Monday, February 13, 2017

Searching for Saloni: My StoryCity fiction is launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival Melbourne

On February 12, I went public with my fiction. For most people, that means the launch of a book or the publication of a story in a magazine, journal or book. My experience was different. My fiction was published on StoryCity, an app that takes you on innovative, adventurous city tours using stories and narratives.   

My fiction was commissioned by the Melbourne City of Literature to coincide with the JaipurLiterature Festival that was brought to Melbourne for a day (Feb 12).

My story "Searching For Saloni" is fast-paced adventure filled with riddles, codes, art and lost histories connecting Melbourne and India. The story revolves around Indian artefacts being stolen from the NGV International, which you – as the protagonist in the story – have to collect from different locations across Melbourne CBD. The answers to all the riddles are hidden in the architecture and sculptures of the city.

At the festival, I chatted with Meelee Soorkia, the editor of the stories, about the experience of writing the stories and about being an Indian immigrant writer in Melbourne.

Meelee: Your story involved bringing historical connections between India and Melbourne together. How did you go about finding them?

Chetna: When I was first invited to write a story for StoryCity, I was a bit stumped. First these are adventure stories, and I had never written adventure before. And then, I had to bring in some Indian element into a story set in Melbourne. I found that challenging.

So I started thinking what is it that I enjoy, I am interested in. And I enjoy art and history. Following that train of thought, I recalled a conversation I had had with a historian Cherie Mckeish a while ago about the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. A number of Indian artefacts had been brought to Melbourne for display at the exhibition, and they were still on display in Melbourne at the NGV International and Melbourne Museum. So I knew I had to somehow make them the focal point of the story – to bring them to light.

But once I started researching a number of connections came to light. Just between Federation Square where my story starts and State Library of Victoria where it ends, I found five locations which had an Indian connection, and that was amazing. We tend to forget that India and Australia were colonial cousins, and there were interactions between the countries through the 19th and early 20th century. Many Australian settlers from Britain would often live in India before coming to Australia, and there is a gold mine of stories to be mined in those connections.

Meelee: What were your first impressions of Melbourne when you arrived here?
Chetna: I didn’t come to Melbourne straight from India. I actually first lived in Europe – I did my masters there and lived in Europe and then in London for a few years before coming to Melbourne because my husband is Australian and I was pregnant, and we wanted to raise our children in Melbourne.

So my understanding and experiences of Melbourne start there, as a middle class family. One of the first things I noticed is that Melbourne, and by extension Australia, has a bit of an identity crisis. We can’t make up our mind whether we want to be fully public or fully private, and it drives a lot of anxiety in the city. For example, when I arrived here pregnant and I was often asked where I was planning to have my baby, and it is only after sometime the penny dropped that they were fishing for whether I was going public or private with my delivery. As soon my daughter was born, the next question was which schools I was putting her name down in – was I going to go public or private?

These are big questions for middle class Melburnians, and they drive all kinds of anxieties and mannerisms in people. Some hide the fact that they studied in private schools, others flaunt it, those who studied public wear that as a badge – but everyone is aware of it. And I found that very interesting.

The only other country where I felt this tension, and not quite to this degree, was England – from where of course we have adopted this system. The Middle Class in India had largely adopted the private model, whereas Continental Europe is loudly and proudly public. But Australia cannot decide which path it really wants to take.

Meelee: Was leaving India difficult?
Chetna: I am a part of the second wave of Indian immigrants to Australia, who have come here post 1990s. As was discussed in one of the earlier sessions at the festivals, we left India by choice. We didn’t leave India because we felt we had no opportunities there. So I had agency in my decision to leave India, and I was aware that there would be loss involved in the process.

In India, I was a journalist. I knew where I was going. I had social capital. When I left, I lost my social capital. I also found myself lost as a writer because how can I write about places for others when I am myself still discovering. But then, my writing and stories became my way to explore the places and to understand them better.

Meelee: So how has Melbourne influenced your writing?
Chetna: I am writing a set of short stories, which loop around Melbourne’s South East. They start in the CBD and then move to Richmond, then Kew, then Balwyn and then sort of loop back. That’s the plan. They are loosely connected, in the sense one story begins where the other is left, but are completely different set of characters. And again, I am interested in the specific characteristics of these neighbourhoods.

For example, the story in Richmond is set in a pop-up linen store. Now pop-up shops is a real trend in Richmond, we have pop up design stores, pop-up jeans stores, everything is a pop-up. And often the people working in these stores are poorly paid artists and designers – very fashionable – but struggling to make ends meet, and Richmond is full of them. So I bring that into my story. The story set in Kew is about a working mother who has just gone back to work after her maternity break and is struggling with the idea of building her career afresh – because I have met such Mums.

So I am trying to explore life and people in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne through my stories.

Meelee: Thank you so much Chetna. We look forward to reading your stories.
Chetna: Well you can. Because some of them have been published as greeting cards with short stories in them, which are available at the festival bookshop.

The app StoryCity is available on iOs and Android smart phones for FREE. Chetna Prakash’s story Searching for Saloni is among Melbourne city stories.

The Melbourne Noir greeting cards with Chetna Prakash’s short stories in them are available at Avenue Bookstore (Swan Street, Richmond), Paperback Bookshop (Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD) and ElthamBookshop (970 Main Rd, Eltham).

Friday, February 10, 2017

Celebrity, Superheros, Social Media and Trump

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on November 17, 2016. 
Now that the unexpected and the horrible has happened, it’s time to make the initial cut in the post-mortem of the cadaver called “liberal politics”.
The question that all liberals are asking is: How is it that a vindictive, sexist narcissist has become the leader of the free world under our watch?
How did we not see this coming?
The factors that have led to this outcome are complex, interconnected and multifaceted. Many of these are already being discussed robustly – globalisation, an over-emphasis on political correctness, the Clinton baggage, the role played by third-party candidates.
But I want to explore three less-discussed factors that I think the intellectual classes should have picked up on. They relate to the culture in which we live, and each have unwittingly done the groundwork for Donald Trump.

The cult of the nothing celebrity

I came across the Kardashian phenomenon eight years ago in London, when I encountered a long line of very young girls queuing up to meet Kim Kardashian, who was there to launch a line of perfumes. They were clearly excited to be meeting their role model.
Reality TV stars used to be second rate celebrities but Kardashian changed that. She is a phenomenon built brick-by-brick through one objectifying selfie after another. And at the foundations of this phenomenon lie a sex tape (possibly self-leaked) and a reality TV show. 
What appalled me was the failure of our intellectual class to critique the phenomenon. Some merely saw her as an entertainer. Others saw her ability to control and use her own life and body as entertainment for people as pure genius. In the meantime, she amassed millions, proving to the world, and most dangerously to our children, that success lay in relentless, blithe and shameless self-promotion.
Read more on The Big Smoke

Author Interview: Vulnerable children need our engagement

This interview was published on August 30, 2016.
Every Tuesday over the last month, a unique experiment has been taking place at Seaford Park Primary School in Melbourne. The best-selling children’s book author and publisher Susannah McFarlane has been getting together with Grade 3 and 4 students at the school to explore their inner authors. They have been discussing story ideas, getting them down on paper, working on illustrations, and learning to edit and then market their own writing. On September 6, each child will celebrate their books being “published” with a celebratory book launch at the school.
The setting wouldn’t seem unusual were Seaford Park a school in one of Melbourne’s more affluent neighbourhoods. However, nearly half the children at Seaford Park belong to the lowest quarter of socio-educational advantage. Many children start school behind their peers around Australia, and continue to lag behind in their literacy skills. Improving the students’ reading and writing skills is one of the school’s top priorities, which is why it partnered with Ardoch Youth Foundation, an education charity that supports children and young people in disadvantaged communities.
Ardoch brought the school and Susannah together. Susannah is one of the charity’s ambassadors and a long time supporter, and her book series such as the EJ12 Girl Hero and EJ Spy School series (for girls) and Boy Vs Beasts (for boys) are staple with primary school children across Australia. For the school, to have Susannah – also a former publisher and Managing Director of Egmont Books in London and Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne, as well as an author of over 50 children’s books – meet its students and work with them was a coup.
For Literacy and Numeracy Week, we caught up with Susannah to find out why she cares about the literacy skills of Australia’s vulnerable children.

What spurred you to become a children’s book author?

I started my publishing career as a book editor, and went on, over 13 different jobs in marketing and publishing, to become the Managing Director of Egmont Books in London and then co-found Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne. The thought of turning to the author side and writing my own books was inspired by my own children. The first series I published back in Australia was Zac Power, a spy series for reluctant-reading boys, inspired by my own reluctant-reading son, Edvard. Similarly the first series I wrote, EJ12 Girl Hero, was inspired by wanting to boost the self-confidence of my daughter Emma, then 10.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Why cultural appropriation of Yoga doesn't apply to Indians

This article was published in The Big Smoke on April 8, 2016.
I woke up today to an email by my mother-in-law, who loves stirring me up. It was a Fairfax article by a Melbourne-based lawyer of Indian origin, Kamna Muddagouni, lamenting the cultural appropriation of yoga by the West. Provocatively titled “Why white people need to stop saying namaste”, it railed against the commodification of y
oga, which she saw as just another example of the West’s wider ignorance about Hinduism and South Asian culture. She felt much “othered” by it.
Her argument neatly fell into the tried-and-tested post-colonial framework, which goes something like this. We, the Indians, were colonised by the West. Cultural domination was a big part of it. The selective cultural appropriation that we continue to see with “white people” wearing bindis, practicing yoga and eating Indian is a continuation of that domination and oppression.
Now, our culture will be converted into something that it is not, and peddled back to us. We must control how our culture is practiced, and anyone modifying it to make it more relatable and suitable to himself/herself, is not just being inauthentic, he/she is being offensive.
I find such arguments difficult to swallow because of a particular French lady who once came to Mumbai and gave my younger sister a hard time.
Read more on The Big Smoke

Writings of Warhol and Weiwei

This article was published on The Big Smoke on February 27, 2016.

I had an odd thought as I was walking home after viewing the Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei exhibition for the first time last December. The massive exhibition brings together nearly 300 works of art by the two artists, including paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, films, documentaries and music, to name a few.
As I walked, I suddenly wondered if I too was an artist? I had never thought of myself as an artist. I write. I usually write blogs about art created by “real” artists, but what if my writing was a form of sculpture? After all, it involves expressing an idea. It is about evoking an emotion. It involves many tricky decisions towards those two ends. What words to use? How many? Should I keep this sentence to one word? Or do I let it flow and flow? Both will evoke a different response in the audience. One will stop them short and make them think. The other will carry them along on a journey. Each decision makes my writing a unique piece of work because no two writers will ever discuss the same idea in exactly the same words.
Hallelujah! I, too, was a sculptor. I make word sculptures.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Ai Weiwei takes on the West

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on February 13, 2016.
Ai Weiwei is in the news again. Only this time, it is not for criticising the Chinese government; instead, turning his focus westward, to critique the European countries for their policies toward Syrian refugees.
In January, when the Danish government ruled in favour of seizing the assets of asylum seekers (mostly Syrian refugees) to pay for their resettlement, he closed down an ongoing exhibition in Copenhagen in protest. A week later, he posed on a Greek beach in reference to the drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi. 
As is common with Weiwei, the image quickly went viral on social media.
The photo marks a big shift in the life of Weiwei, an artist most known for his outspoken criticism of the communist government of China. Last August, he moved to Berlin with his family after more than 20 years in Beijing. The image marks his first strong political statement against his new home, and with it, shifts his somewhat cosy relationship with the West. He is on to us, and we are on to him.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

India, Australia and January 26th: Contrasting Views on Colonisation

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on January 26, 2016.
Becoming an Australian after 34 years of being Indian has mostly involved progress for me. On most social and economic indicators, Australia beats India hands down. My family is safer and healthier in Australia than it would be in India. Unfortunately, politically and ideologically, I have regressed. And January 26th forces me to confront this regression.
As an Indian, I used to celebrate January 26th as the Indian Republic Day, the day on which my country declared itself a modern democratic republic (in 1951) after more than 200 years of British rule. Instead, as an Australian, I have to celebrate the day on which my new country started on the path of colonisation.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no axe to grind with the white people of British descent. I am honestly over colonisation of India. Yes, it was a general nightmare for my people but unlike in many other countries, when India gained independence, most British people upped and left, mostly back to the UK.
Growing up in India three decades later, I only saw a sea of brown faces around me. If colonial history existed at all for me, it was in textbooks, charming old buildings and occasional street names or public statues. It is rather hard to remain angry at buildings and statues (especially good looking ones), when the people behind them are long gone.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

How the childhoods of Weiwei and Warhol inspired their art.

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on January 16, 2017.
Viewers and critics love going Freudian on artists, digging into their childhood and personal lives in search for clues that may reveal new m
eanings in their works of art. Sometimes, the connections between their life and experiences are strong and visceral. Other times they are not.
In this article, we will look at where and how the childhoods and personal lives of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol have influenced their art. (Their works are jointly on display at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 24).
Weiwei’s childhood can be described by one word – traumatic. His father Ai Qing was a celebrated Chinese poet. Though a fervent member of the Communist Party, he fell victim to Mao’s infamous purges of the intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution of the 1950s. His crime? He wrote a poem calling for greater tolerance for different voices.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

What does Warhol and Weiwei's Art tell us about America and China?

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on January 2, 2016. 

What if I told you that Andy Warhol predicted that the crude, brash, look-at-me Donald Trump would one day be a popular candidate aspiring for world domination via the American presidency?
He didn’t. But his art did. The story goes that an art dealer Muriel Latow told Warhol: “The thing that means more to you and that you like more than anything else in the world is money. You should paint pictures of money.” Warhol said, “That’s wonderful”, and he did. Over the years, he created several stark paintings and prints of the dollar symbol and dollar bills. There is nothing subtle about these works: they are literally large dollar symbols painted on canvas and prints of one and two dollar bills.
Later in his book THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) he explained these works. “I like money on the wall,” he wrote. “Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.”
In recognizing the crass love for money in himself and others, and confronting us with it in all its crudeness, he revealed something about America. The unabashed reverence of money above everything else. Many films, books and works of art have explored this love but none as crudely as Warhol and his dollar paintings. It is a crudeness that is only matched by Donald Trump and his vulgar references to his billions. That he is the leading Republican candidate is a tribute to Warhol’s America.
Good artists invariably capture something intangible about the societies they live in. Sometimes, it is direct and intentional. Other times, it appears unconsciously in their exploration of society and of themselves as a product of it.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

The history of mass media through the art of Warhol and Weiwei

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on December 26, 2015. 

Have you ever stood in from an artwork and just thought “What the fuck?” I have. I have often wondered what I’m doing here – I have two kids, a full-time job, a full-time husband, and a full laundry basket, kitchen sink and rubbish bin waiting for me at home. So, why am I spending my time blinking at this… thing?
I don’t know about you but, over the years, I have found my answer.
I’ve stood in front of Mondrian’s cubes (1920s), Pollock’s drips (1950s), Koon’s shiny balloon dogs (1990s) and Delvoye’s giant shit-making machine Cloaca (2000), not just because it was a sensory experience (including watching food being digested in a machine and coming out as poop) but also, because upon reflection, they invariably help me understand the times we live in a bit better.
Mondrian’s neat cubes capture on canvas the coldness of modernism: the idea that there exists some form of supreme, machine-like, timeless, spaceless, context-less beauty that works for all. Pollock’s mad drippy paintings speak of America’s individualism, where individual achievement and self-fulfillment trumps all. Koon’s shiny balloon dogs show how we have embraced child-like silliness as a legitimate emotion for adults. And Delvoye’s shit-maker literally symbolises post-modern irony, where everything is shit, but it’s ok as long as we can smirk about it. That I can have these profound reflections in a matter of minutes, accompanied by a sensory experience, is an intellectual high.
Of course, some artists do it better than others. Both Warhol and Weiwei are masters at it. So how what epiphanies can we have from the massive Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei exhibition at the NGV that brings together 300 works by the two artists? In this article, I will discuss one.
Warhol and Weiwei’s works are 3D representations of one the biggest disruption of our times: why new media powered by the Internet hit mainstream media in the gut.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Warhol, Weiwei and Me: An introspective introduction to Art

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on December 19, 2015.
A week ago the National Gallery of Victoria did something uncharacteristic. It put on an exciting show. Added to which, it isn’t a show curated elsewhere and then shipped here. It is a bona fide NGV product. It has been conceived, conceptualized and curated by the gallery, and it brings together the works of two giants, the American artist Andy Warhol, who died at the age of 59 in 1987, and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who enters his 59th this year.
This venture is entitled simply Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei.
Warhol requires no introduction. Even in the unlikely chance that you have not heard of him, his aesthetics and philosophy touch every life experiencing American soft power, that is, the allure of its culture and values. He lives in our embrace of a brash consumerist, media-driven American culture; in our love for money, fashion, media, brands, celebrity, and above all, self.
Every time you gorge on a celebrity’s divorce, near-divorce, plastic surgery, and other miseries while chomping on a packet of chips, you live Warhol’s art. Every time you buy a limited edition Coca-Cola glass and give it place of pride on your desk, Warhol grins in his grave. Every time you vote a participant out of a reality show, fashion quixotic attire from jumble sale odds and ends, or capture random, mundane details of your life on camera and share it with the world, you are acting both muse and protégé to Warhol. You are participating in art, pop art to be exact.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

A mum’s guide to geopolitics: How to get Japan to stop whaling

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on December 10, 2015.
Japan is at it again. After a short hiatus, they’ve announced the recommencement of their whaling for scientific purposes. Greg Hunt, our Environment Minister, has strongly condemned the announcement:
We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called ‘scientific research.’
I wonder why Japan insists on killing whales, despite a lack of a rational reason to keep at it.
The “scientific research” is a total fib. It is not just Greg Hunt and Greenpeace who say so. Last year, the International Court of Justice ruled that that Japan’s scientific whaling program is a way to carry out commercial whaling and is not intended for research. In fact, it was out of sheer embarrassment at the ruling that Japan cancelled its annual whale hunt last year.
One may argue that Japan wants to whale for commercial reasons. But this doesn’t hold true on inspection. The whale meat is obviously not for export, unless countries around the world are secretly organising raucous “minke whale meat” orgies behind our backs.
Read more on The Big Smoke

TPP for us latte-sippers

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on October 14, 2015.

Last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had some “breaking news” for us. The PM introduced the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal as “the gigantic foundation stone of our future prosperity.” The TPP deal had all the necessary sound bytes to dominate the media.
First of all, it could be reduced to a catchy acronym (TPP), which as we know, determines whether or not it makes it to the realms of the water-cooler discussion.
Second, it involved some heavy sounding numerals to back it up: 12 nations forming 40 percent of global GDP came together to sign the TPP.
To top it all, the Trans-Pacific Partnership involved the dramatic story of our Trade Minister, the Honourable Andrew Robb, staring down his American counterpart to deny big-pharma companies extended protections on patents. As we know, big-pharma companies are evil; denying them anything can only be a good thing.
But what exactly are latte-sippers like me to glean from the trade treaty? How would the crumbs from the global 40 percent make their way into our wallets?
So, latte in hand, I decided to wade through some industry and trade data.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Exciting times: Why Turnbull's words matter?

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on September 16, 2015.

“Now, we are living as Australians, in the most exciting time,” espoused Malcolm Turnbull during his press conference to announce the challenge on Tony Abbott’s leadership. It was September 14, 2015 at 4:04pm. I felt compelled to record the date and time, for Turnbull’s words have stuck with me. Why? Because it is the first genuinely positive statement I have heard from an Australian (let alone an Australian politician) on what the future holds for us, since my arrival four years ago.
The curious absence of excitement was evident to me long before I moved Down-Under. I married my Aussie husband in 2009 while he was living in the UK, and through him I befriended some Australians. I was instantly struck by the palpable sense of negativity in regard to the future. The Internet, too slow. The distances, too far. The population, too sparse. The costs, many. The labour laws too harsh. The unions too strong, China too dominant, and coal too abundant for new business to thrive in Australia.
I was spared the full force of pessimism and negativity until I moved here at the end of 2011. It bowled me over. Julia Gillard was too busy fending off Rudd to set any agenda, positive or negative. That gap was filled by Tony Abbott and his “direct” agenda. No matter what was being discussed – carbon policy, the refugee problem, NBN, budget deficit – he would shred the policy to pieces without offering any viable alternative. If he could get personal and vicious in the process, it seemed to drive him further. (e.g. Why miss the opportunity to link Gillard’s childless status to the government’s baby bonus cut?)
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Home, Identity and Citizenship - Thoughts on the day I accept Australian citizenship

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on August 24, 2015

Filling out official documents for the last eight years has been a pain for me. Between my country of birth (Zambia), my nationality (Indian) and my country of residence (Australia), something invariably goes awry. Last Thursday, I made my life easier. I bumped off India out of the equation by taking up Australian citizenship.
Do a new passport and voting rights make me more Australian and less Indian? What about Zambia? Where does it fit in into my view of myself?
Zambia is just a distant memory to me. I was born there while my Dad, an Indian doctor specialising in communicable diseases, was on a mosquito-killing jaunt. He would travel deep into the bush and build malaria prevention plans for hyena-eating tribes. Seriously. Somewhere in between, he and my Mum produced me.
I was five when I moved to India. Relief was my chief emotion. Through the last five years, the running joke in my house had been that since I was Zambian, I would have to be left behind when my family moved back to India. I am not exactly sure why they found it funny (early childhood psychology was not their strength). I found it terrifying and it made me hate Zambia, a rain-drenched, leafy country overrun with mosquitoes.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Dear Jonathan Jones, why shouldn't the Royals appear vapid?

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on June 30, 2015.
So Princess Charlotte was christened. Kate wore an Alexander McQueen coat and the family trapezed about pushing“that” pram. The royals then dutifully got their official portraits taken by the celebrity photographer Mario Testino and released four: one formal family photo and three intimate ones. Back at the venerable offices of The Guardian, Jonathan Jones, the resident art writer, took one look at the photos, vomited all over his keyboard and pressed publish. Jones’ main complaint is the vapidity and emptiness of the photos.
The intimate – supposedly honest – photos particularly got his goat. Testino, in his efforts to present the Royals as impossibly perfect, had missed the opportunity to present something authentic, real and complex. After all, authentic and real would invariably mean revealing imperfections because who is perfect, after all? Jones draws a comparison between a painting by Zoffany of the sons of George III, which I assume is this, and Goya’s portrait of the family of Charles IV of Spain. He praised the first for showing “the burdens and stresses of royal childhood in a genuinely humanising way,” and the second for revealing the subjects as “mortal and fallible human beings.”
I completely agree with Jones on Zoffany and Goya’s works. Yes, they gave us a glimpse of the humanity behind the glamour: the burdens, the pains, the expectations and the inevitable failures that they carried on their selves. I still steadfastly prefer to see Will and Kate as glossy, pretty creatures of magazine advertisement variety.
Read more on why on the The Big Smoke.

Ditching the Lazy Girl's Guide to Climate Change

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on June 30, 2015.
I was in second grade when I first heard of the term “global warming”. A friend and I were poring over maps and wondering about the polar ice caps when someone – it may have been my friend’s elder sister – mentioned it to us. The earth is warming because there is more CO2 in the environment, eventually it will cause the polar ice caps to melt, and the earth will be submerged. I didn’t find it a very difficult concept to grasp. (Yes, I was a terrifyingly bright kid.)
My seven-year-old self thought it entirely plausible. I wondered how long it would take. I was absolutely convinced that that I’d have nothing to worry about during my lifetime. I also figured at least four generations after me would be safe. I bandied a few numbers around and decided that five million years is how long it would take for humanity to be in peril, and calmly went back to finding Poland in the Atlas.
I guess I wasn’t that bright a kid after all, because here I am ,all of 35, reading about how the earth is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction event thanks to climate change (the term into which “global warming” has morphed). The article didn’t arrive on my FB newsfeeds via Global Green & Left Fortnightly. No, it can be sourced to Washington Post and it has forced me to contend with the fact that I am doing next to nothing in this fight for the very survival of our planet – of our beautiful, bountiful, gorgeously green, blue and pink planet.
Read more at The Big Smoke

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Nela Trifkovic and Saray Iluminado bring Balkan Music to Melbourne

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on June 20, 2015.
I’ll start with a confession. I had no clue what “Sevdah” or “Sephardic” meant when I went to a performance by the Melbourne-based band Saray Iluminado on a mild, breezy evening last month. It is my aim to attend one artistic event a week, and the performance was described with words like “Balkan”, “folk”, “Sevdah” and “Sephardic Jewish Romances” on the website of fortyfivedownstairs, an independent performance arts venue. Intrigued, I decided to give it a try.
The performance started out as unfamiliar and oddly discordant to my ears, especially with Nela Trifkovic’s singing in Bosnian. But before long I found my fingers drumming along involuntarily. My foot joined in just before the interval and by the end, every cell of my body seemed to be singing along to Trifkovic’s intense, melancholic melodies. She seemed to carry us all across time and distance, into a world entirely made of her haunting voice.
Upon my return home, I started looking up Saray Iluminado in earnest. The four-member group plays folk music from Bosnia and Herzegovina (part of ex-Yugoslavia) and Sephardic Jewish romances. The music, called Sevdah, goes back to medieval times but it particularly came to life during the cosmopolitan Ottoman era between the 15th and 19th centuries. In Bosnian, the word “sevdah” refers to longing for a loved one or place. The music itself is characterised by slow tempo overlaid by fervent passionate singing about love, longing and loss.
On June 20, 2015 the group will premiere its first original composition The Song Boat at the Richmond Theatrette in Melbourne. On behalf of TBS, I reached out to Nela Trifkovic – the group’s artistic director and lead vocalist – to chat about being an immigrant, singing Balkan folk music in Melbourne, cosmopolitanism and her original composition.
CP: Tell us about yourself and your music.
NT: I was born in Bosnia, and arrived in Australia as a refugee with my family in 1996 as a 16-year-old during the Bosnian war. I had been studying music from the age of 13. I continued my studies in Western classical music at university in Perth, studying piano and classical singing and composition. I earned two bachelors’ and a master’s degree there. Ten years ago, I moved to Melbourne to do a PhD in classical music, met my now husband, the theatre actor and director James Adler, and stayed here. I come from a very musical family, particularly on my father’s side. They were all involved with the traditional Sevdah music back in Bosnia.
CP: So when did you start playing Bosnian folk music here?
NT: After I finished my bachelors’, I sang some Balkan folk in Perth music events, and it was noticed by theatre directors. Some of them approached me to sing live during their shows. Even though I was singing in a completely different language, they said they liked the tones, both the melancholy and the upbeat aspects of my singing. So it is really through theatre I started exploring my Balkan musical roots professionally. The funny thing is that when I was trying hard to be Australian, cut off from my own music, I felt more foreign and different. But as I started playing Balkan music, I started feeling more comfortable here. Now I just feel like another ethnic girl in Melbourne.
CP: How and when did Saray Iluminado come about?
NT: I met William Thompson through another music project. He is English but was very well versed with Mediterranean guitar instruments. Like me, he was also highly trained in classical music but we both wanted to do something world music-y with our classical musical selves. So we just started doing gigs in art galleries and cafes. Kelly Dowall, who is New Zealander with a real passion for Turkish music, met us at one such gig and soon the three of us started playing together. Ernie Gruner, who is the established Melbourne musician in our troupe, joined us towards the end of 2013. He and I had met during a theatre project, when I was still doing my PhD from the VCA, and he had suggested we do something together. So when a musical grant opportunity came up, which required us to find a mentor, I asked him to join us.
We got the grant in 2014. The money and Ernie’s network within the Melbourne art scene has really helped us go beyond casual gigs. We could approach venues such as fortyfivedownstairs – a well-known independent performance arts space – for concerts. We have just recorded a full 10-track CD of traditional Balkan folk music, which will be released in September. It has also allowed us to explore our own original compositions, like the one we will be performing on June 20.
CP: What is the Balkan music scene in Melbourne like?
NT: As immigrants in Australia, we all have our individual communities, the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs. But there is a lot of interaction, particularly at a musical level. Music and food are really the two mingling factors for the community. Music, in particular, is quite strong in our community. There are a number of cafes that are hubs of Balkan music and food. There is also a strong Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern scene in Melbourne, which intermingles with Balkan culture. However, our band doesn’t particularly play to the Balkan community. I feel I sing in memory of Yugoslavia and Bosnia but not to the Bosnian community.
CP: Is it hard singing in Bosnian to a non-Balkan audience?
NT: I believe that if I sing with integrity and conviction, we will find our audience. Moreover, any folk music plays on universal themes of birth and death, love and grief, requited or unrequited love, and these exists in every culture. So from that perspective, the repertoire is really easy. I just feel I must sing from my heart and it will appeal to many people.
CP: Cosmopolitanism is a theme that overlays a number of your songs. Why is that?
NT: When this music was written, Balkan people lived very different lives (and many still do). Bosnians were marrying Serbs, Muslims were marrying Jews, and this music was born out of that variety. In fact, Germans, Turks, Hungarians all contributed to this music, even though it is considered Slavic today. In comparison, our national identities are a lot more rigid today. In my music, I want to emphasise cosmopolitanism because it is an important thing to show to Australia. That allowing different traditions to co-exist and intermingle is a great way to build new expression. It helps people assimilate better.
CP: Is that where your new composition, which premieres on June 20, arose from?
NT: The original composition is a song cycle inspired by the traditional folk music, but the lyrics belong to Bosnian poets of the 1950s to the present day. Through our songs we explore the story of a boat filled with Jews named St Louis, which in the 1940s was turned away from every country it approached, and the people eventually returned to Germany to be sent to camps. I guess in exploring it, we are trying to draw a parallel with what is happening to asylum seekers today. Being an immigrant whose application was successful, this is a personal journey for me as well. I want to bring out how powerful and overwhelming it is to beg for your life, or to be in a position to say yes or no. I want to bring out how one person’s yes or no is another person’s finality.
In our premiere performance, we collaborate with other artists. A video installation will accompany the performance, and there are spoken parts too, for which my husband James Adler collaborated. We are exploring stories of refuge and how you find a home.
Facebook page: Saray Iluminado