Asian arts festival in Stornoway celebrates shared humanity

Islanders are travellers. Always have been. Scattering themselves to the furthest corners of the globe, taking their traditions, culture and cianalas with them but always remaining outward looking, open minded and downright adventurous.

To my mind, it’s as much a part of the Hebridean’s DNA as a love of peat smoke, the sound of the sea and good books and music.

So it’s entirely appropriate that the idea for the Purvai festival— a celebration of South Asian arts and culture, currently taking place in Stornoway — came from the story of Colonel Colin Mackenzie.

This man, born in Stornoway in 1754, went out to India in his 20s and became the country’s first Surveyor General, responsible for mapping it out for the first time.

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“As if that wasn’t a big enough job,” commented Purvai curator Catherine Maclean, “he began documenting everything”.

He collected arts and artefacts along the way, eventually needing a whole team to help him, and now his pieces lie in the British Library, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert, as well as in similar institutions in India.

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“It is the largest, oldest collection of Asian art collected by a European — and it’s a man from Stornoway,” said Catherine. “It’s huge. It’s really huge.”

Catherine, who is the special projects curator at An Lanntair, has spent extended periods of time in India and became fascinated by this story.

She is currently working with Museum nan Eilean on hopefully bringing together the first ever exhibition dedicated to the Mackenzie Collection, which includes everything from massive marble sculptures to watercolours and coins.

With all the pieces from the collection in different museums, the Stornoway exhibition would be the first time they would be displayed together.

“We’re hoping to have it a year from now,” said Catherine, although it depends on final funding arrangements.

Mackenzie drawing Taj Mahal

She added: “The original inspiration and idea behind Purvai is Colin Mackenzie and his journey to India and what he did in India. We’re using that collection as our access into Asian arts and culture and a platform for artists to collaborate.”

Purvai opened on August 17 with a special ‘Roots of the Sun Salutation’ yoga and chanting class and will close on September 3 with a Bollywood ‘party at the pictures’ night, featuring the Asian Blues duo Aziz and Dal and then DJs.

There are many events and workshops along the way, including a classical concert from Roopa Panesar (below), one of the world’s finest sitar players, and an exhibition of photographs taken by young girls and women in South India with the help of Lensational, a social enterprise dedicated to empowering women in developing countries through photography.

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The full Purvai programme is available on the An Lanntair website, and the arts organisation promises that, “whether it’s a classical performance, a live DJ set, a drumming workshop or a Bollywood movie — it’s a diverse programme for all ages.

“The Purvai project embraces traditional and contemporary art, music, textiles, literature, history and culture, charting areas of shared humanity between Gaelic culture and the Indian sub-continent. It thrives on the exchange of artists and ideas.”

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This exchange of artists and ideas is personified in the event ‘From Lahore to Lewis and Harris: Trading Stories’, being held tomorrow (Tuesday, August 23) in An Lanntair and the following night in the Mission House Studio in Finsbay, Harris.

This is a collaborative performance of poetry, stories, music and art, involving artists from Pakistan and Scotland, and includes writer, poet and storyteller Ian Stephen from Stornoway.

It is the extension of an event that has just been held at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Ian is on the far right, below) and has its origins in a project run a couple of years ago which paired writers and other artists from Scotland with their opposite number from Pakistan for a week of intensive workshops at the Lahore Literary Festival.

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That event, held in February 2015, was a challenge as the city had been hit by terrorists just a few days before.

“There has to be an armed guard outside the bookshop you’re working in,” recalled Ian, “and yet it’s probably the most friendly, relaxed, hospitable event I’ve ever been to.”

He was taking part as a storyteller and was struck by the familiarity of a story told by his Pakistani counterpart.

Known as the Woodcutter’s Clever Wife, it reminded him strongly of a story from Lewis about a crofter’s unusual daughter, who could solve riddles and used this to get her father out of trouble with the laird.

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“They’re both great stories because it’s the clever woman from a peasant background who uses wit and wisdom to get one over the rich and powerful — and they fit within a huge international tradition of stories with questions and riddles.”

Joining Ian at Purvai will be storyteller Shazea Quraishi. The illustrators — their work is to be projected — are Kate Leiper and Mehreen Fatima and the musicians are Sarah Hayes and Sara Kasmi.

It’s important to note that an organisation called Highlight Arts has been involved in this project. They support arts projects in areas of conflict.

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“Before going to Lahore, I had to think seriously about whether to be involved,” said Ian, “travelling to a literary festival in a country where very recently there had been a shooting at a poetry event.

“It does make you think but in some ways I would argue that there is no safe place left on Earth.

“The great thing about events like this is the shared ground and it seems unlikely. You’ve got essentially an Islamic culture and a Christian culture but what’s fascinating is the shared territory in these stories. Surely these stories that reoccur across history and geographies just remind us that we are the same shared human psychology.”

This shared humanity is key. And whether it’s stories, music or some other form of expression, Purvai explores what we have in common.

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Sometimes this can be totally unexpected and you could say Purvai had me at hello because Sophie Marsh’s yoga and chanting class made this kind of impression on me.

It was the Vedic chanting, and her method of teaching it, that set off a whole thought train on what we Hebrideans have in common with our friends in South Asia.

Anyone familiar with Gaelic Psalm singing in church in Lewis would have recognised it too. “I’ll give you the line and you give it back to me,” she said.

Sophie’s class was all about the Sun Salutation, or Surya Namaskara, and we were being taken through the 12 yoga positions, or asanas, that make it up.

She was also teaching us the mantras that go along with it. The Vedic chanting is “very old”, from Sanskrit, and dates back to the 2nd millennium BCE.

Considering how old it is, and how “other” it should be, I was surprisingly comfortable with it. Its tones and the movements of the sounds reminded me so much of being in church, being carried along on the swell of a Gaelic psalm.

The different sounds seemed to vibrate in different parts of the body, such as the throat, which certainly helped your yoga focus and simultaneously brought you into the moment while also seeming to lift you out of yourself. It was quite transformative.

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Intrigued, I did a bit of Googling later and found this chanting — traditional Vedic chanting — is actually protected by Unesco as part of our “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

This list includes traditions and living expressions inherited from our ancestors, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, and so on. Sounds to me like there might be a place for Gaelic psalm singing on that list, but anyway…

“Chanting, particularly Vedic chanting done in this particular way,” said Sophie, “gives you a single pointed focus which is very good for your concentration and in other areas of your life.

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“Mantras in general tend to be very calming. Reciting a mantra helps you to regulate your breathing. It helps you to lower your heart rate and takes you out of your mind.”

Sophie doesn’t usually ask her class to join in the chanting, of which she only does a little. “It was amazing,” she said. “The change in the participants was palpable. Everybody came in quite uptight and maybe a little anxious about what was happening and at the end they just floated away.”

The similarity between Vedic chanting and Gaelic Psalm singing is not lost on someone else — one of the stars of Purvai, tabla drummer Dalibr Singh Rattan.

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Dal (above), who will be accompanying sitar player Roopa Panesar at the classical concert before teaming up with Aziz on the last night, has been to Lewis a couple of times before.

“I found the Gaelic Psalm singing really fascinating,” he said. “It was quite similar to the chanting. I was quite comfortable with that because my learning of Indian classical music started at the Sikh temples. Even though they’re miles apart, they are quite similar.

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“I couldn’t understand a lot of it but I was quite familiar with the tone of it, the pitch. The choral response is very, very familiar because of how the ancient scripts are recited and the whole congregation would chant it back.”

Dal lives in Birmingham, where there has been “lots of friction and negativity over social aspects of life” after Brexit.

Referring to the vote over European Union membership, he said: “The Scots have just shown that you’ve got a bigger heart. I find that really refreshing. The mood and the whole atmosphere is very different. I’m always championing the Hebrides!”

What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

This blog post has been supported by An Lanntair. All views and opinions are entirely my own.

Katie

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