Interview with Sangam House

Writing, Living and Learning: The story of South Asia’s only International Writers Residency

by Shilpa Kameswaran

The word Sangam in Sanskrit implies ‘coming together’, similarly the intention of the Sangam House International Writers Residency is to bring together writers from varied social and political backgrounds across the world to India with the hope of exposing them to regional and national trends in literature.
arshiaArshia Sattar has a Ph.D. in classical Indian literatures from the University of Chicago. Her translations from Sanskrit, Tales from the Kathasaritsagara and The Ramayana of Valmiki have been published by Penguin Books. She has also written two books for children, Kishkindha Tails and Pampa Sutra. Most recently her publications include Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish (Penguin, India 2011) and The Best of Quest (ed., Westland Books, 2011). Arshia is the Co-Founder of Sangam House.

dwgDW Gibson is the author of Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy (Penguin, 2012). His work has appeared in several publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, and The Caravan. He has been a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered and worked on documentaries for the A&E Television Network and MSNBC. His credits include “The Hate Network” and “Inside Alcoholics Anonymous.” His directorial debut, Pants Down, premiered at Anthology Film Archives in New York. He serves as director of Writers Omi at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, which is part of the Omi International Arts Center. DW is the Co-founder of Sangam House.

Shilpa Kameswaran: Tell us about the genesis of Sangam House. What was the literary motivation behind setting up an international writers residency program in the Indian sub-continent? Is Sangam House India’s first and only international writers residency program?

Arshia Sattar: Yes, Sangam House is the only international writers residency in the sub-continent exclusively for writers. In 2007, I had a chance to be at Ledig House (now called Writers’ Omi) in the U.S., where I met DW Gibson. I had an amazingly productive time there and was struck by my great good fortune at having access to this opportunity. I realized that because it was in the US and because information about the residency was primarily in English, many Indian writers would not have the same access to this as I did. And that’s when DW and I started a conversation about how we might do this in India — to create a space that was affordable as well as within reach of Indian writers. While we cover all board and lodge costs for writers, they do have to get themselves to Sangam — that’s what we mean by affordable, in terms of transport and fares.

DW Gibson: A lot of the history of Sangam and its creation can be found on our website: http://http://www.sangamhouse.org/the-idea/ .  I would add that the core of the idea is not only supporting the work of writers we believe in but also creating a community of writers that can be a supportive instrument in and of itself. Whether or not Sangam is India’s first and only international residency program is beyond my knowledge. I can say that there seems to be a dearth of such opportunities in India and so its gratifying to provide this opportunity for Indian writers who may not be able to attend such programs in other parts of the world as international travel costs can often be prohibitive.

SK: Can you explain conceptually Sangam’s connection with Free Dimensional? 

DW: Sangam is committed to giving the residency program to writers in distress – those who have been forced from their home environment because of censorship or violent reactions to their work. freeDimensional works to match writers in distress with appropriate residency programs and so we look forward to one day working with freeDimensional to bring a resident to our program through this partnership. We have already partnered with freeDimensional on public events that have centered on issues of free expression and censorship. freeDimensional sponsored a public forum at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai a couple of years ago; freeDimensional also provided financial support for our first publication, Other People.

SK: Who are the writers at the Sangam House? Where do they come from and what are they writing about?

Sangam1

Photo Credit: DW Gibson

AS: Sangam House writers come from all over the world and all over the country– we’ve been hosting one Korean writer each year, two Danish writers each year since 2008. We have our first Filipino writher this year. Our rule of thumb is that each year, half the writers have to be from the sub-continent and half of those have to be writing in languages other than English.

SK: What are the cultural and literary logistics of hosting international translators, journalists, fiction writers, poets, playwrights and regional Indian writers?

AS: Nothing really. We trust them all to be mutually respectful of each other’s preferences and ideas. It’s amazing how quickly writers find a language of communication, even if there are no common languages. We had a Korean writer last year who did not speak a word of English. But there was lots of smiling and nodding and charades and sharing cigarettes and offering beers when he was here. And when he left, we all lined up to wave him goodbye — he shook everyone’s hand and said “I miss you” to each of us. Of course, we do have odd hours of the day and night for arrivals. But one of us is always awake to welcome the new person. We have a great cab driver who brings everyone to us safely — that’s the only logistical issue we have to deal with — waking up for the welcome.

DW: It’s really all about hospitality. Thinking of all those little things that will help make the residency experience be as comfortable and uninhibited as possible. And the international environment creates an opportunity for cultural norms, Indian and otherwise, to come up in discussion and so be observed and respected in daily life at Sangam.

SK: How does Sangam House’s publishing venture fit into the purpose of the residency program?

AS: For one thing, it’s a way to showcase the diversity and multi-lingual nature of the residency program – our biennial reader does that. We send it out to all the people that support us as well to all the writers that have contributed. Our first commercial publication, Wild Girls, which we did with Kalachuvadu, the leading Tamil press, has been a huge success. It’s a bilingual collection of women’s poems. We hope to do more texts like that, always in collaboration so that we reach more people and make a small contribution to enriching literary cultures.

DW: Our publishing efforts are a furtherance of our central mandate to support the work of writers and translators we believe in. The primary way we do this is to provide the residency opportunity. Our publishing program allows us to connect the writers and translators of Sangam House to a wider audience, and that is a great honor and delight.

SK: What exactly are Poetry at Sangam and the Sangam Playhouse all about? How does it benefit your writers?

AS: Sangam Poetry is run the poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria and as you know, it features poets and poetry from all over the world, not simply from Sangam House. It gives poets’ exposure, (not just OUR writers) in a carefully curated space. Sangam Playhouse is a place for playwrights to upload their work and have it accessible to directors and producers from everywhere. Again, these pages are about exposure and sharing.

DW: Sangam Poetry does not necessarily benefit all of our residence, per se. It is more of an Sangam annex, an extension of our meta idea of Sangam as a community and so that is the space where we can bring poets and poetry readers together.

SK: Talk to us about your various collaborations with cultural institutions across Korea, Singapore, Denmark, Kenya and within India. How does the workshop strike this balance of being both outward looking and deeply committed to promoting regional Indian literature?

 DW: Our various partnerships have developed on a case by case bases over the years. As Sangam has grown and mature, various opportunities have come to us to partner with other organizations around the world that share our core goals.

SK: Why did the program move from Adishakti in Pondicherry to Nrityagram in Bangalore? To what extent does the physical setting and locale of the residency affect the writing its participants do? Especially in an urban-centric country such as India.

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Photo Credit: DW Gibson

AS: Since I live in Bangalore and DW lives in the US, commuting to Pondicherry to run Sangam House was getting a little unwieldy. We were sorry to leave Adi Shakti but Nrityagram has worked out very well for us. We want to be located always at another arts institution so that writers interact with other creative spirits and energies. We have no doubt that the presence of actors and dancers and all the other artists that pass through these precious residential spaces affect the work of writers. Perhaps not immediately, but definitely in the long run. It’s also wonderful to share a space with our artists, to see them at work, to learn from their rigor and passion.

DW: We moved with the idea that Sangam House is much more of an idea and concept than it is any single physical location. We like the idea of being nomadic, though we have settled in quite nicely at Nrityagram. We believe physical location matters very much to a lot of literature. At Sangam, we create a very special physical environment—and we spend a lot of time talking about our various environments in our various home countries. In a world where our idea of community is more and more virtual, I think it’s a good idea to explore how the idea of community, in a physical sense, can affect creativity and how we experience the world.

SK: Arshia, you’re an Indian translator, author and teacher of cultural studies and DW, you’re an American filmmaker, researcher and a widely published journalist. What got the two of you to team up on Sangam House?

AS: Karma.

DW: Our partnership developed when we met while Arshia was in residency at Writers Omi at Ledig House, a residency program that I direct in upstate New York. Arshia proposed the idea that we partner to bring such an experience to South India. We went to work right away raising money, picking a location, and determining what our general parameters would be—and we ended up hosting our first season within a year of first discussing the idea.

SK: DW, you’re the director of another writer’s residency – Omi at Ledig House in Ghent, New York. How different is the nature of managing Omi from managing Sangam House?

DW: Sangam has, in very large part, borrowed its format from Writers Omi at Ledg House with its emphasis on supporting writers and translators equally, as well as bringing together an international community. But Sangam is unique in its emphasis on supporting Indian writers. Each season, roughly half of our residents are from India; the other half comes from around the world. More specifically, we seek to support Indian writers and translators working in regional languages as well as English. This is why it has been important to us that we operate in the south of the country.

SK: Sangam House just completed its sixth season. What do the founders and the board envision for the future of Sangam House?

Sangam2

Photo Credit: Lynne Fernandez

AS: We’re in our 6th season now and we’ve just had to increase our residency time from 12 to 16 weeks because of the number of applications we now receive. So I guess we have to look at more weeks for each season, expanding organically each year, as we have in the past. I pretty sure we want our vision to remain the same — to stay small and intimate such that DW and I and our colleague Rahul are aware of everything and everyone here. But it would be great to be able to pay each other better salaries.

DW: We’d like to keep doing what we’re doing and perhaps look at partnering with other arts organizations for one-off projects, a la the Tranquebar Project (http://www.sangamhouse.org/765-2/).  Further, we’d like to expand our publishing programming. We’re aware of the changing landscape in conventional 20th Century publishing and we firmly believe that 21st Century publishing creates an opportunity for writers to take back a lot of the means of production. So that is what we aim to do.

To learn more about the Sangam House Residency and all their associated projects, visit their website http://www.sangamhouse.org/

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