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In Conversation with Bina Sarkar Ellahi

When a friend and I were asked by a colleague if we could show Bina Sarkar around Karachi for a quick shopping trip we happily agreed. Oblivious – embarrassingly – to who she was, I thought it would be a good idea to just run a quick Google search of her name to avoid any naïve questions on my behalf. Perhaps it’s not too presumptuous to say that your success can be measured to how many search results follow your name and for how many pages your name survives. Well, we were prepared to be intimidated, as the number of accomplishments and credits that come along with Bina Sarkar’s name are really innumerable!
Sarkar is primarily known for her position as the notable editor and founder of Gallerie, an international arts and ideas journal. She has frequently been invited to academic and cultural forums to share her reservoir of knowledge on the arts and humanities and has contributed to many Indian newspapers, speaking out on social injustice and issues which are close to her heart. I would have never guessed that someone so worldly and well established in her career could be so refreshingly honest and down to earth. As the shopping trip went by, Sarkar was constantly poking fun at herself and making us laugh while she tried on khussas at Uzma Market.
We caught up again at the Karachi Literature Festival, her reason for visiting Pakistan, where she spoke about about the relationship between art and poetry while sharing her recent publication of poems, Fuse. The following is twenty-minute interview of the multi-talented woman who has made an immense contribution to literature and arts in her own way.
Veera Rustomji: This is your second visit to Karachi. Are there any particular aspects of the city that bring you back to this city?
Bina Sarkar: It’s the people who bring me back, the kind of warmth I have received and my family has received has been immeasurable. My husband is a documentary filmmaker and my daughter is an actor so we’ve all been giving workshops and talks. We have all been greeted with such hospitality.
VR: Has there been any feedback after your seminar on poetry and art and in particular about your book, Fuse?
BS: Oh yes, there was immense feedback, and what I loved most was the interest of young people and a lot of students. I love engaging with students, they were such a lively bunch – they are our future. We are soon becoming ‘has beens’! What I like is that they appreciate words, they appreciate images, and you know, one worries about consumerism in these times and how it affects the young people. But if they have a part of themselves that is sensitive to words and images, it’s very assuring. Some sense of assurance is felt that there is a brighter future. Much of the audiences were so young and a couple of them bought the book while others gave me sheets of paper which they wanted me to write for them on. I love those little things, that means so much in its own way. A little scrap of a paper and I’ll write a few lines to this young girl who I’ll probably never meet again. It a lovely thought. In a way it is like sending a message but more about embracing new relationships. It’s difficult to explain!
VR: What would you like new readers to know about Fuse? Are there any themes you were interested in writing upon?
BS: It’s just a collection, it doesn’t have a theme. It’s an accumulation of many of my writings that have expanded over about forty-five years. You see, I have been a closet poet. People know me as a writer, editor, publisher and designer. Nobody knew me as a poet, because for me writing poetry was a very personal practice and so I wrote all my life – this was when I was around ten, twelve years old. But I never, never shared it with anybody, so I had all these poems and sheets of paper under the mattress, in the cupboards, and then, just recently, five years ago, this poet friend of mine and I were talking – I just had to share something from my work – and he said “What the hell are you doing?” My poet friends think that at my age one should have at least ten books. So with the amount of these poems and rivers of words, they literally forced me into publishing. I came up with a small manuscript because I didn’t want to go crazy with my first book and I just picked up different poems from different parts of my life and put them together.
VR: Are there any particular pieces you are fond of?
BS: There are several – because forty-five years is a long time, completely different phases in your life – poetry is always about life, people, landscapes, and the interlace of all these things but for me a lot of people have impacted my life as well. Most of all, a lot of issues have impacted my life as well, for instance war. I’m terribly against it – I mean most of us are – so I have a lot of war poems.
In fact, during my talk at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, I was telling the kids, how does one use art and poetry as tools to convey issues in the world to have a discourse? There was this interesting discussion so I said that these (poetry and art) are very powerful tools, to protest, to analyze issues, to talk about them, to reach people to voice your dissenting voice. Whatever it is, it’s a powerful tool. You should always use them as creative people and while it’s great to paint portraits and landscapes and still lifes, that’s the measure of your skill and how you execute it. If you want to take it a level beyond that, then it is commendable to address all the things that are plaguing our society because as citizens on this earth we have some responsibility.
VR: I’m sure as a poet you feel this responsibility all the time.
BS: Yes I do and that’s why the issues in Gallerie, my art and ideas magazine, are mostly about cultural diversity, not all the time but mostly [they are]. We address issues through arts and poetry facilitating it through the written word. However, they key issue of all the multiple jobs that I do is to join the riddle… join the pieces together in this fragmented world. Therefore I like to interact with the young so that we can talk more about uniting and not dividing and so that’s the kind of idealistic perspective I have.
VR: Perhaps the impact of war and boundaries is a trajectory from your Bangladeshi heritage?
BS: Not really, my ancestors came from Bangladesh but I’ve been born in Bombay and raised in India and I lived one chunk of my life in Japan. That was a small jaunt, and then I came back to Bombay. So, my life has been very much involved in India. West Bengal is where I did my university but Bangladesh I knew nothing about until a peace conference I went to in Dhaka and then I went back for the Dhaka Art Summit. Well, knowing my curious nature it’s not surprising that I explored a bit to find out my ancestral lineage and look into places. But yes, I don’t feel like I belong to any one place honestly. When people ask me “Where are you from?” I say “well, I was born in a Bengali home but I belong to the world.” I really feel that.
VR: Your career connotes that you’re very fluid in the creative field!
BS: Yes! I wear many hats!
VR: What came first?
BS: The writing of course; I have a passion with the arts, music, poetry, theatre and cinema and especially photography so I wanted to bring all of these together in one space. I thought the best way to do this was in a magazine – in India at that time we didn’t have one single journal that addressed all of these in one single edition and this is why I feel the need for it and founded it in 1997 and since then I’ve been at it! And poetry is of course underneath my skin…it’s always been there.
VR: Do you think it’s a family inherited trait, seeing as you’re surrounded by such talented family members?
BS: There is nobody in my family who does all that I do. My husband didn’t know that I wrote poetry until very recently! This truly was an extremely personal aspect of my life no one from my family is into poetry, poetry as such. I am in fact the odd one out! My husband and daughter read my poems, and they are always confounded; “What is this? Why doesn’t it rhyme?”
It is though, wonderful and I feel very blessed and happy personally because to be able to express the issues or the things that affected me, and for it to be received so well, is a heartwarming feeling. I didn’t know the joy of sharing my poetry because I never revealed it but now I sense the joy in sharing and the way that people come up to me after, like at Karachi Literature Festival, it is wonderful. Then it leads to discussion and to understanding other people so today I’m in a good space where I can talk about my poetry. I was always in doubt about what I wrote, I’m still in doubt. It’s not that I’m clear of it yet!
VR: Since we’re speaking about sharing, what has been the highlight from sharing your work in Karachi?
BS: This is the reach of art and poetry (she waves her hand across the crowds at the ArtNow section at the Karachi Literature Festival). You just go beyond borders in so many wonderful ways; I’m meeting people every day. I think however I’m getting early dementia so I am forgetting names and people’s faces! I would have loved to visit artists’ studios and get to understand the art scene here a little more. Nonetheless, it’s opportunities like these which really create that sense of breaking barriers and having a discussion over issues which can unite our countries.
Veera Rustomji is a Fine Art student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She has been a freelance writer for the past two years and enjoys conducting research within the field of art.

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