Colomboscope 2014: A Chat with Ashok Ferry

Its Sunday and the sun is at its brightest, which serves to really illuminate the imposing while columns of Ashok Ferry's beautiful colonial mansion (I exaggerate not when using this word) that he purchased - in its rickety state "at the age of 26 in a fit of complete lunacy". Of course to any one who has watched Deepa Mehta's Water and/or Midnight's Children will find many parts of the house startlingly familiar. In fact as Ashok later tells me, its new gate is courtesy of the production team for a new Bollywood movie which stars Ranbir Kapoor and Karan Johar (and they are every bit as diva to common folk as you would expect).
Jools wasn't amused with the camera in her face

I arrived a little early so I was able to sip a cup of lovely tea (how very colonial of me, I know), wander on to the veranda and make friends with Ashok's adorable and camera-shy dogs (Jools and I were making real progress as she admired my Michael Kors handbag, but then stalked away the minute I tried to Instagram her; only reappearing when Ashok and I were well into conversation). Ashok arrived and we settled down to chat, about what was supposed to be focused on the upcoming Colomboscope but instead ended up sweeping across the realms of artistic subjects - from the fear people suffer from of being "slaves to the colonial mentality', the Galle Literary Festival (of which he was a founding committee member), his experiences curating Colomboscope in its inaugural year (well last year) and his feelings on the lack of young voices emerging in the Sri Lankan writing sphere. This conversation went on for nearly two and a half hours (til I tore myself away with great reluctance thinking it was best to do so with some dignity rather then having to be chucked out)  - so much of it I will sadly have to skip. Perhaps one day, many many years from now I will be able to contribute a much longer pieces, full of all the scandal that will be a part of the Ashok Ferry Biography. 

We began talking about the complexities of claiming Sri Lankan history and how even despite critics that call it being slaves to the suddhas - these colonial pieces do make up the fabric of our history and it is much the same as calling Canadian writers such as Michael Ondaatje and Shyam Selvadurai, Sri Lankan writers and claiming them as our own. As I pointed out after all their narratives too are a part of our history.  Ashok also shared with me his experiences curating Colomboscope last year, which was what he calls a much more "guerrilla" festival and was done in 10 weeks - "you blinked and it was gone". He especially noted the difficulty  he had in creating the religion panel - where it was next to impossible to get three eminent people of different religions to sit on the same panel and he feels "that says a lot about us". In the end with a note of real admiration in his voice he tells me it was three septuagenarian and older women, who in the end braved and created what turned out to be one of the major highlights of the festival - Bhikkuni Kusuma, Jezmia Ismail and Sister Rose Fernando. Ashok describes the students who came up to him with tears in their eyes, thanking him for making this panel a reality, highlighting the importance of discussions and events like this which explore the tough subjects, the ones no one wants to discuss openly.
I sneaked a picture while he waxed nostalgic about his '
curating experience from last year's Colomboscope

We touch on the Galle Literary Festival of which Ashok was a founding committee member and the evolution it has taken - from the hippy, rough, virtually internationally unknown festival it began as - to all the flash and glamour that it became in its later years, with the likes of internationally renowned names such as Candace Bushnell, Joanne Trollope and Tom Stoppard "wandering on the streets getting lost". He freely admits that despite his devotion to shorts and flip-flops he loves the glamour and the air it brings - that its fun and as people we love it, and why deny that?

Among the other fascinating topics we discussed (that I have a feeling will create the base of future posts on this blog) we talked about the fear that we have in the Eastern world to 'question the master' and question, argue, debate and engage with what we are told or taught; the worry that activism has now hijacked art; this dead end art seems to be traveling down world-wide in terms of lack of engagement and pseudo-intellectuals and the hijacking they are purporting on the world of art (i.e. if you want to call pulp fiction, literature you have every right to do so and please feel free to shout from the rooftop that you did not in fact read Milton's Paradise Lost and have no inclination to do so).

Ashok maintains that he hopes Colomboscope will continue to take place year after year - and reiterates that it is "different fish from the Galle Lit Fest and so I would like both of them to be there" as they are two different concepts entirely. One in no way can replace the other and Colomboscope is done with the idea that Colombo deserves an escape into the world of art, even if its just for a weekend.

He finishes with an impassioned plea to young people to come for the festival - joking (I hope) that if he doesn't see more than the four he saw last year he will slink away to a corner and slit his wrists - "so if you don't want to cause the death of an old man, please please do come".

Ashok will be moderating a panel titled "History's Lenses" on Saturday, 2nd February from 4.45pm to 6.00pm at the Whist Bungalow with three of the festivals foreign participants and one Sri Lankan. They will be discussing "Through the eye of a writer or the gaze of a historian, how do writers of personal histories reconcile their roles as both insider and outsider?". If you have hardly wandered out of the confines of Colombo 'proper' like me and fear the excursion into Modera where the Whist Bunglow is located - fear not! The lovely organizers of Colomboscope have a shuttle bus service which plans to leave from the Goethe Institute at 3.00pm and the Grand Orient Hotel at 3.20pm - ideally arriving at the Whist Bungalow at 4.00pm. For the full shuttle bus schedule have a look here.

Ashok also has a new book out  - "The Professional" which is (in his own words) "it is everything an Ashok Ferrey book is not: it is slow, introspective and erotic. Erotic? I've got to be joking, right?"

A big thank you to Ashok for such a delightful morning that I enjoyed so thoroughly, the tea, and for being so charming especially when masking his relief when I rose to go and gracefully not propelling me towards the door!


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