Sydney: On a recent breezy spring evening, the iconic Sydney Opera House was completely packed. As the didgeridoo blended with the conch sounds and as the a cappella vocals of a local award-winning choir segued into Amir Khusro’s ‘Man Kunto Maula’, the applause nearly brought the house down.
For two days, the Hindi heartland version of the Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night got a standing ovation at the Opera House’s more intimate venue, Playhouse.
The sarkari festival of India abroad has been forced to try a new template, with corporate contributions and a professional production company brought in, which could not have been easy at a time when the government is cutting spending on culture.
Organising the Confluence Festival of India was a learning, and sometimes, a humbling experience, especially for Indian High Commissioner to Australia Navdeep Suri.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the festival in 2014, one of the first challenges for the newly-arrived high commissioner was to convince the headquarters that the festival could not be held in 2015. The logic behind his decision was simple: the big venues – Sydney Opera House, Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and the like – were booked much in advance and they would not have been available at a few months’ notice.
“If we have to do truly what [the] PM says, which is use festivals to build brand India, we have to go to premium venues with premium performances,” Suri said as way of reasoning when I met him in Sydney.
In a sophisticated and highly competitive art market, government-to-government nudges are not always effective. Therefore, getting a professional production company on board was an important move. As many Indian diplomats have learnt, a member of the artistic fraternity has greater sway with the high-end venues. Hiring a professional production company was another thing that would not have occurred in the old-school ‘festivals’.
“Earlier, we would get a cultural troupe, but there was no further support. Nobody looks at sound, lighting or backdrop,” Suri said.
Australian production firms were considered, but their cost was budget-busting.
Ultimately, Delhi-based Teamwork Arts was roped in. The presence of a professional production firm helped loosen the schedule and get dates at the big venues.
“All the venues barring the Sydney Opera House, which was provided by the government, are a collaboration. It was all about convincing them that this show will work for you in this particular way. They had to invest time, energy [and] resources towards this. It’s not a simple rental or hire,” said Sanjoy Roy, the managing director of Teamwork Art.
In order to get the venues, the programming had to be right. “What do we want to showcase? At one level, it is the ancient heritage, so we have Nrityagram and Kalakshetra. At another level, we wanted to bring in acts which show contemporary India [that is] comfortable in its own skin, comfortable in experimenting,” said Suri.
Roy added that “doing something” in Sydney Opera House was very different from staging an act in Parramatta, the Sydney suburb with the highest concentration of Indian origin citizens.
“Of course the venues would definitely like the diaspora to come, because they don’t. So it ticks their box. But for us, it important to reach out to the average joe who [goes to] Sydney opera house or QPAC or Melbourne Playhouse.”
It was also about breaking stereotypes. “They think that India is exotic, or they have a derived information from Bollywood. How do you get beyond that?”
So, the playbill included The Company Theatre’s acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and ‘ Piya Behrupiya’ or the Raghu Dixit Project, and the response to both has been gratifying.
When they performed at Sydney’s Opera House on September 18, they nearly brought the roof down. Their high-energy interactive performance, with a signature selfie with the audience, was a new experience for most of their audience, made up largely of the Indian diaspora.
Interspersed with friendly admonishments from Raghu Dixit at requests for popular film songs and banter about life, the show was refreshingly Bollywood-free, but that didn’t stop from them getting mobbed by fans after the show.
A day earlier, the rousing desi avatar of a Shakespearean caper had sold out at the Playhouse. Many from the audience had driven for hours after hearing rave reviews of their earlier performances.
There were also striking collaborations between Australian and Indian artists, which were showcased at the main gala event.
Less than a month after they won the Australian Choral Grand Prix, the all-women Sydney-based Endeavour Harmony Chorus had gotten an e-mail requesting them to perform at the event. After practicing for just two days, they sang ‘Hallelujah’ with Indian singer Sonam Kalra and the classic Australian song, ‘My Island Home’.
“Since time was very short, I asked the members what they thought about the offer to sing with Indian artists. Everybody was very keen as it was something new. It has been a wonderful experience,” said Lea Baker, founder and musical director of Australia’s premier a cappella choral group.
The performance is, however, not the only criterion when bringing an act all the way from India – the ability to create a buzz around it is also important.
“For us, the festival was not just about performances themselves, but [also about] how to create the buzz and get the word out. We wanted people who can be articulate. To get the most from the festival, can I take an artist to ABC or Sydney Morning Herald?” said Suri.
Getting the Australian media on board had been a big part of the outreach. The Indian high commission had signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia’s public broadcaster ABC, which allowed Indian artists to get a platform across multi-media channels from radio and television to internet.
In all, 25 productions are being showcased over 65 different events across seven cities for ten weeks from August to November.
Budget for the festival
A big budget is the key behind mounting such an ambitious festival. India’s cultural diplomacy organisation, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), has not been in the best of financial health lately. In a report released in April, the Standing Committee on External Affairs had pointed that most of ICCR’s “quantifiable” activities, like organising number of festivals, have gone down, whose “sole reason” was resource crunch.
Since the event has been classified as a ‘festival of India’, the culture ministry also pitched in about Rs 2.5 crore. The Australian government also contributed a grant of 250,000 Australian dollars (Rs 1.27 crore).
But, the main breakthrough was getting the private sector involved in the project.
“The challenge was whether we could build it as a private-public partnership, recognising that resources from Delhi will not be enough. Also, rules would not have allowed us to do things that we wanted to do like receptions and media launches,” he said.
Here, working with the Australian government at local levels has become important to stretch the budget. “We worked very closely with city councils like Brisbane. Many helped us in kind like free venues whose rentals began from 25,000 dollars to the the New South Wales Premiere’s office hosting a reception”.
The relative autonomy from Delhi, in terms of finance, also allowed for greater freedom in mounting quality shows. For example, the production firm Teamwork Arts were not being paid from the money given by the Indian government, but from the incoming funds from the sponsors. It also allowed for better treatment of the artists, which isn’t usually the norm.
“I hope that what we will be able to do with the festival is to break a model that government has,” said Suri.
The festival is still only mid-way, but he is already planning for next year. “We are putting in place an architecture which is a self-sustaining private-public partnership and private production company… We are already negotiating with venues for next year, so that we get a tighter cluster of dates which will also be less expensive”.