Monday, March 28, 2011
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Screening of Satyajit Ray's Devi, Sharmila Tagore, and Literature Panel: 'Celluloid Lives' at the Kennedy Center
My friend and I arrived at the Kennedy Center just as the title sequence began for Satyajit Ray's masterpiece Devi. I was completely mesmerized by the first few scenes of this timeless classic of Bengali Cinema, and I totally forgot that minutes prior, we had been in busy traffic on the beltway. An excellent summary and review of this film is available on the Distant Voices blog. This was my introduction to Sharmila Tagore's early career, as well as to director Satyajit Ray, and I was incredibly inspired by this film. Ray made such masterful use of lighting throughout the film. The subtle dialogue was broken up by poetic silence while the actors' expressions spoke volumes, and all of this was blended together by a magnificent Soundtrack by Ali Akbar Khan. The film, as i mentioned in my previous blog, caused quite a stir in India due to it's religious themes. I learned during the Q & A following the screening ( Sharmila Tagore and Satyajit Ray scholar Dilip Basu spoke afterwards) that the story takes place in 1860s rural Bengal during a pivotal time period known as the Indian Rennaisance. Various characters have deeper symbolic roles that show the different views that existed at that time.. some deeply entrenched in religious rites and beliefs, others becoming more "progressive", westernized (the British influence), and some even converting to Christianity. The tension between these belief systems is felt throughout this magnificent film. This is by no means a strictly intellectual drama -- these themes are submerged deep within the characters themselves. The beautiful haunting, dreamlike images of this movie lingered in my mind long after the film was over - particularly, Doyamoyee's facial expressions (Shamila Tagore).
Due to conflicts over distribution rights and... unbelievably, a "lack of public interest", according to Dilip Basu, to fund the pricey licensing demands of the owners of films like Satyajit Ray's Devi ( the Apu Trilogy is also currently out of print), these films are tragically unavailable to most of the world (except for badly printed bootlegs). That's why it was so incredible to see Devi played from the original film reel on a big screen.
Later in the day, I also attended a literature panel discussion called Celluloid Lives. The discussion, "moderated by Lalitha Gopalan, explores film biography and autobiography as a personalized account of the evolution of film in India with panelists Girish Karnad, Sharmila Tagore, and Sadanand Menon" (from the Kennedy Center schedule notes).
Mr Menon's description of the fans in Tamil Nadu and the incredible lengths they will go to establish real-life bonds with their actor/idols was fascinating. He spoke of people tatooing heroes faces on their arms, giving blood to afford the entry to the latest film, and setting up roadside shrines in their honor... all of these anecdotes seem ridiculous unless you understand how importantly symbolic these films have historically been to the people of South India. Menon stated that in Hollywood, people "collect things that the actors have signed, and touched".. whereas in South India they seek much deeper, more personal bonds with their heroes and heroines.
It was also wonderful to hear a description of Utsav (and the early Indian plays that it was based on) as told by the director himself, Girash Karnad. Utsav (featuring Rekha, as a seductive courtesan, and originally, Amitabh Bachchan in a starring role, though later replaced by Shashi Kapoor) was one of the excellent Bollywood (aka popular) films of the early 80s that brushed right up to the edge of the "parallel cinema" genre while still having a popular appeal (in this case, "popular" mostly because of the well known actors, though the film itself had a very unusual artistic style for the 80s and was daringly sensual for a "Bollywood" film). There's a nice overview of the film, as well as some great sceen caps at
Beth Loves Bollywood.
(above: Utsav title image - borrowed from B.L.B.)
Another highlight of this panel was hearing Sharmila-ji read, according to her, her first attempt at an autobiography of her acting career (which was encouraged by a friend she mentioned was in the audience). I wish this panel had gone longer, but the tight schedule of the Kennedy Center's events last weekend would not allow it. It surely would have turned into heated debate judging from Miss Tagores expressions. Stage workers ' union regulations had cut discussion short, so afterwards, Sharmila Tagore came out to meet her fans and continue the discussion about the identity of women in Indian cinema that had started during the panel (partly due to Mr Karnad's comments). It was pretty gracious that she decided to come out and meet the mob of people waiting for her (including me) to give audience members some more of her perspective.
Some of Karnad's comments were not taken well by Miss Sharmila Tagore, and she showed it in her face on stage when he spoke. His candid description of various celebrity scandals in some ways reinforced a stereotype that women "have no choice" - and that's "not true" according to Miss Tagore. She went on to say that she was tired of women being portrayed as "victims" over and over again. Mr Karnad had described Rekha's dilemma after she was forbidden to meet Amitabh anymore after his accident during the filming of Coolie - and he said that she must have been "devastated" and "totally alone" - painting her as helpless at the end of a love affair.
"They look at women and want to see the presence of the patriarchal system, but that's not always true. We all have options.. I mean, Isadora Duncan is a fallen woman or what? Isadora Duncan is not an acheiver?" she said sarcastically to the crowd of women gathered around her. I think what she meant was that Indian actresses shouldn't always be painted as victims of their personal lives when they are just living as they choose. They might make mistakes (just as the european actresses do) but they make choices on their own and it shouldn't have anything to do with how they are seen as actresses.
During all this discussion, many people edged close to her to have their picture with Sharmila snapped by a friend. It was quite a sight to see - part flash mob, part philosophical debate. Here is FLICKR PHOTO SET from that afternoon.
(The events and film screenings mentioned here were part of the Kennedy Center's excellent "Maximum India" Series which took place throughout the first half of March 2011. )
Monday, March 21, 2011
I had the pleasure of speaking with Dengue Fever guitarist and songwriter Zac Holtzman a couple of weeks ago who told me about some of the new approaches in songwriting and recording they used, as well as a few really interesting stories about the songs.
Tune in next Sunday to hear some songs from their forthcoming album, Cannibal Courtship (releasing April 19 - three days after Khmer New Year!) and a great interview with Zac Holtzman!
"If Music Could Talk" Sundays at 7pm EST on WRIR
Don't miss them on tour!! They're an excellent LIVE band!
I will personally testify that no form of recording could properly capture the energy of seeing it live, but at least for a sample, here is a clip I found on Youtube from their DVD. I also played an excerpt from their highly recommended CD during my radio show this past week.
CDs, DVDs and Vinyl LPs (<3) of a live performance by The Manganiyar Seduction are available on their label website here.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
below: Exhibit for Kids : "Hi, I AM INDIA" (on the Terrace Level) walls covered with facts and cartoons about India, tables with childrens books based on Indian folk tales and religious stories, and three TV installations showing cartoon films featuring animated deities
below: Bharti Kher's 'Bhindi' Installation "I've got eyes in the back of my head" (Millenium Hall)
Monday, March 07, 2011
It figures that this is how I would run across one of the most spectacular Indian music and arts showcases I've ever seen in one place. It's quite possibly the biggest festival in US history to celebrate Indian Culture (Except one in California recently?)
News of this festival took a while to reach Richmond, but I’ve been doing all I can to spread the word. (the Mothership has landed)
I'm a huge fan of Indian cinema, and have been for years. But Bollywood films are all so different in the way they represent Indian culture. The best way to learn, as many will tell you themselves, is to visit India. This is not an easy trip to make, so we're incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to experience some of the highlights of Indian culture here in DC.
The Indian Center for Cultural Relations in New Delhi , and the Embassy of India in Washington DC and many other private, independent and corporate sponsors have made this all possible.
I play Indian music regularly on my radio show. The monthly Bollywood Dance nights we do here in Richmond have had me focused on the Indian continent for years.
You can learn a lot from watching popular Indian films, but they don’t give you the full picture, so I'm always looking to expand my perspective.
I can't put into words why I find the traditions of India so important.
Their hundreds of languages, their countless forms of dance, music, poetry, art, and ways of life ~ so incredibly beautiful and unique.
India (and many other surrounding areas of South Asia) have so many beautiful cultural traditions - it makes sense to me that the Kennedy Center is finally devoting their schedule to India. Why pay attention to compass points when you're looking for inspiration? This festival gives us a rare chance to learn more about India's rich culture.
Browsing through the schedule, I was excited to see three full weeks of performances scheduled (March 1-20). So I bought tickets to three events immediately, and have added others to my schedule since then! The trip to DC takes about two hours by car, but this is a rare opportunity. Some of these artists come from as close to home as DC and New York.
It's great that the festival includes artists like Suphala (NYC) DJ Rekha (NYC - who also performs regularly at DC's Black Cat), Punjabi MC (UK) and Vatsala Mehra(DC).
Several directors will be appearing: Naseerudin Shah, Kiran Rao (her film 'Dhobi Ghat', released this year, will be screening at the festival on March 19th!); and three legendary actresses: Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Sharmila Tagore.
(Naseerudin Shah and Shabana Azmi)
Nandita Das will lead a talk entitled "Bollywood and Beyond", and Shabana Azmi and Sharmila Tagore will be taking part in another discussion, 'Portrayal of Indian Women in Film'.
Sharmila Tagore will be at the Kennedy Center on the 19th for Q&A before a screening of one of her early films, "Devi" (the Goddess) which was released in 1960. 'Devi' was not only one of Sharmila Tagore's first roles in Indian cinema, but was also quite controversial at the time it was released. Directed by Satyajit Ray, Devi was based on the short story 'Devi' by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee.
From Satyajit Ray's website:
"The film generated some controversy on its release in India. It was seen as an attack on Hinduism itself by a few protesters, who tried to prevent the film's international release. However, the film was eventually released and went on to receive a government award, the President's Gold Medal. The teen-aged Sharmila Tagore gives an outstanding performance in the title role. She commented a few years later, "Devi was what a genius got out of me, not something I did myself"
I have watched dozens of Sharmila Tagore's films from her many years in Indian Cinema. She played so many different roles, from pious, to playful, to outright scandalous. To have a chance to see her in person speaking about one of her earliest films is a rare, once in a lifetime opportunity for people who know her films. (more about Sharmila Tagore on Wikipedia)
Shabana Azmi is another one of Indian Cinema's great legends. Possibly her greatest achievements in Indian cinema come from her involvement with groundbreaking films from India's "parallel cinema" genre of the 1970s. Shabana Azmi acted in Shyam Benegal's directorial debut Ankur and many of his other films, as well as countless others by talented and daring Indian directors. These films pushed the boundaries in ways that more mainstream popular "Bollywood" films never dared. Shabana Azmi's performances have always been riveting, and believably "real".. and at the same time graceful, and subtle. Along with other actresses like the late great Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi broke the mold for women in Indian Cinema, and acted in roles that defied cultural taboo and expressed deep emotional and political messages. Shabana Azmi starred in "Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire" which "depicts her as a lonely woman, Radha, in love with her sister-in-law. The on-screen depiction of lesbianism (perhaps the first in Indian cinema) drew severe protests and threats from many social groups as well as by the Indian authorities." (from wikipedia)
"Regarded as one of the finest actresses in India, Azmi's performances in films in a variety of genres have generally earned her praise and awards, which include a record of five wins of the National Film Award for Best Actress and several international honours" (from wikipedia) (Shabana Azmi will also be performing live in a theatre performance, 'Broken Images')
I've always hoped that a festival would come along that would bring together film, music, dance, and visual art from India.
Another highlight of the schedule for the Kennedy Center's Maximum India series was Ustad Zakir Hussain's World premiere of "Concerto for Four Soloists" which was performed three nights in a row, March 3-5th. I attended the March 5th performance this past Friday. Written by the brilliant tabla master and world music pioneer himself, this epic piece was performed with the full National Symphony Orchestra. Two of the soloists are singers that I am familiar with from Bollywood Soundtracks - Shankar Mahadevan (of Shankar Eshan Loy - who have performed such Bollywood Favorites as "Koi Kahe" and countless others), and Hariharan, a very popular Indian playback singer, as well as "one of the foremost Indian ghazal singers and composers". The third singer, Kelley O'Connor was new to me, but her heavenly Mezzo Soprano voice is world famous. (The evening's program also featured the National Symphony Orchestra's first ever performance of Rousell's 'Padmavati" - a piece written by the French composer that was inspired by a trip he took with his wife to India in 1909.)
Friday night also gave me a chance to attend a free performance (one of many scheduled each day) of one of India's most popular singers in recent years - Kailash Kher (who I also play frequently on my radio show)
Saturday, March 6th, I made another trip (2 in one weekend) to see a performance by the Nrityagram Dance group with Surupa Sen, Pavithra Reddy, and Bijayini Sathpathy. Nrityagram is one of the worlds finest dance groups who perform in the ancient Odissi style, developing new pieces every year based on this age-old tradition with new and creative interpretation. They performed a portion of their newest work,'Pratima' which contained references through dance to the simultaneous separation, and union of the male and female principles, and the destructive and creative powers in the universe (represented by Hindu Deities their dance moves described). They also performed another shorter piece titled 'Aakriti' which means 'form'. This was the third time I have seen this world famous dance group perform, and it inspired me beyond words. The first time I saw this group (in Richmond at UR's Modlin Center) I had to come back the next night to see the second show. (photos from that evening here) There is something so beautiful about this style of dance. I have never been mesmerized by movement and physical expression in such a powerful way. And Saturday's performance reminded me why I had made such effort to be there for this date (I drove through a treacherous freezing rain storm from Richmond to get there yesterday.)
This program also included brilliant performance in the first half by legendary dance soloist Priyadarsini Govind, who performed a version of the Bharatanatayam Margam which "is considered to be a mystic manifestation of the metaphysical element of fire in the human body." Her movements were flawless, and communicated so many stories with every twist and turn. One particular piece contained a narration about Nataraj, the dancing form of Lord Shiva, while another dance narrated the anger of a woman whose lover has deceived her.
A documentary is about to be released about Nrityagram called "For the Love of Dance" -- see a preview here:
I am looking forward to a performance this Thursday of Suphala, protégée of tabla players Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain (yet another artist who I have featured on my radio show in the past). Suphala's reputation is not only well known in the Indian Classical Music community, but she is also a groundbreaking artist in the electronic, hip hop, club and dance music scene. She blends Indian Classical style into the most modern cutting-edge dance grooves like a chemist in search of a new element.
"Suphala has recorded and/or performed with Norah Jones, Perry Farrell (Jane's Addiction), Sean Lennon, Harper Simon, Yoko Ono, Edie Brickell, Vernon Reid (Living Color), King Britt, DJ Spooky, DJ Logic, DJ Fafu, Vijay Iyer, 4 Hero, Lady Ms. Kier (Dee-Lite), Nina Hagen, Joan Osbourne, Kelly Clarkson, Timbaland, Michael Bland, Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto), Vikter Duplaix, Gingger Shankar, Niladri Kumar, Ustad Sultan Khan, Rakesh Chaurasia, Salim Merchant, and Carol C (Si Se). She is also a pioneer in the field of computational fluid dynamics."
I will also attend sold out performances of "The Manganiyar seduction", a group of Sufi musicians "43 musicians are seated in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows one on top of the other" - based on "a combination of the Hawa Mahal and the Red light district of Amsterdam" (website here) and Punjabi MC (in addition to the screening of 'Devi' on the 19th) - a full day of performances that will be the climactic finale of my attendance of this series.
Tickets and Info: HERE.
Exhibits like Treasures of the Gem Palace (a collection of some of the finest Indian Jewelry you will ever lay eyes on), SARI (an exhibition of Sari fabrics), Thukral & Tagra: Hi! I am India (an exhibition about Indian culture for Children), and Kaleidoscope: Mapping India's Crafts show that this festival was meant to include everyone. There are so many free performances every day, and many exhibits to check out too. It was great to see a school bus full of kids being dropped off at the front entrance on Thursday.
Special thanks to the Kennedy Center for inviting me to attend additional performances that I had not previously planned into my schedule. I feel honored and incredibly lucky to experience the ecstatic sensory overload that this festival truly is. And I hope we will be lucky enough to have see a second edition of "Maximum India" scheduled in the next year or so.
(Check back here soon for links to photos, reviews, and maybe even some interviews if I get really lucky!!)
Sunday, March 06, 2011
(I'll be posting some photos from the exhibits they had there in the next day or two. Check the link above for a schedule.. and get your tickets while there are still some available.. many events have sold out already!)