Tag Archives: Art

The Magnes Collection Documents Jewish Art & Life From India

(Featured Image: Amulet for the protection of pregnant women and newborn children. Collected in Kochi, Kerala, India. Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Spanish, Hebrew square script)
Hanukkah, celebrated by the Jewish community, resonates very closely with Diwali, the Festival of Lights celebrated by Indics around the world. Triumph over darkness & pursuit of knowledge over ignorance. Hanukkah observance is starting today, December 10th, and will continue for 9 nights. 
At India Currents, we celebrate diversity and inclusion, we’re marking the occasion with a piece on Jewish history from India. Jewish people in India and how their objects traveled around the world chronicle a sense of solidarity between India and Israel. We see it manifesting in friendship between the diaspora in California! We’ve come a long way. Scroll to the bottom to see the video of the Commonwealth SF event on this topic moderated by IC Ambassador, Somanjana Chatterjee.

Since becoming part of the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life has embarked in a multi-year project aimed at unveiling its extensive holdings that document the history of the Jewish community in Kerala, South India, one of the oldest in the world. The collection includes over 1500 items, which are being catalogued, digitally photographed, and displayed in rotating exhibitions.  

Thanks to a dynamic collecting campaign initiated in 1967 by the late Seymour Fromer (1922-2009), in conjunction with Rabbi Bernard Kimmel (1922-1991) and scores of volunteers, The Magnes became one of the world’s most extensive repositories of materials about the Jews of Southern India, taking on an important role in the preservation of their culture alongside the historic Jewish sites in the State of Kerala, as well as national and private collections in Israel, where most of the Kerala Jews settled after the founding of the State in 1948. 

These efforts are by no means the only connection between Kerala and Berkeley. David Mandelbaum (1911-1987), Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley (1946-1978), visited Kerala in 1937 and published a seminal scholarly article about its Jewish community two years later. Walter Fischel (1902-1973), Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature at UC Berkeley (1945-1970) and an authority on the history and culture of the Jewish communities in India, was the only North American scholar invited by the State of Kerala to take part in the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue in 1968. 

Torah Ark of the Tekkumbhagam synagogue (Mattancherry)
Kochi, Kerala, India, 17th-18th centuries

The complete collection housed at The Magnes includes hundreds of ritual objects, textiles, photographs, archival documents, books, manuscripts, liturgical texts, illustrated ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts), and amulets in Hebrew, Aramaic, Malayalam, Judeo-Spanish, and English. These materials constitute an invaluable source of information on the Kerala Jewish community and its deep connections with India’s society and cultures while also reflecting the global Jewish Diaspora across India, the Middle East, and Europe. Among its most notable items are the Torah Ark from the Tekkumbhagam synagogue in Mattancherry, Kochi, an extremely rare amulet on parchment designed to protect newborn children as well as women in childbirth, and the diaries of Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967), a lawyer and politician active in the causes of Indian independence and Zionism, and one of the most prominent Cochin Jews of the twentieth century, which provide a vivid account of Jewish life in Kochi throughout the 20th century. 

This project builds on years of curatorial work devoted to assessing and documenting the holdings of The Magnes, in collaboration with experts in Israel and the US. Its aim is to place these important holdings of The Magnes on the global map that historically connects Kerala, Israel, and Berkeley, inaugurating new season of research engagement with the scholarly community at UC Berkeley and beyond, and highlighting an important intersection between Jewish and Asian Studies.


Dr. Francesco Spagnolo is an Associate Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley and the Curator, of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.

Harris Makes History

“And one day, like a miracle, he’ll be gone.”

This was my favorite yard sign during the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. During the darkest days marked by mounting COVID-19 deaths, and dog whistles to white supremacists from the White House, it seemed that day would never come.

Votes were cast before or on November 3, and for one, then two, then three days after, an anxious nation awaited the results, dispensing with sleep and most forms of healthy nourishment. We are dealing with the shock that half the nation actually voted to keep Donald Trump in office.

Four years later, this is another wake-up call for Democrats. Who are these people? Who is being left so far behind that they believe Donald Trump is their savior? There have been some analyses, talk of a shrinking middle class, traditionally the Democratic base. Some speculate that perhaps a shift of the population to the edges, those with either very low or very high incomes, have enabled Trump, The voting demographics will be revealing.

A few hours into the morning of Saturday, November 7, after hours of vote-counting, the Associated Press called the state of Nevada and Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. The news flashed across the television networks and Twitter in seconds, and a tidal wave of jubilation took over. My immediate reaction was visceral: I was in tears at what has been achieved with Harris’s victory.

My favorite headline, “Biden wins, Harris makes history” said it all. First woman VP. (Really, America? How shameful that it has taken this long.) First Black person. First Asian American, specifically, the first person of Indian descent.

Shyamala Gopalan came to the US at the age of 19, as I did, to pursue an education. We know the story, of how she got involved soon after in the civil rights movement, where she met Donald Harris who became her husband. How later, as a single mother, with a strong moral compass, she raised her daughters as Black girls and taught them that they could be anything, do anything. On November 7, Kamala’s sister, Maya Harris, tweeted this: 

Kamala Harris’s ascent to the most powerful position any woman has ever held in America is a striking reminder of “possibilities” – the single word Joe Biden chose to describe America in his acceptance speech. With a full heart, I told my daughter, “You can be President! You are like Kamala. Born in America to an Indian mother.” Never mind that she replied, with teen wisdom combined with sarcasm, “Why would I want to be President?!” In 2016, my daughter, then 11, and I watched in horror as state after state was called in favor of Donald Trump. That night, I went to bed at 9 PM, knowing where things were headed, and unable to bear it. I woke up to the horror. I remember the shock on my daughter’s face when I told her the results. To express my anger, frustration, and despair, I wrote this soon after that. And in 2020, a year of unending horrors, the smile on her face as she came out of her room, sleepy-eyed, smiling broadly, having seen the news on social media, made it seem that things would be all right again. We shared a joyous hug. Some captivating art has been making the rounds, inspired by this trail-blazing, accomplished, beautiful, formidable, competent leader.
Artist Bria Goeller worked with T-shirt company Good Trubble to create this image.
This is the one I like the best, by San Francisco artist Bria Goeller. Here, Madam Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris walks purposefully, and her shadow is the silhouette of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges when she became the first Black student to integrate an all-white school in newly-desegregated New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960.
The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell
The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell
Here is the original painting by Norman Rockwell of her walking escorted by four deputy US marshals. Notice the slur on the wall, the hurled fruit smashed on the ground. And in the midst of it, the little girl with her notebook and ruler. In the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The relief many of us feel is palpable. Finally, there is hope. A burden has lifted.
 

And one day, like a miracle, he will be gone. Can’t wait.


Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published. 

At 52 Hz, My Throat is Parched

The 2020 US elections were not just about differing political views. People’s lives were impacted on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexuality, or their religion.

It bred uncertainty and fear in people who had been targeted for years.

Human beings should be respected for just that, being human. There is no other clause or addition to that. 

Here is a poem dedicated to those that felt weak. Rather than offer a solution of light in the darkness, I offer a hand to hold in it. 

Oil painting by Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving) 
Oil painting by Author, Swati Ramaswamy (crashed waves/clouds dissolving)

6th November 10:11 pm

I felt it in waves, that dissolve in the sand

Blue and red neon signs holding each hand

“Am I human enough?” 

My skin dipped chocolate and my heart of rainbows

I can’t seem to hide, in the hours that count down— 

I can’t seem to stop.

Maybe if my eyes could close, maybe if my mind switched off—

Maybe if red and blue-dyed into a plethora of purple, 

losing in color and gaining the “other”.

 

“In a world with its eyes closed, a person with their’s open

Isn’t it strange how now they are made blind?” 

Is that victory? 

Effortless rounds that never escape a cycle,

Drugged on more and living less.

If it never starts, it never ends.

People become collateral, waves become loose sand.

A gripping fist, shows an empty hand. 

My throat is parched, lungs need a break—

But I haven’t slept yet:

 

Waking up in this state. 

7th November 5:50 am


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Our Land Remains Green in Our Souls

Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

Like everyone else who loves poetry, I too see it as an art. An art of saying everything without saying much. A means of conveying the felt, without needing to justify the said. A formation of words which read like a garland, or convey the fragrance of a delicate rose, or sometimes the anguish of the pain caused by its thorns.

 But I am no poet, for I lack that art.  

 I seek a voice

which is free

from the burdens

of the identity

of the face,

 

a voice 

that can reach you deep,

irrespective of the distances

we seem to have created

based on 

unfounded

ungrounded

unwarranted

egoistical states,

 

hear me 

from where I hide,

and you’ll see me 

with a knowing clarity

far beyond

the simplistic visions,

mechanically reflected

by your 

curious eyes.

For me, my writings remain a liberating one-way communication.  A release, a vent, an outpouring emanating from the palette of emotions that simmer within. Sometimes for identifiable reasons, and often, just out of a longing for an elusive, imagined, or wishful state of being. 

Sunrise image, taken by the Author.

Divinity enters life
in many ways,

 

not all can be seen
or held in tangible forms,

 

to feel the invisible deeply
is often an insane job,

 

and I’ve never felt any remorse
for letting my sanity go.

Words help me find myself and sometimes lead me to discover and identify parts of others which over the years have become an intrinsic part of me. Till it lasts it is a fun game of hide-n-seek, in which thankfully, there are never any losers. 

A fellow blogger friend invited me to join a poetry group, the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, which instead of their routine physical meet-ups had started connecting virtually due to the COVID restrictions. And I found myself virtually amongst a group of strangers,  strangers who slowly began to seem more my own than them that I often see around. 

Was I diaspora where I sat, or were they it? Them who carry their roots with them even when far away from a land which still remains green in their souls. 

It is a thought which renders me somewhat eligible to be a valid part of this group, for in those hours once a week that we meet online, I too am ‘diaspora’ connecting with my own. 

Personally, this space has been a journey of discovering my words in my own voice (a first for me). Listening to the many other voices which can write, recite, and even sing poetry in different languages. A sharing of worded sentiments emanating from different cultures, regions, poets, writers, and time periods. An interaction which invariably touches and tingles various chords of emotions within. I remain grateful to each one of them for this very unique experience and for giving me an opportunity to share some of my own.

Gentle souls,
past
their own
painful
transformations,

 

flit around
like angelic
butterflies,
uplifting
falling spirits,

 

by their
thoughtful,
cheerful
presences
alone,

 

and in those
moments
of soulful
gratitude
within,

 

I bridge
the distance,
between
earth
and sky.


Vidur Sahdev is a 50-year-old guy who lives in Delhi, India, and writes on his blog titled VerseInEmotion. In its essence, his blog is a collection of some thoughts, some words, some memories, some moments, some dreams, some fiction… inspired by the elements of nature, the people who came and those that went away, some remembered, none forgotten, a few bits of his journey over the lived years. The rest ‘about him’ keeps changing faster than he has ever been able to pen it down.

Art That People Step On

While walking, have you ever walked around or over a spot that looks dirty because of leaks, spills, smudges, or splatter? How about bird poop?

The next time you come across what looks like a dirty area, don’t just keep walking. Stop and look, and have your smartphone camera ready. You will be surprised to find patterns that look like art in the area that looks like it should be avoided.

I initially started looking for patterns in nature and on paved surfaces, walls, and in other manmade objects that looked like the symbol “or “OM”, which is a symbol that has religious and spiritual significance for Hindus. I only found two patterns that looked somewhat like .” 

At the end of the year 2016, I started noticing other patterns in spills, leaks, stains, smudges, splatter, spit, and weathered, eroded, and repaired portions of sidewalks and other paved and semi-paved areas that people generally step on without paying much attention. To my curious mind and eyes, some of the patterns looked like works of art. Soon I started noticing more and more ‘works of art’ as I walked on paved, semi-paved, and unpaved surfaces. Using the camera on my smartphone, I started taking pictures of the artistic patterns observed.

I, now, have a growing collection of photos called “Art That People Step On” and am able to quickly spot art-like patterns in dirty-looking areas on surfaces.

Some of the skills used to identify patterns of art in what appears to be dirty-looking areas include focused observation, identifying patterns, making connections, rotational visualization, asking questions, curiosity, and imagination. 

Viewers’ interpretations of what the pictures are and the artist’s interpretations may be quite different, and this is perfectly okay. Everyone perceives things differently, based on their prior knowledge, experiences, and cultural perspectives. 

If the pictures provoke some conversations among strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family members who view them, I will be happy. 

Photos from the “Art That People Step On” collection have been exhibited at the Beverly Hills art show in May 2019, October 2019, and October 2020. During the show in October 2020, one photo was awarded the Third Place ribbon by the judges and also won the People’s Choice Award in the Photography category

Why don’t you try your hand at it? What would you title this picture?


Dr. Mandayam Osuri Thirunarayanan was born in Madras, India. He became a citizen of the United States and currently lives in Miami, Florida.

Rhyme and Reason

Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

A lizard in a blizzard

Got a snowflake in his gizzard

And nothing else much happened, I’m afraid.

But lizard rhymed with blizzard

And blizzard rhymed with gizzard

And that, my dear, is why most poems are made.[1]

When I was young, I used to get a kick out of seeing words rhyme. Reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, I would enunciate the rhyming bits out loud for fun. Later in high school, I marveled at Shakespeare and his dexterous lines which stoked the imagination and inspired lofty notions.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme[2]

Poetry, in contrast to everyday speech, has an eye for beauty. She has a penchant for the pretty phrase, a fancy for things well said. With her, language is revered and words are caressed and carefully ensconced in a metrical mold which lends rhythm and musicality. 

While I was in college, I listened to a recitation of a narrative poem my grandfather had written in Kannada (my mother tongue). The tune was captivating, the story was beautiful, and it made an unforgettable impression. Never before had I experienced (or given much heed to) sound and sense so intimately connected in my mother tongue. As Alexander Pope describes poetry: 

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense[3] 

Poet, Navaneet Galagali

Thereafter I began to realize – like the proverbial frog in the well – that other languages contained profound treasures of literature and poetry that my anglophone worldview wasn’t privy to. Unable to resist the siren call, I set out to learn my mother tongue.

A few years down the rabbit hole, I acquired Kannada and Sanskrit and delved into the literature with zest. When I moved to the bay area, I was fortunate to come across a poetry meetup group where I met some birds of the same feather. We started meeting weekly to partake in virtual poetry gatherings using the Facebook group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, where I found encouragement and an outlet to share the poems and translations that follow.

The best romance poems employ a subtle art of suggestion; without being coarse, they indicate rather than explicate. In this Sanskrit verse from the 7th century, we see a poet’s tasteful portrayal of conjugal matters:

(The sweet-talk of newlyweds)

दम्पत्योर्निशि जल्पतोर्गृहशुकेनाकर्णितं यद्वचः तत्प्रातर्गुरुसंनिधौ निगदतस्तस्यातिमात्रं वधूः । 

कर्णालम्बितपद्मरागशकलं विन्यस्य चञ्चूपुटे व्रीडार्ता प्रकरोति दाडिमफलव्याजेन वाग्बन्धनम् ||[4] 

As the newlywed couple whispered through the night, their pet parrot overheard the words exchanged. The following morning, in the presence of elders, it began repeating what it had learned. Hearing this, the wife was mortified and she grabbed her ruby earring (which resembled a pomegranate seed) and thrust it into the parrot’s beak to silence it.

Here’s another verse in Sanskrit which makes a delightfully wry observation:

(A courtesan and her lipstick)

उपभुक्तखदिरवीटकजनिताधररागभङ्गभयात्।

पितरि मृतेऽपि हि वेश्या रोदिति हा तात तातेति॥[5]

A red color is left lingering on her lips from chewing betel leaves. When her father dies, that courtesan, not wanting to smear the red from her lips, cries “Taata, taata!” instead of “Pita, pita!” (both words mean father). i.e., Even while mourning the death of her father, she is mindful of her lipstick.

Brevity is the soul of wit” runs the common adage. Taking it to heart, this nifty triplet in Kannada claims to encapsulate all love stories:

(A summary of all love stories)

ನಾನು ಅವಳನ್ನು ನೋಡಿದೆ

ಅವಳು ನೋಡಿ ನಕ್ಕಳು

ನಮಗೀಗ ಎರಡು ಮಕ್ಕಳು[6]

 

I looked at her,

She smiled at me.

Now we have two kids. 

Poetry – and by extension, Art – seeks to elevate the connoisseur from the clutches of the mundane. In the process, ordinary emotions are rarefied and become things of beauty. Love, compassion, anger, sorrow, or any of the palate of emotions when expressed through the medium of art achieve a sublime dimension and unequivocally yield aesthetic joy. The joy of course, is an end in itself and needs no further recourse.


Navaneet Galagali is a software engineer in the California bay area who slyly siphons away time for his excursions with literature and music. His present obsessions include Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is also learning Hindustani classical vocal music and Tabla.

City of Hibiscus Eyes: Poetry and Piano

A collaboration between tpet, Zilka Joseph and pianist, Veena Kulkarni lends itself to a unique experience for the Rasa Festival. The poetry section of the festival will also feature a reading by Sumita Chakraborty.

Poet, Zilka Joseph

Zilka Joseph was born in Mumbai and grew up in Kolkata, India. She came to the US in 1997. She is the author of two chapbooks, Lands I Live In and What Dread, and a collection titled Sharp Blue Search of Flame. Her new chapbook Sparrows and Dust will be published this fall. Her work reflects the complexities of life as an immigrant, issues of displacement, racism, women’s issues, death and loss. She has a deep love for and knowledge of Nature and wildlife, which are also recurrent themes in her poems. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches creative writing and poetry, edits manuscripts, and mentors writers in the community. She is dedicated to lifting up every writer/student she works with and aims to create a unique and generous community wherever she lives and teaches.

Poet, Sumita Chakraborty

 Sumita Chakraborty is a poet, essayist, and scholar. She is Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, where she teaches in literary studies and creative writing. Previously, she was a Visiting Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as Lecturer in English and Creative Writing, at Emory University. Her first scholarly book, tentatively titled Grave Danger: Death, Ethics, and Poetics in the Anthropocene, is in progress. Her debut collection of poetry, Arrow, was released in September 2020 with Alice James Books in the United States and Carcanet Press in the United Kingdom.

Pianist, Veena Kulkarni

Also based in Ann Arbor, Veena Kulkarni-Rankin was born and raised in the US Midwest and began her piano studies at the age of 5. A western classical pianist, she won many youth competitions, studied at Indiana University, and then earned a doctorate in Piano Pedagogy & Performance at the University of Michigan. Finding great fulfillment in teaching, she is currently the Lead Instructor at Faber Piano Institute Over the years as a lover of all types of music, Veena has branched off into other styles of playing, many that fuse improvisation with composed-out music. Most notable is her partnership with baritone Jean Bernard as Duo 1717, whose concerts feature folk and art music, storytelling, and social justice issues from the United States, Haiti, South America, the Philippines, India, European cultures, and beyond. A second-generation American, Veena loves connecting with and learning more about her Filipino and Indian roots. And if you are a fellow musician, she wants to sit down with you, start playing, and see what happens!

Upcoming Events:

City of Hibiscus Eyes

Event date: Saturday, October 3,2020  USA: 11 am EST / India: 8:30 pm IST

When Veena first read Zilka’s book Sharp Blue Search of Flame she was inspired by poems that were musical or rhythmic in nature and after a discussion, they decided that the poem “City of Hibiscus Eyes” would be perfect for their experiment. The poem is a pantoum, a form that originated in Malaysia, and it has a repetitive structure. Moreover, there is a haunting and lyrical quality to this particular poem that attracted Veena. Her subsequent improvisation is a stunning combination of eastern and western classical music, which is inspired by Raag Malkauns.  Veena quotes a classic Hindi film song, Jaane Bahaar Husn Tera Bemisaal Hai (1963), and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise.

We present a reading of the poem by Zilka with Veena’s composition playing in the background, and then Veena performing her piece.

A Reading  by Sumita Chakraborty 

Event date: Sunday, October 18,2020  USA: 11 am EST / India: 8:30 pm IST

A reading from her book, Arrow.

A Reading by Zilka Joseph 

Event date: Saturday, October 24,2020  USA: 11 am EST / India: 8:30 pm IST

Zilka will read from her book of poems, Sharp Blue Search of Flame (Wayne State University Press), where she will read particular poems dedicated to her late mother.


 

Why I Dance: Over 300 Classical Dancers Speak

Why I Dance – A monthly column, in collaboration with IndianRaga, in which we uncover the variety of Indian Classical Dance forms and their lineage. 

“Why do you dance?” asked Anuradha Nehru, Founder and Artistic Director of Maryland based Kuchipudi company Kalanidhi Dance, “It was such a profound question that it made me introspect and look deeper into my source of inspiration for dance. Upon further reflection and discussion with my fellow dancers in Kalanidhi, we realized there were four motivations that drove us – connecting to our heritage; the sense of liberation that dance affords; the ability to tell stories; and the strong bonds of friendship and community that dance builds.”  This simple yet complex question prompted the creation of her 2016 production Why I Dance.

Six months ago, the world underwent an unforeseen change.  Everything came to a halt, and the world of dance had to overcome an obstacle. Dance classes, workshops, performances, and productions were all canceled. No one knew when they would be able to return to the stage. Hoping to re-energize her dance community, Kalanidhi dancer Sahiti Rachakonda suggested that they start an online campaign called Why I Dance. Kalanidhi Dance partnered with IndianRaga to take the campaign global. The campaign launched August 22nd, on the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, and the #whyidance gained traction.

Artists from all eight of the Sangeet Natak Akademi recognized Indian Classical Art forms participated in the campaign, along with artists from many of India’s folk and contemporary styles. The campaign featured 36 world-renowned maestros and teachers including Prateesha Suresh, Birju Maharaj, Leela Samson, Alarmel Valli, Sujatha Mohapatra, Bijayini Satpathy, Sonal Mansingh, and Kumudini Lakhia. Anuradha Nehru says, “We were pleasantly surprised by the amazing response from India’s most famous and legendary dancers. They responded enthusiastically to our request and obliged readily with their thoughts and words of wisdom and generously shared video excerpts of their dance.

Their participation inspired many dancers from over 65 countries to join this movement, turning the initial wave of dancers into a tsunami,” IndianRaga Founder and CEO Sriram Emani adds “I was amazed by the willingness of some of Indian dance’s senior-most maestros to learn how to shoot a video from home, in the midst of a pandemic, to help inspire dancers globally.” 

 

Pragnya Thamire, a Kalanidhi Dancer said, “It was absolutely phenomenal to have edited the ‘Why I Dance’ videos of some of the legends in Indian classical dance… I learned so much through their words!”  

The response to the campaign was indeed unprecedented.  Dancers from around the world were eager to post their own videos; from the youngest dancers having only been learning for a few years, to the seasoned professionals, everyone wanted a chance to share their story, why they dance.

 IndianRaga team member Isha Kulkarni felt, “The campaign was one of the most exciting and challenging things I have ever worked on and nothing less than a privilege. We got to talk to these legendary artists, hear their thoughts, their experiences and that was definitely one of the things that inspired me to keep pushing harder in spite of the limitations in the current scenario.

Although the campaign was started as a way for dancers around the world to reflect inwards in light of the global lockdown, it is far from the end. Sriram says, “We definitely intend to continue – There is no planned conclusion to this campaign. Dancers can continue to post as per the guidelines and tag us, and we will share as we go along. Many people who used to dance before and left it for multiple reasons are now picking up dance again and participating in the campaign, and we welcome everyone to join in!”

Tune in next month to learn more about the Indian Classical Artform, Sattriya, featuring Why I Dance participant and exponent Prateesha Suresh!


Tarini Kumar is an IndianRaga Bharatanatyam Fellow and Why I Dance team member. She is a disciple of Smt. Divyaa Unni, and currently studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Will My Culture Survive the Pandemic?

Trying to create a space in the United States, Indian Americans rely heavily on the Arts to remain connected to their roots. Instead of soccer practice and baseball lessons, the minivan drives kids to Kathak (Indian Classical Dance) class or Tabla (Indian percussion/drums) lessons. What our parents understood, that took me till my adult years to grasp, was that culture was identity. And we would only be comfortable in our skin, in alien territory, if we could see the beauty of who we inherently were. 

As a young brown girl, I found a sense of camaraderie and belonging with my peers through the Classical Arts. Some learned Bharatanatyam dance and some took Kathak. Some learned to play the Tabla and some, the Sitar. Some took Carnatic Classical Music and some took Hindustani Classical Music. But all of these Arts drove one point home – no matter the geographic location or style of the Art, we were deeply connected to our culture. At times when I was ostracized for that same thing – being too Indian – I took solace in what I knew to be true. I am who I am and there was no reason to resent something so pure- so unifying. I continue to cherish it. 

A lifelong Kathak dancer and student, I saw the strain the Arts went through when my classes at the Chitresh Das Institute went online due to the shelter in place orders. Many students dropped off, our teachers struggled to teach online, and our performances were canceled. I felt myself become uninspired. 

But Art cannot be stopped. Art keeps pushing along like the little engine that could, to give meaning to that which is inexplicable. One Bharatanatyam teacher found purpose in embracing the messiness of online teaching and musicians like Sunny Jain began putting their music on Youtube. IndianRaga and Kalanidhi Dance collaborated during the pandemic to rejuvenate classical arts through their Why I Dance campaign. However, an artist’s career comes to a halt when spaces to perform are limited and they are faced with the reality of a declining income.

The artistic community, many working as freelancers and independent contractors, requires life support. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 11, 2020, LA Based Actor, Kristina Wong told us of the moment that her livelihood came into question. Her one-woman satire, Kristina Wong for Public Office, that she had spent three years researching and running a real election in preparation for, was running on the college/university circuit when the pandemic hit. Colleges and university campuses made the decision to go fully online, as to mitigate the pandemic, and Wong was stuck scrambling to find alternatives to cancelation. 

I’m witnessing a lot of artists just leave Los Angeles. Some are working for the census. Some are just scrambling,
” she noted, emphasizing that her ability to adapt to the online format was a unique luxury and that she still wouldn’t be able to recoup the losses of canceled performances. 

Kristin Sakoda, Actor and Executive Director of the LA Arts Commission witnessed the impact of COVID on the Arts. It was one of the first sectors to close and will be one of the last to reopen. 2.7 million jobs have been lost resulting in a $150 billion impact on the creative industry. As a grant distributor, Sakoda mentioned $20 million in losses for the nonprofits sustaining local arts.

Appreciation of the arts is crucial in inconsistent, unclear times. Art gives context, an escape, a safe space to feel uncertain, and to empathize with others.

Minority arts are quickly disappearing. Jose Luis Valenzuela, a UCLA and community college theater professor, met with artistic directors who cater to communities of color and were worried about the survival of their companies. They are the few sources for access to the arts for minority populations. Representation matters and when that diminishes, so do the voices. Graphic designer and Muralist, Roberto Pozos of Imperial Valley resonates with this message. Living in a space that has been a hotspot for COVID related death, Pozos wants to commemorate the suffering and lift the spirits of those around him. None of this can happen without funding. 

We must push for federal grant funding! Email, call, snail mail your Congresspeople. The last time federal tax dollars were put towards the arts was during the Great Depression and the time has come again to make our mark on democracy and preserve culture. 

I think about what I would do without Kathak. Kathak is not just a form of Indian Classical Dance. Kathak is the best parts of me. Kathak accepts me and grounds me to the reality I am in. Kathak reminds me to forgive myself and others. Kathak is a guiding force, teaching morality and mythology. Kathak is music. Kathak is discipline and learned knowledge. Kathak is Indian history. Kathak is me. 


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

This post has been updated.

IndianRaga Explores a Raga Without a Midpoint

Vinod Krishnan is a singer, composer, music producer, and educator. He is the Creative Director of music at IndianRaga and has performed with India’s top musicians like Shankar Mahadevan and Vijay Prakash. Trained in Indian classical music and piano, his work explores taking Indian classical music to newer audiences and bringing world music together. 

He talks to India Currents about the beauty of the raga Abhogi and all things that make the scale a bright myriad of emotion. 

“Abhogi is symmetric and is also one of the few ragas that does not have the note Pa, which is sort of the midpoint of the musical scale,” says Vinod, who recently released a piece exploring the spectrum of this bright raga.

According to you, what stands out about Abhogi? 

The more compositions you learn in a raga, the more you uncover these hidden gems and mysteries in it. Abhogi is an eclectic ragam, some might also call it symmetric or striking. But, finding a way to blend the same raga in both Hindustani and Carnatic, and finding that sweet spot between genres is the challenge when you begin to explore meeting points of two genres.

How did Abhogi capture your recent attention? 

Do you know those contemporary designers who create unique looking furniture? If you ask a designer, they will have so many ways to build it. I’ve felt the process is the same for musicians. When we explore a raga, you can build it in so many different ways. There is no one right way to do it (as long as you conform to the basic structure of the raga). Some ways evoke deeper responses within you and from those listening to it, while some let you hover amidst the subtle etches of the rendition the notes remind you of. But the first step is it should overwhelm you. Only then does the listener stand a chance.

What are your favorite Abhogi film and Classical compositions? 

The first time I heard Abhogi in the film is the song “Indraikkku yen indha anandamide” by Ilayaraja sir. Not much after that. This is why I enjoy this ragam – we know that Abhogi isn’t that common of a raga picked up by contemporary musicians or by film composers, but that also makes it novel and gives a lot of scope for exploration. 

Can you talk about your recent Abhogi collaboration with IndianRaga? 

The recent Abhogi 2.0 music video I released with IndianRaga was in collaboration with Hindustani singer and senior IndianRaga fellow, Apoorva Deshpande. This production was a sequel to the “Swara Sadhana” series that we previously released with IndianRaga, a creative arts start-up that nurtures Indian art forms in the new age. Swara Sadhana is the concept of ardently exploring the “swaras” or notes rooted in different Indian classical ragas, but with contemporary arrangements. The entire production was an idea that developed over dinner when we brainstormed in Abhogi itself, and I then spent the entire night producing and arranging this composition. It came out well, much to our satisfaction. Hope you enjoy it! 


Sruthi Dhulipala is a San Francisco-based communications professional and writer.  She has been priorly published in an International Anthology “Lakdikapul II,” through an Indian Poet’s Association. She is passionate about music and her goal in life to promote music to the benefit of the people, through music therapy.

LoQ, Sci-Fi Column: In Conversation with an Artist

Legends of Quintessence – A column which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context.

As I look around myself, I feel inspired by the talent surrounding me. I am inspired by my South Asian culture.  I am inspired by Sci-Fi.  So the conversations I have with those around me have a natural proclivity to include all the facets of my identity.

And what better company than chai, pakoras, and friends?

So sit down with me, Srishti Prabha (IC Assistant Editor) and some chai, as we explore the themes of Hanifa Hameed’s artwork for the LoQ column. 

Hanifa is a UI/UX designer and is also very active in creating digital art with underlying South Asian cultural influence. Her art takes inspiration from real life and highlights concepts that are beautiful, real, thought-provoking, and essential. She and her art have recently been recognized by ELLE India. Her art dedicated to the movie ‘Sheer Qorma’ recently featured on the movie’s Insta page. You can find her art on her Instagram page

Watch the interview below!

___

Sci-Fi Column, Legends of Quintessence is poised to introduce you to some great South Asian talent. We aim to bring you closer to South Asians doing creative stuff and breaking new grounds. So get ready to be wowed by some amazing artists, chefs, entrepreneurs, poets, and other creatives. 


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Finding Poetry as Sanctuary

Poetry/Song-writing came to me when I was around 16 years old. Until then, I had no taste or interest in the poems that I had to mandatorily read and memorize as a part of my school curriculum. At that time, the school was the only place where I got any exposure to poetry or writing. I was not the kind of boy who would bother to go out of his way to buy a novel or a book of poems.

However, when I did read poems in my school textbooks, I enjoyed reading the works of William Blake, George Cooper, and numerous poems which now float around in my mind only as faint images of reverberating words superimposed on top of the faces of my friends, teachers, and the places where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years.

Fast forward to 2019, and I found out that I had been writing for nine years now. I came to the conclusion one introspective evening after a recent move to San Francisco from Los Angeles, that a disparate amount of poems I had written all revolved around the broad themes of unrequited love, admiration of the lover, and just silly love songs. Sure, there was nothing wrong about having a consistent theme across your work. But I did feel that I was quite limited in the way I was repeating my experiences over and over again. It is strange that we choose to feel what we already know.

Until that point, I had thought that new life experiences were capable of enabling new channels of creative outlets. On the contrary, it was the opposite. It was, in fact, the conglomeration of beliefs, attitudes, personality, biases, and a myriad of factors that decided what one was actually capable of experiencing.


How many times does one need to fall in love before he can write about love with the utmost veracity? In clinical psychology, it is said that people high on Agreeableness tend to divide their lives into epochs dictated by the romantic relationships they have had at the time. Boy, was I agreeable! That was all that I was writing about. A psychologist may have recommended an assertiveness training for me, but instead, I just chose to diversify my writing style a bit.

I was lucky to have found a poetry group in the city through the Meetup app that year. I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of talent that was concentrated in a radius of 15 feet around me. These were people that I couldn’t have met anywhere else in the whole world. Hanging out with them had opened up new doors of perception and possibilities for me. Of course, it wasn’t apparent that I would associate with them in the very first meeting. Still, I gradually started to open up to this group of oddly passionate people who appreciated some of my eeriest poetries that would otherwise bring two likes for a friend list of 1500 people on my Facebook.

Now it is 2020 and right before the COVID lockdown, I was fortunate enough to become a rather regular member of this group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley which, hosts a poetry circle through video conferencing apps each Saturday.

Writing and reciting poetry has ever-changing meanings for each individual.

At times, poetry is a psychological toolkit that enables me to express my feelings in a way that others perceive as novel and a work of art. On some occasions, poetry becomes the irrefutable divine law of nature that each man inherits but of which loses the appreciation as his life progresses into taking upon an increasing amount of responsibilities.

At other times, poetry is how one could showcase their intellectual fitness and creativity to a member of the opposite gender that they’d like to woo. Poetry is also that friend who comes to sit down with you in solidarity when the world seems too chaotic or too orderly (in a dystopian way) as you look outside your apartment window and say, “Man! None of this makes sense!”

Poetry can be your very own self when you have successfully identified your being as an entity compartmentalized into several flavors manifested out of a hitchhiker’s diary describing his journey across the country.

Poetry can also be this:

The Paranoid

 

In a world with so many places to see,

I’ve never seen a tree that touches the sky.

Tangerines so high, invite me for a tea,

In a treehouse with nobody else but you and I.

 

And in a treehouse so green,

There are places where I’d like to be:

 

In your arms, in your eyes,

Watching you gaze, the paranoid.

 

In a country with so many people to meet,

I’ve never seen a man reading from a monocle.

Sidewalks so alone, hear them greet –

that lonesome band dressed in canonicals​.

 

And with a band so quiet,

There are places where I’d like to sleep:

 

In your arms, for a hundred years,

Hearing the sound of the paranoid.

 

At a clinic with so many beds to sweep,

I’ve never seen a bed with strangers on a feast

Nurses so shy, ignoring those who weep

They only smile to pacify the familiar beasts

 

And along the rooms so sterile,

There are tables you’d like to clean:

 

In your hands, a surgical knife

Watching you operate the paranoid.

*****

Regardless of how I conceptualized this abstract phenomenon of poetry, this group had made me feel that I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense out of the daily experiences and operations of the human ordeals and pleasures.

This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora. 


Vishal Vatnani is a man as ordinary as you can imagine. He is a 26-year-old data analyst working in San Francisco for a Fintech company. He enjoys writing poetry, playing guitar, reading self-help books, and slaving away his days working.