Mountain Echoes 2019: On Day 3, conversations on magic, artificial intelligence and poetry take centrestage

  • The third and final day of Mountain Echoes 2019 was composed of interconnected conversations about artificial intelligence, the rich history of objects, traditions of Indian magic, and poetry about love.

  • Unlike larger literature festivals, this one in Thimphu allowed us to take pause and be present.

  • The conversations continued in a quaint pub, where songs and toasts took over from panel discussions and presentations.

On our third day in Thimphu, we shared an authentic Bhutanese meal: Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we took morsels from dishes filled with stew, rice, meat-and-potato curry, ema datshi, and sips of the local rice-based wine, ara. This was a meal that should not be rushed, but rather savoured slowly, and ideally in the company of others.

Though it may seem cliched, the third day at Mountain Echoes 2019 felt a lot like this meal, composed as it was of interconnected conversations about artificial intelligence, the rich history of objects, traditions of Indian magic, and poetry about love.

John Zubryzcki, the author of Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns, delved deep into his research to present stories about Indian magicians and the tricks they performed. “Cross-cultural confluence in the performance of magic is what fascinated the historian in me,” he said, after telling us about many magicians from the West who took on personas of Indian or Chinese fakirs/jadoogars and convincingly performed tricks. He disputed the claim that magic was only a form of entertainment; if this was true, why would Jawaharlal Nehru send a convoy of magicians to the Paris Exposition in the 20th century?

 Mountain Echoes 2019: On Day 3, conversations on magic, artificial intelligence and poetry take centrestage

Author of Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns, John Zubrzycki (right) in conversation with Karan Singh (left) on Day 3 of Mountain Echoes 2019

He discussed the Indian rope trick – “the trick against which other tricks were tested” – and about how one magician came close to achieving it (he could make the rope stand) but that no one could successfully finish it. Khaudabaksh and Gogia Pasha, two magicians at the forefront of the artform in India, both had personality, said Zubryzcki, and personality is what makes a magician. In fact, though PC Sarkar is India’s best known magician and the individual credited with putting India on the magic map, Zubryzcki said that his skills weren’t great, and that he was good at being a showman and publicising his work.

Karan Singh, who was moderating his session, commented on the sexist treatment of women in magic: “Women are used as props or as distractions, and there are very few who are magicians themselves.” I asked if Indian magic was looked at and documented through an Orientalist lens in the past, and Zubryzcki agreed, adding that it built up India’s reputation as ‘exotic’. He also spoke about how the lines between spiritualism, mysticism and magic are blurred deliberately, to heighten the experience of the viewer.

Another kind of magic is poetry, said Anindita Ghose, and the people who create it are akin to sorcerers. She was introducing and interviewing Arundhathi Subramaniam about her latest collection of poetry titled Love Without A Story and her practice. “I feel there is a lot of difference between this book and my earlier works. I am not interested in the heaviness of nostalgia now,” said Subramaniam. About her time in the Bombay circle, she said that she is glad she was an heir of the Anglophone tradition of poetry in the city.

She said that the poets in the circle would often grapple with writing poetry about love. “You are always on the verge of cliché – what you’re writing has been written before, or it sounds like an Archie’s card,” she said, adding that she is not interested in the plot of love stories but rather what remains after the peaks and troughs subside.

On the subject of the artform itself and what poets can bring to the subject of love, she said, “We turn to poetry for solace, for companionship… It’s a reminder that you’re not alone. Poetry is an invitation to sit more deeply within yourself. You recognise a poem before you understand it. The experience of reading poetry for the first time is joyous not because of what the words mean, but because the words are delicious… To watch language with respect, to watch a dance unfold, but it is also about respecting the pauses in a poem.”

(Clockwise from above left) Closing address, Arundhathi Subramaniam's session, Neil MacGregor at Mountain Echoes 2019

(Clockwise from above left) Closing address, Arundhathi Subramaniam's session, Neil MacGregor at Mountain Echoes 2019

As poets imbue objects with meaning, so do time and history. Neil MacGregor, who was formerly the director of the National Gallery, London, and the British Museum, explained that objects take on new meanings and are transformed by them, whether the object in question is a fake jersey of footballer Drogba, made in China for a player born in the Ivory Coast who trained in France, or the Kohinoor diamond. “The Kohinoor raises all sorts of questions about an object taken by conquest: At what stage does it go back to restitution? Who is the legitimate owner?” he said.

The complex histories of objects can often mean that they are labelled incorrectly. He spoke of a drum that was believed to be of native American origin, when it actually came to America from Africa. “It was the drum of a West African king, who sold slaves to America, and this is how it ended up in Virginia… Drums were taken on ships carrying slaves to make them dance and keep them fit. But the drum also signalled a sense of community for the slaves on the plantation; it was used for rebellion. Resistance is a key part of this story,” he explained.

Objects are also testaments to shared histories, as is the case with the Cylinder of Cyrus, made out of baked clay, which bears an inscription written in Babylonian. Babylon was the capital of a vast empire, whose king had captured both slaves and their gods, in the form of religious objects, said MacGregor. “When the Iranians destroyed and took Babylon, their king Cyrus said the slaves could leave and take their religious objects home with them, on the condition that they would pray for the king of Iran… To the Iranians, this cylinder is a reminder that they believed in co-existence, and to the Israelis, that they could return home.”

AI expert Toby Walsh invited us to shuttle to the future, to discuss the growing intelligence of machines and what this means for humans. His new book is titled 2062: The World That AI Made, and here, the year 2062 is significant: Walsh says it was chosen by 300 of his colleagues as the year when machines will be as smart as us. “It is terribly conceited to think we are as smart as is possible,” he said.

Author of 2062 - The World That AI Made, Toby Walsh

Author of 2062 - The World That AI Made, Toby Walsh

What is easy for machines is often tough for humans and vice versa, he explained, using folding a towel and doing complex mathematics as examples. “Artificial intelligence will probably look different from human intelligence… The worry that machines will take over the world is misplaced, because there are so many things machines can’t do. We should celebrate when machines can executive dull, repetitive and dangerous jobs, and reduce the time we spend at work,” he said.

When attendees raised questions about the potential loss of jobs and the number of people who may find themselves replaced with machines, Walsh said that new tech is always accompanied by new jobs. He did acknowledge though that “there will be a period of disruption, and we will have to think about how to support those who have been displaced. Inevitably, they will have to learn new skills and schools will have to impart these skills,” he explained.

At the session on Tracking the Takin - Bhutan's National Animal, Dr Pema Choephyel (left) and Dr Sangay (right) speak

At the session on Tracking the Takin - Bhutan's National Animal, Dr Pema Choephyel (left) and Dr Sangay (right) speak

Dr Sangay and Dr Pema Choephyel gave us a glimpse into the life of the elusive Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. It has derived interest because of its compound structure – which combines a sheep, ox, antelope and goat – and its dissimilar habitat,” said Sangay. The Takin was an ambassador of the country at the London Zoo for nine years after 1909.

Today, the estimated population of the Takin in Bhutan is 500 to 700. The animal has distributed itself across hot springs. As conservation efforts continue, Sangay spoke about the challenges of putting collars on the animal. “They are difficult to capture. Collars are expensive, and often we need to build hideouts in trees and bridges across rivers to execute this task,” he said. The animal does not receive the attention it would, if it had been a snow leopard or tiger, he lamented.

After an address by festival director Kelly Dorji, Mountain Echoes 2019 drew to a close. Unlike larger literature festivals, this one in Thimphu allowed us to take pause and be present. The conversations continued in a quaint pub, where songs and toasts took over from panel discussions and presentations.

Updated Date: Aug 27, 2019 09:26:24 IST