On The Cutting Edge

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On The Cutting EdgeOn The Cutting Edge
Toronto’s Desh Pardesh Festival has a unique and genuine voice

by Raywat Deonandan
Feb 24, 2005

This article was published in the June, 1995, issue of India Currents Magazine.

Despite the technical blunders, a screeching microphone and uncertain lighting, California’s pioneering Indian-American writer Kartar Dhillon launched this year’s Desh Pardesh festival with great warmth and hominess. Her simple and soft feminist tales were a gradual introduction to a creative event that would feature works for whom such adjectives might even be considered insulting.

In its fifth year in Toronto, Desh Pardesh (sometimes translated as “home away from home”) claims to be an “intra-national festival/conference exploring the politics of South Asian cultures in the West.” It is well-regarded for providing a venue for the most marginalized of South Asian artists –feminists, homosexuals and purveyors of the working-class creed. It is a forum for all manner of art: poetry, literature, film, theatre, dance, photography and music –all free from the cultural baggage that tends to accompany Indian arts festivals: the compelled humility, religious and familial themes.

“We are unique,” says departing Desh executive director Steve Pereira, “in that we bridge the activist world –people who are involved with social justice issues– with the world of art.” The festival glories in its role as a haven for activist movements, offering workshops in such topics as sexual assault prevention, lesbian flirtation techniques, trends in immigration laws, AIDS activism, ecological denigration and the role of politicized art in the milieu of general South Asian culture.

Desh is particularly relevant this year because it marks the 150th anniversary of Indian presence in the Caribbean (and hence the West), the 10th anniversary of the Air India explosion, and the first anniversary of free South African elections. Day 2 of the festival was accordingly devoted to Indo-Caribbean content, featuring Guyanese-Trinidadian music proceeding under the name “Nagara Into Chutney”. It is on this day that Desh‘s brightest theatrical light is seen: Errol Sitahal’s dramatization of a scene from Samuel Selvon’s novel “A Brighter Sun.” Sitahal movingly captures the tragedy of the indentured service system while giving the character of Sookdeo a rare and tangible human dimension.

Another story that was touched upon by a number of performers –from poets to film-makers– was the tragedy of the Kogamata Maru. It was on this vessel in 1914 that a shipload of Sikhs was turned away from Vancouver harbour to face death on the seas. These pieces would herald a subetheral anti-colonial sentiment that would make its presence felt throughout the festival.

Indeed, at times a resentment of Western racism and British imperialism would become undisguised anti-white hatred. Odissi dancer Ananya Chaterjea would present a simply stunning interpretation of the Raj’s prostitution of Indian dancers; poet Raj Pannu would pronounce her disappointment with those with “insufficient skin melanin”; and members of the All India Collective theatre group would declare shamelessly –and somewhat naively– that George Bush had wanted to control Indian women’s bodies.

The espousal of such unabashed extremism culminates on the closing night with a reading by local poet whose work is entitled “Trying Hard Not To Hate White People.”

But such scapegoating aside, Desh was a wonderful cabaret of hidden talents. Phinder Dulai, a gifted poet and chronicler of the Kogamata Maru saga, reveals to us that “when you’re brown-skinned and speak of your disenfranchisement, you’re politically correct; when you’re white [and do the same thing], you’re cool.” Sadhu Binning, a simple and humble man, presents remarkably accessible verses as touching as many of Longfellow’s soft salvos. Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, another local writer, delivered an effortless and unrehearsed performance that was part literary reading and part stand-up comedy. And bhangra musicians Dhamak provided a suitably loud and rhythmic close to the four-day affair.

But by far the most engaging and memorable of Desh‘s offerings this year was a reading by poet Rajinder Pal whose amiable and accessible delivery evoked impressions of such realism that the audience was compelled to cling to his every word. He was able to elicit in many listeners ancestral memories of the India we’ve never seen.

The quality of the presented works was variable, of course, but the power of Desh lay in its unique and genuine voice. There was little of the self-serving pretense that usually pollutes such events, only the grateful strains of participants thrilled to have been allowed expression. In response to racist attacks on his children, one poet realized that he had “a choice between the gun and the pen (but not the computer)”. For him, it is clear, Desh was much more than another line on his C.V.

And despite the occasional anonymous caller who would complain bitterly about the representation of South Asian culture by a largely homosexual contingent, Desh Pardesh continues to grow, and promises to be an even grander affair this time next year.


Raywat Deonandan is a prolific author and freelance journalist. Visit www.deonandan.com.