just different”. In a theatre filled with people from different background, at least for 2 hours, we came together and were able to appreciate the art for what it was and perhaps, a bit, appreciate each other for what we were.
And that my dear friends, is what this year’s `Eye on India’ festival has done: created an intimacy with the unknown. Most of its individual events were at smaller scale, but this was deliberate as it enabled us to take ourselves away from the Midwestern city around us and focus, if only for a brief time, on engaging and experiencing the unfamiliar: to challenge ourselves and our worldview . Getting out of our comfort zones. Challenging your belief that Dave Matthews is God’s gift to music–well, okay, that one’s indisputable, but you understand what I mean. This festival could have easily pandered to the obvious differences: Bollywood, religion, food, and yes, yoga, but it didn’t. It took risks and focused on more subtle or obscure differences that, nonetheless, actually wound up demonstrating more common ground between us and them than at first glance.
It took that process of challenging ourselves and made it fun. Educational without being boring and didactic. It created a space where we celebrated both the similarities and differences between our cultures–for its only by appreciating the spaces between ourselves that we truly can appreciate the bridges.
Thanks to the `Eye on India’ festival committee and their numerous local partners, including the Chicago Poetry Foundation, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Chicago Public Library, and Field Museum for yet another incredible year and yet another incredible festival. For more interesting insights about this year’s festival, be sure to check out the other blogs on this site and keep an eye out for more content yet to come. Otherwise, be sure to come back for the next year’s festival; the bar may be set high, but if this past year’s been any indication, topping it will be a welcome challenge indeed.
– Colin Herzog, EOI Blogger