Celebrated in Song: Portraits of Women in Fiction and Music @KGAF20

Last Friday evening (February 8, 2019), The David Sassoon Library Grounds witnessed a houseful celebration of literature, captivating the young and old, alike. First on stage was Ashwani Kumar, co-founder of Indian Novels Collective, addressing the gathering. He introduced the Novels to the audience and highlighted the need to experiment with genres to popularise Indian classics.

The audience was allured by the fascinating collaboration of Vidya Shah, Priyanka Setia and Indian Novels Collective. Vidya Shah has been exploring women through her music since many years now. In 2009, she directed a two-day exhibition and music concert — ‘Women on Record’, celebrating music of women in the gramophone era, in which she paid a tribute to iconic female voices (of that era) by performing their music. Looking back, it fit perfectly with the theme that Indian Novels Collective wanted to celebrate this year at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.

Priyanka Setia — theatre artiste and Bollywood actress, has been a part of the Indian Novels Collective family. Talking about this unique association with Vidya Shah, Priyanka Setia commented, “Vidya is so loving, so giving. It never felt like I was collaborating with her for the first time; it was very comfortable to work with her. Performing with Vidya was a beautiful experience!”

The evening commenced with a tribute to Krishna Sobti and her fierce depiction of Mitro followed by Damodar Mauzo’s ‘Karmelin’.

Priyanka Setia enticed the audience with the characters’ unapologetic sexuality. On the one hand, Mitro unabashedly expresses her sexual desires while Mauzo’s Karmelin uses her sensuality in a calculative and controlled manner. The excerpts read from the Novels helped the audience capture the essence of the characters. Vidya Shah corresponded to these characters with some beautiful Ghazals from Janki Bai’s Raseeli Tori Akheeya and Begum Akhtar’s Humari Atariya Pe followed by Humko Mita Sake for Karmelin.

We then moved on to Dharamveer Bharati’s Sudha whose is a more layered and complex story, a personification of a man’s ideal woman, to which Vidya Shah harmonised with Begum Akhtar’s Patli Kamar Lambe Baal, Kamala Jharia’s Na Tum Mere Na Dil Mera and finally closed the show on a high note with Begum Akhtar’s Aye Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aaya.

The readings by Priyanka Setia left the audience wanting more as she teased them by withholding the end. Vidya Shah’s mesmerising voice with a varied selection of songs blended with the women characters being read effortlessly, adding charm to the classic Indian writings and experiencing Mitro, Karmelin and Sudha — the three women from Indian literature in an entrancing way. The characters indeed, came alive and left their imprints on the minds.

Indira Chandrasekhar, the curator of the literary gathering at KGAF Literature summed up with, “Thank you, Indian Novels Collective. It’s really such an honour to have you. You always bring the most extraordinary programme to Kala Ghoda Literature. And Vidya, of course I am such a huge fan… and Priyanka, it was such a beautiful reading. To listen to you two together was just immense privilege. Thank you, Shinjini and Ashwani, for making this happen.”

The enchanting fusion of music with literature at the event yet again created a remarkable narrative, a narrative upholding the uniqueness in the portrayal of women, acknowledging the differences and bringing out the complexities in Indian literature.

Musical Readings at the Times Lit Fest

Indian Novels Collective’s houseful event, Musical Readings at the Times Lit Fest proved that there will always be takers for a good story regardless of the era it is set in and most importantly, the language it was originally written in.
One usually does not associate the Times Literary Fest with readings of Indian novels, but not only was this Indian Novels Collective’s second time at the Times Literary Fest but it was also a full house with the audience not wanting the readings to end! The event in question being Musical Readings with Priyanka Setia and Yuki Ellias. Viewers had the pleasure of hearing Yuki Ellias read excerpts from Manik Bandyopadhyay’s novel, Padma Nadir Majhi and Priyanka Setia read portions from Usha Priyamvada’s novel, Pachpan Khambhe Laal Deewarein.

Set in pre-independent India in a fictitious village by the banks of Padma river in present-day Bangladesh, Padma Nadir Majhi is about a local fisherman, namely Kuber, who finds himself exploited by a small businessman. This was narrated by theatre professional, Yuki Ellias with notes of the flute played by Easwaran Anantram (Vivek), which transported one to Ketupur where the novel was set.

Meanwhile, actor and performer, Priyanka Setia read pages from Pachpan Khambhe Laal Deewarein accompanied by violinist, Sanchit Chaudhary. Written by Usha Priyamvada, the book captures the anguish of Sushma, a hostel warden who’s the sole breadwinner of her family and how she feels obliged to give up pursuing the love of her life as she considers it her duty to look after her three younger siblings.

Had it not been for these readings, the audience would not have even heard of these books.

Yuki Ellias echoes these sentiments too when while recollecting her childhood and school-life and admits that there is a bias towards Hindi and English. Despite being half-Bengali, Yuki had never heard of Padma Nadir Majhi, who knew more about Bengali poetry, limericks and films,  thanks to her Bengali mother who happens to be an avid reader.

However, that is not the only reason that prevents people from reading Indian novels. Priyanka Setia points out, “We live in India where every state has its own language. Most people try to read in their own language. I am also Punjabi and so have read a lot of Punjabi literature.  So for me also, first is Punjabi literature then comes Hindi literature.”

While reading as a hobby is commonly pursued by those who are more inclined towards the arts. Even those not inclined towards the arts, often find themselves reading English novels, if not voraciously, at the very least, a few books here and there by the author or genre of their choice. Like Setia succinctly states, people read English literature as its easily available and trendy.

If only they knew what they were missing out on. Despite being set in pre-independent India, Padma Nadir Majhi perfectly captures how fisherman and for that matter, most blue collar workers and labourers from the unorganized sectors are treated. Rules pertaining to labour laws are not even half as stringent as they should be with workers, farmers and fishermen being grossly underpaid, overworked and made to work in the most inhuman circumstances. Yuki Ellias draws parallels with the novel which also touches upon how a petty and corrupt businessman, Hossain Miya is migrating fishermen to another island to set up a colony of sorts when she says, “All of us are trapped in a  certain sense of being kidnapped, taken to an island to work like dogs. Of course, we get funded for it but exploitation has not changed, it’s maybe gotten worse.”

While Padma Nadir Majhi captures the plight of how fishermen are exploited, Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein is a story of a hostel warden who is also trapped by her circumstances. Despite finding love, she chooses to resist it and instead fulfil her duty towards her family, who without saying anything expect her to support them since she is working. When she finally does find herself getting attracted to a younger man, Neel, she finds herself subjected to a lot of scrutiny from both her colleagues, students and her family who comment about petty things like how much she goes out and what time she comes, while they assassinate her character, simply because she for once decides to befriend a younger man and thinks about herself.

Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein perfectly captures the loneliness and isolation most single working women experience. On one hand, elder, unmarried, working women are viewed as a burden and by virtue of their being women, expected to be sensitive to their families’ needs and put their family first as it is in a woman’s DNA to be family oriented! Setia talks about the hypocrisy while narrating the conversation, Sushma’s aunt, Krishna Masi had with her mother who commented on her high salary and how that will prevent her from attracting suitors, because of which they are okay with her marrying anyone. To which her aunt points out, had Sushma done the same when she was younger, they would have dissuaded her and told her to focus on her studies, instead! Quite telling right, even of 2018?

Just like how older films are dismissed as they will not be contemporary enough, the same applies for novels, especially regional literature about which, awareness is abysmal, however that also is just a notion; Regardless of the time or place it is set in, an evocative story is timeless, the only barrier being our impressions and language, the latter problem, which forms the very basis for Indian Novels Collective’s existence – to reach all kinds of readers, regardless of their nationality, mother tongue or age.