As COVID-19 ravages India, images and stories of the devastation unfolding in the country have dominated news headlines around the world.
The Globe asked four Indo-Canadian artists to reflect on their relationship to the country, how it inspires their art and what they are hopeful for amid a turbulent time.
The daughter of an Indian father and Polish mother, Lisa Ray spent her childhood in Toronto before a gap-year visit to India transformed her life. After being spotted at a party, she became one of India’s first supermodels in the 1990s. In 2005, she starred in Deepa Mehta’s Water, playing a widow. In the past decade, she has performed in films, TV, a theatrical production and an Amazon Prime series. In November, 2020, she released a memoir called Close to the Bone.
“India’s my heart home. We just came back from India in November . My [3-year-old twin] girls have lived most of their lives in India. I have a home there.
India has made me, broke me and remade me again. It’s the source of, I would say, most of my creative inspiration. It’s taken on a character in my life, as an individual and a guardian. It’s always with me.
I chose to move, work and live in India when I was 16, and it was very different then. These days, a lot of NRIs (non-resident Indians) and expats are choosing to base themselves in India. At that time, it was not as sexy. But I had this soul connection to it.
There are many different Indias; there isn’t a singular vision of India. There’s the contemporary India you experience in Bombay – or Mumbai as it’s now called – or Delhi or Bangalore. And then you travel 500 kilometres outside of Bombay, and it’s like you’re in a different century. It’s like time travel, but there’s also a singular thread that connects it all.
My family is from [Kolkata]; that’s where I used to go as a kid. I ended up in Bombay, and it was full of possibilities – to stretch yourself, to dream, to hustle. There was a kind of experimentation in the air, which today has exploded. I love what’s going on in contemporary India in terms of arts, fashion and design, but also technology. There are so many layers to the country. This is all smouldering, simmering and erupting despite challenges.
I am devastated by the images I’m seeing from India; it feels like a blow to my centre. And yet, it’s the people who have risen to the occasion to help each other. It’s what happens when you live in a society where the systems don’t always work the way you expect them to.
I see that right now. The hope, and the sense of pride, the way in which individuals across India are banding together. They are taking to Twitter to find a bed, medication or an oxygen tank. People are cooking in their kitchens, sending out food. I’m trying to amplify messages, and I’m participating in Artists for India, where you will get a personalized copy of a book if you make a donation of £100 (C$170) to Mission Oxygen India.”
Vikram Dasgupta landed in Canada in 2001 to study filmmaking at Sheridan College. After making Calcutta Taxi, a short fictional film set in India, Dasgupta moved into the world of documentaries. His debut documentary feature, Beyond Moving, screened at the Hot Docs Cinema in 2020. Earlier this year, Vikram travelled to India to work on a few ongoing projects and is currently staying at his parents’ home in Kerala.
“I have been filming DogMa since 2016, and it’s about my mother – for more than seven years she cooked and fed more than 500 stray dogs in New Delhi, where we used to have a home. I needed to shoot some more of Delhi because the city plays a certain character in the documentary. I can’t just use stock b-roll footage.
I also needed to do some research for Vrindavan: City of Widows, which is another documentary I am working on. This is also a personal story for me because I remember when my grandmother became a widow. The day my grandfather died, she became a non-entity. She used to love food, colour and wearing saris. She had to give it up. And people used to say she’s better off – at least she wasn’t sent to Vrindavan.
Since I was going to India anyway, Fall For Dance North asked me if I would be interested in shooting a collaboration they are doing with [celebrated Indian dance school] Nrityagram.
When we were doing our research shoot in Vrindavan, it was Holi [the festival of colours]. Not everyone was wearing masks. People were relaxed. Two weeks later, the variant hit like wildfire. Delhi was shut down. I got my PCR test [for COVID] done and came to Kerala to my parents’ house.
So, yes – the image of a woman sitting on a roadside with an oxygen cylinder tank is real. So is the image we took of Holi in Vrindavan, where hundreds of thousands of people are moving around without any violence. Where there’s a sea of hands raised to catch a glimpse of God. Where a little girl is sitting on her dad’s shoulder to throw some colour. The faith that you have – resilience is the keyword. There’s an underlying story, the silent power of just being there.”
Trained in the classical Indian dance Bharatanatyam, Lata Pada turned to the art form after her family died in the 1985 Air India bombing. She became an advocate for families of the victims, and in March, 2001, she staged an autobiographical show, Revealed By Fire. Pada established the Sampradaya Dance Academy and, in 2012, opened the doors to the Sampradaya Dance Theatre in Mississauga, Ont.
“I travel to India every year – twice a year if I can. For me, it’s always about my art, my dance. I plan my visits around dance conferences and dance festivals. It’s great to know how the art forms are evolving, how we are pushing the boundaries of the classical form. It informs my work; I bring it back.
The festivals are mostly in Chennai, and in December and January, the biggest dance festival lasts six to eight weeks. There’s a similar energy and momentum in Bangalore, as well as Delhi. These are the three centres where things are happening.
People come from all over – Australia, Singapore, all parts of North America and Europe. It’s a huge place to share, discuss, catch up and network. That’s why when the pandemic hit, we thought of commissioning new solo works from Indian artists that comes from the experience of being isolated. It’s called Anvesna: Reflection in Solitude, and the performances will take place online on May 8 and 9.
Of course, one didn’t know that in April that India would be hit and that everything would come crashing down. The artists were doing their final shoots, and their collaborators were falling sick. It brought back a whole new reality of asking whether art meant anything. When the rest of India was collapsing, did dance mean anything? We talked about it, and we decided that art can be a source and catalyst for healing. We are dedicating a portion of the proceeds from this performance to the ongoing relief efforts in India.”
Novelist and playwright Anosh Irani moved from Mumbai to Vancouver in 1998 to study creative writing. He has published four critically acclaimed novels, all nominated for top literary awards, and won two Dora Awards for his 2006 play Bombay Black and his most recent work Buffoon, from 2019.
“I go back to India almost every year. I have to. There’s a magnetic pull. Bombay has a hold on me. It’s both emotional as well as crucial to my work.
I was there last year. I remember going for a motorcycle ride with my cousin before the first lockdown in India, when China was badly hit. In those early days, what hit me the most was watching migrant workers make the trek back to their villages on foot. While we were ensconced in our homes, stocking up on food and supplies, there were thousands of people who were struggling to survive. It was heartbreaking to witness – and then the problems of the privileged became even more frustrating to listen to.
India both haunts and inspires in equal measure. I end up writing about things that haunt me. Years ago, I saw a young boy combing a little girl’s hair outside a brothel in Bombay’s red-light district, while there was physical violence going on in the small room behind them. I assumed they were siblings, and the boy was trying to distract his sister, soothe her.
This element of disturbance, coupled with empathy, is what I try and pass on to the reader through my work.
We have to be careful not to pass judgment on the country as a whole. We have to keep in mind that in cities like Bombay, social distancing is a fantasy that exists only in the realm of the privileged; the same goes for masks and sanitizers. When you have almost nothing, would you rather buy food or a mask? When eight people live in a small room, and you go into lockdown for two weeks, how does one expect them to survive?
The pandemic won’t kill them – hunger will. People might be poor, but they have rich, deep inner lives. Imagine how they must feel. Apart from the loss of life, what’s truly devastating are the stories about individuals profiteering by selling oxygen cylinders and medicines on the black market – their profit is based on a bedrock of human suffering.
Acts of kindness inspire me. In spite of the horror, individuals are helping each other. Hope lies in change. This moment in time is an opportunity for transformation. For those who survive this ordeal, the only way to honour the loss of life, and respect the tremendous suffering that people have endured, is to change individual consciousness. That’s the only thing we are in control of – our own nature.”
The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.