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Sirish Rao: Narrating an artistic journey

By Petrina D'Souza, 17 May, 2015
    Sirish Rao, co-founder of the Indian Summer Festival (ISF) in Vancouver, came to Canada for love. “I came to Vancouver because I met my wife, Laura Byspalko, in India, who is from here. She had come to do her Master thesis on the publishing house I was running in India, and I just followed her here. Love can make you travel long distances, so Vancouver has become my home,” shares Sirish.
     
    Growing up in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in India, Sirish nursed two dreams after his high school – one, to be a mountain guide, and the other to be a writer. “I tried both things out in different phases, and that led me to the world of arts and ideas, and bringing people together.”
     
    His love for literature led him to write a novel about his mountaineering experiences. It resulted in him joining a young publishing house in Chennai, India, which he went on to become the director of. As a publisher, he worked with museums and publishers around the world, and curated art exhibitions across India, Europe and the United States. 
     
    Sirish has authored 20 books – from commentaries on art, to children’s books and re-tellings of Greek plays. His books have been translated into seventeen languages worldwide, and have won several international awards. 
     
    Ask him what inspired him to write, and Sirish passionately replies, “I think it is always feeling like a storyteller. I am often accused of not shutting up. I just love narrating 
    things whether or not it makes sense, whether or not people are asking me to. I just feel the need to fill the empty space with words and narratives and ideas. And that’s how I got into writing, because for me the reality was fine, but not really that interesting. It was what you could create or hook up from that reality that always fascinated me.”
     
    He further adds that he particularly enjoyed writing a book with an artist or a children’s book. “Anything that has visual element. When you have word and visual together, to me that is one of the most beautiful forms of storytelling. Just the tension between word and visual can create something very beautiful.” 
     

    Sirish and his wife founded the ISF in Vancouver in 2011, of which Sirish is the artistic director. Now in its fifth year, the ISF celebrates arts, ideas and diversity in Vancouver, and has grown popular and bigger with each edition. “It started from a very passionate and personal impulse to bring South Asia and Canada closer together. We just thought lets do something 

    small in the arts and culture world that links these two,” says Sirish. “Initially, we thought it would be nice to have a weekend with a few artists doing things together. But suddenly, here we are with 10 days and many different disciplines in a very short time,” he adds, thrilled and proud that the little idea has grown faster than he thought.
     
    According to Sirish, one of the words that describe this festival is omnivorous. He explains, “We straddle many disciplines, we are hungry and we like doing something new – putting together interesting collaborations between artists who may not work together, or doing an interesting clash. As a festival we don’t want to do something that someone else is doing as well, we want to do something unusual and distinct. A festival is as good as the energy it gets and gives to the community within.”
     
    The artistic director has big plans for the upcoming ISF in July. “For the fifth year, we really wanted to have some really major minds. So we have a Nobel Prize winner; a Booker Prize winner; a Pulitzer Prize winner; we have music; art and science meeting; a visual arts exhibition – so it’s a huge mix of things that’s coming up. We are really trying to celebrate the fifth with as much diversity and as much unusual work that we can.” 
     
    He further reveals, “We are very proud to have Amjad Ali Khan (Indian classical musician) and his sons. They will be playing at the Orpheum theatre, and they will be collaborating with local Vancouver musicians too in orchestra. We also have this really interesting thing where a Nobel Prize-winning scientist speaks about cell-structure, while his son who has a jazz quintet plays jazz. So it’s like an art and science meeting.” 
     
    Beyond ISF, Sirish still acts a consultant to publishers and organizations in India, Europe and the UK. He teaches a course in inter-national publishing at the publishing program at Simon Fraser University, where he is an adjunct professor. He has also been involved with the acclaimed Jaipur Literature Festival in India for many years.
     
    In conclusion, he describes his journey as “an interesting series of nudges and discoveries and odd meetings leading to big things. The path, for me, is always completely a series of happy accidents and unknown things.”

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