Business runs in his blood but Ranvir Shah is no ordinary businessman. Apart from overseeing his myriad family businesses, adding to which is a new restaurant, Ranvir Shah is an artist at heart and in time has become one of its foremost patrons in India. He heads the Prakriti Foundation in Chennai, which he found in 1998. An arts based organisation, the Prakriti Foundation is now a well-reckoned institution in Tamil Nadu and has been playing a pivotal role in defining and enlarging the cultural scene in Chennai. There are eight different types of festivals that the Foundation has been organising along with its other activities in the arts. One of the foundation's prominent festivals which Ranvir has been curating is the Park's New Festival. The Park's New Festival celebrates contemporary performances and art from across the globe and it is the only kind of its festival in India today. Moreover, the festival is now being presented in six cities across India in association with the Park Hotels. Mumbai audiences will have an opportunity to enjoy this festival in the second week of September. Click here to find out more.
Deepa Punjani (DP): When and how did you get involved with the arts? In one of our conversations, you said you had an earlier life as an actor and if I am recall correctly, you had mentioned that you had worked with people like Chandralekha and Anita Ratnam.
Ranvir Shah (RS): Since my childhood I have been involved with the arts. My mother used to play the sitar when we were young and my father was an amateur actor in his youth. In college, while I was in Bombay, I used to win prizes for solo mime and my ambition in life was to study under Marcel Marceau. However, that did not come to pass, but I did meet him in the early 80s. I started doing amateur acting on stage as well as producing small plays when I moved to Chennai in the early 80s. I got busy with work, and it became difficult to find time for acting and rehearsals and hence I got involved with presenting. I ideated and co-curated the Other Festival with Anita Ratnam for 9 years. With Chandraleka, I was just deeply inspired by her and had a chance to watch some of her productions. She was also very gracious and allowed me to do my first theatre production of A.K.Ramanujam's - "The Interior Landscape" at her place in 1984. I also worked with her on one show called Bhinna Pravah which was about confluence and I helped her with costumes.
DP: What led you to form the Prakriti Foundation?
RS: For the longest time ever I had a dream that I wanted to start an arts group or an arts organisation. 15 years ago, my driver had a sudden cardiac arrest and died. He was about the same age as me. I realized I could not do anything to help him or save his life. You have to go when you have to go. That is when I decided I would not wait till I retire to start a Foundation, even though I had little money to do the things. For the first year we started with a friend giving a lecture at my house, in the second year we also had a lecture in an art gallery of a friend. Today we do eight annual festivals, have organised over 150 events with lectures, book launches, etc. We do some publishing too. I think one has to believe in the maximum, and as they say, "find a purpose, the means will follow."
DP: What was the vision behind the Park's New festival?
RS: We want to show new India the new kind of cultural engagements we are in the process of making, and extending from music, dance, theatre to the visual arts. We are finding creative new ways to express the context of our times. Art is inspired mostly by the times in which it is created, but it is also inspired by the past and looks ahead into the future. This is the dream of my curatorial narrative for the Park's New Festival.
DP: Along with the Park's New Festival, the Prakriti Foundation is involved with a number of other activities and events, which have gained prominence too. What is your single, defining masterwork among all of these?
RS: I can't say that I have one single defining moment.It is like having many children and each one is special and each one has its own unique talent. All our eight festivals are differently themed, and reach out to different areas in the arts. For instance, The Festival of Sacred Music at Thiruvaiyaru on the banks of river Cauvery wishes to expose people to the various forms of music, help local artisans find more outlets to increase revenues and get local musicians to perform more often so that the town can become a destination for tourists, and for people who once hailed from this area to come by more often and for artistes to find their own space. We have plans to bring musicians performing sacred music from all parts of India and abroad.
DP: How has the Park's New festival grown over the years?
RS: The Park's New Festival started from being only presented in Chennai, then we went for two years to Delhi; from year 4, we have gone national by going to 4 cities and last year we have done a six city circuit which is now set for the next few years. I curate all the performances myself because it is important that there is a certain link. This year we are presenting three performers who will represent how they are engaged with India even though they are living elsewhere. Shankar Tucker creates new music with Indian musicians and he is a clarinetist trained with Hariprasad Chaurasia. D' Lo talks about dealing with alternative sexuality which is something that is slowly being talked about in India, and Akram Khan reinvents Kathak for us, to show us what can be done with tradition and contemporary work when they met at the crossroads of inspiration.
DP: You're an idealist, in spite of being a Shah. How do you source your funds devoted to the cause of the arts?
RS: Yes, I am a complete romantic idealist. I believe that one's life has been given for a higher purpose and if one has the privilege to do so, one must constantly challenge one's self to seek out those transitory moments of beauty and truth. For the last 15 years I have been supported by few close friends and family and I put in my funds to fill the gap. Those were huge gaps. Slowly with more people knowing about the Foundation and its activities, the gap reduces. For several festivals we are getting help from the Govt. and the Ministry of Culture. So, all this talk in the Art world that we have about the Govt. not helping, is not true. One has to know how to apply for funds and run a legitimate organisation to access them.
DP: At a time when the future of theatre festivals all over the world is tormented and unpredictable, what is the future of privately funded art?
RS: I don't think festivals all over the world are going through a difficult phase. The truth is that the world is going through a recessionary cycle and as always culture is last on the priority list of funding. The only way we will pull through this is by having enough people in Govt., and in Corporate who are visionaries and understand that the role of culture defines the future of a community and society. From the mother source of all cultures, comes inspiration and alternative thinking and from that new ideas emerge. It is only through new ideas that civilization achieves progress and finally, peace.
DP: Your finest moment at your own festival?
RS: There are many moments at every festival and I will share some of them with you. Standing ovation for all of Maya Krishna Rao's shows last year in all six cities. Desi hip-hop across all cities being completely lapped up by young people. Standing ovation for Aruna Sairam and Dominique Vellard when they sang songs from Soundarya Lahari and Gregorian chants. Mallika Sarabhai opening the New Festival at the Museum Theatre where her mother performed at the age of 4 in a school play. The fact that Akram Khan remembered me from his trip in 2002 and decided to tour India once more with us after having reached the top of his career.
DP: Any cautionary tales that a festival director must keep in mind?
RS: The only thing that I need constantly reminding of and this is something that all festival directors need to keep in mind is that, it is very easy to be indulgent, patronizing and superior. One has to be open, listen to one's audience and the performers and also be able to receive criticism. I see the positives in all these and that has allowed me to be grounded. One must always remember that it is the festival where you provide a crucible for the magical alchemy to take place between the performer and the audience. My role or that of any festival director is to be that catalyst and enabler.