Indian Summer Festival a Unique Mix of Art, Ideas and Science - New Canadian Media

Indian Summer Festival a Unique Mix of Art, Ideas and Science

It’s just after midnight in Delhi, India when I reach Orijit Sen, a renowned graphic novelist and artist. As part of the annual Indian Summer…

It’s just after midnight in Delhi, India when I reach Orijit Sen, a renowned graphic novelist and artist. As part of the annual Indian Summer Festival, Vancouverites can see his artwork in an unexpected location: wrapped around a city bus.

“I’m interested in bringing the mobile public art which we have in India and placing that in Vancouver,” he says, adding that the presence of the colourfully decorated bus on city streets reflects the, “multicultural, cosmopolitan nature of Vancouver.”

The bus is covered in graphics inspired by the South Asian tradition of truck art. Sen explains that in India and Pakistan, trucks are usually privately owned or operated by small entrepreneurs. Drivers end up spending many months of the year traveling in their trucks. “[The] sense of decorating it, making it beautiful and looking after it comes from the personal connection to the truck,” he says.

For the transit bus artwork, Sen drew inspiration from his visit to Vancouver last year. For example, the graphic of an auto rickshaw driver on the bus was inspired by walking in Vancouver late at night wishing, “there was an auto rickshaw that I could just hail on the street and it would take me home … which is something I’m so used to doing in Delhi.”

“A lot of arts festivals or ideas festivals might only take up one discipline like the performing arts or literature or theatre, but we are arguing for a festival that nourishes the mind, the taste buds, [and] the senses in every possible way.” – Sirish Rao

It’s this sense of colliding worlds that lies at the heart of the annual Indian Summer Festival, which takes place in Vancouver from July 9 to 18 this year. Sirish Rao, founder of Indian Summer, says the festival is not just about crossing geographic boundaries, but entire disciplines.

“A lot of arts festivals or ideas festivals might only take up one discipline like the performing arts or literature or theatre, but we are arguing for a festival that nourishes the mind, the taste buds, [and] the senses in every possible way.”

A multidisciplinary approach

One of the more ambitious and whimsical events this year is a collision between the arts and science called “Genes and Jazz”. Featuring geneticist and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold Varmus and the Jacob Varmus Quintet (Jacob is Harold’s son), the performance will meld the mutations in cellular structures with improvised jazz chords.

This programming is supported by the festival’s partnership with Simon Fraser University (SFU) and Rao’s other role as an adjunct professor there.

“Stories from the Cab” presents the voices of taxi drivers, who work in one of the most racialized industries in Canada. It’s an event that challenges perceptions of place and immigration, and distinguishes the festival from other summer fare.

Vancouver blogger Salina Siu volunteered at a literary event for the festival as part of her coursework at SFU. Siu says she loved the opportunity of “being behind the scenes” and “working directly with the authors.”

This year, there’s a double-header literary event: “The Ever After” and “In the Driver’s Seat: Stories from the Cab”.

The first is a look at the loss and mourning that is rooted in the Air India bombing 30 years ago. At the time, the tragedy was considered India’s, even though most of the victims were Canadians of Indian origin.

“Stories from the Cab” presents the voices of taxi drivers, who work in one of the most racialized industries in Canada. It’s an event that challenges perceptions of place and immigration, and distinguishes the festival from other summer fare.

‘Engaging with contemporary ideas’

“Whereas a lot of cultural festivals, especially in the diaspora, tend to be nostalgic,” explains Rao, “we’re more interested in the contemporary. So it’s not about recreating a past, it’s about engaging with contemporary ideas.”

“Sometimes food is the first and easiest way to step across an unknown shore, and you might take the next step with music, and then you might come and hear someone speak. We see it as a long conversation.” – Sirish Rao

He points to a talk with prominent Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan as an example of how the festival features high-profile guest speakers beyond the traditional borders of South Asia. Aslan’s sold out lecture on July 16 will tackle subjects like ISIS, identity and how faith is affected by geography.

Amongst the ideas, however, there is still space for raucous celebration: Vancouver celebrity chef Vikram Vij catered the opening gala on July 9, and the closing party “Taj Mahal Foxtrot” on July 18 will feature the finest of the 1930s Bombay jazz scene and a touch of vintage Bollywood. It’s why first-time festivalgoer Panzy Sandhu is going.

She’s excited for the “arts, music, and different cuisine” after hearing about the festival from friends. This is what Rao hopes for: “Sometimes food is the first and easiest way to step across an unknown shore, and you might take the next step with music, and then you might come and hear someone speak. We see it as a long conversation.”

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