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Artists in the GTA: Sharada Eswar tells South Asian tales old and new

As a young girl in Kerala, Sharada Eswar loved when her grandmother recounted Indian myths.
"Every summer, we'd go visit," Eswar recalls. In her Brampton living room, a Ganesha statue sits on a side table, floor pillows face a club chair. "At two o'clock each day, she'd sit us in a circle, feed us leftovers and tell us a story from the epics. By the end, the leftovers would be gone, and we'd gotten a story out of her."
Now, Eswar is bringing her grandmother's ancient stories, and some contemporary South Asian tales, to life in the GTA. Clad in a bright pink top and gold jewellery, she exudes a calm composure that's surprising given how frenetic her pace has been over the past year.
In March, she and choreographer Nova Bhattacharya received a Toronto Arts Council grant for a project to re-imagine the Mahabharat from a female point of view. In April, her interviews with Sri Lankan refugees formed the soundtrack for No Entry, an installation at Coronation Park. In September, she wrapped a radio drama for Wychwood Barns' Theatre Direct, inspired by tragic Hindu hero Abhimanyu and chilling reports of the Toronto 18 wannabe terrorist group.
In December, she'll be doing carnatic singing in a Pharmacy Avenue studio for a Tamil-and-English adaptation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The remarkable project, presented by the community-arts group Jumblies Theatre, is the culmination of a three-year Scarborough residency involving dozens of Jumblies staff and hundreds of community volunteers. During the residency, Eswar has facilitated programming for the region's Tamil seniors. With Like an Old Tale, she's taking on the role of an actor, rather than that of a self-directed storyteller.
"It's the first time I'm actually going to be onstage not as a storyteller!" Eswar laughs. "I don't know how it's going to work out. When I'm storytelling it's different… I don't have a director who tells me 'Okay, when you say, 'Once upon a time,' this is where you're going to be."
Whether it's music, art, the written word or movement, the uniting thread amongst Eswar's projects is her commitment to storytelling. It's a passion sparked at the age of five, when—"as a good South Indian girl," she jokes—she began lessons in classical South Indian singing and storytelling, eventually earning certificates in the subject. During her undergrad at the University of Calcutta, Eswar studied English literature, while her masters' at Jadavpur University focused on feminism in Indian literature. After graduating in 1993, she started working at ad agencies until shortly after the birth of her daughter.
"I'm thankful to advertising because in terms of meeting deadlines, or even setting deadlines for myself, it's helped a lot," Eswar says. "Even when I'm pitching a play to theatres, it's helped."
Her own life story has been full of twists, turns and fortuitous connections. In 2001, Eswar's husband, a food scientist, got a job in Brampton and the family immigrated to Canada. At first, Eswar applied to advertising jobs, then decided to chart a path that more closely followed her artistic ambitions. In 2002, she sent a proposal to the ROM for storytelling and shadow-puppetry workshops. They invited her to lead Saturday-morning programs. In 2004, an Ontario Arts Council grant enabled her to do storytelling workshops in public schools. In 2005, she collaborated with Kensington Market's Red Pepper Spectacle Arts on a play seen by Theatre Direct's Lynda Hill, who brought Eswar on as artist-in-residence and then as educational leader for Beneath the Banyan Tree, a touring show on Indian immigrants. Connections from the tour led to a National Arts Centre residency in 2007, and then other gigs, like cultural consulting for Stratford's 2009 play Rice Boy, about a child living between Canada and India.
"When I started, it was largely about adapting the fables of India," she says. "But slowly, the stories I want to tell have changed. Right now, I want to tell the stories of immigrants. I've become more politically aware."
Her move to Toronto highlighted her affinity for South Asian culture, "something I took for granted while I was in India." That awareness is sharpened by stereotypes Eswar herself has faced. "I believe stories are universal," she says. "When I get slotted as someone who can only tell South Asian stories, that's frustrating." She also says it's disheartening to see work that "paints the entire country of India with one stroke," whether it's by overemphasizing Bollywood or by ignoring the fact that India has dozens of states, languages and subcultures. "Any English play goes to the trouble of specifying things like 'Cockney slang,'" she points out, "I just wish attention would be paid to those details [when a play deals with India]."
Other obstacles she's faced are pragmatic, like financing. Two local outlets she's written for—Kala Arts Quarterly and the Toronto Star's Desi Life—have folded in recent years. She'd originally hoped her Abhimanyu project would be a large-scale theatrical production, but had to change it into a radio drama when the funds she needed weren't available.
"It's difficult," she says of the Abhimanyu decision. "You know that to do justice to the piece you have to bring a certain scale. But then you also have to realize the budgetary constraints. So you try and arrive at a compromise, because at the end of the day, you also want the story to be heard." Eswar also does freelance copywriting and editing to pay the bills, and admits that that having a spouse with a full-time job, "especially when you have a child," helps take some financial pressure off.
Colleagues are glad that Eswar has continued on, despite the challenges.
"As a contemporary artist, she continues to find new resonance in ancient myth, and to find new forms through which to express the universal themes that myth touches on so powerfully," Dan Yashinsky, co-founder of Toronto's Festival of Oral Literatures, attests via e-mail. "She also uses her astonishing singing voice to draw people into her stories, and create a kind of reverie for her listeners. For the local storytelling scene, she has been a force for experimentation, collaboration and at the same time respecting and honouring oral traditions."
In future, Eswar is excited about completing a Hari Katha workshop in India and a 2013 production in Colombo, Sri Lanka. But whatever happens next, it's likely that Eswar (like the grandmother she was named after) will show that stories aren't just an accompaniment to sustenance—they're often a form of sustenance in themselves.

Jumblies Theatre's Like an Old Tale runs from December 8 to 18 at 793 Pharmacy Avenue. Showtimes and ticket information are available here.

Leah Sandals is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto.

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