The U.K.-South Asian Women Writers' Conference 2003, brought together 30 women writers, critics, academics, journalists and publishers from the U.K. and the Indian subcontinent. BRINDA BOSE found the conference distinctly fruitful, and the workshops on theatre, women's voices and visibility, entertaining and enlightening.
WE have long heralded a "new age" in literature, and it is only in the fitness of things that the centre and the margins have come to merge in this post-postcolonial 21st Century. And what better place to do it in, than the sylvan surroundings of Sanskriti at Anandagram, a mere bylane away from the madding crowds that whiz between Delhi and Gurgaon every day, in another not-insignificant merging of centre and margin?
The just-concluded UK-South Asian Women Writers' Conference 2003, hosted by the British Council, flowed seamlessly between the dramatically ethnic conference facilities at Mehrauli, the British Council in the heart of New Delhi and a smattering of Delhi University colleges, over five days of charmingly uncertain February weather in the capital. About 30 women writers, academics, publishers, journalists and critics from England and the Indian subcontinent Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, with Pakistan conspicuously absent as its delegates were refused visas mixed and matched, talked and workshopped, networked and bonded while they debated issues of "voice, dialogue and visibility" in the multicontexts of their writerly lives.
Sessions lasting up to two hours consisted of writers providing overviews of the predominant issues in women's writing in their countries, reading from their own work, participating in discussions, leading workshops. Playwrights, dancers and filmmakers were also showcased. What struck one most, I think, was the near-surreal sense of bonhomie that prevailed someone commented that this was clearly in conscious response to the blood and gore witnessed at the Neemrana literavaganza not so long ago! English tea-party-like interludes of lunch, coffee, tea at round tables went on under huge leafy trees. One wonders, though, whether the predominantly female profile of the gathering had anything to do with its genteel-ity, and if so, whether we need to be troubled by such ivory-towered gendered camaraderie?
That said, the sessions I attended were marked by a distinct fruitfulness, a difficult achievement at gatherings of this sort where one often ends up unhappily bombarded by a lot of impressive-sounding words signifying nothing. If these sessions lacked sound and fury, they compensated adequately by taking the debates seriously and contributing generously to the thought-pool of ideas on the state of women's writing today.
Surprisingly enough, the panels at which writers read from their own work to respond to a pre-determined topic worked remarkably well, clearly a tribute to the writers themselves who had chosen their pieces with care and precision. An afternoon session, titled "Forked Tongues: Story Telling and the Self", was chaired by Githa Hariharan, who guided her eminent panel to consider the significance of location/position/situation in choosing specific narrative strategies as women. Jane Rogers (U.K.), Selina Shireen Sikder (Bangladesh), Ruwanthie De Chickera (Sri Lanka), Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Lakshmi Kannan (India) each read a short piece which fuelled discussion about two major strategies, the use of fairy tales/magic, and the function of laughter as a coping/distancing device.
An earlier session on the "Politics of Language" chaired by academic Alok Rai brought together publishers Mini Krishnan and Geeta Dharmarajan with Margaret Meyer (of British Council, UK) and Indira Goswami (Jnanpith award-winning Assamese writer) in a discussion that, expectedly, stayed close to Indian writers' concerns the prominence of English, the emergent politics of translation, and the validation of dialects. The discussion questioned the "obsession with purity of language", as Namita Gokhale (of Paro fame) put it. In another lively session, "Constructing Communities", which brought into focus a variety of perspectives on writers and locational politics, Sumathy Sivamohan (Sri Lankan Tamil writer and theatre activist) talked of the uneasy alliances and many silences that assail performative identity crises in contemporary Sri Lanka.
Sitting around listening to wordsmiths dissect the acrobatics of language is entertainment and enlightenment enough, but some of the most dynamic sessions of this conference were conducted in workshop format, and were probably responsible for much of the good cheer circulating though the Sanskriti gardens even as the skies drizzled and clouded intermittently. Young Sri Lankan playwright and director Ruwanthie De Chickera's "Scripting Theatre" Workshop, for example, was a revelation, a lesson in how talent combined with total dedication to community work through stagecraft can "dilute the terror of theatre". De Chickera set her groups the task of preparing a theatrical freeze on "A Childhood Secret", and then made them develop each freeze with two more, demonstrating the ease with which a story can be built out of freeze shots animated to flow into one another, and language inserted by scripting "a line per freeze".
With such encouragement from practitioners of the written/performed/published Word, perhaps the U.K.-South Asian WW conference may even finally achieve more than what it set out to do: it may inspire more women writers to join the `web', and it is not just e-mail that we are talking of here.
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