Friday 20 June 2014

Satyavati: Fault Lines as an e-book from HarperXXI

"Listen. Listen... This is not the whole
story, nor a lyrical history of mankind*: it is
what I know to be mine, true or nearly so,
perhaps not at all at times, for Truth is a beast
more wayward than Time."

Ehm, my lovely publishers at HarperCollins India have urged me to spread the word far and wide. So here is the word in question: 

Satyavati: Fault Lines (I-IV, to be precise), a part-preview of my forthcoming reworking of the Mahabharata in eighteen voices, will be launched tomorrow (the whimsical gods of technology permitting) as part of this summer's HarperXXI series - from HarperCollins India's digital books stable. Out on June 21st, for solstitial reading!

Hyperlinks to the many avenues of purchase should have been included, but I don't have them yet - apologies for being so remiss! But they will be up very soon.

* a response to Vyaasa’s description in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Le Tigre de Miel a.k.a. The Honey Hunter

It's finally happening. The Honey Hunter, or Le Tigre de Miel as it's called in French, one of the stories I had written for Akram Khan Company's DESH, has become an children's book  lushly, ingeniously illustrated by the brilliant Joëlle Jolivet and creatively translated into French by Dominique Vitalyos. Editions Hélium are publishing it in France, and Young Zubaan in India. Much of it happened thanks to Judith Oriol of the French Embassy in India who has been our fairy godmother on this, sparking magical connections that brought word and image together!

The French edition will be out next month and here's an animated trailer made by Luce Côte-Colisson and Lucie Rouxel with music by Georges Le Gonidec.

More news on the launch soon!

Sunday 29 July 2012


The July 2012 issue of Asymptote, the literary journal, carries my translations of Provencal poet Roselyn Sibille's work, all from her forthcoming collection Shadow-World. As usual, the editorial team of Asymptote have done an impressive job of presenting the work: along with the translations, readers can access the original poems in French, and also listen to Roselyne reading these poems in her soft, thoughtful voice. It is quite a privilege to be included in an issue that contains really extraordinary poetry from the world over, from Korean to Farsi to Armenian and Danish!

Asymptote July 2012 issue: Shadow-World

As I mention in the translator's note accompanying our work in Asymptote, in  Shadow-World, we enter a place of transience and metamorphosis where earth and water are made up of strokes and colours that are outlined, erased and then given new life in other forms.

It is a world where the shadow is three-dimensional, elemental and — most importantly — a bearer of tales; tales that we could build to our hearts' desire from the shards of images that these poems reflect.

These poems, to me, seem as fragile and oneiric as age-old calligraphy, the quest for the perfect curve: they reclaim words to reflect the tumbling and vaulting of the soul.

Roselyne Sibille's world blithely demands both precision and creativity from a translator. Transposing her metaphors and visuals, though — or perhaps, rightly, since — shadowy, from one imaginary world to another is an adventure that is often very challenging, but also deeply satisfying when both she and I feel that we have found or built portholes between these worlds.

Thursday 31 May 2012


Today is a very special anniversary. And there are people out there who made it possible. People who made such a difference, and so casually, almost unthinkingly - though what they did, and achieved, was the very opposite of thoughtlessness. Some kinds of generosity are formidable in their absoluteness. I wrote this poem for another set of people, just as precious, but it holds good for the ones I am thinking of today - for very different reasons. All that might be just a bit too elliptical but I don't think I have the words for clarity right now.


It takes little to change
a life.
In the whisper of a breath,
in the echo of a smile;
tectonic plates, ocean currents,
cosmic forces that could
drive our destinies,
swing, bow and let through,
newness, transformation.
A spring of fresh clear water,
or a lee of verdant growth.
Maybe even a landmass, a continent.
Or disappearance: of arid wastelands,
swamps of dismay, even over-run
thickets of uncertainty?

They call it a catalyst.
A nimble spirit they seek everywhere,
in alchemy not the least.

And how would you greet that unsettling
tremor, the slight trigger etching out
glistening - unknown, unknowable, scary
but so desired -  fresh lines on the palms
of fate's domineering hand ?

Would it vanish in fear
if I turned around, and hailed
it with two puny words;
tried to convey all the beauty,
the glory, the pain of new-
found quests, of goals
emboldened, paths chosen
(not sprung, nor borne) with just
thank you?

Should I watch it cross these
thresholds with muted tread
from the curves of eyes,
and assume sightlessness
so it continues the spell?

Or polish the floor with rose-petals,
leave bowls of silent,
fragrant saffron – reward
and tempt at once in the hope
of regular returns?

Often though, I only learn
of a visit from damp footprints
outside my door, and a stir
in the air, spring unplanned
and unplugged.

Karthika Naïr, 01/01/2008

* Catalysts was first published in Bearings (HarperCollins India, 2009)

Friday 18 May 2012

What ehr should art do?

It happened five years ago. We were given the task of founding a department of programming/performing arts at the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration (CNHI) in Paris, France's latest national museum, one devoted to the history of immigration in France. There was a good amount of debate - from the scientific committee, from the historians who had devised the project, from the civil society bodies whose untiring campaign had led to the birth of the museum, from funding institutions (the Ministries of Culture, Education and Social Cohesion, notably) - on the exact role of art, especially performing art (felt to be something of a loose cannon), in such a museum. 

Museum International, a journal run by UNESCO, invited each of the different departments of the CNHI to write about their activities and goals in a special issue dedicated to emerging museums. Patrice Martinet, artistic director, asked me to write on behalf of our department, and this is the introduction I handed in. The piece went on to record the thoughts of two of the artists we had invited to make new work, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and playwright/theatre director Mohamed Rouabhi.

There is a lot of talk right now about what art should or should not do; about what its ambit is and what its code of conduct should be, as though it were a young, fractious student. I wanted to remind myself of what we had wanted to nurture in that fledgling museum, what we had spent our days and nights defending during two years.

"The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration does not exist.

What does exist, actually, is scores of Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration.

Like the elephant in the Panchatantra, which was identified by four blind men as rope, pillar, fan and snake respectively, this project impels myriad visions. There are at least as many as the people involved in its creation, directly or indirectly, and – after its opening in April 2007 – more likely to come from the general public, the media, the powers-that-be … the list will be endless; as will the definitions, the expectations and probably the criticism. Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by this institution is to subsume these multiple particles, all the while allowing them to thrive, and emerge as a cogent structure whose bedrock is its very plurality.

In the pages that follow, one gets glimpses, to take an analogy from another field, of what the light reflected from one face of this highly refractive chunk of hard, crystallized carbon could give – when cut and polished. Because that is the process it has to undergo: a diamond left to itself is just a shapeless abrasive lump.

Remember, this is just one facet of a whole. One vision. Of what the credo of an arts & programming wing should be in a cultural complex that is all at once a national museum, a research & academic hub, a vanguard for civil sector and citizen advocacy organisations, a publishing unit – all firmly focused on the issue of immigration.

But it appears that before defining content or aim, we need to rationalise the very existence of an artistic wing within a museum specialising in the history of immigration. For although museological policies over the last two decades have evolved to encompass artistic activity in a great number of historical and civilizational museums, and although the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration – whose name itself denotes its composite nature – has more than one activity, the presence of art in the realm of immigration is still less than self-evident.

To circumscribe the role or import of art within an issue-based paradigm seemed rather parochial to us. Hence, we extend the question to defending its existence per se, as also its “functionality”.

Art exists in its own right, on its own terms. Without the necessity to justify itself, or the additional onus of purpose. Yet, throughout time, we find that it has questioned mankind, consistently jolted it into making new discoveries, unsettled societal preconceptions, ripped apart status quo and given us other ways to view the world. It unearths fragments of the past; hurls shards of an often painful present straight into our faces; and sometimes it offers terrifying or tantalising oracles of the future. It is, perhaps, above all, a reminder that nothing is sacrosanct: certainly not the sacred monster, art, itself.

That is why what we are attempting to build here is, first and foremost, an arena of free artistic expression. Where artistes can deliver their thoughts – unfettered, “unguided”; through the creative language of their choice; in the manner that seems most befitting to them – cerebral, visceral or soulful – on the countless concerns surrounding immigration; ones that are just as inextricably bound to this issue as ligaments to a bone: boundaries, belonging, uprootedness, integration, exclusion, alterity, home, identity….

An arena that will not claim to enforce one worldview. Nor presume to provide solutions. But which will try to raise questions. Innumerable questions, queries, critiques from all fronts, on all things – including the same artistic expressions that set the stage for these questions.

An arena where dissent and debate will be recognized as contributors in their own right to constructive co-existence.

A place we will visit not to learn about the Other and his strangeness, but to recognize how “other” we ourselves are, how we are all composed of Others.

It will be a nimble tightrope act in a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant of contention. To tread the fine line between criticism and censure, between dissent and divisiveness. To provide a platform for opinion that is not necessarily our own, and to voice both our disagreement with the given view and defend the right to state both.

But the idea here, at this moment, is not to perorate about what we wish or intend. If we are committed to our aim, then the first act is to step aside, and hand over this space to those whose creative ethos will contour our activity. The stage is theirs, even while it is a work in progress. If they continue to step under our spotlights, and fuel the crucible with their questions and their aspirations, the lights will keep burning in this theatre."

- Karthika Naïr
excerpts from A Crucible for Questions, first published in Museum International, N° 59 (May 2007).

Sunday 15 April 2012

Desh-edly delighted

There will be time, there will be time. For words and more words again. For the moment, though, a link is worth a thousand words:

Yes, Desh won the 2012 Laurence Olivier Award for the Best New Dance Production. Congratulations, Akram: for choreography, courage and commitment! Congratulations, team Desh! And a huge thank you to Bangladesh for being the alpha and omega of this transformative, memorable journey.

That's Akram Khan before the awards ceremony:

And a third link to the recording of a post-show session at the Concertgebouw in Brügge where Guy Cools - with his usual gentle insight - asked us some very interesting questions about how it all came together:

Monday 26 March 2012

In Memoriam

I. Relics
You didn’t leave much behind when you slipped
silent through some unseen crevice in time.

The scent of a name swiftly rent by tearful
chords (shreds hung in the air, just out of reach).

Biannual torrents of dayspring rites
when payasam and prayer flash-flooded
the neighbourhood – baffling me for nine years …

Shadows from laughing eyes I had found
frozen on cellulose strips ( and long thought
were mine) crypted within the covers of
velveteen books on a high, unfriendly shelf.

A three-line memorial in a pale blue file:
life and love scaled to disease, diagnosis,
death with date and description, nothing
more – aseptic headstone raised for a ghost
star who didn’t leave much behind.

Other remains crowded out yours by and by.

Wordless fury at survival kept under cobalt
paternal lock, bluebeard’s chamber that opened
only to one knock;
glaciers of growing
loss left as moraines on a mother’s face;
debris from the link between you and me –
neatly piled beside the same crevice I lose
my way back to, over and over, with no effort at all.

You didn’t leave much behind, but nothingness
can expand into a red giant with grief at its core.

II. Resurrection
I tried remaking you with swatches of stolen
memory, seaming a harlequin next-of-kin.

First raided the maternal troves: traced
shapes out of mother’s soundlessness; snipped
yarn from her three chirpy younger sisters.

I didn’t spare granny either, sifting her
cataractal mind for traces of your smile.

(kept clear off the men folk though: they stood
guard night and day over theirs, buried ten-foot
deep in child and prowler-proof vaults.)

You stayed sketchy, all dots, shades and split
helixes – a silhouette behind a shattered
pane, touching which made thoughts bleed.

So the thieving spread wider and wilder.
I sought your colours, contours all over:

A head among tousled monsoon clouds
your gaze on the burnished afternoon earth
the voice in local summer tides.

The name, the name grew everywhere:
in myths and magazines, or family
trees, fiction, television – any one I chose
could wipe out another possible you.

You walked with me, travelling through
childhood, teenage, voting-right-hood …
I changed templates, crafted new ones through the ride.
Till the time it felt too much like work,
too much a snail within a turtle’s shuck.

Unravelled you on land’s edge, then watched
my patchwork sibling return to the clouds,
the sun, the sea – and someone’s memory.

Karthika Naïr, 10/02/2008

Because sometimes I can forget, though not what lies just ahead. And today is a time to remember.

In Memoriam was first published in Bearings, HarperCollins India, 2009.