Sanjoy Roy, main dynamo behind India by the Nile, reveals how he dedicated his life to art, and today runs Teamwork Arts, a company that brings a plethora of Indian cultural riches to audiences worldwide
Sanjoy K Roy in Cairo, April 2014. (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)
As the second edition of India by the Nile nears its end, one remains impressed with the fine artistic events it has brought all the way from magic India to Egypt. The enormous work that went into making this festival both interesting and valuable cannot be overlooked, and it is largely due to Teamwork Arts, a dynamic company that produces 23 annual festivals in 27 cities in 11 countries across the world. Among its staples in India are International Jaipur Literature Festival, the Hay Festival in Kerala and the Ishara International Puppet Theatre Festival in New Delhi. India by the Nile was launched last year and its success has been confirmed with this year’s round.
For its duration the founder and director of Teamwork Arts Sanjoy K Roy could be spotted by his shock of grey-white hair, making the rounds of events, artists and audiences, chatting with and engaging people in discussions wherever he went. His hair was how people identified him, but the age it reflects is something he is proud of. As we begin our talk at the cafe outside the Supreme Council of Culture, Roy recounts how, as a young man, he left law school to devote his life to theatre — the path that would eventually bring him here, having placed him at the centre of such a broad variety of interlocking artistic activities.
“There is a great joy you get in any part of the world, when the curtain goes up in the theatre, and you see the first scene of a good or a bad play – it doesn’t matter. And of course there is a special joy on the occasions when you see magic on the stage, when you see a new talent or an extraordinary theatre company. That’s the moment we all live for…” Roy’s voice changes as his love for theatre emerges, something that will happen again and again in the course of the conversation. Briefly, he recounts how, together with his partner, he first established a company — prior to Teamwork Arts: “The company aimed at providing employment for the many actors who became part of it.”
So many decades later, in Egypt, Roy recently established Teamwork as part of Teamwork Arts, which is a holding company with subsidiaries in Canada, South Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong and many other places. Benefitting from the changes which took place in India’s media market, Teamwork Arts was founded in 1989, operating primarily as a television production company. Until the 1980s, India had only one national channel, Doordarshan, which was government owned. In 1991, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao introduced reforms and a policy allowing private and foreign broadcasters to work India. “We started producing programmes for many newly emerged stations such as Zee TV, Star TV,” both satellite television channels. “By the mid 1990s, we had 40 daily or weekly soap operas, puppet shows, news programmes, talk shows, art shows, cooking shows… We became a factory for the television. And since there was no sense of the [broadcasting] season, once the programme was successful it could be shown forever and many of Teamwork Arts’ programmes ran for five continuous years or more.”
It was in 1995, at the peak of its popularity, that Teamwork Arts made a drastic — and, to many television channels, shocking — decision. Roy recalls “one Saturday afternoon” when all the directors and producers met to discuss the company’s future. “We are brain dead and we cannot do this anymore,” he quotes one of his team members as saying, explaining that “television is relentless; it doesn’t stop for private occasions, birthdays, holidays… In 1995, we decided to stop production for television. Just like that!” The television channels tried to put pressure on the team to reverse its decision, going so far as to refuse to pay their dues. “Of course, it was very difficult. We shifted from making money every hour to pure art. Having been in the field for many years, we realised that there was huge artistic content in India yet what the country lacked were platforms to showcase this wealth.”
On its divorce from the television, Teamwork Arts’ first endeavour was to set up a platform for alternative music. The project proved very successful and, according to Roy, a lot of music that we see emerging from India today was born on that platform. “We did the same in theatre, by trying to offer something different to the existing ripoffs of Broadway or Western shows. We encouraged original texts and began to commission new writing in Hindi, English, etc.. Again, this became successful. And so it continued towards other platforms: dance, literature, etc..”
It was around that time that, due to difficult personal circumstances, Roy stopped visiting his barber. What started out as a form of neglect of self presentation was to be his defining look, however – helping him market the new company. “With long hair, people began looking at me differently. Maybe some thought I must have a lot of intelligent stuff to say,” he chuckles. “I started being invited by international universities to give lectures about cultural diversity, back then a new buzz word.” Roy’s travels across the globe helped him network internationally, which eventually led to creating Teamwork Arts’ first international platform, at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2000. “As they say, especially in the East: once you get the stamp of recognition from a ‘white country’ or a ‘white organisation’, then it’s easier. Following Edinburgh, we were invited to set up an office in Singapore; we started working in Australia, Hong Kong, South Africa, the United States, Canada and so on…”
Unlike many arts institutions which are funded or given subsidies by the government or supported by donors, Teamwork Arts is a profit-making company. “Right from the beginning I was very clear that we wanted to create wealth in the arts. I believe that art has both intangible wealth such as intersting minds, creators, creative products as well as economic wealth. We were able to prove in the many countries that art contributes to the local economy.” Roy goes on to give the example of the art sector in the UK, which contributes “GBP7.3 billion annually. Scotland’s Edinburgh festival infuses the economy with GBP175 million in a five week span. The five days during which we host the Jaipur Literature Festival provide USD5 million to the city’s economy. Besides its many gains, many do not realise that art does have an unprecedented economic value and we are impatient to show this in different parts of the world. The corporate companies, donors and governments should see how their contribution to the arts is in fact a contribution to the local economy…”
Yet apart from the financial gains, to Roy art is also a great passion and a journey to which he invites all audiences, believing they can enjoy it as much as he does. “With festivals not only do we wish to provide a selection of value-adding events but we hope to create an unforgettable experience. It’s not about going and listening to an author, it’s about making your experience of listening to him in Jaipur unique and worthwhile. It’s about this particular experience, colours, people, crowd, intellectual discourse – all this makes the whole journey unique. Similarly in the musical we presented in Egypt this year, Bollywood Love Story. The sellers, the wedding procession, music, interaction between the storyteller and the audience, people buzzing around… It’s not a stage show only but an experience. Maybe it’s a stage show by accident.”
Working on over 20 festivals annually, Roy explores a variety of art forms and reaches out to the many talents he finds on the way. Throughout these activities, he creates a dynamic exchange platform between India’s artists and those of the festival’s host country. India by the Nile is one palpable example of such creative collaboration and dialogue. Last year, the Bollywood Fusion show incorporated Egyptian dancers form the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, and though this year Bollywood Love Story had an all-Indian cast, Roy promises to deepen cooperation further in 2015. In the meantime, the 2014 festival offered several workshops: from Bollywood dance to Indian Kettle Drums. The Words on Water segment, a discussion between authors from India and Egypt, continues to be among the pillars of India by the Nile.
Commenting on this interaction, Roy stresses that “it’s not only about importing and exporting culture; it’s about creating an opportunity for the artists and people to engage in dialogue. This dialogue does not have to be successful or have a good outcome, the importance is in the dialogue itself.”
For anyone attending any given event of India by the Nile, the organisational strength is striking. Behind the easily accessible ambiance there is obvious hard work, something that is equally true of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I cannot personally vouch for other Teamwork Arts’ festivals, but those two examples and the company’s success record give me enough of a feeling. It’s due to the team he works with, Roy says:
“I have always been fortunate to be surrounded by exceptional people whether they are my colleagues in the company or those who interact with it. At the end of the day, I do very little. I pretend to do a lot while in fact I do so little,” Roy’s remark, pronounced with utter sincerity, is testimony to his passion for a phenomenon that is part of his life, not just a very demanding job. “I think that Teamwork Arts has been able to attract some of the nicest and finest minds who are passionate about the arts all across the world. I’m fortunate to find the best people coming to us.” Roy adds that usually people volunteer to join the company, and spend a period of time understanding “the madness of the art world”.
While remarking on how the newcomers realise that working in the arts can be much more challenging than a corporate life, for instance, Roy reveals the extent of his commitment: “Art is not an easy job. We work around the clock; we are on emails constantly, on flights, in between people… We are on tiptoe all the time and with everybody. You need to be passionate about this world to be able to work in it. But at the same time, you need to be a good human being and honest about what you’re doing, you have to be very respectful of every person you interact with,” Roy points to the Jaipur Literature Festival, to which tens of thousands flock. In Jaipur as in other Teamwork Arts festivals, the organisers do not differentiate between a high official, a student or a passerby. Everyone is welcomed, seated in the best possible place, and given the opportunity to explore the festival grounds. It is worth adding that most of the events of India by the Nile have free entry, making access easy for all economic groups, while the programme’s versatility, the values it offers and the marketing it benefits from attract a particularly large audience.
Caring for the audience is one thing, but there are other commitments besides. “We stand for freedom of expression and I’m happy to fight for it across the world and even if at times we get into a lot of trouble because of that. But we also fight for the artists to be treated with dignity. I keep saying to the artists as well as to those who wish to present arts that an artist needs to be respected and well paid for their job. At the same time, however, it is important for the artists to respect their art. It has to start with the artists refusing to go out there and beg. Artists provide a very important service to people, to the country, the future, culture, you name it,” Roy says, adding that art gives us the ability to create and transport cultural values forward.
As he observes cultures and their development, Roy recalls his recent visit to the Egyptian Museum where he was wondering “how 5,000 years ago, Egypt had such magnificent creative works and how, through the ages, they were lost. Look at the buildings in Cairo, for instance, you no longer see the creativity. This is something we need to realise. Without creation, without art, without free expression, without culture, we are just like all other animals.” He also emphasises the heritage which we need to preserve. “Instead of tearing down old building in order to create a new multi-storey tower, put the arts and entertainment sector in that location. You can preserve the space, not only for us, but for the generations to come.”
Consequently, Roy believes that in the polarised world where we live, art becomes a window onto the people’s minds, and the freedom to express is a vital ingredient in any democracy. “Governments need to understand that if you allow the artists to express themselves through the art, there may not be marches on the streets. With freedom of expression, you create a pressure valve. When people are free to express themselves in the manner that they wish – not the way that the governments expects them to – whether it is in rap music, dance or singing, the focus is redirected while the mind is working. And those governments that do not want people’s minds to work, then maybe they should govern countries without people and find themselves a group of robots.”
Just like the first edition of the festival, this year’s India by the Nile offered a large assortment of artistic activities, bringing Egyptian audiences a step closer to Indian arts and more importantly underscoring the concept of dialogue. With the company operating for over two decades, Roy developed a great deal of knowhow and many tools to guarantee that Teamwork Arts festivals offer the best value while generating as broad an interest as possible. India by the Nile is probably one of the live testimonies to the core beliefs held by Roy and Teamwork Arts: promoting cultural values, creating a dialogue, reaching out to the minds, creating an experience for the audiences, etc.
While for many art companies and cultural institutions such claims might be catchy mission statements attracting the money-givers, Roy’s company has proved its validity in many ways; it’s enough to see the dedication of its members as they endure a life no 9-5 mentality can withstand. Apart from all the soft values, on an international level Teamwork Arts uses its full-fledged marketing team to create a strong financial backbone for its festivals, providing a significant injection into the local economy, a core message communicated to sponsors. Clearly, in Egypt the marketing and PR situation is different, as much of this work for the India by the Nile is driven by the Indian Embassy in Cairo who brought the sponsors and took care of the advertising.
“In the arts, we take care of the artists but also of the sponsors. Arts managers, venues, institutions, people who run festivals must make sure that their sponsors are offered the extra mileage and that they are provided with more than they think they will get. This is how your brand can grow stronger. Today you may run a local festival, tomorrow you will grow regionally, then internationally…”
Roy gives the example of the Cairo International Film Festival, which according to him is “one of the important artistic brands that Egypt offers and one of 20 or 30 important festivals among thousands… It is good but it has the opportunity to be great, providing both an economic contribution to the city and cultural values, dialogue. Effort needs to be made to achieve this. Egypt aims to become a new emerging democracy. This is why it is very important to have even more festivals with an even better logistical backbone. This is done by the people and has to be done for the people,” Roy comments, just before he has to rush to the next India by the Nile event. In the remaining moment I ask him about next year’s festival.
“We must return,” he says. “We love Egypt. There is so much in Egypt to explore, so many opportunities to look into, so much talent… Egypt has a lot of wealth that needs to be shown and now, more than ever, art is particularly important.”