parramatta celebrates south asian art

keith gallasch: philip rolfe, parramasala festival

Pandit Chitresh Das, Samuel Smith, Kathak Tap

Pandit Chitresh Das, Samuel Smith, Kathak Tap

Pandit Chitresh Das, Samuel Smith, Kathak Tap

PARRAMASALA IS AN IMPORTANT NEW FESTIVAL SOON TO PREMIERE IN WESTERN SYDNEY, CELEBRATING SOUTH ASIAN CULTURE, ANCIENT AND MODERN, AND FREQUENTLY AS SYNTHESES OF THESE IN COLLABORATIONS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL AND CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS, INDIAN, WESTERN AND FROM THE INDIAN DIASPORA. WHILE ADELAIDE’S OZASIA, NOW IN ITS FOURTH INCARNATION, HAS PLAYED A UNIQUE ROLE IN CONNECTING AUSTRALIA BROADLY WITH THE REGION, PARRAMASALA IN 2010 OFFERS A MORE CULTURALLY INTENSIVE FOCUS—INDIAN MUSIC, DANCE, FILM, RITUAL AND CELEBRATION, STAND-UP COMEDY AND CRICKET.

Artistic director Philip Rolfe, a former Executive Director at the Sydney Opera House where he played a key role in expanding the House’s programming of contemporary practices, tells me that over the next two years the range of work covered in Parramasala will expand “to include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Himalayan countries and the influence of these in the broader region ,but also their global impact on contemporary arts. Choosing South Asian work from Europe and the US is part of what we’ll do into the future. But it’s also about the impact these have had in Australia. We’re attempting to construct a festival that is very contemporary and very much about collaboration between different artists, cultures and countries.”

Why this focus on South Indian culture? Rolfe explains, “The event is clearly in a community that will be supportive. Parramatta is a kind of epicentre of Sydney, New South Wales’ and probably Australia’s South Asian cultures—a massive population.” An impressive example was provided by the response to the AR Rhaman concert in Parramatta Park in 2009: “The NSW Government took up an invitation from Rhaman to do a free concert. He wanted to do it in Parramatta around the issue of what was happening to Indian students in Australia next to the positives of collaboration and multiculturalism, as opposed to the one-sided view coming across in the media. Unbelievably, 60-70,000 people turned out.” Rolfe is hoping for 15-20,000 to see the hugely popular Bollywood soundtrack singer Kailash Kher and his band Kailasa in The Crescent—“a natural, enhanced amphitheatre in Parramatta Park beside the river; it’s Sydney’s best outdoor venue.” The event is free.

The Crescent will also be the venue for Throw of A Dice, a screening of the silent movie epic, says Rolfe, “shot in 1929 in India by a mad German, like Cecil B de Mille! The British Film Institute restored it: it’s in pristine condition.” The film will have spectacular aural accompaniment from UK-based composer Nitin Sawhney at a grand piano and with his band and orchestra. The beautifully filmed German-Indian co-production was directed by Franz Osten, based on an episode from the Mahabharata and, according to the festival brochure, “was shot on location in the breathtaking mountains, forests and palaces of Rajasthan with over 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants.” The showing is another free event.

In Parramatta, the annual Hindu Festival of Lights is celebrated at the Deepavali Fair at Parramatta Stadium. Rolfe recalls, “I went to Deepavali last year and was blown away by how well it was organised by the Hindu Council and put together with volunteers. The Council were really eager to be part of Parramasala. Their interest is to open up Deepavalli to non-Indians.” As well as stalls and performances, the fair includes the burning of a 45-foot high effigy with pyrotechnic effects and, at the end of the day, spectacular fireworks.

Tradition is given its due in Parramasala, says Rolfe: “Ideally, the way we want to set the festival up is that each time there is one beautiful, pristine traditional event. This year it’s The Desert Wedding.” This program features music for marriage, birth and life performed by the hereditary caste musicians of Rajasthan, people originally supported by wealthy patrons to preserve the history and ceremonies of wealthy families. Rolfe says that the groups—the Manganyars, the Langas and Kamad, performers of the ancient Teratali dance—come straight to the festival from their villages in Rajasthan and are the best in their regions.

anandavalli

The great Australian-based, traditional dancer Anandavalli (of the former Lingalayam Dance Academy, Sydney and later the all female Lingalayam Dance Company in Canberra) comes out of stage retirement to dance solo to the accompaniment of musicians Anil Srinivasan, a western trained classical pianist, and his regular collaborator Sikkil Gurucharan, a vocalist in the ancient southern Indian Carnatic tradition.

kathak tap

This blend of ancient and modern is evident in a number of shows, most unusually in Kathak Tap, where Kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das (India/USA) and tap dancer Samuel Smith (USA) each perform separately with their own musicians, then swap musicians (Kathak dancing to a jazz trio and Smith tapping to tabla, sitar and saranji) before finally dancing together in demonstrations of contrasting yet sympathetic footwork.

the chennai tapes

In a purely musical meeting, the Australian Art Orchestra continues its long-term dialogue with classical Carnatic music in The Chennai Tapes (Into the Fire), a collaboration dating back to 1996 between superb jazz musicians and Guru Kaaraikkudi Manir’s Sruthi Laya Ensemble from Chennai. On CD the dynamic weave of such different musical traditions is by turns lyrical and visceral, and always gripping—it should be even moreso on stage.

guru of chai

Rolfe has eagerly programmed Guru of Chai, “a performance by one of my favourite small companies from the region, New Zealand’s Indian Ink Theatre Company with Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis. They have been working now for 20 years, and make everything themselves. It’s a bravura comic performance by Jacob, very accessible and deserving wider exposure in Australia.” Supported by a musician and employing shadow play, Rajan transforms himself into a host of characters in a tale about a poor tea seller and an abandoned girl who is a remarkable singer, a young policeman in love and a “disreputable poet.”

masala nights, cricket and more

Philip Rolfe has cleverly devised Parramasala as an instantly live-in festival. Parramatta’s Church Street will be transformed from late afternoons into a street market with food, things to buy, projections and performances by Erth, Dva and Polyglot. The free, large scale performances in Parramatta will attract big crowds and cricket fans will turn out for the first Parramasala Trophy match which has the support of Cricket NSW (whose Chair, Dr Harry Harinath is also one of the festival’s patrons) and Parramatta Cricket Club. There are stand-up comics, Indian film screenings in partnership with Popcorn Taxi, artist talks, Nitin Sawhney DJ-ing at the Roxy and, in a shop window on Church Street, the cutting edge British-Indian arts organisation Motiroti, based in East London, is screening 60 x 60 seconds—60 one-minute films from India, Pakistan and the UK about relations between these countries.

asia-australia: improving connection

I recall Rolfe complaining to me a couple of years ago about how mainstream arts organisations and festival programmers had failed to engage with Asia. Clearly he’s correcting that with Parramasala. We discussed how “Australia Council policy was set in place in the early 90s where half the international funding was to be directed into Asian collaborative projects. There was a lot of incredibly interesting activity in terms of individual artists, developmental work and on the edge arts organisations but the mainstream never engaged. Where it made its mark was in the visual arts and Asialink residences and in the thinking that created the Brisbane Asia Pacific Triennial. The arts festivals around Australia generally show interest but when it comes down it to they tend to choose shows that suit Western appetites.”

There are some heartening signs: the Brisbane Powerhouse engagement with Indonesian performance [RT81, p11] in 2009 and dance in the 2010 Brisbane Festival and Rosie Hinde’s programming of the Kenneth Myer Asian Theatre Series at Melbourne’s Arts Centre. With OzAsia and now Parramasala and the Asia Pacific Triennial, alongside Asialink’s enduring work and smaller ventures, the Asian-Australian connection looks set to strengthen. Rolfe is clearly enjoying the venture: “What gives me a kick is to start something from scratch and try to do it really properly and then leave it good hands after three years.”

culture & distance

If Parramasala works, and it surely will, the cultural divide between South Asia and Australia will be reduced, between continents and within Australian communities. But there are other distances to challenge. Rolfe would like people from outside of Sydney, and within, “to come to Parramasala and ideally stay overnight—see a couple of shows and stay next day for another one. There’s no shortage of hotels, and there’s great food, some of the best I’ve come across in Sydney—and half the price. People think it’s too difficult to get here but the trains are in fact very efficient, it’s not that very far, and when you’re here you can walk everywhere.” There’s no excuse; cross the divide.

Parramasala, Australian Festival of South Asian Arts, Parramatta, Nov 4-8, http://parramasala.com

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

12 October 2010