In Year Two of Vancouver's Indian Summer Festival its organizers are planning to further solidify the festival's position as an artistic gateway to the city on many fronts: literary, culturally, culinary and even meteorologically.
The term "Indian summer" commonly refers to a weather phenomenon describing a prolonged sunny period with above normal temperatures - something that Vancouverites are usually in dire need of after a rainy June. The term can also bring up other connotative associations such as a cultural renaissance or B.C.'s First Nations. The festival intends to bring all those meanings into play during their schedule of multidisciplinary events through July 15.
Indian Summer Arts Society artistic director Sirish Rao spoke to the North Shore News about what we can expect at this year's festival.
North Shore News: How long was the Indian Summer Festival in the planning stages before it made its debut last year?
Sirish Rao: Last year was quite breathless for a festival of this scale. We started planning just about six months out. We'd had a few conversations before back and forth and sort of tested the idea but then last year was also declared the Year of India in Canada and that gave a boost to the whole idea behind the festival. The idea is to have dialogues not only within the communities in Vancouver but elsewhere as well. We do have links to India and South Asia but this is a festival for anyone who is interested in great art and culture. All our performances are pairings with Canadian writers, thinkers, musicians, and so it was this perfect moment. We also wanted a dialogue that was somewhat global and puts Vancouver on a global landscape that says, 'Hey what happens in the rest of the world affects us and what we do affects other people,' because more and more the world seems to be much more linked in its influences and how things happen.
North Shore News: Is there a connection between the Indian Summer Festival and the Jaipur Literary Festival in India?
Sirish Rao: Absolutely. We are sister festivals so to speak. The group that produces the Jaipur festival are partners in the festival in Vancouver. Jaipur has grown to become one of the biggest literary festivals in the world - it's one of these places where all the events are free. We have wonderful authors including Canadian ones such as Michael Ondaatje. Last year we had Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. We started very humble and it's turned into something quite powerful. We're looking to bring some of that energy and vision to Vancouver. We were very lucky in Vancouver to find such a great reception from SFU because the new Woodward's complex was built and it became this incredible multidisciplinary downtown hub. These ingredients coming together kind of told us that, 'Yes you are on the right track.'
North Shore News: Do Vancouver and Jaipur share events? Sirish Rao: Last year we did have a panel called Defining Diaspora which involved the well known writers Hari Kunzu, Anosh Irani, Ashok Mathur and Ameen Merchant. It was an even mix of U.K. authors and authors from Vancouver of South Asian origin and that was a panel that we had done in Jaipur before. A lot of the authors move back and forth. Two of the authors we brought last year have had stages at Jaipur and other literary festivals. Anosh Irani from North Vancouver was invited to be at the festival last year so we do see this crosspollination as something we'll do more and more of.
North Shore News: Indian Summer starts in the first week of July. Any particular reasons for choosing this period in the calendar?
Sirish Rao: There's a lot going on in Vancouver but certain kinds of things tend to fall off in the summer and we didn't really want to be at the same time as another festival. The jazz fest finishes up in early July and the folk fest starts up in midJuly so we sort of nudged in between those two major festivals. What that also allows us to do, which we've really been happy about, is to collaborate with other festivals and I think part of that is because we are multidisciplinary. We're not doing an entire music or an entire dance festival so people are happy to collaborate. This year for instance we have a wonderful group Mrigya, who do Sufi music which is one of those wonderful musical forms that unite India with the Persian world because we share this philosophy. They will play at the Indian Summer Festival on the 13th of July and then at the folk music festival over the weekend. And similarly the writers festival which happens in October is a partner for all of our literary events. There's not much going on literature-wise in the summer and so again it's a nice way to join hands.
North Shore News: What time of year is the Jaipur Literary Festival held?
Sirish Rao: Usually the third week of January.
North Shore News: For the second year in a row you've landed a big Bollywood star legend for Indian Summer. Last year it was Tabu and this year you are bringing in Sharmila Tagore.
Sirish Rao: She's going to talk about her five decades in cinema. What an incredible woman and story as well - straight out of a Bollywood film in fact. At 13 she was discovered by Satyajit Ray. He picked her up at 13 and then she went on to make bigger blockbusters with the Kapoors who are the reigning family of Bollywood. She was the first woman to wear a bikini onscreen in Indian cinema and there was a huge furore about it. She married a Muslim prince, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, who was also the captain of the Indian cricket team and you know when you've got Bollywood and cricket you've got India sorted. That was one of these fairy tale romances that captured everyone's imagination and sadly he passed away eight or nine months ago. She's been the chairman of the Indian film board and she won a lifetime achievement award in Toronto last year which of course made a lot of news in Canada. She's really been an ambassador for film.
North Shore News: There really is something for everyone at the festival from a culinary tour of India to a political discussion of how India and Pakistan separated. On opening night Vikram Vij is front and centre as the culinary face of India.
Sirish Rao: Vikram again sort of exemplifies what the festival is about. His roots are in India, he's influenced by India but he's also very Canadian and trained in European techniques. His food brings together all of these things and says OK how do we meld all these cultures? Vikram is on our advisory council and he's also someone who has helped shape the festival. Indians are obsessed about food, we are a bit like Italians in that way. At lunch we're talking about what we're going to have for dinner even before we've finished lunch and then we're force-feeding anybody in sight. We believe in oppressive hospitality. In that sense, we really wanted food to be an art form and not just catering, and we went to Vikram and said, 'For us you're an artist, you're not someone who provides food you have your own art form.' He said, 'That's exactly how I see it.' Since then he's not only doing the culinary tour, where he's brought in different restaurants to be part of it so you get a sampling of several different regions of India. He's also cooking up an exclusive Nawabi feast for Sharmila Tagore in her honour.
North Shore News: Your background is in publishing and literature plays a huge role in Indian Summer.
Sirish Rao: It does and that's why our festival is called a Festival of Arts and Ideas. Sometimes festivals are more performative and we really wanted to have this sense of minds coming together, of public intellectual debate and we want Vancouver to be part of a global debate. So we treat literature not just as a crafting of words but we treat all our speakers and authors as great minds. Sometimes magic happens onstage when you bring people who have never spoken together and they are able to come up with something that's quite unexpected. That's very key for us at the festival.
North Shore News: Is there anything from last year that you wanted to concentrate more on in Year Two?
Sirish Rao: For sure, I think the ideas part, because people came back to us and said they really wanted to see more of this kind of dialogue in Vancouver. Not only to get people who are already engaged in this but to get students involved. And food. Vancouver and food, it's just one of those relationships that is so strong we decided we need to do more on the food front. We actually have a lounge that will run throughout the period of the festival at the W2 Media Cafe that has come up with an amazing menu that blends First Nations recipes with Indian recipes, playing on that wording yet again.
Indian Summer Festival: A Festival of Arts and Ideas until July 15 at SFU Woodward's Downtown. For complete details visit indiansummerfestival.ca.