Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar Kick Off Eye on India Festival 2013

Chicago IL: Eye on India Festival (EIF) 2013 kicked off on Friday, June 7 with a warm reception from the Desi community for actress Shabana Azmi and her husband-partner, scriptwriter, lyricist, and poet Javed Akhtar at the Primitive Gallery in downtown Chicago. EIF President Anuradha Behari announced the lineup of events scheduled over the next five weeks and encouraged everyone to attend, promote, and support the festival. Introducing the artiste-couple, Teamworks Productions President Sanjoy Roy underlined the importance of appreciating the tolerant side of Islam, which is otherwise receiving so much bad press in this deteriorating global climate.

Azmi performs in film, television, and theatre. An alumna of Film and Television Institute of India (Pune), she made her film debut in 1974 and soon became a leading actress of the Indian New Wave movement known for its serious content and neo-realism. Versatile Azmi has earned her a record of five wins of the National Film Award for Best Actress, four Filmfare Awards, and international honors. She has appeared in over 120 Hindi films, in both mainstream and independent cinema, and since 1988 she has acted in several foreign projects. Azmi is a social and women’s rights activist, Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Indian parliament). Her parents are poet Kaifi Azmi and Shaukat Azmi (a veteran Indian People’s Theatre Association stage actress), both of whom were members of the Communist Party of India.

A most popular and sought-after Bollywood lyricist, Padma Bhushan Javed Akhtar has won the Filmfare Award fourteen times, seven times for Best Script, and eight times for Best Lyrics, and the National Award five times.. Hailing from a family of freedom fighters, he is the great great grandson of Allama Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, a notable name in the Indian Freedom Struggle and one of the main figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, who was hanged by the British in 1861. Akhtar used to write his scripts in Urdu, which were then written out in Hindi by his assistant. Another assistant would type out a one-line summary in English. Akhtar has attempted more serious Urdu poetry and a major collection was compiled in Tarkash, which was rendered into audio in his own voice. The late Jagjit Singh and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have sung some of his non-movie poetry. In 2001 Akhtar received the “National Integration Award” from the All India Anti-Terrorist Association and Avadh Ratan from the U.P. Government.

Pressed to say a few words ahead of their formal joint-interview the next day at the Drury Lane Theater in Oak Brook, Ill., they shared their insights into the nature and role of the Indian diaspora that touched upon the complementarity of and tension between the Indian and American multiculturalism. Akhtar compared the relationship of the non-resident Indian (NRI) to his country of origin to a solid particle at the end of a string: on the one hand, it wants to be free to hurtle in its own individual and independent direction, while on the other hand it is held back on a tight leash by its strong attachment to tradition. The net yoyo-like effect of these two opposing forces is not so much a decisive breaking away or a regression to the source but a dialectical tension whereby the NRI is happily obliged to trace ever wider and complex circles while remaining rooted in his/her origin as the pivot.

Shabana Azmi took pains to contrast the so-called American “melting pot” that tends to erode and obliterate differences within an individualistic way of life and the Indian “mosaic” which conserves and values communitarian differences that enrich the whole.

Obliged by the guests to recite from his Urdu poetry, Akhtar returned to deliver his well-known interrogation of the nature of (the river of) Time (Waqt) that questions its “flow” and very existence. Starting with our subjective experience of change and momentariness, the verses capture through striking yet familiar images the philosophical notion of relativity before embarking on cosmological speculations on the “creation” of Time and hence on the very existence of God. However, Akhtar’s recitation at the Primitive Gallery and again the next day to close their formal interview in Oak Brook left out these final “theological” verses. Born into a Muslim family, Akhtar had later declared himself an atheist in his speech “Spirituality, Halo or Hoax.” Waqt instead seems to embody a creative “agnosticism” that entertains the possibility of a distant space untouched by Time, where God the Creator is not yet, a vantage point from which to question both time and its supposed author. The subtlety of the thoughts expressed, the poetic imagery, and his ghazal-like delivery drew repeated “wahs” of appreciation.

Accompanied by members of his local band Zamin, singer Zeshan Begawadi, who had recently performed at the famous Jaipur festival organized by Teamworks Productions, entertained the guests with Hindi songs. The following afternoon at Drury Lane Theater in Oakbrook, ill., Begawadi sang a few poems composed by Kaifi Azmi, despite the difficulty of aligning his free verse to the metrics of the music. Shabana Azmi commended Begawadi for his rendering and appreciated how her father’s creations still resonated with (even diaspora) youth.

The artiste-couple, who repeatedly marveled at the rich and varied collection of art works from around the world that filled the galleries on every floor, later ascended to meet with Glen Joffe, the owner of the Primitive Gallery in his office. Joffe accompanied them on a private tour where he explained the significance and context of prize exhibits from South Asia and even Bollywood posters from Africa that announced travelling Hindi films being shown in remote settlements.

Photo captions for June 07 reception at Primitive Gallery (in order of priority):

01 DSC_0847 Javed Akhtar reciting his Urdu poem on Time (Waqt) at the Primitive Gallery.
02 DSC_0804 Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar listen to singer Zeshan Begawadi accompanied by his young Chicago band Zamin.
03 DSC_0852 Audiences
04 DSC_0859 Primitive Gallery owner Glen Joffe (2nd from L) explains choice items from his collection to Eye on India Festival President Anuradha Behari (C) and Shabana Azmi (R).