Can you imagine having an ethnic barbecue dinner on the holy bank of the Ganges after having a full view of the light of earthen lamps on the Ghats of the Ganges? Can you imagine a puppet show at the beginning of a conference and Shehnai Vaadan by the nephew of Shehnai maestro Late Bharat Ratn Ustad Bismillah Khan the next evening? Add to that a magic show and other recreational activities like fun fishing and “primordial” soup making contest to commemorate the concept of origin and evolution of life as a curtain raiser to Darwin's bicentenary celebrations due in India next year. These activities were organized as stress releasers after the day-long strenuous schedule of the discussions on two of the nights of the conference before dinner on the lawns of the resort on bright moonlit nights. The Valedictory session was followed by a visit to Sarnath, the famous Buddhist pilgrimage, on the next morning. An excursion-like ambience was provided during the National Conference on SF by the ingenious, innovative and carefully thought out programme by Dr. Arvind Mishra, the Co-ordinator and Convener of the conference.
“Science Fiction: Past, Present, Future” – A Report
The First Ever National Discussion on SF titled was jointly organized by National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC), Indian Science Fiction Writers Associations (ISFWA) and Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) and was held at Sanjay Motels and Resorts, Varanasi from 10th to 14th November 2008. The conference began with a press conference in “Paradkar Smriti Bhawan’ at Maidagin, Varanasi, which was addressed by Dr. Manoj Patairiaya , Director of NCSTC, New Delhi. Dr Arvind Mishra outlined the objectives and details of the programme.
In the evening a puppet show on SF story of Zeashan H .Zaidy was presented by Arshad Umar, a puppeteer from Lucknow. The audience had a wonderful evening session of watching a short film by Mark Lund named “First World”. The film envisages a world where aliens have not only arrived clandestinely on earth but have been living with the human race – a fact known by certain authorities, who are keeping it a well-guarded secret. The film was much appreciated by the viewers.
Tenth of November being the World Science Day, the highlight of the day’s programme was a talk entitled “Moon: Facts and Fiction” by Dr Nellai S Muthu, a scientist from Chennai, in which he presented a detailed history of the expeditions to the moon.
The Conference was formally inaugurated in a grand function on 11th Nov. 2008. The Chief Guest on this occasion was Professor S.N. Dubey, Vice-Chancellor of JRH Chitrakoot University, U.P. The inaugural function was presided over by Dr. Manoj Patairiya. The Keynote address was given by Marathi Science Fiction Writer Dr. Y.H. Deshpande. In his Keynote address he critiqued the view that the origin of Indian SF is the great epic Mahabharata or that the father of Indian SF is Sage Vyasa. While he acknowledged the breadth and depth of imagination in the Indian epics, he argued that forced comparisons should not be made between SF and the epics. To make his point, he questioned why there was no mention of power sources and power failures if Vyasa was truly imagining flying machines and the counterpart of a modern television.
The Chief Guest, respectable Vice-Chancellor S.N. Dubey underlined the importance of using science fiction as a tool for arousing interest in the knowledge of science and thereby spreading science awareness. The other distinguished Speakers who spoke on various aspects of Science Fiction were Dr.Madhu Pant, former director of Bal Bhawan, New Delhi and Shri Hemant Kumar, a senior litterateur from Lucknow. The presidential address was given Dr. Manoj Patairiya; and the vote of thanks was proposed by Dr. R.R. Upadhyaya, President of ISFWA, Faizabad. On this occasion three books on/of SF by Dr. Ratnakar D Bhelkar, Mr Harish Goyal and Mr. Zeashan Haider Zaidy, were also released by the chief guest of the function. A message in the form of an erudite piece of sf critique by Hon. Justice Yatindra Singh, Allahabad Highcourt was also released on the occasion.
The inaugural function was followed by two technical sessions. The first technical session was on the historical perspectives of science fiction. The chairman of the session Prof. S.M. Gupta opened the session by raising important issues to be discussed at the session such as science fiction, role of fantasy in SF, mythology and reinterpretation of mythology in SF and the futuristic vision of Science fiction. Gauhar Raza made a distinction between an artist and a scientist and stated that an artist not only revisions future but also revisits and reinvents the past. Further, when reality is filtered through the consciousness of an artist/writer/filmmaker, it takes on a new intensity which is then conveyed to the reader/viewer. But the study of science is unique in that it is accumulative in nature in that future scientific inventions are built on the past inventions. He emphasized the need for forging the future of SF rather than the analysis of its past history. Arvind Dubey, a pediatrician by profession and SF buff, took a contrary view by emphasizing the need to identity the first SF story. He rejected the contention that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first SF in English. According to him Lucian's "True Story" (2nd Century A.D.) and Kepler's "Somnium" (1634) are the best contenders to be the first S.F.
Arul Aram continued the session by revisiting the works of another founder of modern SF – H. G. Wells. According to him, the vestige of Victorianism in the novels of Wells is balanced by a post-modernistic trend in them as they do not glorify science, nor do they posit human progress as inevitable. Aram also emphasized the need for social responsibility as a component of SF. Next, C. M. Nautiyal charted the history and development of SF in order to draw a distinction between SF and fantasy and emphasized the need for the writer to be acquainted with the laws of Science before attempting to write SF. The session was ended on a rather witty note by Shravanan’s presentation which consisted of a string of anecdotes to support his energetic appeal that we must first “experience” SF and that attempts to “understand” it should not mar the beauty of this experience.
The Second Technical Session titled “Understanding Science Fiction — A Cognitive Approach” was chaired by Dr. Madhu Pant, former director of Bal Bhawan, New Delhi. The speakers outlined the use of SF as a tool of learning as well as the need for a special methodology in the teaching of SF. M. Thirumani and Kamlesh Shrivastava, in their respective presentations, illustrated how contemporary SF is an easy way to inculcate the understanding of science, especially children and the general masses. Vishnu Prasad Chaturvedi discussed the nature and definition of SF and underlined the importance of science element as a necessary component of SF.Mr.K Mohan (Mohan Snjeevan)a noted science writer and communicator in Tamil and English demonstrated how science facts, developments of past, current and future-possible can be incorporated into the story communicating science in the process.
Harish Goyal, a writer of Hindi SF made a case for prescribing science fiction in the curriculum at school and college levels. Amit Sarwal’s paper further emphasized the need for curriculum development in SF in the literature classroom, especially at the undergraduate level by all the universities across the country. He also hoped for grants by UGC and other agencies to publish critical books on SF in order to equip teachers to teach this new subject.
The third technical session titled “Current Trends in SF” was chaired by Dr. Vibhavari Deshpande and brought together many diverse perspectives on approaching SF today. Anwesha Maity presented a startling and intriguing comparison between Japanese and Bengali SF and pointed out that both started as adventure stories. Reema Sarwal drew the attention of the audience to the similarities between the critical concerns of SF and post colonial literature. She went on to plead that a different yardstick be used while judging Indian and other “third world” SF than the one established by Western SF. Zakir Ali Rajnish, a noted SF writer for children pointed out the need to make SF interesting for contemporary children. Two joint papers were also presented on SF movies by M. Venkadeshan and M. Srividhya, and by N. S. Sampath Kumar and S. Valligantham – the first charting the trends in Indian SF films and the second comparing Indian and Western SF films by focusing on the special effects used in them. Ratnakar Bhelkar argued that fantasy is not the opposite of reality but the other side of reality. Anil Kumar Vishwa and Jaiprakash pointed out that new trends in the form of reinterpretation of mythology are developing in SF.
On 12th November 2008 began with Technical Session-IV : “Science Fiction for Science Communication” chaired by Mr. Unnikrishnan. In his opening comments, he stressed that SF should be taught as SF and not merely as a tool for teaching the language. Geetha B., the first presenter of this session, emphasized that most teachers teach SF just like any other prescribed literary text and are mostly clueless about how to deal with SF in the classroom. She made valuable suggestions for the future prospects of using SF as a teaching tool in India.
Harish Yadav made an interesting comparison between SF and magic by saying that both these spell a similar impact on the minds of a viewer/reader. He gave an informative account of SF radio programmes and directed the listeners to one web source of SF radio shows: cosmiclandscapes.com. Meenu Khare, who has produced some very successful SF radio plays in Hindi, added that SF can be presented effectively through radio and can be used to communicate diverse issues to the listeners. "Animation films, cartoons and comic strips always attract children," said Amit Kumar Om. He emphasized the need to produce SF comics and cartoon films so that difficult concepts of Science can be taught easily.
Afrina Rizvi made an analysis of SF and its science content while P. S. Navraj investigated the impact of SF on science communication among Indian readers as well as the role of the teacher in using SF in the science classroom.
In the fifth technical session titled “SF: Future Perspectives” and chaired by Prof. R. D. Shukla began with Hemant Kumar, who spoke on the latest trends of mainstream Hindi SF. Zeashan Haider Zaidy pointed out the importance of SF and suggested the ways to popularize it while Bushra Alwera concentrated on futuristic SF which can prepare us for a changing world by showing us a “mirror of the future”. Amit Kumar presented a comparative study of Hindi mainstream literature and SF. Arshad Umar advocated the presentation of SF through puppetry.
The greatest achievement of the conference was the preparation of the outlines of 'Benaras Document on SF 2008' under the leadership of Dr Manoj Patairiya. The exercise of preparing this was conducted over two strenuous sessions. The first, facilitated by AVM(Rtd.) V. M. Tiwari, consisted of group discussions where the participants broke up into 5 different groups and had separate discussions on various aspects of SF. The group leaders then presented and submitted the suggestions of their respective groups and these were then carried forward to the next session for further refinement and clarifications. Dr. Patairiya then specified that the Benaras document will contain the definition of SF, scope of SF, ways and means of writing, training and popularizing science fiction in this country as well as further recommendations regarding study centres and even generating employment opportunities. The important suggestion that was put forward was the establishment of an SF cell to train young writers to write SF; to translate SF across Indian languages and into English.
13th Nov. began with a “Special Training Session on SF Writing by Young Participants” which saw an enthusiastic discussion on the practical aspects regarding the writing of SF and even the attempts of some of the participants to write their own SF stories during the session itself.
The Valedictory function was held in the afternoon of 13 Nov. 2008. The Chief Guest was Prof. S.N. Upadhaya the Director of IIT Benaras . In this address, Prof. Upadhaya suggested the need to reinterpret Indian mythology to address to modern environmental problems of pollution. Dr Manoj Patairiya presented " Benaras Document on sf -2008' in its preliminary form and said that it will prove to be a landmark work document in the propagation of SF. The guest of hononour on this occasion were shri P.K. Mishra, Chief Co-ordinator IIP Cell B.H.U. and the function was presided over by R.K. Singh Chief Conservator of Forest H.P. The vote of thanks was proposed by Dr. Arvind Mishra, the coordinator and convener of the conference.
It is hardly possible to convey all that transpired during the course of the conference – the energy and the “heat” of the debates that warmed the otherwise pleasantly cool weather of a mid-November Varanasi during the interaction that followed each presentation, and continued over the lunches, dinners and breakfasts on the lush green lawns (understandably arousing the excitement of the local mosquitoes and flies!) cannot be captured within the space of a report. The enthusiasm (and often surprise) with which the participants browsed the books of some of the participants, exhibited at the registration desk, was quite heartening. All in all the conference brought together a very diverse bunch of people, all devoted to SF, who might never have met had it not been for this unique national discussion. At the same time, it was an event that did not end with the Valedictory function but will show its larger impact in the new friendships made and especially the Benaras Document prepared for further action. We indeed wait eagerly to see both the Benaras Document 2008 and the complete proceedings of the conference in print.
By Professor Sagarmal Gupta &