11 Aug 2015: MATWAALA: South Asian Diaspora Poets (North America) Fest

The first ever poetry festival of the South Asian Diaspora Poets of USA & Canada was held on August 1 & 2, 2015 at Austin, Texas in what was a jamboree of poetry, literature, music, dance and bonhomie. It was the first project of the South Asian Diaspora Collective. Austin poet Usha Akella was the festival director and organizer. She is incidentally the Contributing Editor (Diasporan Writings) of Muse India.  

The Hindi word ‘Matwaala’ signifies intoxication, so it was a poetic & cultural intoxication that infused the poets & artistes for full two days. The event was presented by The Poetry Caravan, Austin Poets International (API), and Arts & Humanities, Austin Community College District (ACC).  

On Saturday, August 1, the programme got off with a get-acquainted poetry jam session, under the auspices of Lyman Grant, who had taught at ACC for about forty years. “A number of poets and guests sang, performed poetry, and danced” in addition to the poetry readings at Raindrop Turkish House under the aegis of the Dialogue Institute in the evening.  

The festival proper took place on Sunday, August 2 from 9 am to 9 pm at Casa De Luz, Austin, Texas. The guest of honour was Keki N Daruwalla, prominent Delhi-based poet. The venue was a witness to poetry readings, panel discussions, paper readings, and youth readings, besides cultural entertainment. 

Keki Daruwalla dwelt on the distinction between a poetry of commitment and a poetry of playfulness; Sasha Pramasad on silence; Salim Piradina on the Bombay poetry revolution of the 1970s; Pramila Venkateswaran on the representation of South Asians in the top journals and presses; and Ravi Shankar on the concept of Bhakti in his forthcoming book.  

The participants were humorously introduced by Ananya Akella and Rehana.  

Saleem Peeradina who taught at Sienna Heights University in Michigan sang ghazals and Indian classical songs at Usha’s home after lunch.  

Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk Country, New York and professor at Nassau Community College, is an astute critic. Thanks largely to her migration to another culture, she has acquired an ability to have a macro view of literature, and to understand how things fit in context.  

Ravishankar read from his latest book of ekphrastic and collaborationist poetry, What Else Could It Be. He teaches at Central Connecticut State University and is founding editor of Drunken Boat, one of the earliest literary ezines.  

Phinder Dulai from Vancouver, British Columbia, whose third book Dream/Arteries caused a stir at the festival. The book is about the fate of marooned Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu migrants on board the Japanese ship Komagaga Maru – stranded in Vancouver harbour for two months in 1914 – who were forced to return to India because of exclusionary laws.  

A teacher of Transcendental Meditation from Iowa, Sasha Parmasad provided insights into poetry and silence. 

Anis Shivani talked on whether or not he thinks of himself as an immigrant poet.  An author of several books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, the latest being his novel Karachi Raj,  he cautioned about the trap the neoliberal culture industry set by segregating different branches of writing into insular ghettos, cultural zones cordoned off from economic concerns. 

Thom Worldpoet, an Austin bard, and rising poets like Shubh Bala Schiesser,  Archana Vemulapalli, Debangana Banerjee, and Mamata Misra oozed confidence and ease.  

A lot of the poets read different kinds of love poetry, because it was a festival of love and poetry.  

There was recurrent discussion of what exactly the South Asian poetry is, what and who do they write for, and the compromises and reconciliations necessary to get established as a poet.  

The high spirits continued “through the violin recitation by the twelve-year-old virtuoso Kaik Cole, to the rigorous exertions of the Natyalaya dance, presented by Vinita Subramanian, and concluding with Lebanese-American singer Julie Slim-Nassif’s sweet Arabic and French songs.” 

(Report by U Atreya Sarma, Aug 11, 2015)

(Based on inputs from Usha Akella; and Anis Shivani’s article at Huffington Post...


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