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Sirish Rao and Laura Byspalko, founders of the Indian Summer Festival, figure Vancouver can use a little bit of India’s argumentative culture. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
Sirish Rao and Laura Byspalko, founders of the Indian Summer Festival, figure Vancouver can use a little bit of India’s argumentative culture. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

The Indian Summer Festival aims to 'baffle,' entertain, and stir the pot Add to ...

In case you needed reminding – and boy, did we ever this week – that summer is here, the festivals are coming fast and furious. This weekend, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival wraps up with free concerts at David Lam Park and then at Granville Island on Canada Day. The excellent Dancing on the Edge Festival marks 25 years beginning Thursday. The venerable Vancouver Folk Music Festival boasts another fabulous lineup this year, including Natalie Maines and Steve Earle. I could go on. This city – this province – is festival-blessed.

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Two years ago, a new festival entered the fray – fast and curious. The Indian Summer Festival, launched after only six months of planning, bills itself as a festival of arts, ideas and diversity.

“The ideas are really important,” said co-founder Sirish Rao. “There’s a kind of stereotype you encounter worldwide about India: ‘Oh yeah, you guys like to dance and eat food.’”

The festival is the brainchild of Mr. Rao and his now-wife Laura Byspalko. They met in 2008 at a publishing house in Chennai, India. She was on an internship while studying for her master’s degree in publishing at Simon Fraser University, and Mr. Rao showed her the ropes.

“Laura was infuriating because she’d always ask why,” said Mr. Rao this week. “And it suddenly got me thinking about things I took for granted.”

This constant questioning would prove handy when the couple, trying to figure out their lives – would they live in Canada or India? – decided to create a Vancouver festival exploring Indian culture, allowing them to spend time in each place.

“We wanted to inject a little good friction that we think is there in the garrulous, argumentative culture that’s India,” said Mr. Rao. “I think Vancouver is a really thinking city. It’s got a lot of interesting, creative people, but we just don’t dialogue enough. And loudly enough. So being a little more boisterous and a little louder wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Drawing on his experience and contacts from his years at the storied Jaipur Literary Festival, Mr. Rao was able, with Ms. Byspalko, to put together an impressive inaugural event, with guests that year including Yann Martel and Bollywood legend Tabu discussing the film version of Life of Pi. There were also panels on subjects such as “defining diaspora.”

This year, authors, thinkers and other cultural leaders will discuss issues such as hybrid cultures and what makes for urban happiness? Sudeep Chakravarti – whose credits include former editor-at-large for Rolling Stone India and creator of the India Today Conclave – will speak to this question: What will become of South Asia?

“India right now has a sort of ring of fire around it. … There’s Pakistan, which is in trouble. Afghanistan – troubled. Nepal – troubled. Bangladesh is quite troubled. Sri Lanka is troubled. So it’s all around the country – all around India. And India itself is troubled,” said Mr. Chakravarti, who moved from Delhi to Goa in 2004 and has since published five books. “Everything is interconnected and … you don’t need that ring of fire to persist, you need that ring of fire to cool.”

Mr. Chakravarti says it’s important to have the kind of dialogue offered by this festival. “Enjoy your music and your culinary arts – for heaven’s sake, please do. But let’s think about it all. Let’s soak up all of it: the fun, the problems, the solutions, the issues, the exchange of ideas.”

Ms. Byspalko, 32, and Mr. Rao, 37, want the festival to grow and increasingly represent “the broader soup of culture that we all share” (Mr. Rao’s description). They are thrilled that they can’t nail down the demographic of who attends; it’s just so diverse – in terms of ethnicity, socio-economic background and age. They each display an infectious intellectual curiosity and have a wide range of interests. Over lunch at an Indian restaurant, Ms. Byspalko pulled facts out of the air – “one in five lentils consumed in India is from Canada,” she offered over daal. And later: “India invented zero.”

Ms. Byspalko grew up in the suburbs north of Toronto; her father is a head hunter, and her mother works in health care. Mr. Rao was born in Bangalore; his family moved to Mysore and went off the grid when his father quit his corporate job. His mother, he explains, is the over-60 swim champion of India; his brother researches king cobras. Mr. Rao was going to be a mountain guide but was drawn to publishing.

The couple has made their omnivorous approach to culture a guide for this festival – which isn’t all deep-thinking philosophy. You will also find music (Rajasthan Josh will collaborate with Delhi 2 Dublin’s Tarun Nayar, beatboxer Rup Sidhu and percussionist Ashwin Sood), food (Vikram Vij brings his own brand of fusion to the opening gala) and dance, with a bunch of free classes including – ready for more fusion? – hip-hop yoga.

“That democracy across disciplines also reflects what we want to do with this: as many voices, as many disciplines,” said Mr. Rao. “If there’s one thing we can do to mimic India in Vancouver in its makeup, it’s just baffle the hell out of people with diversity.”

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