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Columbia Celebrates Month-long Midnight's Children Humanities Festival, Weaving Art with Intellectual Programs

By Kristin Sterling

A scene from Midnight's Children
(Photo by Cynthia Lawson, Courtesy RSC)

When Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" takes the stage at the legendary Apollo Theater, March 21-30, it will combine the turbulent history of 20th century India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the saga of a Muslim family, and the story of Saleem Sinai.

Saleem is swapped at birth and his life becomes magically entwined with the destinies of the twin nations, born at the same moment as he -- the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. As one of 1,001 midnight's children born at the moment of India's independence, Saleem shares telepathic powers and becomes a symbol of his homeland: one midnight's child determining the state of his nation and the fortunes of his family.

An unprecedented collaboration among Columbia, the University of Michigan, University Musical Society and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is bringing "Midnight's Children" to the U.S. stage for the first time. But in the weeks before the first curtain rises, Columbia presents the Midnight's Children Humanities Festival, March 2nd - 30th, weaving the arts with intellectual programs designed to enhance the production.

"The Humanities Festival will enrich the production of 'Midnight's Children' and immerse the campus and community in discussions on the creative process, politics, history and culture of the era, as well as religious, racial and ethnic diversity," says President Lee Bollinger. "Through the work of one playwright/novelist, artists and distinguished scholars across the University will come together and engage the community and the city at large."

Twenty public dialogues, open roundtable rehearsals, readings and debates are being held throughout campus on topics ranging from performing arts and comparative literature to anthropology and cultural studies.

Zubin Varla, seated, and Sameena Zehra in Midnight's Children
(Photo by Manuel Marlan, Courtesy RSC)

Festival highlights include: President Bollinger interviewing Salman Rushdie (March 22); Rushdie, Simon Reade and members of the creative team who adapted "Midnight's Children" discussing the journey from novel to stage (March 22), and teach-ins on the history and culture of India and Pakistan (Mar. 6, 11 and 13). On Monday, March 17, the Asia Society will feature an intergenerational panel of South Asians, including those involved with the independence movement of India and the founding of Pakistan. (Click for detailed information on all festival sessions, participants and ticket information.).

A visual arts exhibition, "The Broken Mirror," will feature paintings, sculptures and installations by nine contemporary artists from South Asia, Japan, Kenya, the Philippines and the United States who explore how our understanding of history is shaped by myths about nation and culture. The exhibition opens on Monday, March 24, from 6:00 p.m. to 8 p.m., in the LeRoy Neiman Gallery in Dodge Hall and will be on view through Saturday, April 5. Gallery hours: Monday - Friday 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., Saturday noon - 5:00 p.m. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

"The Midnight's Children Humanities Festival extends Columbia's pedagogical programs in the arts into the public sphere, and creates a more central relationship with the University and the larger arts community," says Bruce Ferguson, dean of the School of the Arts.

Columbia is also creating an innovative, cross-disciplinary multimedia study environment. This online digital archive will feature profiles of figures related to the period, historical photographs, film and music clips, artwork and videotaped commentary by Rushdie, director Tim Supple and Columbia faculty. The Multimedia Study Environment is available to the public at www.midnightschildrenNYC.com.

In conjunction with the festival, teams of teaching artists from the RSC and Columbia students and alumni are leading workshops in public high schools mainly located in Harlem and the Morningside Heights neighborhoods to prepare students for a special high school matinee performance on March 25.

"For more than 80 years the Apollo has provided a forum where cultural and social issues of the day could be freely and creatively expressed to the benefit of our surrounding communities and society at large," says David Rodriguez, executive director of the Apollo Theater. "This global-local partnership offers us a new opportunity to continue our acclaimed tradition of challenging minds and expanding horizons through the performing arts."

"Midnight's Children" and the Humanities Festival further this tradition. The collaboration that is making these events possible is part of Columbia's enhanced commitment to the arts and the local community. The Humanities Festival is a platform for discussing the ideas embedded in the play, and is among the largest, most in-depth context created for one production in New York City. These events are bringing distinguished Columbia faculty and leading artists together with students, the New York art community, the local Harlem community and the general public.

"I believe it is the responsibility of great universities to support the arts," says Bollinger. "Academic institutions and cultural institutions share a goal -- to explore and better understand the human condition. It is my hope that this is just the beginning of a relationship with the Apollo and other cultural institutions in New York."

Click for complete information and tickets for "Midnight's Children" at the Apollo Theater and the Humanities Festival. All events are open to the public.

Published: Mar 03, 2003
Last modified: Mar 03, 2003


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