–AJEET COUR

Meeting of creative minds is always a miraculous experience. Throughout the history of civilization, it is the written word that has endured. It is creative thought and its expression that has overpowered and transcended Time and Space, because Word is the Universe.

This historical, first-ever SAARC Writers Conference is witnessing the dawn of a new era of creative dialogue between creative writers of the seven South Asian countries which will definitely usher in Culture of Peace in the region.

As for myself, I am a mad person. Instead of sitting quietly and writing my novels and short stories, I get concerned, rather entangled in some of the cultural, social, creative, even non-creative environmental and heritage issues, because there is a whole vast ocean of them crying out for compassionate attention. I get madly, passionately, overwhelmingly involved and try in my own small way to deal with these concerns.

Our Academy of Fine Arts and Literature was born twenty-six years ago out of such concerns and beliefs, and out of this junoon was born the idea of this SAARC Writers Conference.

Way back in early 1975 I started giving shape to this cultural institution, the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, though it was launched in my mind and my thoughts much earlier.

I sought and got the comradeship and help of fellow writers like Khushwant Singh, my painter daughter Arpana Caur, journalists, academicians, women activists, painters, performing artists. And Academy of Fine Arts and Literature gradually took shape, blossomed, did useful and creative work in the field of visual and performing arts, encouraging literary gatherings and translations of classics from one language to the other, promoting modern art forms and traditional crafts, imparting creative education in different forms of visual and performing arts, promoting literary and cultural activities, and also initiating the process, perhaps historically significant process of introducing the poor and the downtrodden to visual and performing arts, literature and theatre.

In its aesthetically designed building – incidentally it was designed by a non-architect novice like me, and built brick by brick over a period of twelve very long years, without any help from the Government, from any foreign or Indian funding agency, from any corporate house – at 4/6, Siri Fort Institutional Area, the Academy has two large Art Galleries which are free for upcoming and talented artists, a free Library and Reading Room, an Amphitheate for plays and poetry symposia, a literary Research Centre, a Bharatanatayam Hall, a Kathak Hall, space and infrastructure for Painting, Art, Pottery and Sculpture classes, a Conference Hall for literary gatherings, Music Concerts, Plays, Dance Performances, Seminars and Discussion Group Meetings, Mushairas and other important cultural events, infrastructure for Aesthetic Awareness courses, a hall for Yoga and Pranayam classes, a hall for Theatre Rehearsal, and a Women’s Empowerment Centre, particularly for the young girls who have never been to school, who are cleaning utensils in the posh neighbourhood and playing small mothers to their younger siblings. We give them non-formal education and teach vocational skills.

Our work in providing skill-oriented informal basic education to the women living in marginalised urban villages and the slums has been one of our key achievements. Hundreds of jhuggi-basti girls have in the last 26 years benefited from this programme, getting not only education, vocational skills and general awareness but also dignified employment in most of the cases. They are also encouraged to actively participate in the Theatre groups, Bharartanatyam and Painting classes, and all the other cultural activities going on in the building. All this has been achieved without asking for and getting any grant from any funding agency here or abroad. One of the major thrust areas of our Academy is to take art and literature out from the age-old confines of the elite, to the most neglected sections of society by promoting awareness about visual and performing arts and literature among individuals and groups, especially women living in the slums and jhuggi bastis. I honestly believe that history is being created in our Academy, and I hope other cultural institutions will also join in, because that is how ‘movements’ are built up. You start walking alone, like-minded visionaries keep joining in, and it becomes a caravan.

Our Academy is the only cultural institution in Delhi which is an open house for all creative people. We also provide beautiful rehearsal space to individuals and groups free of charge.

Our Environment and Historical Heritage Awareness programmes include not only young students but also ordinary citizens and the people living in the sprawling slums of Delhi.

We keep fighting ideological battles with the authorities too for preservation of environment and historical heritage of Delhi, for improving the living conditions of marginalized sections of society, the fringe people, so that they can live in dignity.

All our well-wishers, friends, helpers, all right-minded people keep the effort alive. Because it is only the genuine concerns of mad people like me and my friends in our Academy, and the efforts they make to give concrete shape to these ideological concerns, that make human life less meaningless. No doubt life is a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot, but it suddenly starts acquiring significance if lived for creative, compassionate and meaningful causes.

And thus we continue to dream of a better world.

As a part of that dream the SAARC Writers Conference was also conceived.

Actually we launched a regular monthly literary gathering called ‘Dialogue’ about 25 years back. On the last Saturdays of every month we meet, now in our new building since the last 4 years, for an informal interaction between poets, fiction writers, translators and literary scholars.

The idea of SAARC was born in these literary gatherings.

We are living in very difficult and very cruel times. The present ethos is turbulent, marked by a death-wish, chaotic, neurotic, fragmentary, grotesque. Ironic paradoxes are here to confuse us. The great tolling bells resound with a hollow, metallic sound, the sound of a spiritual void, like a drill plumbing the emptiness at the core of man’s being. This emptiness reveals a strange marshy blackness, as potent and treacherous as the black sun. The crisis of our times is one where man and nature, man and society, man and religion, man and cosmos, man and man are thrown in jeopardy.

Our problems, and I mean the problems of all seven sister SAARC countries, are the same because we share the same histories, same memories, same struggles, same deprivations, same hunger, same clouds, same monsoons, same urge for a better life. We are a little sparrow’s flight away from each other.

In a new world where distances have been rendered obsolete by technological advances, chasms of misunderstandings need to be bridged. It is the writers and poets and other creative minds of our region who can usher this key change. We are the mad dreamers, the visionaries, We are mad but we make miracles happen. Our Academy is one such miracle, and the launching of the creative dialogue among writers of the SAARC Region another.

Our times, even though they be full of opportunity and hope, are also fraught with tension and changing values.

What does it take to be a writer in this era of globalization and of declining values and of a super-market mentality that has us all in its thrall ! How can the innate sensitivity of artistes and writers be nurtured, protected and be given the rein of freedom to glide, to mull, to think and to create, to quench our deepest and our every thirst !

We the writers of South Asia are read less here because less people are literate. We are less known because fewer people in our region have disposable incomes to buy our books. Writers from the first world can harness new technological devices like the internet to reach out, but we here in South Asia cannot enjoy their scale of reach.

Moreover, our region is a region of conflict, of want, of fear and of desperation. Caste and religion, creed and polity, and all other possible fissiparous tendencies have divided our spirit, have diluted our sense of nation and region, and we are from all social indicators the poorest of the poor in the whole world, except perhaps for sub-Saharan Africa.

It is in such an environment that we, the writers of South Asia, have to weave our dreams, share our dreams, and sell our dreams. And in this we get little assistance from governments, political structures, bureaucracy, and other established webs of patronage.

And now globalization is forcing us to give up our souls and to write ‘feel-good’ literature that supports the growing dream of a modern industrialized and prosperous society. But the reality is that this dream is limited to the top creamy layer of society. The large underbelly of our region is marginalized, pulverized and impoverished. Must not our literature reflect our true reality ?

It is against this panorama that this Conference of Writers from the SAARC Region has been convened.

In the nest three days we will share our dreams, unveil our pain and anguish, and celebrate the warmth of our neighbourliness, and respect for differences. Through all these deliberations we will lay the foundations for the culture of peace in our region.

That is why UNESCO has adopted this SAARC Writers Conference as a ‘flagship event’ of 2000, the International Year for the Culture of Peace.

The UN General Assembly has defined ‘culture of peace’ as a set of values, attitudes, traditions, modes of behaviour and way of life based on respect for life, ending of violence and promotion and practice of non-violence through education, dialogue and cooperation, full respect for and promotion of all human rights and fundamental freedoms; commitment to peaceful settlement of conflicts; respect for and promotion of the right to development; respect for and promotion of equal rights of and opportunities for women and men; respect for and promotion of the rights of everyone to freedom of expression, opinion and information, and adherence to the principles of freedom, justice, democracy, tolerance, solidarity, cooperation, pluralism, cultural diversity, dialogue and understanding at all levels of society and among nations. Culture of peace implies a global effort to change how people think and act in order to promote peace. Peace, as we now understand, is no longer the exclusive business of governments and international organizations. It is more than the absence of war and violence. It is our values and attitudes in our communities, our families, our schools. Peace must be cultivated and learned and, above all, put into practice. To make peace, we must act to transform the conflicts of everyday life into cooperation to make the world a better place to live in.

What better force can there be than we, the writers and intellectuals of our region, striving to usher in the Culture of Peace in our part of the world ?

During this Conference writers will share information and experiences about the developments in languages, literatures and writings in their respective countries. They will explore features of common heritage, as also age-old historical and cultural links, and find a way of setting up a machinery for regular exchange of views on creative writing and to work for peace in the region.

This Writers Conference will also consider a programme of continuous flow of writers and literature, particularly contemporary writings, from one country to the other. This will be achieved through literary networking in the Region, writer-exchange programmes, visits of writers to the neighbouring countries for dialogue with writers, university students, young aspiring writers and translators, writers-in-residence programmes, and interactions with creative writing faculties in universities. Anthologies of outstanding contemporary writings from the SAARC Region will be initiated, planned, translated and published every year as a continuous process of ongoing cultural dialogue.

This conference will conclude with our President Mr. Khushwant Singh proposing the ‘New Delhi Declaration by Writers of the SAARC Region’, which will be discussed and adopted by democratic process. And we will pledge to be fearless in our togetherness and brimming with creative dreams and compassionate concerns, endeavouring for a peaceful world.

If this Conference is a success, that success belongs to all the members of our Academy and all my colleagues. If any shortfalls are felt, I take the blame upon myself alone.

Inaugural Address in the First SAARC Writers Conference in New Delhi on 28-30 April, 2000

–AJEET COUR

Meeting of creative minds is always a miraculous experience. Throughout the history of civilization, it is the written word that has endured. It is creative thought and its expression that has overpowered and transcended Time and Space, because Word is the Universe.

This historical, first-ever SAARC Writers Conference is witnessing the dawn of a new era of creative dialogue between creative writers of the seven South Asian countries which will definitely usher in Culture of Peace in the region.

As for myself, I am a mad person. Instead of sitting quietly and writing my novels and short stories, I get concerned, rather entangled in some of the cultural, social, creative, even non-creative environmental and heritage issues, because there is a whole vast ocean of them crying out for compassionate attention. I get madly, passionately, overwhelmingly involved and try in my own small way to deal with these concerns.

Our Academy of Fine Arts and Literature was born twenty-six years ago out of such concerns and beliefs, and out of this junoon was born the idea of this SAARC Writers Conference.

Way back in early 1975 I started giving shape to this cultural institution, the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, though it was launched in my mind and my thoughts much earlier.

I sought and got the comradeship and help of fellow writers like Khushwant Singh, my painter daughter Arpana Caur, journalists, academicians, women activists, painters, performing artists. And Academy of Fine Arts and Literature gradually took shape, blossomed, did useful and creative work in the field of visual and performing arts, encouraging literary gatherings and translations of classics from one language to the other, promoting modern art forms and traditional crafts, imparting creative education in different forms of visual and performing arts, promoting literary and cultural activities, and also initiating the process, perhaps historically significant process of introducing the poor and the downtrodden to visual and performing arts, literature and theatre.

In its aesthetically designed building – incidentally it was designed by a non-architect novice like me, and built brick by brick over a period of twelve very long years, without any help from the Government, from any foreign or Indian funding agency, from any corporate house – at 4/6, Siri Fort Institutional Area, the Academy has two large Art Galleries which are free for upcoming and talented artists, a free Library and Reading Room, an Amphitheate for plays and poetry symposia, a literary Research Centre, a Bharatanatayam Hall, a Kathak Hall, space and infrastructure for Painting, Art, Pottery and Sculpture classes, a Conference Hall for literary gatherings, Music Concerts, Plays, Dance Performances, Seminars and Discussion Group Meetings, Mushairas and other important cultural events, infrastructure for Aesthetic Awareness courses, a hall for Yoga and Pranayam classes, a hall for Theatre Rehearsal, and a Women’s Empowerment Centre, particularly for the young girls who have never been to school, who are cleaning utensils in the posh neighbourhood and playing small mothers to their younger siblings. We give them non-formal education and teach vocational skills.

Our work in providing skill-oriented informal basic education to the women living in marginalised urban villages and the slums has been one of our key achievements. Hundreds of jhuggi-basti girls have in the last 26 years benefited from this programme, getting not only education, vocational skills and general awareness but also dignified employment in most of the cases. They are also encouraged to actively participate in the Theatre groups, Bharartanatyam and Painting classes, and all the other cultural activities going on in the building. All this has been achieved without asking for and getting any grant from any funding agency here or abroad. One of the major thrust areas of our Academy is to take art and literature out from the age-old confines of the elite, to the most neglected sections of society by promoting awareness about visual and performing arts and literature among individuals and groups, especially women living in the slums and jhuggi bastis. I honestly believe that history is being created in our Academy, and I hope other cultural institutions will also join in, because that is how ‘movements’ are built up. You start walking alone, like-minded visionaries keep joining in, and it becomes a caravan.

Our Academy is the only cultural institution in Delhi which is an open house for all creative people. We also provide beautiful rehearsal space to individuals and groups free of charge.

Our Environment and Historical Heritage Awareness programmes include not only young students but also ordinary citizens and the people living in the sprawling slums of Delhi.

We keep fighting ideological battles with the authorities too for preservation of environment and historical heritage of Delhi, for improving the living conditions of marginalized sections of society, the fringe people, so that they can live in dignity.

All our well-wishers, friends, helpers, all right-minded people keep the effort alive. Because it is only the genuine concerns of mad people like me and my friends in our Academy, and the efforts they make to give concrete shape to these ideological concerns, that make human life less meaningless. No doubt life is a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot, but it suddenly starts acquiring significance if lived for creative, compassionate and meaningful causes.

And thus we continue to dream of a better world.

As a part of that dream the SAARC Writers Conference was also conceived.

Actually we launched a regular monthly literary gathering called ‘Dialogue’ about 25 years back. On the last Saturdays of every month we meet, now in our new building since the last 4 years, for an informal interaction between poets, fiction writers, translators and literary scholars.

The idea of SAARC was born in these literary gatherings.

We are living in very difficult and very cruel times. The present ethos is turbulent, marked by a death-wish, chaotic, neurotic, fragmentary, grotesque. Ironic paradoxes are here to confuse us. The great tolling bells resound with a hollow, metallic sound, the sound of a spiritual void, like a drill plumbing the emptiness at the core of man’s being. This emptiness reveals a strange marshy blackness, as potent and treacherous as the black sun. The crisis of our times is one where man and nature, man and society, man and religion, man and cosmos, man and man are thrown in jeopardy.

Our problems, and I mean the problems of all seven sister SAARC countries, are the same because we share the same histories, same memories, same struggles, same deprivations, same hunger, same clouds, same monsoons, same urge for a better life. We are a little sparrow’s flight away from each other.

In a new world where distances have been rendered obsolete by technological advances, chasms of misunderstandings need to be bridged. It is the writers and poets and other creative minds of our region who can usher this key change. We are the mad dreamers, the visionaries, We are mad but we make miracles happen. Our Academy is one such miracle, and the launching of the creative dialogue among writers of the SAARC Region another.

Our times, even though they be full of opportunity and hope, are also fraught with tension and changing values.

What does it take to be a writer in this era of globalization and of declining values and of a super-market mentality that has us all in its thrall ! How can the innate sensitivity of artistes and writers be nurtured, protected and be given the rein of freedom to glide, to mull, to think and to create, to quench our deepest and our every thirst !

We the writers of South Asia are read less here because less people are literate. We are less known because fewer people in our region have disposable incomes to buy our books. Writers from the first world can harness new technological devices like the internet to reach out, but we here in South Asia cannot enjoy their scale of reach.

Moreover, our region is a region of conflict, of want, of fear and of desperation. Caste and religion, creed and polity, and all other possible fissiparous tendencies have divided our spirit, have diluted our sense of nation and region, and we are from all social indicators the poorest of the poor in the whole world, except perhaps for sub-Saharan Africa.

It is in such an environment that we, the writers of South Asia, have to weave our dreams, share our dreams, and sell our dreams. And in this we get little assistance from governments, political structures, bureaucracy, and other established webs of patronage.

And now globalization is forcing us to give up our souls and to write ‘feel-good’ literature that supports the growing dream of a modern industrialized and prosperous society. But the reality is that this dream is limited to the top creamy layer of society. The large underbelly of our region is marginalized, pulverized and impoverished. Must not our literature reflect our true reality ?

It is against this panorama that this Conference of Writers from the SAARC Region has been convened.

In the nest three days we will share our dreams, unveil our pain and anguish, and celebrate the warmth of our neighbourliness, and respect for differences. Through all these deliberations we will lay the foundations for the culture of peace in our region.

That is why UNESCO has adopted this SAARC Writers Conference as a ‘flagship event’ of 2000, the International Year for the Culture of Peace.

The UN General Assembly has defined ‘culture of peace’ as a set of values, attitudes, traditions, modes of behaviour and way of life based on respect for life, ending of violence and promotion and practice of non-violence through education, dialogue and cooperation, full respect for and promotion of all human rights and fundamental freedoms; commitment to peaceful settlement of conflicts; respect for and promotion of the right to development; respect for and promotion of equal rights of and opportunities for women and men; respect for and promotion of the rights of everyone to freedom of expression, opinion and information, and adherence to the principles of freedom, justice, democracy, tolerance, solidarity, cooperation, pluralism, cultural diversity, dialogue and understanding at all levels of society and among nations. Culture of peace implies a global effort to change how people think and act in order to promote peace. Peace, as we now understand, is no longer the exclusive business of governments and international organizations. It is more than the absence of war and violence. It is our values and attitudes in our communities, our families, our schools. Peace must be cultivated and learned and, above all, put into practice. To make peace, we must act to transform the conflicts of everyday life into cooperation to make the world a better place to live in.

What better force can there be than we, the writers and intellectuals of our region, striving to usher in the Culture of Peace in our part of the world ?

During this Conference writers will share information and experiences about the developments in languages, literatures and writings in their respective countries. They will explore features of common heritage, as also age-old historical and cultural links, and find a way of setting up a machinery for regular exchange of views on creative writing and to work for peace in the region.

This Writers Conference will also consider a programme of continuous flow of writers and literature, particularly contemporary writings, from one country to the other. This will be achieved through literary networking in the Region, writer-exchange programmes, visits of writers to the neighbouring countries for dialogue with writers, university students, young aspiring writers and translators, writers-in-residence programmes, and interactions with creative writing faculties in universities. Anthologies of outstanding contemporary writings from the SAARC Region will be initiated, planned, translated and published every year as a continuous process of ongoing cultural dialogue.

This conference will conclude with our President Mr. Khushwant Singh proposing the ‘New Delhi Declaration by Writers of the SAARC Region’, which will be discussed and adopted by democratic process. And we will pledge to be fearless in our togetherness and brimming with creative dreams and compassionate concerns, endeavouring for a peaceful world.

If this Conference is a success, that success belongs to all the members of our Academy and all my colleagues. If any shortfalls are felt, I take the blame upon myself alone.

Inaugural Address in the First SAARC Writers Conference in New Delhi on 28-30 April, 2000

 

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