The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 22, 2002
'Art and Soul

A celebration of culture
B. N. Goswamy

A scene from Swan Lake, performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders, directed by Jan Fabre. Edinburgh, 2002
A scene from Swan Lake, performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders, directed by Jan Fabre. Edinburgh, 2002

FOR anyone who has not been in Edinburgh in the month of August, it would be truly difficult to imagine what it can be like. For it is the month of the famed Edinburgh Festival, when a feverish excitement takes over the city, the air is charged and everyone seems to be caught in a swirling vortex. The month is dedicated, of course, to culture, as everyone connected with the fields it covers knows well, but the sheer scale of it, and the intensity with which things happen, can take your breath away.

For one thing, there is no such thing as a single festival. The Edinburgh International Festival, as it was originally called, started with the avowed aim of "uniting Europe through culture, with a number of distinguished musicians from the war-ravaged countries of the continent invited to perform in Edinburgh". It has grown like a river in spate, breaking the barriers of its limiting banks. The original name stands of course—its highbrow content and all its prestige intact—but covers only a small part of what goes on all around it in Edinburgh now. In size and popular interest, the International Festival has been overtaken by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, easily the world's largest art gathering today, somewhat chaotic but, in the final analysis, wonderfully stimulating, inspiring, with its "anything, anywhere, anytime" philosophy.


Text and illustration
September 8, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002
Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002

One is as apt to see in it not only things that are bizarre and outrageous, but also utterly unexpected: Macbeth played in Japanese, for instance, or a Banjo Orchestra from Burma. Then there is the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival which begins just a little before the main festival opens, "easing the city into the festival spirit", as it were; the Edinburgh International Film Festival with its array of "undiscovered gems and reissued or reworked movies"; and the International Book Festival, the remarkable, yearly swelling success of which takes everyone by complete surprise. And, all this while, the streets are jammed with people walking about, jostling, watching buskers and acrobats and fire-eaters as much as taking in impromptu, wayside 'trailers' of performances that are being currently held in venues ranging from hallowed halls and auditoria to churches and bookshops. And over everything looms one of the greatest of spectacles, tickets for which are almost impossible to get: the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, staged everyday in the dazzling setting of the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, an "unashamed display of pomp and military pride with swinging kilts, sweeping searchlights and popping pyrotechnics", as the official brochure says.

It is impossible to take everything, or even a fraction of it, in. But just to be able to breathe the atmosphere of the city at this time of the year, gives one a heady feeling. I had, no, my son, who lives close to Edinburgh, had done some planning ahead of time, and in the four days that I was able to spend there this time, there were four events to which we were able to go together: an Odissi recital by Madhavi Mudgal, and a Bharatanatyam performance by Malavika Sarukkai, a ballet, Swan Lake; and a session of discussion at the Book Festival. I had seen the dancers in India but to be able to see them performing before audiences who knew very little of the cultural matrix from which they come, was another experience. I have never seen Malavika Sarukkai dance better than this, sweeping the people off their feet. Swan Lake was different, of course, very different. One knows Tchaikovsky's masterwork well, and seen it before. But this—coming as it did from one of the most celebrated figures in the field today: Jan Fabre, artist, writer, director, designer and now choreographer—was a performance that belonged to a different class altogether. The discussion we were to able to attend at the Edinburgh Book Festival was held in one of the many temporary structures put up in the Charlotte Square. The selling of books is not the focus of this unusual festival: encounters with writers and critics, like Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing, who were there this year, is. And the session we attended was dedicated to a discussion on the celebrated reference work, Roget's Thesaurus, the 150th anniversary of which was the occasion. Three celebrated literary figures sat on the stage together with a moderator, and spoke to each other for a whole hour about, what else, words, and how they use them. Like everything else, this was a ticketed event, but the hall was packed, not a single seat untaken, everyone hanging on to every word, for it was easy to sense that something special was happening. I took a great deal home from the session, not least my admiration for a people to whom books, and literature, and words, mean something.

The numbers game

It was not easy to get the figures for everything that happened at the Edinburgh Festival this year but, on the day after it ended, the papers published some information on just one part of it: the Festival Fringe. In this alone one has to prepare oneself to receive these staggering numbers—a total of 1491 shows was held; just a little short of 10 lakh tickets were sold; more than seven million pounds (which translates roughly into Rs 52 crore, I think) was the value of the tickets sold.

And at our festivals?