Tuesday, July 24, 2012

FeTNA: What I Enjoyed.

I'll write a two-part blog on FeTNA. I've been repeatedly criticized, with some justification, that I focus too readily on what went wrong. I don't want  to mix up in one blog all that I liked and disliked making people look at what I criticize missing out on what I said was nice. I had earlier posted highly critical blogs focusing on just the speeches of one person. I had not commented anything about the function itself.

Many of my friends were surprised that I decided to go to FeTNA. Two of my relatives who love FeTNa dearly were concerned and thought 'why does he bother'. I've not spent money on any associations, American or Indian, except for donating to some cancer funds and once to a Red Cross fund. Attending an association meeting spending $1000 was too much for me for a long time. Combined with financial ability there were other factors like the proximity of the venue, Baltimore Inner Harbor, that made it possible to attend FeTNA this time. Of course having heard for long "how can you criticize without having attended" I decided to give it a shot.

I reached out to the organizers of a talk-show format program to join the show. There were three teams separated according to 'generations', 'yesterday, today and tomorrow'. I was classified as 'today'. The topic was "my generation is the best when it comes to love for Tamil, relationships, rationalism in life". I was a bit concerned about cooking up something and sounding hypocritical or worse, hollow. As is my habit I mulled over it deeply and discovered a nugget. Only in my generation, defined as age 20-50 (i.e starting at 1960), Tamil literature charted a new path. Fictional prose writing took literature closer to people by appearing in vernacular magazines and by talking about people's issues. The seed for that was sown in the earlier generation but it reached new heights in the 70's thanks to Jeyakanthan etc. Now Jeyamohan, S.Ra, Nanjil are skillfully using the Internet era to create dedicated readers. I felt this is something my generation can be genuinely proud of.

I participated in trial conference calls. It is amazing how much effort the organizers put in and leverage technical facilities. We had a toll free number to use for conference calls. It was a nice idea to organize these calls to acclimatize everyone to their topic and ensure, as one organizer said, 'some thought went into what participants talk'. That said I could consistently see I was fish out of water. The other participants were keen on talking pedestrian stuff. So finally I withdrew.

As always I was punctual in reaching the venue at 8:00. When the crowd finally gathered it was like a festive marriage season with, especially the women, all decked out. One felt transported to Chennai. When I checked in with my registration a nice packet with my food coupons, a souvenir etc all in one manila folder with my name on it. Given the number of attendees and the volunteer efforts it was quite deal.

The highlights of the 2 days were the many Bharathanatyam dances. Most dances were choreographed with modern themes. The girls were all dressed up in absolute finery in sweltering heat for the dances. The show stealer was a dance drama about Velu Nachiyar. The drama was staged with elaborate costumes and a more than decent performance by the lead dancer. My cousin played a cameo as Hyder Ali. The only irritant was a voice over by a person who simply was a spoiler. The drama itself was choreographed nicely and needed no explanatory voice overs.

Many Tamil parents in USA attempt to teach Tamil to their kids, primarily to be able to communicate with extended family back home. For such kids learning a language in a vacuum and using it only during a 3 week holiday can be quite a discouragement. For many of those parents FeTNA provides a good encouragement for such kids to see other US born kids converse in Tamil. Seeing 2000 people speaking a language gives a perspective and of course they get to hear some history as well.

Many kids performed speaking good Tamil without an accent. Some had even trained themselves for a quiz on Tamil literature. One girl wowed the audience by performing 'silambaatam'. Another girl, a daughter of an organizer, delivered a decent enough speech in Tamil. That said I'll explain in my next blog on why I can take that argument only to a limited extent.

Contemporary Tamil writer S.Ramakrishnan was a chief draw for many. After his return to Chennai he blogged thanking many, amongst them, my cousin and FeTNA organizer Sivaakumar Paramasivam. S.Ra had said that this journey helped expand his horizons and gave him some new prespectives. Sure, S.Ra's visit was primarily to accept an award in Canada and thanks to FeTNA he could come to USA. For some strange reason he had thanked the organisers individually but refrained from thanking the organization itself. S.Ra speech did not go down well. Very rarely writers are good speakers especially for a crowd of 1500 of widely varying intellectual interests. S.Ra is more suited for an intimate setting or for a select audience where he can comfortably scale the heights of what he wishes to share. I'll return to this with a suggestion later.

The man who took the audience by storm was Sahayam IAS. Sahayam became famous for standing up against very powerful politicians during the last election. He shot to fame for putting online his assets statement. His probity and the sufferings he endures due to it are well known. He spoke like a professional stage speaker. He had the audience on its feet. The speech,though, lacked substance. He spoke about how he compelled  two very hapless individuals to sign in Tamil. I felt that that was harassment. He could have spoken more genuinely about how he governed villages and became a darling of the villagers. Sahayam was literally mobbed by people wanting to take pictures. Probably he felt "wow I am indeed loved, honesty is indeed admired by my fellow people even though they are thousands of miles away". Maybe that sense of acknowledgment serves as some kind of ointment when he is pushed from pillar to post by authorities. And for that FeTNA can feel justifiably proud.

FeTNA, like college culturals,  provides a stage for people to show case their talents. A poetry session chaired by Thamizhachi was interesting. Some did read good poems. As I wrote earlier it was nice that Thamizhachi made an effort to jot down one or two lines from each poem and speak about it for a minute before the next poet started. That was nice encouragement.

A person who multi-tasked 70 tasks including writing a venba, a sculpting, a ten digit addition, sequencing colors etc was an interesting show case of talent. The souvenir also featured an article on that. Whoever that arranged it did good. Thanks to my friend Rajesh Garga's primer on venba I understood why the multi-tasker chose the venba format amongst many. Venba has a very mathematical and algorithmic rigor making it a comfortable for multi-tasking.

Vijay TV host Siva Karthikeyan was a hit with the audience. He was the one who moderated the talk-show that I withdrew from. He is a guy who has come up from humble origins.I was surprised to note that many US born kids, the ones who spoke Tamil, knew him. The girls were crazy about him. Karthikeyan added an impromptu event that is his trademark. It was silly but humorous and a lady participant really aced that. This impromptu addition caused some frictions. We were all told that we had only a minute to talk. Which was why I pulled out because that was too short a time. But the time limits were not adhered to and Karthikeyan added his own event for 20 minutes. A participant felt cheated of time.

Many had poured their hearts out for this event for 6 months. Volunteers, including my cousin, stood drenched in sweat serving food under tents in 100F. Unfortunately during the first day lunch a stampede like situation prevailed since the food was delayed by an hour by the vendor. Second day night the key event, the music performance, was literally mobbed with parents struggling to hold onto kids.. I was musing why not the organizers get some professional help to manage crowds etc. An elderly man standing next to me explained some difficulties. Ticket sales was tepid at first and that only towards the last 30 days the organizers felt confident of break even. Naturally given such inability to project revenues one cannot book professional event managers.

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