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The talk of the town

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COUCHSURFING: The constant factor of the series, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, in conversation with screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporevala

Artist Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvi tries to revive the dying art of conversation with a series of salons in Goa.

The centerpiece was a couch, the modern emblem of casual conversations, friendship, comfort and easy laughter. Sitcoms and cafê lounges have further cemented the idea. And this stage was also set with a settee and coffee-table books for an informal evening with novelist and photographer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and screenwriter and photographer Sooni Taraporevala.

The conversation is part of the salon series being hosted by Sunaparanta - Goa Centre for the Arts, which kicked off with Shanghvi and artist Sudarshan Shetty. Sunaparanta is a not-for-profit launched by Dattaraj V Salgaocar as a centre for visual arts. Shanghvi, like the couch, is also a centerpiece of the series and spends a lot of time in Goa. He invites people, mostly friends, from the arts for the 'salons'. Before Taraporevala, there was Shetty and Irish writer Anne Enright, and the next will feature Jaya Bachchan.

Salons are de rigueur these days, mostly in circles where people socialise with glasses of wine and cheese on sticks. They fall somewhere between a cocktail evening and a seminar. Shorn of the rigidity of a conference, the format works well within a setting where most people know each other and has that backslapping bonhomie you find at a swish friend's get-together. The corollary is, of course, that uncomfortable or piquant questions might be avoided. Shanghvi admitted that in the past some questions from the audience (there was no Q and A with the audience) have made his friends uncomfortable and he didn't want that. But, he said, they are free to ask the guest anything they want after the session is over.

The balmy weather of Goa in January was tailormade for an evening outdoors in a bungalow with fairy lights, hand fans and free-flowing wine and sangria. The conversation started with Shanghvi asking Taraporevala about the time she spent abroad and if that helped her acquire a detached eye. Taraporevala, who is well known as the screenwriter of Mississippi Masala, The Namesake and Salaam Bombay, said that the years abroad were critical and it was there that she discovered films and photographs and "instead of malls, we shopped for courses". The long years spent away from India did make her homesick and she has not regretted returning to India from Los Angeles. "The world wasn't a small place then. We came home only once in two years and when we landed in the US, we barely carried three dollars in our pockets, " she said.

Taraporevala's extensive photographic work and years of labour on the Parsi community that resulted in the coffee table book, Parsis: the Zoroastrians of India - A Photographic Journey, was borne out of her sentimentality for her family and her desire to capture it. The book is a rare documentation of the Parsi way of life and social history of the community, much of which comes out of seasoned comfort and familiarity with and affection for its quirks and habits. "Then came screenwriting and photography took a backseat, " said Taraporevala. She said that it was only after her marriage, that her husband pushed her into doing the book.

Taraporevala seemed temperamentally reticent. Shanghvi seasoned his questions with past incidents and anecdotes, which come from obvious familiarity, but Taraporevala was concise and direct. She came alive at a slideshow of her photographs ranging from some she had taken in the French Pyrenees as an undergraduate student to the present. Hidden behind the white light of a laptop, she was clearly at ease - warm, funny, anecdotal and full of stories. Through the slideshow, she talked about Irrfan Khan's first role in Salaam Bombay when he was practically unknown, her grandfather's favourite activity of taking pens to the repair shop, and villages associated with Parsis that very few know about. Taraporevala and her photographs, left to themselves, made for a much better conversation.

Both Salgaocar and Shanghvi said the objective of the series was to provide a stage to the city's rapidly transforming arts scene. "Even tourists can have this option, " said Shanghvi, even though the gathering seemed to comprise regulars on the arts scene who knew each other.

The idea of a small, casual evening with a higher purpose of engaging conversations and an introduction to an artist's process was there in mood if not in its entirety. Gary Kamiya, co-founder of Salon. com, a hugely popular news and commentary site, summarised the spirit of salons well. Speaking about the group of "writers, editors and wits, a remarkably high percentage of whom were full-blown alcoholics" that met daily at New York City's Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s, Kamiya called it "a pretty second-rate writer's Olympia" but it left "a legacy of good fellowship, bon mots, wit - a legacy, in short, of fun".

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