It’s a truth universally acknowledged that it’s hard to pay bills as a writer in most places. India is no exception with the added problem of having surprisingly little institutional backing for writers in a country that enjoys bragging about its culture.
“In the West,” writer Janice Pariat points out, “arts councils and universities host residencies for writers.” But this isn’t the case in India. With the exception of literary prizes (TOTO and Srinivas Rayaprol reward potential; The Hindu Lit Prize, Shakti Bhatt Award for First Book and others recognise literary merit in published works), little exists in the form of formal support for writers. Their successes have largely been nourished through personal resources.
Over the years, a myriad of mountain retreats and offbeat getaways for writers have been initiated. But they require a fee that is often beyond most writers’ means. The writer’s workshop and retreat in Deer Park Institute in Bir, Himachal Pradesh offers one of the very few affordable options (free tuition and rooms at Rs 600 per night), but it only lasts three days and wouldn’t help complete a full-length writing project.
Much of this ran through Arshia Sattar’s mind when she attended an idyllic writer’s residency in 2007 in Ghent, New York, which overlooked the Catskill Mountains. Sattar, a writer and translator, was overcome with the desire to curate a similar confluence of writers in India where none existed. In her time at Ghent, she met DW Gibson, an American non-fiction writer and the director of the residency, who joined hands with her to start the Sangam House International Writer’s Residency — it’s India’s only funded residency for writers in all languages. As Arshia says, “If you dream dreams with the right people, they come true.” Their dream completes 10 years this winter.
The residency provides individual rooms and food for the writers who only need to find their way there. Residencies like Sanskriti Kendra in New Delhi require you to pay a fee of 60 USD (Rs 3850) a day, whereas Sangam House hosts writers for free.
The Sanskrit word “sangam” refers to a meeting of rivers. In this last decade, over 100 poets, novelists, playwrights, non-fiction writers, and translators working in languages from Kannada and Hindi to Korean and Spanish have been awarded fellowships at Sangam House. Alumni include some of the leading lights of contemporary Indian literature, including several award-winning and critically acclaimed writers and translators from the subcontinent such as Perumal Murugan, Mridula Koshy, Janice Pariat, Raghu Karnad, Nitoo Das, Karthika Nair and the late Lakshmi Holmstrom, whose masterful translations of Ambai, Salma and Kutti Revathi brought Tamil literature to an Anglophone audience.
Most of these writers credit this time as having been crucial for the completion of their books and plays. Novelist Mridula Koshy says, “Sangam has been critical to my ability to write. I get started at Sangam or I finish at Sangam. That how it’s been with three of my books.”
Karthika Nair edited her critically acclaimed and award-winning adaptation of the Mahabharata, Until the Lions, during her residency. Janice Pariat wrote part of her first novel, Seahorse, which was shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize, at Sangam House. The poets Rohan Chhetri and Aditi Rao, both of whom were unpublished at the time, finished their debut poetry collections at Sangam House, and went on to win the Emerging Poets Prize and the Muse Indian Young Writer Award respectively.
At a time when arts funding is dying out, Arshia and Gibson have managed to sustain Sangam House, a feat for which they credit the loyalty of their funders, most of whom have been with them from the time they started in 2008. “That’s an amazing vote of confidence,” says Arshia. “I think what they like is that Sangam House has remained small and personally run by a few very hands-on people. We all do everything—from reading applications and being in residence during the season to cooking dinners.”
Their funders and supporters since 2008 have included India’s trifecta of major publishing houses (Harper Collins, Penguin Random House and Hachette), the literary agency Writer’s Side, arts organisations like TOTO Foundation and Prakriti Foundation, and writers like Lavanya Sankaran, after whom a fiction fellowship is named. In a nutshell, those invested in the arts in India invest their time and money in Sangam House.
More Than a Little R&R
The first two seasons of the residency were held at Adishakti Theatre in Puducherry before moving to its current home, Nrityagram. Located just 30 kilometers outside Bangalore limits, it’s a dance gurukul spread over 10 acres, where classical dancers retreat for seven years of intensive training under a guru. Nrityagram was started by renowned Odissi dancer Protima Bedi and designed by Gerard da Cunha, who in the poet Nitoo Das’ words “had in mind the symbiotic intimacy between habitat and inhabitant.” Annie Zaidi, who wrote the script for a play at Sangam, says the building’s beautiful design “offers the most convivial atmosphere in the shared outdoor area where writers meet when they want to take a break from their writing.”
The Kula artists’ residence on campus houses the fellows in individual rooms with writing desks. Writers come and stay for a period of 3-6 weeks within the larger residency season, which lasts 12 to 16 weeks. Kula in Sanskrit loosely translates to a flock or a tribe. Hearty vegetarian meals cooked for the dancers are provided for the writers as well.
Staying true to its name, the program actively chooses a diverse cohort. Rahul Soni, the residency coordinator, says, “We try to select at least half the writers from India, and the other half from elsewhere. We also try to have a mix of experience and languages within the group.” He says that “there is no structure imposed. Writers write at different times and in different ways. We eat lunch with the dancers, and we usually eat dinner together.” Except for Mondays, where the writers prepare meals for themselves as it’s an off day for dancers and caretakers. That day becomes “a big cooking party” says Rahul, “with the writers cooking lunch and dinner together.”
For Gibson, the most important part is creating a community of writers and translators who can not only “support each other for the few weeks they share space in residence but also beyond their time at Sangam — as they establish life-long friendships. It’s a very powerful thing for a writer to have.”
Sangam House alumni tend to have very warm memories of their residencies. Journalist Rohini Mohan narrates this incident from her stay in 2014. “I had a moment of real crisis when I realised I had to restructure almost one lakh words in my manuscript. If I had been home, I would have had no one to turn to. But at Sangam I just turned to the writer sitting next to me. She had been in a similar situation and calmed me down.” The result, The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize as well as the Tata Literature Live Nonfiction Award in 2016.
K Srilata had already published books when she arrived at Sangam House for 2009-2010. But she speaks of the imposter syndrome writers can have, particularly in a country where a writing culture isn’t particularly encouraged or supported. For her, the community at Sangam House was completely transformative. “For the first time, I met and made friends with others like myself — others who lived for their writing. I met writers from all over the world and many from India. We were all different, and all also the same.” Poet Karthika Nair echoes her when she says, “Sangam House  gave me my first — and most steadfast — ‘writerly family’.”
Each group forms different connections. Some rely heavily on each other, some interact a lot with the dancers at Nrityagram, and some with the caretakers. A group trip to the local Hesaraghatta bar is a fond memory for many. Pariat says being around creative people really helped her, since “it’s necessary to have such people around you, so ideas may be exchanged, and friendships forged sometimes for life.”
From Solitude to Stories
Not every resident’s favourite memory is hanging out with other people. It is the isolation and the sparseness of the landscape that speaks to some writers. Nitoo Das describes her time (2012) there as quiet and Sangam House as a “place that erupts out of red soil”. An avid birder, she documented birds in the area every day, capturing ones like the blue-faced malkoha, owlets, and Indian paradise flycatchers. “In a place like this, where the redness that sticks to your skin refuses to surrender to soap or scrub, one cannot help but look simultaneously outward and inward. The outward — an amalgamation of native flowering and fruiting trees, home to several species of birds — soothes the eyes and heightens the senses.” This period of “rest and revelation” helped shape her second poetry manuscript, Cyborg Proverbs.
There is an implicit understanding among the writers at the residency that if they see someone at work, they do not disturb them. Outside of meal times, the writers are free to keep to themselves as much or as little as they choose.
Nabina Das says she held her solitude dearly during her residency in 2012 — she was completely charmed by the place. “Can you imagine hearing tabla beats, the whirr of ghungroos and faint music even late at night while you lounge at the open common area and ponder over your writing? The place has amazing energy and calm at the same time.” This alternate stimulation and reprieve allows Sangam House to be that rare creative offering that allows writers to both retreat from the world and to interact with those like them.
Acclaimed poet Uttaran Das Gupta, who told HT that Sangam House was the most important event in his writing life, says, “Two books were planned in between making fish, drinking whiskey in the evening, and looking out at the darkness, so rare in our cities.” He has since published a book of poems, Visceral Metropolis.
Others were animated by the presence of the legendary Nrityagram dancers. Nair says, “We shared lunch with the dancers, and could wander into rehearsals. That, for me, was an almost unbearable joy: to see the universe made and unmade each day by dancers like Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy.” Her poem, SAMHÄRA, which can be read online here, is inspired by this experience.
Raghu Karnad, who wrote part of his debut book Farthest Field: An Indian History of the Second World War at Sangam House, says, “Having the Odissi goddesses live and work nearby was another level of inspiration — to watch them dance is like being hit by lightning. Their discipline would stop anyone from grumbling about writing being hard. Nrityagram itself is full of birdcalls, papaya trees, pots cooking red rice, rickety bicycles, conversation stretched out to fill hours.”
Sangam House also works actively to build a network of residencies for their writers. Each year, the Jayanti Residency in Ranikhet and the Toji Residency in Korea are open to Sangam House alumni. In the last decade, it’s recognised and supported some of India’s finest writing. In several instances, it has selected unpublished, emerging writers who have proceeded to make a name for themselves after receiving support like Sangam’s early in their careers. It’s forged friendships between writers from different parts of the subcontinent. As its second decade begins, Sangam House will continue to host fine writers and aim to expand its residency network.