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South Asian activism in San Francisco

After a brief pandemic hiatus, Indian choreography festival, When Eyes Speak, is back with a bang.  A celebration of the multiplicity of South Asian art and culture, the festival’s theme this year is  “Space, Place and Ancestry.” The choreography aims to give the diaspora a sense of history and belonging, by highlighting the legacy of South Asian rebellion and activism in San Francisco. Aiding that mission is a walking tour by well-known community historian-couple, Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh.

First held in 2018, the festival is curated by choreographers Preethi Ramaprasad, Sri Thina, and Shruti Abhishek.  It is scheduled to take place at San Francisco’s Dance Mission Theatre on May 12-14.

Going beyond choreography 

This image shows festival curators Sri Thina, Shruti Abhishek, and Preethi Ramaprasad standing and facing the camera. Their image is in black and white. In front are the words "When Eyes Speak" and "We're Back!" in color.
Festival curators Sri Thina, Shruti Abhishek, and Preethi Ramaprasad.

“Choreography is not just about dance. Our bodies are informed by our family members, by the times that came before us, by the spaces we inhabit,” says Preethi Ramaprasad, Bharatnatyam dancer and doctoral candidate in Critical Dance Studies at UC Riverside. 

“The evolution of dance forms in South Asia is inherently political, in terms of how diasporic dance history is seen. This festival is about saying – there was a radical political presence of South Asians in this city that existed way before it was discussed,” she says. 

The festival started with classical dance forms but evolved over the years to include theater, contemporary dance forms, as well as dance forms that are not considered classical but are extraordinarily rigorous. 

“ ‘When Eyes Speak’ was started because South Asian choreography needed a platform that’s not simply about ‘ethnic’ dance,” says Ramprasad. “It’s so much more.” 

Like her, Ramaprasad’s co-curators are also classical dancers. 

Staking claim to San Francisco

At the festival, one of the segments is a walking tour by community historians Anirvan Chatterjee and his wife Barnali Ghosh. The duo has been conducting walking tours in Berkeley since 2012. Their famous  ‘Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour’  is experimenting with a new geographical area for the first time. It will be a 75–90-minute tour along an eight to nine-block stretch on Valencia Street, an area they zeroed in on given the density of stories around South Asian life and “movement history” between 1910 and 2010. Roughly half the stories they tell on the Berkeley tour are in some way connected to the university; San Francisco, on the other hand, has a lot more art space stories.

This image shows 
community historians Barnali Ghosh (a woman) and Anirvan Chatterjee (a man) waving to the camera.
Community historians Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee. (Photo by Joanna Ruckman).

“San Francisco’s Mission District is known as a historically Hispanic-Latino-Chicano neighborhood,” says Chatterjee.  “Some think of it as a place with really good food; in fact, one of the most visible signs of South Asian life there is people eating on the streets. But we’re trying to put a different spin on the area. You engage with a place very differently when you know that there were at least four generations of South Asian immigrants in those very spaces,” he says. 

The trail our forefathers blazed for us

He hopes to reorient Indians towards the plurality of their heritage and give them frames of reference that transcend model minority and cultural stereotypes, like working in tech. The objective is also to tell Indians that there is solid ground underneath their feet and that they don’t have to start from scratch every time they find themselves in this part of the world. The idea is to normalize current activism in the South Asian community by telling stories of those who engaged in different kinds of socio-political work in the past.

“For the diaspora, there’s a sense that we have no history here or that all our history begins and ends in the homeland, but that’s just not the case. We want people to think in terms of being rooted in Bay Area soil. We want to invite people to a ‘chosen ancestry’ or a ‘claimed ancestry’ by being inspired by people, movements, and stories,” adds Chatterjee.

Ghadar in the Mission

However, for Bhangra dancer Joti Singh, who is performing at the festival, it is very much a case of blood ancestry. She’s the great-granddaughter of Bhagwan Singh Gyanee, president of the Ghadar Party, a San Francisco-based militant group that fought to overthrow the British Raj in India in the early 1900s. Singh, who is co-founder of Duniya Dance and Drum Company – Bay Area’s only dance school that combines South Asian (Punjabi) and West African (Guinea) dance forms – will perform a segment at the festival called ‘Ghadar Geet: Blood and Ink’. Some of the songs in this piece are poems written by her revolutionary forefather.

This image shows choreographer Joti Singh (right) rehearsing with dancers Rasika Kumar and Nadhi Thekkek at BlackBox Studios in Oakland, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2023. Singh, along with the Duniya Dance and Drum Company will be performing at When Eyes Speak South Asian Choreography Fest 2023: "Ghadar" in the Mission in May. Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.
Choreographer Joti Singh (right) rehearses with dancers Rasika Kumar and Nadhi Thekkek at BlackBox Studios in Oakland, Calif. on Apr. 21, 2023. Singh, along with the Duniya Dance and Drum Company will be performing at When Eyes Speak South Asian Choreography Fest 2023: “Ghadar” in the Mission in May. Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

“Within the Ghadar Party, there were alliances across communities. Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, the working class, intellectuals – they all united. There was a sense of anti-capitalism to it too,” she says, highlighting the heterogeneity of the Ghadar Party and that of her team. Her crew, comprising seven dancers and four musicians, includes a Chinese American, a queer dancer, a Nigerian American dancer, and one of Pakistani Muslim heritage. Her husband Bongo Sidibe, who is from Guinea, and with whom she runs the dance company, is also in the performance. 

“Today it’s about people fighting for rights across identities,” she says. “I think we still experience many legacies of colonization like white supremacy, white adjacency, or even colorism and casteism within our own community. These are struggles that have been going on for over 100 years,” she says. 

Activism just as relevant today

Several causes speak to her, even today, particularly the fight for racial and economic justice, and the thrust against capitalism. Given her own multicultural marriage, she feels strongly about Asian and Black solidarity. 

A section in Singh’s performance called ‘American Dream’, is informed by the intertwining of history with modern-day problems.

While many among the diaspora youth may not feel connected with India’s freedom struggle, they can draw inspiration from the rich South Asian legacy of social justice in San Francisco to connect with current issues, including gun violence, gender inequity, and climate change, to name a few. 

‘When Eyes Speak’ is supported in part by the United States of Asian America Festival (USAAF), Dance Mission Theatre, and Dancers’ Group. Tickets are available here.

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.