Cultural Awareness: An Important Story
by Kelli McElhinny

Harish Saluja’s career spans a variety of fields, from engineering and publishing to radio, art and filmmaking. But one theme has been constant throughout his life: storytelling. “You came to talk to me for one hour? It takes me that long just to tell you my name,” jokes Saluja, a native of India who came to the United States in 1971.

After a brief stay in New York City during which he quickly depleted his cash reserves, he landed in Pittsburgh at the suggeston of an acquaintance who thought he could put his engineering degree to use. So he did, rising up the ranks of an engineering trade journal publishing organization to become managing editor.

More recently, Saluja has been the executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs, or TiE, which teams with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development to encourage Indian-based businesses to set up shop in Pittsburgh. While Saluja’s formal training helped him to pay the bills, his true passion lies in his exploits in music, art and film.

Radio days

Since 1972, WDUQ’s Sunday night programming has featured Indian music, courtesy of Saluja, who now makes his home in McMurray. This program, believed to be the longest running radio show devoted to Indian music in the country, features music that comes from Saluja’s own personal collection, as well as that of his co-host, Dr. Vijay Bahl, a local physician who is the chief of endocrinology at UPMC Shadyside.

Music was central to Saluja’s childhood, as his mother was an accomplished Indian singer, so it’s only natural that the craft would still hold value for him. “I’m so happy to share my music with the world,” Saluja says.

Musical themes are integral to Saluja’s paintings as well. A talented artist whose modernist work has been exhibited in New York and Europe in addition to Shadyside’s Mendelson Gallery, Saluja named one collection of his paintings the Raga series, after a Sanskrit word that has an appropriate double entendre – tone and color. Another Saluja series, the Jazz Palette, is inspired by the quintessentially American musical invention.

Saluja has found an outlet for his creativity in filmmaking, as well. Through his company New Ray Films, he wrote, directed and produced the highly acclaimed 1997 feature film The Journey, which tells the story of an Indian man who comes to the United States to live with his son and his American daughter-in-law. The film won a number of film festival awards and has been shown in the U.S. on cable’s Independent Film Channel.

A new venture

When funding for a subsequent film fell through in late 2004, Saluja decided to act on an idea he had been pondering for a few years: to launch Silk Screen, a unique festival featuring movies from Asian filmmakers that provide insights into nearly 20 cultures.

The inaugural Silk Screen festival will showcase 24 films between May 12 and 20. The festival includes a Red Carpet Gala on May 13 and question-and-answer sessions with a number of the filmmakers. Nearly every film will be shown twice at one of the three Pittsburgh Filmmakers venues – the Harris Theater, Downtown; Melwood Screening Room, Oakland; and Regent Square Theater, Regent Square.

Saluja has big plans for the festival’s future and its role in Pittsburgh. As the festival’s reputation grows, along with its funding, Saluja says that his goal is to bring at least one person associated with each film, including actors, directors, writers or producers, to Pittsburgh for the festival and to increase the number of films shown. Saluja’s vision is for Silk Screen to become one of the top three Asian film festivals in the country, and then for Pittsburgh to become a destination for filmmakers looking for U.S. filming locations. There’s another motivation behind Silk Screen that goes far beyond the movies themselves – increasing cross-cultural awareness and tolerance through films and, eventually, through other art forms.

Raising cultural awareness

According to Saluja, it’s important to increase understanding of Asian cultures, particularly those of India and China, because they are occupying increasingly important roles in our economy. People in Asian countries are often very familiar with American norms, but the converse is not true.

“The smart thing for America to do is to get to know these cultures like they know us,” Saluja says. “We go and have Tandoori chicken once in a while and think, ‘oh we know the Indian culture.’ No we don’t. Until you know the language and the music and the nuances….we will always be at a disadvantage.”

There are more than 400,000 Asians in the tri-state area. While many of the region’s individual Asian cultural groups have sporadic programming, Saluja notes that much more is needed and it should be more centrally coordinated.

“There’s too little citywide. People get together and do their thing on a very, very small level,” he said. “If we start doing things which are for the whole Asian community that the mainstream community can come and see, participate in, get to know each other….and exchange cards, then perhaps we will have more assimilation and learn new things.”

When Saluja saw the need for more cultural programming, he approached some of Pittsburgh’s established cultural institutions to get their assistance, but he was unsuccessful in that endeavor. So, he decided to take on the Silk Screen project himself. He sees Silk Screen evolving into a series of festivals, featuring music, dance and art, along with film. He also hopes that, eventually, the festivals will be able to travel throughout the state and offer performances for students in elementary school through college. So, with a number of options available for cultural exposure, why did Saluja settle on movies?

“You can always sneak out if you don’t like it," he says, back to his joking mode. "In the darkness, it’s not that embarrassing."