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The South Asian narrative is always more than the sum of its parts. And the Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood project, a tribute to artistic metamorphosis and diaspora culture, serves as a beautiful reminder. The project was spearheaded by ThinkIndia and Matwaala, a poetry initiative designed to give South-Asian voices a platform. Matwaala has organized a number of initiatives, from cultural festivals to university readings to poetry anthologies. In their own words, they seek to represent “voices that dare to say the unsaid and hear the unheard…voices that break down barriers…voices that dare to be South Asian, American, and simply human.” Their name, which in Hindi refers to a sense of drunkenness or delirium, represents the self-liberating nature of Matwaala’s cause. In some of their previous readings, Matwaala poets have explored the nature of religion, healing, displacement, and the current socio-political atmosphere. This collective is home to prolific artists whose origins can be traced back to so many countries across the Asian continent. 

Since their formation, Matwaala has made waves in the literary scene. In 2017, the group launched their first annual Matwaala Big Read in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which welcomed poets of all ages and experience. The event emphasized community solidarity in the midst of an increasingly polarized political climate. Hallmarks of the Matwaala festivals are perhaps what makes them so comfortably unique. At the Big Read, for instance, a poet-of-honor is awarded a Matwaala mug for their dedication towards poetry and encouraging the craft among others. It’s an interesting touch, a simple and yet thoughtful nod to poets who have spent their entire lives keeping the flame of verse alive. 

Directors of Matwaala , Usha Akella (left) and Pramila Venkateswaran (right).

The poetry wall at the Irving Museum and Archives offers twenty-four poems by twenty-four South Asian Diaspora poets, including Pramila Venkateswaran, Usha Akella, Amut Majmudar, and Ravi Shankar. The exhibit’s grand opening in February was followed by live poetry readings from Venkateswarana and Akella — the co-directors of Matwaala — as well as a conversation with ThinkIndia’s Ravi Srinivasan. 

When asked about their work with the poetry wall, the directors of Matwaala said, “For us, the poetry wall is a testimonial to the range of talent in diaspora poetry. Gustatory delights, environment, nature, music, art, travel, and poetry itself become instances for self-reflection, identity, and self-affirmation. This spread of twenty-four poems on a wall spanning the map of the US is a landmark exhibit in museum history. And that it is within the larger thematic herald of ‘Beyond Bollywood’ the Smithsonian project, is perfect. Diaspora poets are forging, tuning, and channeling words in poetic idiom true to their intercultural experiences. The poetry wall will always be one of our most relevant projects in addition to our festivals promoting visibility for South Asian talent that is inclusive not just of India but its neighboring countries. In a world becoming more divisive, there are some walls that need to be erected such as these bringing in its wake not boundaries but their collapse.”

This collaborative effort does not merely highlight South-Asian art, but rather the Desi experience as a whole. Smithsonian’s display proved to be as interactive as it was illustrative, complete with yoga workshops, dance performances, and musical demonstrations. What is beautiful about the exhibit is how the work forged a careful balance between the personal and collective aspects of the immigrant experience. While the poems themselves offer raw insight into the artists’ self-perception, the wall itself is designed such that each of the works is tied to a map of the United States. It’s an honest reflection of diaspora, a deliberate rejection of the marginalization that threatens to swallow our country whole. 

As an Indian-American poet, I find myself constantly navigating dichotomous cultures and finding myself between the cracks. The poetry wall resonates deeply with me because it’s a poignant commentary on art amid social and personal change. It’s perhaps the first wall of its kind, but I hope it won’t be the last. Matwaala’s latest project memorializes the development of South-Asian poetry and makes way for the voices to come.

To learn more about Matwaala and their work, please refer to some of their latest interviews!

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

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