A youth icon

Print edition : December 23, 2016

August 5, 1978: Fidel Castro marching with Pioneers as he arrives to participate in the proclamation of the Code of Youth at the World Youth Festival. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Havana, August 1978: Castro with his brother Raul Castro at the World Youth Festival. Photo: AFP/H.O.

Vivan Sundaram recounts his “exceptional experience” at the World Youth Festival in Havana in 1978.

ON a misty morning in New Delhi, the versatile artist Vivan Sundaram spoke of 1978 like it was yesterday. While many have memories of the country’s first non-Congress government at the Centre after Independence, Sundaram has more than a couple of reasons to remember the “Summer of ’78”. Until then, for any youth festival involving cultural exchange between nations, the ruling party had its favourites. Things changed with the Janata Party coming to power at the Centre. Indira Gandhi’s iron fist was gone, and young men from Communist parties, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), got tickets to international fora. Among them was Vivan Sundaram, arguably as much for his ideology as for his art. In 1978, when Cuba under President Fidel Castro hosted the World Youth Festival, Sundaram was part of it. It was an association that the passage of time has failed to dim.

Recalls Sundaram, “My introduction was very brief. But I clearly recall it was an exceptional world youth festival. At that time such festivals were organised every three years, but the one in 1978 was truly remarkable. It was part of the larger project that the Soviet Union supported in different parts of the world. At that time, the Janata Party was in power—Morarji Desai was the Prime Minister. Normally, the Congress would send its own youth league members. This time, I was included as a fellow traveller of the CPI(M). It was an exceptional experience.”

“Exceptional” in terms of the scale, the warmth and the generosity of the hosts. And the ability of its leader to bring on a common platform thousands of delegates without one person feeling slighted.

Sundaram was clearly thrilled, and maybe even a little awed, by what he saw. “The whole city [Havana] was taken over by dance and music. There were teachers, there were artists, theatre practitioners. There were some 25,000 delegates from across the world. In the stadium where the march-past went on, almost every country of Africa was present. I discovered Africa with that event. It was vibrant, it was exceptional. Some of the performances on the streets of Havana went on late into the evening. We used to have film screenings, discussions on world cinema. There was Indian representation, but I was too excited to remember clearly.”

Were there Hollywood movies too? Ummm. Sundaram deflects the question. “There was representation from across the world. From Latin America, France, Germany, Africa. About Hollywood, I cannot say.”

These events in 1978 coincided with Cuba’s Independence Day celebrations. “They start their Independence revelry on the eve of I-Day. The evening before there was a great sense of participation in the whole affair, informal joy. When the festival got over, Fidel gave his usual long speech which went on for hours. At its conclusion he said, ‘The rest of the evening you won’t forget’. He proved right.”

In fact, the celebrations had just begun. “We went to Revolution Park, some 10 km away. It was very attractive. They had a Ferris wheel, music bands, everything. Every 100 metres or so, there was Cuban rum and paper cups. People could drink to their heart’s content. Fidel himself arrived in a jeep, waved to the people, the delegates. There was informal spontaneity.”

Interestingly, Castro’s security was hardly visible. “His protection was hidden. There was not a single person with a gun. There was no image of security.”

Memorable though the 1978 World Youth Festival was, it was not to be Sundaram's lone date with Fidel Castro's land. His works were exhibited there in the early 1990s when the Lalit Kala Akademi sent them. And in 1997, he went there as part of Havana Biennale. “I was there in the Havana Biennale. It was for the first time they invited artists directly, countries were not represented because in the past some of the countries sent the artists they had invited and also artists whom they wanted to be sent. It was a departure from the past when art events invited countries only. And the countries chose the artists. I took my work in a suitcase. I displayed the work there. It was connected to the SherGil archives. The Havana Biennale acquired exceptional importance. It was not like any other celebration of arts. It was so basic, involved you so much that you felt part of the entire process. They barely had a hammer or nails. There was hardly a taxi too. All the artists came with their tools. A Brazilian artist helped me with my show. The Latin American countries were well represented. I won’t say they had great understanding of Indian art, but I began to appreciate their art pretty well. They liked my work too. The Havana Biennale was for a long time considered a must to know the art from the rest of the world. There were artists from Germany and Spain besides Africa and South America. They were predominantly high-calibre artists. I personally got a very good response from fans of Latin American countries.”

It was an appreciation that soon translated into a durable bond. About a decade after the Havana Biennale, Sundaram asked these artists to send in their works for the Mail Art exhibition at Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi. The seeds that were sowed in Havana reached fruition in the sunny climes of New Delhi. Hardly a surprise that Sundaram, along with SAHMAT, of which he is among the founding members, could chart a path like that. After all, from his early days, he was involved in activism and had initiated the Kasauli Art Centre in the mid 1970s. The centre had hosted numerous art workshops and theatre productions. Art cutting across international barriers was a familiar course for Sundaram.

The Indian canvas got richer thanks to Sundaram’s Havana participation, but how aware was Fidel Castro himself of Indian arts and cinema?

“It is difficult to talk of that but what I can say is that contrary to some perceptions, he was very effusive in his hospitality. He always had an informal air about him. He had a grip over everything. There were critics outside. Like people who had gone over to Florida, but over there, it was different. Sitting [at the rally] on May Day, Fidel often waved to people. Incidentally, I was there in 1997 on May Day. I took part in a procession. There were tens of thousands of people. Fidel was there too. We walked for three hours. People were very friendly and receptive towards him. They were not going through easy times. They had economic difficulties. I remember I passed through a chemist’s shop and I thought I had entered a 19th century chemist. They were preparing medicines right there. As for Fidel, he organised everything with great elan. His body language, like that of his people, was so welcoming. He was effusive, friendly and very interested in different things. He had a finger in every pie.”

But did Fidel appreciate high arts? Did he impose any restrictions on their subjects? Said Sundaram: “I cannot say he appreciated arts, but as an artist one got complete freedom to do what one wanted. Unless something was completely anti-Cuban. He did not interfere in any thing. There was no air of suspicion that hung in the air. It was very different from where we are now in India. The whole air is frightening. Back then in Cuba, it was different. Those people are vibrant, very outgoing and friendly. Some of our people had to be told not to take their cordiality amiss.”

Could it be that the positive vibes he generated were partly because Cuba looked at India in the 1970s as a potentially communist country? Ideologically, the two countries were on the same page. “Well, they were well informed about India. They knew about the communist base in Bengal and Kerala. There was a tacit alliance of sorts at work. One cannot deny that.” By the same yardstick, Pakistan, regarded as a U.S. ally, was not represented in either the biennale or the youth festival.

As for Sundaram, the festival of 1978 continues to be special in 2016. And Fidel Castro? A hands-on leader, warm and cordial.

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