Wednesday, July 25, 2012

FeTNA: Myths, Realities And (Naive) Hopes.

This blog in no way detracts or contradicts what I wrote yesterday.

Today S.Ramakrishnan wrote a wonderful column about his visit to 'Detroit Institute of Arts' to see a collection of Spanish painter Diego Rivera's painting. It is a column that can be written only by somebody with deep passion and knowledge of painting. This column stands in stark contrast with how S.Ra addressed FeTNA and that is where myths about FeTNA and its realities collide.FeTNA invited S.Ra but FeTNA remains an unsuitable venue for a lecture of the kind of that column. Inviting people is not as important as enabling an intellectual space for such invitees to have a meaningful discourse.

I will be very naive in hoping that the following suggestions will be heeded or acted upon. But anyway here they are.

Some events,like Brian Greene's lecture, are ticketed separately in the World Science festival. FetNA should it take its cue from that in order to get committed audience and to provide quality sessions. Can FeTNA organize a 'Jefferson lecture' series kind of event,as a regular fixture and it must be ticketed at $25 at least? 'Jefferson lectures' organized by the NEH (National Endowment for Humanities) is a very prestigious lecture and those invited to give the lecture treat it as high privilege. The criteria is stringent and ONLY great scholars are invited. There are scholars in Tamil Nadu but FeTNA has to look carefully. Valampuri John and Arivumathi would be an insult to such a venture. When a Vice-Chancellor talks of "Lemuria" continent and fantasy theories to prove Tamil supremacy a chill runs throughh my spine at how difficult a task like this can become.

Take the last day 'interactive session' where S.Ra, Thamizhachi, Nallakannu, Sahayam and Ilakkuvanaar spoke. It was arranged in the ballroom with some 30 chairs around a podium. Behind that setting were large tables were people were busy with breakfast, yelling and chatting. No speaker can be more humiliated than to be asked to speak in that setting. At one point when an organizer reminded the hangers on that everyone has to vacate the hotel by 12:00 PM there was a stampede toward the door leaving the last speaker staring at empty chairs.

I spoke to an invitee as a side chat during FeTNA. He spoke of some study tours he took. I asked him how does he fund his tours. He expressed difficulty for such funding. Some time back I wrote to a FeTNA organizer and another supporter on how FeTNA could raise funds for a research corpus and to fund an author to write a book in the lines, say, how Drew Gilpin Faust writes on civil war. FeTNA could add a surcharge, as modest as $10, and accumulate a fund to do this. Again, if the surcharge fails then FeTNA organizers wil get the clear message as to why the crowd comes. Another special invitee, in a chat with me, said that Mu.Va's "Tamil Ilakkiya Varalaaru", published by Sahitya Akademi is a ghost written work. That we cannot trust a book published by Sahitya Akademi and supposedly written by a much respected professor speaks volumes about the status of books in our society.

I'd love to see FeTNA organize a decent book stall to sell, not just old classics, but contemporary writing. Spend at least $2500 and one could have a decent selection with not too many copies. Failure to do that only shows what the priorities are and if such an effort does fail and the meager copies do not sell then at least FeTNA can realise why the majority come and they can focus on giving more of what the majority wants.

Without an attempt of any of the above FeTNA will be seen, with justification, as Nirmal Pitchai called, a 'recreation event'.

Coming to the US born kids being encouraged to learn Tamil thanks to FeTNA. I had said yesterday that I'll take that argument only partially and here is why. Some are compelled by parents to learn Tamil.  I spoke to a bunch of boys who speak colloquial Tamil, I complimented them on learning Tamil. They had studied Tamil for 10 years. I asked them if they read anything in Tamil now, say S.Ra's books or Tamil magazines. Everyone just said bluntly "we learnt Tamil only to be able to converse with relatives back home when we visit, mostly for grand parents, other than that we have NO interest". This is akin to Tamil cabbies learning Hindi in Mumbai.

Now I am sure some FeTNA lovers will pounce on me and say "oh that kid recited Kural, this kid performed in a quiz competition matching Tholkappiyam with Tholkappiyan as author". The kids competition was a wash out with inane stuff and historically inaccurate stuff like naming 'tholkappiyan' as author. Tholkappiyan just means 'author of ancient text' its a placeholder for an uknown name NOT a name.

I asked the boys how come they knew Siva Karthikeyan. They said they watch Vijay TV regularly. I guess that's what their parents play at home. Should I be teaching my daughter Tamil so she can swoon at Siva Karthikeyan and laugh for Madurai Muthu's silly jokes. That guy Madurai Muthu belted out predictable jokes and what is worse he recycled it for a second performance during the same event. Guys go try to learn from George Carlin. OK I am now insulting George Carlin.

Compared to those boys one boy who wrote about Nikola Tesla in Tamil, for the souvenir, impressed me a lot. My only advice to that boy, based on personal experience in writing for a similar souvenir, is 'save your breath'. (OK I can hear others say that to me on this topic). Almost all other essays or whatever they are were of the mind numbing variety with the usual refrain of jingoism.

FeTNA sorely needs professional help in organizing and conducting the final event that gets mobbed and for managing food.If raising ticket prices and engaging professionals reduces the crowd then so be it. If a function can be done with perfection with just 5 people that is better than having a motley crowd of 2000.For an organization that boasts its 25th year what should have been a banner celebration was anything but. I think Toronto, thanks to far better funding and resources, might outdo Baltimore by a mile. I heard many visitors comment that 2010 Connecticut was better than this.

The numerous Bharathanatyam and other dance events at FeTNA by US born kids, while appreciable, illustrates that for many parents and US born youth FeTNA is an opportunity to go on stage. Other than the Bharatanaytam dances most others,especially by the tiny tots, have almost no quality in it. Most kids do not even know why they are on stage, having gone on stage they try to move about hither and thither. I am sorry to be harsh on kids but this is more a failure of parents than of kids. Stage hungry parents coax their wards into an event like this.

Coming to the Bharathanatyam dances and other music performances my only question to them "why do you insult yourself and your art by performing in this venue with an audience that does not even know how to respect a performance by being silent". I know that most of them also perform at temples where an equally cacophonous atmosphere prevails. If I can afford it I'd get a ticket for every FeTNA visitor to go see a symphony performance at Kennedy Center just to learn how to conduct themselves during a performance.

Yes, a 2000 strong crowd assembled by the time the event rolled into the biggest draw of the festival, the light music performance. To say that the crowd was drawn by love for language and an enthusiasm for our culture is plain exaggeration. Immigrants, not just Tamils, tend to congregate and enjoy a shared tableau of experiences that is reminiscent of our homeland.

Even when I was in Tamil Nadu I loathed attending these so called 'orchestra events' or 'light music' as they are referred to. In USA I've stayed away from them simply because such troupes do not even know the meaning of 'performance'. This includes troupes run by ARR, Gangai Amaran etc. Indian movie songs are meant to be an audio-visual experience and performing them with two guys standing on stage is pathetic. Other than the top billed troupes the rest are no better than the troupes that function during temple festivals in hamlets of Tamil Nadu. The Baltimore event was no exception.

The following passage from two-time Pulitzer winner Richard Hofstadter's 'Anti-intellectualism in America' should be read aloud and meditated by those who truly love FeTNA and think FeTNA is a force for good:

"For all their bragging and hypersensitivity, Americans are, if not the most self-critical, at least the most anxiously self-conscious people in the world, forever concerned about the inadequacy of something or other-their national morality, their national culture, their national purpose. This very uncertainty has given their intellectuals a critical function of special interest. The appropriation of some of this self-criticism by foreign ideologues for purposes  that go beyond its original scope or intention is an inevitable hazard. But the possibility that a sound enterprise in self-correction maybe overheard and misused is the poorest of reasons for suspending it. On this count I admire the spirit of Emerson, who wrote:"Let us honestly state the facts. Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it".

1 comment:

Arasu said...

I carefully read both of your posts about FeTNA Silver jubilee convention. I appreicitate the time you have taken to put your thoughts together in such a clear and detailed manner. I disagree with some part of your write up and I can offer some valid explanations for your criticism. However, many points you have expressed will be very useful to improve the quality of the future conventions. I will bring your articles to the attention of FeTNA office bearers and well wishers. Making positive changes is not easy but essential for an organization such as FeTNA.