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Mira Nair: National Arts and Humanities Medals Keynote

Mira Nair: National Arts and Humanities Medals Keynote

It’s wonderful to be here. Thank you Margo
for the lovely speech and I hope you enjoy my French glasses. Spectacles, that is. Thank
you really for this great and slightly terrifying honor of being in the same room with some
of the greatest artists, musicians, scholars, sculptors, poets, historians, and writers,
thinkers of this land. People often ask me “Is it difficult being an Indian woman director
in America?” and at first I do not know how to answer this, but I say, “It’s much
easier than back when I was a man.” But that stops them, but seriously I’m very
relieved to be a woman and to be from India where paradoxically I grew up seeing women
on either side of Mahatma Gandhi fighting for freedom from the British in our country.
The country was for years led by a woman Prime Minister the thought of which still gives
the United States indigestion. My dynamic mother was an early inspiration – when I
was eight years old she called herself a professional beggar – she raised money for the first
home for healthy children born to leper parents in my town. So I was brought up with the foolish
confidence that anything is possible. I grew up in a small town in Orissa in India
and in those days it was considered the backwaters, the armpit of India. My two elder brothers
had been sent to prestigious boarding schools and I was expected to stay in the all-girls
convent taught by non-teachers whom I called “The Ladies in Waiting,” each waiting for
an arranged marriage that was bound to come. I carefully and patiently crafted my escape
and found an admission in that wonderful school at the foothills of the Himalayas, an Irish-Catholic
boarding school from where Mother Theresa in fact came. It was called Tara Hall in Shimla
it was terribly Irish but also very British – if we said “Dara Hall” instead of “Tara
Hall” like in Gone With the Wind we would get smacked on our knuckles. But that was
the place where I first fell in love with America. I was sick one day up in the mountains
being rushed to hospital in a horse-drawn carriage and it was James Taylor, one of our
honored Medalists tonight – I’m so upset that he isn’t here but I hope to give him
a big hug tomorrow – who comforted me night after night with his haunting voice and iconic
lyrics of his classic song “Fire and Rain.” It was the era of the Vietnam war and it was
the music of peace and protest that fueled me, the great conversation of race in Harper
Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” that kept me going – we all thought we were Scout in
our little boarding school. It was the wild imagination of the group theater in New York
of Jean Claude Van Itallie and Joseph Chakin that inspired me. It was the speeches of Malcolm
X, the irreverent humor of Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus” that we read under
the covers of our counterpanes – that was our Irish-Catholic word for bed covers that
the nuns insisted we use. But it was altogether an America that was so different and freewheeling
and youthful and that kept me wanting more and kept me wanting to come here. Margo gave
away my line when I was going to say, People don’t believe me when I say it was really
“Love Story” that brought me to America. At the Odeon Cinema in Delhi as a 19-year-old
who dreamed of changing the world through really political theater, I watched Allie McGraw
and Ryan O’Neil flirt on Harvard’s ivy-laden campus and I thought, That place looks like
they could afford to give me a full scholarship. And you know, ha ha, and it is extraordinary
that they did. And Yale did lose my application and Wellesley only gave me fifty percent,
so I came to Harvard. I came to Harvard with dreams of making political theater but, alas,
those were the days before our wonderful honoree, the great Bob Brustein who is my neighbor
at the table tonight – I couldn’t believe it – it was the days before he worked there.
So all I got was “Oklahoma” on main stage and hoop skirts and musicals didn’t quite
cut it for me, instead I moved over to La Mama and Ellen Stewart and I hung out with
Liz Swados and Andrei Serban and terrific disciples of Peter Brook. But when I went
back to college I had to study something and I studied documentary film. Of course it was
twenty years later that “Oklahoma” came back to haunt me – my son was cast as Curly
in his school in Manhattan and I would have to bloody wake up singing, singing “Oh what
a beautiful morning…” and it was American theater. But at Harvard I learned from Ricky
Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, the great documentary filmmakers who gave me the confidence to believe
that a life as a working artist was possible. And one of the main reasons I’m standing
here today, I think, is that my first films – nay the very first dollar of support I
ever received to make my films – were grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and
from the National Endowment for the Humanities. From those days – really, I just have to
thank you, thank you so much– and from those days onwards I have learned the
importance of cultivating stamina as an artist simply to keep going, to hone our great craft,
and to honor the handmaid. There is a saying in India, dhobi ka kutta, na ghar na ghaat
ka – which literally means, “the washerman’s dog, neither of the home nor of the street.”
But in my case, at home everywhere.  I found that people who inhabit different worlds
can see through each of them. It is such people who have a sense of modesty, who know that
there are other ways of seeing, who develop genuine appreciation for rather than mere
charitable tolerance for other ways of life.  I grew up with the guru shishya tradition,
which is the spiritual relationship in India in which a guru passes his or her knowledge
onto a disciple. It was this that led me to create Maisha – Maisha was the name I was
going to give my daughter until a son popped out. And it is a Swahili word – my son is
here,Zoran, tonight and I’m very happy to say thatand Maisha is
a Swahili word that means “zest for life” and now it is the name of a filmmakers’
lab that is based in Kampala, Uganda, and we are now in our seventh year of operation. We
train screenwriters, we train directors and cinematographers and sound mixers  to promote
and create a local film culture. And the mantra that defines our work in Maisha is: If we
don’t tell our own stories, no one else will. And our program pairs experienced mentors
with East African students throughout the filmmaking process, from story to finished
film. And it is really this country – America’s generous culture of philanthropy that allows
us to train filmmakers who are lacking resources but never lacking originality or motivation.
In the creative world borders, by necessity, need to be fluid and porous. Yet now more
than ever it is time for us to tell stories in which people can see themselves. Not just
some people, but all people. And not just in some places, but everywhere.  It takes
courage to be original, especially for those who have been told for the past few centuries
that the West is the mirror in which they should see their future. But there is not
just one truth, The Truth, unless someone wants to make a divine claim.  There are
so many truths and it depends really on who’s doing the looking and from where. And, therefore,
we really must celebrate and we really must nurture our wonderful artists.  So many
of them are here today. We must learn from Bob Brustein – without him we wouldn’t have
the Yale Repertory Theater, one of the most recognized regional theaters in the country,
bringing talented students and seasoned professionals together. We wouldn’t have the American Repertory
Theater – too bad it wasn’t there when I was there – one of the top theaters in the
country, known for celebrating innovating dramatic voices like Robert Wilson, like David
Mamet, and Philip Glass. And without Harper Lee, we wouldn’t have one of American literature’s
greatest achievements, a novel that changed the direction of the conversation of race
in America. And without Jacob’s Pillow, dancers like Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey and Mark
Morris would haven’t had the support that they needed to soar to great artistic heights
and bring America to the forefront of modern dance and innovation. And without Sonny Rollins,
I wouldn’t have my knees so weak tonight – I’ve got to meet Sonny Rollins, please
someone take me to him – the sound of jazz would not have evolved the way he has made
it. He changed the way so many jazz musicians approach improvisation, especially on the
saxophone. And, of course, without Meryl Streep, whom I have the great privilege of knowing,
the world would not know how deep an actress can get under the skin of a character, without
ego, without vanity, with pure craft in such a sense that you forget the craft. Her transformative
ability has forever set the bar higher than any actress working today in America and beyond.
And without Joyce Carol Oates – please, someone take me to her, too – American literature
would be lacking such a significant, such a moving, boundary-breaking feminist contribution
and hundreds of literary students that come from her and I know many: Jonathan Safran
Foer, Mohsin Hamid – his novel is the one I’m just about to start shooting in a film,
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – and Joyce Carol Oates was his teacher. And she was a
visionary teacher. And without Arnold Rampersad the world would be lacking the seminal biography
of Langston Hughes, and we would not know the sweat and the blood and the struggle of
Ralph Ellison and he wrote that first biography.  All of the individuals here tonight are true
luminaries.  Their visionary quality has defined America around the globe for many
decades.  These individuals have, with their work, brought us truth and beauty with great
feeling, personal and political stories about how they see the world. We need them more
than ever in a world which markets beauty as commerce and increasingly finds truth
unpalatable.  As this world changes before our eyes, it becomes increasingly necessary
to join beauty with truth so we may give expressive freedom to those who call for a change in
the world. Not simply in Egypt and Libya and Wisconsin, but also in the little mosque and
cultural center a little down from Ground Zero, and in so many places where the gunfire
is American. So that a child on the street in Kabul can associate the USA like I did
with a novel, a story, a poem, instead of a violent siege.  We need to bring this
country back to being defined by artistry instead of war. We can affect the world in
far greater and deeper and more positive ways than a missile.  If we put even a tiny percentage
of our military budget back into prioritizing the arts, it would be a step in the right
direction.That is it, that is it, it is the only revenge is to make art
that destabilizes the dull competence of most of what is produced, that infuses life
with idiosyncrasy, whimsy, with brutality, to use one’s art to hold a mirror to a society
that is bent on creating walls instead of peace. Remember, there is not a single human
imagination, but multiple imaginations.  Imaginative people are seen amongst us as
crazy.  But not everyone marches on the same road and not everyone is cast in the same
image.  There should be no borders within art, rather every artist should own all conventions.  My nickname growing up was “Pagli” which
means mad girl and when I was growing up there’s little anyone can learn from a mad girl.
 But there is no doubt that this mad girl has learned genuinely a lot from you, the
award winners tonight, a lot from you, including how to nourish her madness into beauty.  I
salute you deeply and truthfully on this heroic day of achievement. I salute your for your
years of learning, for serving your imagination purely. For your stories, your paintings,
your sculpture, and your scholarship. We celebrate your names as beacons of clarity and madness
in a very complicated world. And I hope you remain true to your twin goddesses, to beauty
and to truth, as long there is fire in your heart. Thank you so much.

Reader Comments

  1. She is truly an embodiment of humanity and truth and that reflects in her Cinema. Salute to her spirit and energy. Who would ever thought, this little girl from Orissa, one of India's most improvised State will produce a one of the most respected name in International Cinema…

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