Tag Archives: Art

Mushkil Duniya Painted in Coffee

In June Ahmad Abumraighi messaged me asking if he can come to my community studio, Studio Pause, with his friend and filmmaker Anas Tolba. Anas was making a documentary on Ahmad as a Palestinian artist, whose work is about social justice and community.

I asked Ahmad, “Why the Studio?”

He replied “… it’s about being around honest company where I can be myself, without experiencing the feeling of having to defend myself or my beliefs. At Studio Pause I feel safe and creative when I’m with Sush and other community artists who care to bring love and light to everyone in the community.”

Ahmad with Filmmakers Anas and Mohammad

Anas would bring his assistant, Mohammad Saffouri, and Hanan would join them later. I agreed happily. I was going to have my first group of people at the Studio since lockdown. What better group than this?

I had first met Ahmad at Hanan Seid’s Mic-Less Night Series. Hanan, a local spoken word artist, activist and the Studio’s first artist-in-residence, had started her Mic-Less Night Series here in 2016 finding the space perfect for people who are intimidated by the mic to share their poetry and stories. Since then, Ahmad had had two shows here sharing his love for Arabic poetry and his mastery in calligraphy with the community, while he attended university as an international student.

Before they arrived that day I reminded them to wear masks. Susan Sterner, a PAUSEr who visited once a week, had brought in extra masks and hand sanitizer. She had figured out how we could safely work at the ends of the 6 ft long art tables. Ahmad and the crew arrived masked and with bags of goodies. I made coffee and set out the refreshments. Our last reception had been in Feb 2020, for Susan’s show, and this was the first four-month gap in seven years of the Studio. The AC was out, the windows were open, and a noisy bird sang from a tree.

The filming started with an interview. Ahmad asked what I had worked on during the pandemic. I showed him my calligraphic explorations in Hindi and Bengali. I told him how his art had inspired me to return to my languages and scripts reconnecting with them through my art. Then it was time for art-making. I introduced him to water-soluble graphite. “As I play music in my Studio,” I said, “a Hindi movie song might speak to me, and I make the lyrics into art.” 

He got an idea. “Why don’t you play your music and I’ll play mine!” he said. “You do your calligraphy and I’ll do mine!” 

The songs played and we wrote directly on the butcher paper taped to the table—Arabic and Devanagari. “What did you write?” I asked. 

“Take me to Palestine,” he read.

I texted a photo of it to my friend, Sughra Hussainy, a calligrapher from Afghanistan, living in Baltimore, MD. She created a calligraphic artwork and sent it to me. Take me to my dear Kabul, it read. I showed it to the men. 

I caught a few Arabic words from Ahmad’s songs. They were the Hindi/Urdu words duniya, mushkil. Ahmad painted with the coffee too. 

“What is that? Looks like mountains and valleys,” I observed, as the wet paper warped. 

“It’s the map of Palestine,” he laughed. Later, he started to dance.

The air was magical, yet, I was quietly panicking. What if someone caught COVID-19? Had I done everything right? I went and looked out of the window, tears rolling down my face. Was I being pessimistic as the friends chatted away, laughed and worked? I had missed people, even strangers. Every month, between an artist’s reception and Mic-Less Night I met 20-50 people here and it was always awesome. And here were these wonderful people and I was … what’s the word? 

They continued their shoot downstairs in the community center. I had worked alone during the lockdown designing and producing handmade copies of Hanan’s first full-length poetry book, Catalyst: A Collection of Poetry by Hanan Seid. Now again, I was sitting at my table, alone. But my heart was racing. I breathed deeply, folding the printed pages, reading snippets of Hanan’s powerful poems.

Hanan and her books.

Soon the group returned to the Studio along with Hanan. At the opening reception here five years ago we had 40 guests and now five made my heart race. But she was so excited to see the copies of her books and sign them. I noticed the red mask she wore over her hijab. I couldn’t see her smile let alone give her a hug. Who was I now? I could hardly recognize myself.

An excerpt from her poem Tsunami spoke to me: 

“Which character will they remember?
I’ve been them all
The good and the bad
Wonder if my soul is as claustrophobic as I am
If it’ll fit nice in the coffin
Then my eyes open
And the nightmare supposedly over
I gasp and wonder
Who will I be next
and will she be remembered?”

When they left, I helped the community center staff put the furniture back the way it was. They worried about what had been touched. I stared at where the woman sprayed the Lysol, and what she wiped. So much remained unsprayed and unwiped! I remained silent. I couldn’t recognize myself, a total stranger! But it would be fine, I told myself. We were all doing our best.


Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.

Purple Socks and Plums

Saturday mornings are such a thrill, as I resumed teaching my dance class on Zoom. It’s amazing what some music and movement can do for your soul. Treating yourself to the magic of it can catapult you from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Just that little “extra!”

As I was dancing, instructing and chatting, I stopped to share something with my class.

I was pushing through my sit-ups, I looked at my feet and saw my purple socks and it just…made me happy!  The color purple makes me happy. And there it was, on my feet, saying a hello, as I was doing what I cherish so deeply—dancing and sharing that passion with others.  It was a colorful flash of comfort and a reassurance that I’m not only capable of getting through this day but I’m capable of making this day awesome.

My 10-year-old son Indra and I have been running every other morning – waking at 6 am and then out the door at 6:30 am for our 5-mile adventure. I treasure that time with every bit of my soul. We talk, we share, we laugh, we wonder.  And then, right when we start the running portion, we diverge.

He needs to rest; I need to run. And we let it be. I started to think that I should be challenging him to keep it up with me, to be the drill sergeant I know I can be.  And then as I came around my third loop I saw him peacefully sitting there, waiting for me to do the next round. He was enjoying eating a plum off of a tree nearby. Plums off of a tree.

There it is. Notice your purple socks and find your plums. Relish them. Don’t diminish the significance they hold.

Life is so full of complexities from the chaos all around us. The peace is in the simplicities that will save us. The little things. If we search for them, connect with them, let them fill us with joy, then we will flourish in that day. And then each day will flourish into the next until we find ourselves on the other side of this mess, better and more cognizant than ever before. We are empowered with the most simple intricacies inside this great big complicated world. Purple socks and plums. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.


Sangini Majmudar Bedner is a former Miss India USA, Stanford University graduate and professional performer and choreographer.  She enjoys life in Portola Valley, CA with her husband, two sons, and a crazy farm of beloved animals. She also offers an ongoing Saturday morning Zoom aerobic dance class, which can be taken live at 9 am or with a recorded link. Email her for info!  

They Call Me “Manu Master”

Virtual Bharat’s most recent film is set in Koolimuttam, Kerala. A story of a man, a rebel, a master, known to his disciples and thus to the world, by one name; “Manu Master,” he says with pride as he looks at the nature around him. His eyes are kind and filled with strength and wisdom. His red shawl flutters in the wind. 

Manu Master was born in Koolimuttam, in the 1960s, as Abdul Manaf. Little Abdul loved the arts. He accompanied his uncle to Kathakali recitals, performances and katcheris alike. He jumped across the compound wall at school every day to simply watch and admire the dance lessons that were being taken by a teacher right next door. Spotting his interest in the arts, his uncle enrolled him to learn bharatanatyam when he was only 12 years of age, and that marked the beginning of Abdul Manaf’s journey in Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam was considered a temple art form. The postures and grace of the dance are a reflection of those of several Hindu gods and goddesses. Abdul Manaf was not a part of this culture, and was thus regarded an outsider. He trained in several other dance forms – Mohiniyattam, Kathakali…but his heart always lay with Bharatanatyam. At the age of 20, he decided to move to Tamil Nadu to train and master the traditional style of Bharatanatyam – one that had been banned by the British, in their move to stamp out Indian culture. Today, he is one of the leading exponents of this style of dance. 

Abdul believes that “the true God, is love, and art is the medium to reach love. “Mohabbat,” he says, is what his dance is an expression of. He refused to allow aspects like his name to get in the way of his love for dance. Abdul Manaf took the name ‘Manu’, a nickname given to him by his mother, and started to practice under this name. He admired the Tantric school of the dance and says it was his Guru Chitra Visweswaran who changed his life. She showed him how the body, was but a small replica of the entire universe, and thus how through certain postures one could unveil the Maha Mantras (sacred truths of the world). 

His movements echo the simplicity, grace, and freedom of postures of love and desire – characteristic of the Tantric school of Bharatanatyam. His audience is spellbound when he moves. The very air around him changes. There is a silence and magic to his performance and even the simplest of mudras can bring tears to the spectator’s eyes. Manu today, dedicates his life to not only keeping this Tantric tradition of Bharatanatyam alive, but to his disciples as well. He looks at them with a smile, and says “my teachers have always shown me the right path, but I want them to be able to choose their own paths.” 

As the team of Virtual Bharat shot with Manu Master, they were spellbound by not only his movements but the way these movements echoed the beauty of the nature around him. Watch the film capture his story through his dance below!

 

Virtual Bharat in collaboration with India Currents will release a monthly series highlighting the stories Virtual Bharat is capturing in India. Stay tuned for more!

Virtual Bharat is a 1000 film journey of untold stories of India spanning people, landscapes, literature, folklore, dance, music, traditions, architecture, and more in a repository of culture. The vision of director Bharatbala, creator of Maa Tujhe Salaam, we are a tale of India told person-by-person, story-by-story, and experience-by-experience. The films are under 10 minutes in length and are currently available on Virtual Bharat’s Youtube Channel

Windows to the Soul

Windows to the Soul

As hugs turn into virtual high-fives

And pajamas become our cocoons,

As sanitizer turns into a balm for our weary nerves

And TP becomes our most prized possession,

 

We lumber out of hibernation every morning

With nowhere to go but the couch.

The only thing we’re creating these days

Is a six feet force field around us.

 

As we fight to flatten the curve,

This insidious little bug flattened our lives.

Zoom-ing through our days is ok, 

But i-contact is not eye contact.

 

As I walk around I see a sea of masks

Like extras in a dystopian movie,

Their eyes constantly scanning for threats, avoiding mine

I can’t read them, can’t tell what they’re thinking.

 

“Windows to the soul,” they said.

Not anymore.

I’m not afraid but sad,

As our humanity falls victim to social distancing.

******

Riya Arora is currently a sophomore at The Harker School. She finds her passion in social advocacy and giving a voice to those without one. Already involved in several non-profit organizations, she is also the founder of her own called Touched By MS. Outside of school, she is a 2x national medalist in figure skating and is on the San Jose Sharks synchronized team.

Fear and Hope

 Fear and Hope

Life without living, a burden to bear!

In the midst of thorns, hope like roses

flourishes and releases sweet fragrance.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

It too will wither away, slowly though.

“Suffering makes a man wise.”

Where there is suffering, there is hope

waiting patiently in the wings for the cue.

 

Haltingly though, let’s bear the burden

and march along toward our homes,

though they may now seem far away.

Don’t let negativity deflect our hope.

 

Difficult it may be to bear suffering

that is within us; let’s face it with positive energy.

******

Satyam Sikha Moorty is a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and taught for 31 years at Southern Utah University. He has two chapbooks ready: “Who Am I? and other poems”  and “Poems of Fear and Songs of Hope.”  His book “Passage from India: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays” has recently been published by Austin Macauley, London, England


Notes: “Sweet are the uses of adversity”—Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” Act II. Scene i.

“Suffering Makes a man wise”—Aeschylus, from his “Fragments”

Veiled and Shut: A Response to Navigating Autism

This poem was written as a response to the piece Navigating Autism. I was moved by what Swathi Chettipally had written and I thought, “life goes on with all its ebbs and flows, perhaps accentuated at this challenging time, for children with disabilities/differently-abled and those with chronic illness.”
Veiled and Shut

 

The sing-song of your, ‘mama’ rings in my head

 

The blithe spirit numbed

Now so lonely in a crowd

 

No joy gladdens

No fears felt?

 

These distant eyes

That once spoke

Mystic, shut, veiled

In self-enchanted?

 

What thoughts repressed

And brilliance locked

What love burned

And pain muted

 

Oh, lament unsaid…

 

No tears shed,

No laughter spread…

 

The sing-song of your, ‘mama’ rings in my head

******

Madhu Raghavan is a pediatrician who enjoys writing, exploring our great outdoors, gardening, and art as a pastime. She is also the artist of the featured image.

Lockdown Diary of an Indian Dance Teacher

Like other performance artists, dancers and dance instructors depend on human interaction to convey their artistry to their audience. COVID situation presents unique challenges for dance instructors. Most dance teachers have had to replace their studio-based classes with online sessions, in line with the “stay-at-home” state guidelines. As they move their classes online, they are finding innovative ways to keep their audience and students engaged. 

I am an Indian dance instructor based in the Greater Seattle area, teaching Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dance. As I have transitioned my classes to Zoom, it has been somewhat of a challenge due to various technical issues, as you can imagine.

Some funny moments arise from online classes:

Recently I have noticed a funny development…

My students were performing their mudras (hand motions) while chanting Sanskrit shlokas. As most of my younger students are US-born and lack fluency in their native tongues, I take time after each class to make them practice both the mudras and their accompanying shlokas. I teach my classes on a laptop connected to a large flat screen tv, with the sound ramped up. My daughters join me for some of the classes too and we perform together. 

My husband, who is an IT professional, sometimes sits and works in the adjacent kitchen area while I take classes. It seems that our shloka recitations have started affecting him too, as I can hear him repeating the mudras with us as we practice. During one of my online classes, I remember quizzing my students. “What is this mudra?”, I asked. “Kartarimukhaha” (a scissors shaped hand gesture), chipped my husband before the student could answer. The students and parents attending the call broke out laughing. He keeps humming these shlokas as he works around the house these days. I successfully implanted the Shloka bug in him finally after 16 years of our marriage during lockdown!

Pet dog “Sugar” was Aleyssa’s “horsey” during her online Indian classical dance class

In another incident, two adorable sisters, Aleyssa(8) and Ameyssa (5), were in the middle of their online Bharatanatyam class, working on a movement called “Araimandi” (a half-sitting posture where the dancer creates a typical diamond shape with her legs).  As Alyessa was practicing, her Labradoodle, Sugar, decided to run through her legs. She took it in stride and exclaimed that Sugar was her “Horsey!” So, in the middle of our class, there was my student, Aleyssa, riding atop her dog Sugar, like a princess on her horse! This ended when her 5-year-old sister, Ameyssa, came and held sugar’s ears and finally managed to stop her. Usually, an online session is very stressful for both teacher and student, but this incident made me laugh and brought in a much-needed bit of joy in this pandemic crazy homestay.

I am also inspired on a regular basis by my adult students. Most of them have kids at home and have to squeeze out time out of their daily schedules to attend classes. 

Pallabi tries to learn Indian classical dance online with her two active daughters running around her.

My student, Pallabi, has two active girls aged 4 and 7. Normally, when Pallabi would attend Bharatanatyam class, her daughters would play at the church nursery or at the park. After I moved the classes online, Pallabi decided to continue attending the online sessions. One day she was learning a complicated travel and sidestep, where she was trying to create a V shape on the ground with her feet, and as she danced, both her little girls were using that V-shape as a zig-zag path to run around. 

How she learned that complicated step amidst all the chaos that was going on at her home, is beyond me. This is funny as well motivating too, as it shows that if we are resolute in our focus, no chaos can be considered as an excuse.

I have also started teaching Bollywood dance lessons. I am currently teaching a sequence of Warrior queens from Period Bollywood musicals. For these lessons, students need to use props as swords. We were about to order these props and distribute them to the students but the lockdown came about before I could hand them over. However, the energy and positivity of my senior students came to the rescue. They decided to meet online and finish learning that sequence. For the prop swords, they turned to whatever they could get their hands upon in their respective homes. One took a rolling pin from the kitchen, another picked up her husband’s cricket game stick. Someone else picked up her kid’s toy arrow from a bow and arrow set, and another person grabbed a Jedi’s sword from her son’s desk.

Different dance props are chosen from around the home.

I am blessed to have these passionate people in my life. When I moved my classes online, I offered a discounted fee structure. However, all my students waived off these discounts and they pay the full fee amounts as they all think that more labor and prep time is involved in teaching online classes. I decided to contribute some of these earnings to other artistic communities, as a way of giving back.

Theatres, auditoriums, and other dance studios shut down across the country in response to COVID-19. Many studios are quickly exploring the option of teaching classes online. Many non-profit studios are asking for donations to help them stay afloat. Being a freelance Indian dance instructor with a decent IT job, I decided to donate online dance earnings to a dance studio named “Da Vinci”, which always provided space to people like us to continue our passion.

As the world continues an uncertain battle against the invisible COVID-19 virus, performing art communities worldwide have been among the first to be affected due to restrictions on public gatherings and concerts. The virtual world is flooded today with free offerings of all kinds of art, movies, museum tours, music festivals, dance concerts, music festivals, to keep up the morale of the world as it copes with the lockdown and the cultural climate. As a society, we need to help the arts survive as it helps with inner healing.

Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps. 

“Being Different Is Like Sushi and Fried Chicken”: GUAA

I’m Asian American. My dad was born in the British Territory of Hong Kong and my mom is Chinese-American. My mom was born in the Deep South, in Mississippi, and not many Asians lived there. My Po Po is from Hong Kong and my Gong Gong came from Canton, China, so my mom knows how to speak a little bit of Cantonese. I was born in California. My mom says we are Chinese but we also may be related to Genghis Khan!

When I was in preschool one time I got bullied because of the way I look. I didn’t know why. But now I understand. Diversity is like genes from your mom and dad. Genes control how you look like, your personality and the color of your skin. So of course, nobody looks the same. Even though our ancestors come from different countries, we are still American. At my school, in second grade, there’s this presentation called, “Global Us. The Global Us is a play about your culture and your identity. Students perform traditional dances and songs. Afterwards there is a potluck. Did you know that food can bring people together? Countries all have different types of food, and Americans eat almost everything. My friend Lucia loves sushi more than me even though she is not Asian! I did not grow up in the Deep South but I love southern fried chicken, catfish, and hushpuppies! Yummy. Italian pasta is like Chinese chow mein. Argentinian empanadas are like Dim Sum. French baguettes are like American sourdough bread!

The most important thing about being Asian American is that we are still American citizens even though our ancestors came from different countries. A lot of times people cannot tell where we are from because of the way we look. They may say something racist like “go back to your country.” I get very confused because this is my home. You may have heard that the Coronavirus has been spreading around the world. My best friend, who is white, said to me that some white people are scared of Asian people because the Coronavirus can be contagious. But she knows I don’t have the Coronavirus even if I’m Asian American.

But do you know what? A virus doesn’t discriminate against people who look different from other people. In a way, a virus can be a role model, because they don’t care whether people are Asian or not, they just infect anybody with lungs. Nobody should be bullied for the way they look. We all look different. Differences are not bad. Differences are special. We should be kind and include everyone. We can all get along. Everybody deserves to be treated the same. Finding things in common like soccer, ice cream, and Minecraft can build a bridge to make friends like sushi and fried chicken. Everyone in America should be treated fairly because we’re all humans. We all should really get involved to create a better community around the world.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————

Katelyn Ho is a 2nd grader, whose essay “Being Different Is Like Sushi and Fried Chicken” won the Best In Class Award at the ‘Growing Up Asian In America’ contest.

Lina Lee is a 2nd grader, whose artwork “My Beat To Our Rhythm” won the Best In Class Award at the ‘Growing Up Asian In America’ contest.

Environmentalism Through Kid’s Kathas

Living in the world that all of us do today, it goes without saying that children across the spectrum need to read books that create awareness surrounding the environment and its inhabitants. 

When I think of an Indian publishing house for children, the name that first comes to mind is Katha. What sets Katha’s books apart from others is that it is known for facilitating learning through the power of storytelling. Storytelling is a beautiful way to address some of the most pertinent issues related to the environment and climate change, and the 32-year-old publishing house has time and again called for attention towards our planet through this distinctive approach, in books such as Tigers Forever!, The Mysteries Of Migration, and Polar Bear

Books that Make You Fall in Love with Nature

Sonam’s Ladakh

One of the most effective ways of getting children to care about the environment is to simply help them fall in love with it. Some of Katha’s older books instill a love for nature with their stories and themes. Each of their books has a varied message: In Run Ranga! Run!, one gets to explore the grasslands with the fearless baby rhinoceros who needs a friend; Walk the Rainforest with Niwupah and Walk the Grasslands with Takuri are tours of rainforests and grasslands with a hornbill and an elephant, respectively; On the Tip of a Pin Was… uncovers the science behind wormholes; The Gift of Gold is a mythical story from South African folklore is about a little girl who saves her village from drought. 

Manish Lakhani’s Sonam’s Ladakh tells a story through exquisite photography about a girl belonging to the semi-nomadic Changpa tribe, wandering shepherds in Ladakh. Young Sonam informs readers about animals in the Ladakh region that are her closest friends and “better than boxes of money”. She mentions goats, dogs, her father’s pashmina herds of sheep, and yaks that help grow food and whose wool make their tents. She also points out other animals in the region—the rare Eurasian otters, horses, and Himalayan wolves. The story that is bound to fascinate most children with its sheer novelty and imagery. The books ends with a section that discusses Ladakh’s many glaciers that are gradually melting due to the earth’s global warming, increasing pollution levels and the cutting of trees. The questions posed are aimed at making children think of ways in which all of us in our own way can contribute to caring for the environment.

Keeping it Simple

In a world filled with an overwhelming amount of information on environmental degradation, young children are most likely to gain sensitivity about the situation most through personal experience. Katha’s books have constantly aimed at bringing out simple storylines with characters that relate to most children.

In Who Wants Green Fingers Anyway?, Geeta Dharmarajan explores a mother’s obsession with her potted plants kept in her verandah. When her plants start mysteriously wilting and drooping, her husband researches the subject of how to keep them happy, leading him to attempt re-potting them. What follows is a comical saga, however, the key message has been surreptitiously slipped in—that the roots of plants get tangled up when their pots become too small for them.  

More recently, in The Mystery of the Missing Soap, Tobakachi, the wicked Asura and GermaAsura, along with their Coronavirus Army, make soap disappear in Dakshinapur, one of the happiest villages in the country. By tricking people in this way, they ensure that no one washes their hands, which makes them all very sick. That is until the helpful elephant, Tamasha and the fearless girl, Lachmi, show everyone how to make soap in order to win the battle against the Virus Army. The story, beautifully illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu and Charbak Dipta, is followed by a simple recipe for making soap at home using reetha berries. By explaining the importance of washing one’s hands in order to prevent coronavirus, the book then dives into Katha’s famous “TADAA” (Think, Ask questions, Discuss, Act, and Take Action for the community) section which details what coronavirus actually is and what one can do to prevent oneself from getting it.

Big Ideas with a Heart

After getting kids to fall in love with nature through simple stories—and hence, getting them to care for the environment—the next step is to focus on concepts that help them think about pressing environmental issues that are affecting the world. Every narrative in Katha’s books is filled with common themes—or what the publisher likes to call ‘big ideas’. For instance, all of Katha’s environment books have recurring themes such as empathy, affection, kindness, collective action, and cues to switch to alternative eco-friendly habits.

Ma Ganga and the Razai Box weaves environmental concerns like pollution, soil erosion, and desertification with mythology. The Magical Raindrop humanizes and gives emotions to Mother Earth, formulating her character in a way that the readers feel she’s a person who feels happiness, sadness, anxiety, and joy just like all of us. Katha’s Thinkbook Series has been designed in a way to introduce young readers to big ideas such as “climate change, gender, and kindness through stories that inspire, aspire, and engage.” 

Educating through Stories

Katha’s founder, Padma Shri Geeta Dharmarajan, is an award-winning writer, editor, and educator. Her published works alone include more than 30 children’s books, many of which are Katha publications. Needless to say, environmental issues are very close to her heart. She is credited for having created Katha’s unique concept of StoryPedagogy, which combines India’s oral traditions and the 2,000-year-old Sanskrit text on the performing arts, Natya Shastra; an idea that she has seamlessly integrated with an earth-friendly curriculum.

While the stories get children to empathize with the characters and their situation—and thus, understand and imbibe an environmental concept—Katha’s final goal is to make children think deeper and take initiatives to act and make a difference. The insightful exercises that appear at the end of each book are created using the SPICE model (Student-centred, Problem-based, Integrated, Community-based, Electives, Systematic) as well as observations, teachers’ feedback, and research among children in the Katha Lab School.

Katha Lab School is a model and a center of creativity for the slum cluster of Govindpuri in New Delhi. Thus, Katha takes the storytelling approach a step further beyond its books too. The Katha Lab School, for instance, uses no traditional textbooks or a one-size-fits-all syllabus. Instead, its system of education is based on StoryPedagogy, a technique that is delivered through Active Story-Based Learning, which helps children to learn language, science, and mathematics, while developing general awareness and critical thinking skills through various stories and activities.

Katha’s StoryPedagogy is the new age of education – one that we can all benefit from adopting.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

Words to Art: What Are You Feeling?

As the recent lockdown hit, my community art space in Arlington, Virginia, Studio Pause, closed to the public. People asked me to take our weekly writing PAUSE sessions online, shared links for bookmaking videos from my website, and even quoted my Instagram posts on their social media. I did phone calls with worried children who had made art for me, their art teacher. I got emails from seniors asking what creative things I do to stay calm. At the studio, I had experienced people’s discomfort during the two federal shutdowns we had in Washington D.C. Then there was anger. Now there is panic.

In early April I got an email from Special Projects Curator for Arlington Cultural Affairs Cynthia Connolly asking for “a super-fast and fun art project.” I had previously worked with Connolly on Columbia Pike Recipes for You, a community book arts project, and Words to Art: Art on the ART Bus, where I collaborated with bus drivers. I created a new version of Words to Art asking the public to collaborate this time. Connolly decided to bring four other Arlington artists into the project. Words to Art Spring 2020: A Community Art Project by Sushmita Mazumdar & Arlington Arts, which would run for four weeks.

Every Monday, this online project invites the public to share one word expressing their feelings about the COVID-19 quarantine. Artists select a word from the submissions and create artworks inspired by them. The public follows their creative process through the weekend via social media as the artworks are shared. The finished works are posted at the Arlington Arts website and at my Studio Pause website. 

For Week One, I picked the word Non-Essential to work on. It was submitted by Rosendo Escareno. Describing my artwork I wrote, “I love the power conveyed by thick strokes of Chinese ink, so I used it to write the 2 Ns in ‘non’. As I wrote the word ‘non’ over and over with water-soluble crayons, I thought of how many of us were suddenly declared ‘non-essential.’ Yet in my home, I had decided that I would be the only one to go shopping for groceries. I had made myself essential! I even swapped some ‘non’ for ‘mom.’”

Chastened, submitted by Frank Higgins, was rendered by David Amoroso. Speaking to Arlington Magazine, Amoroso notes that since the pandemic, he’s had major paradigm shifts. “Now, everything and everybody feels a little like the enemy.” Art has always been his therapy, he says, bright colors and pop culture subjects. However, there is a distinct change in the look of the art he created for this project—they are black and white. “The words I have selected so far—chastened and broken—really speak to what’s going on inside me.”

Survival was submitted by Lloyd Wolfe and rendered by Maribeth Egan, a mixed media artist and arts educator. Her collage includes a visual bombardment of natural forces threatening to obscure the word. A cartoon hand in the background suggests a route to survival: wash your hands. She uses collage, ink jet, gouache, and embroidery floss on paper to create the desired effect. Maribeth firmly believes everyone should learn to value creativity, make art, and is happy to support that effort. In her art practice, she combines a variety of materials with paint, investigating what rankles or delights her at a given time.

Stuck was submitted by Leigh Bailey and rendered by MasPaz, who spends the majority of his time traveling, teaching and painting murals across the world. His digital illustration represents people who choose to not leave their homes in order to protect their family, yet do not have enough money to feed their children. In his home country of Colombia, those in need of help, hang a red flag outside of their homes. 

I used the artworks as visual prompts for my writing PAUSE sessions, where studio members craft short free-writes inspired by art. Kori Johnson was immediately drawn to Stuck. She wrote, “In Colombia, you hang a red flag outside your door to signal you need help. I wonder if that would work here. Would anyone hang a flag? Would anyone come to help? What red flags would we wave if we could get help without judgment? What flags do we ignore, even when they are right in front of our faces?”

An excerpt from studio member Mary Louise Marino who took a poetic approach: 

“… 

an unsafe outside 

and insecure inside

unable to stretch

and grounding our feet

in the foundation of our home

we become heavy lines 

stiff and stuck”

Lonely, submitted by Colleen Moore, was rendered by Kate Fleming, who has spent her isolation making oil paintings of toilet paper – a playful, yet poignant nod to one of COVID’s hottest commodities. In response to this, studio member Ruben Villalta wrote, “I would like to write about the picture of the toilet paper, to think about something happier than the disastrous COVID-19.” Villalta remembered attending an art talk in El Salvador by Antonio Cañas, who discussed his Warhol-style painting of Daria, the popular 90’s MTV cartoon character, with rolls of toilet paper behind her. It was a symbol of protest against the status quo of societal consumerism.

Enthusiasm grows. People loved the statements the artists were sharing, and also the photos of them working. I am excited to see this project help us express our emotions and feelings in different ways and make them visual. I am enjoying the public response and present a new question to explore—is the artist essential? 

Sushmita Mazumdar taught herself to be a writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood, after a 15-year career in advertising in India and the US. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration through art, she opened Studio Pause in 2013, mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.

“All Around Me Are Words…” at the Matwaala Poetry Wall

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.

Paras Borgohain: Khul Ja Sesame

Stories of plight, of unrequited love, of untold history are the threads that stitch the seams of our ever-expanding world. These are the narratives that empower us to learn and to empathize with small tales of astronomical weight.

This has become Paras Borgohain’s mission: storytelling of impact. As a filmmaker straddling industry in both America and India, his unconventional life path has given him the power to bring these narratives to the screen. He aims to bridge the gap between everyday people and important stories from around the world. 

Borgohain began his academic career at the University of Delhi, where he studied English Language and Literature. Early in his life, he began to see the importance of telling stories and bringing many of these narratives out of the shadows for public consumption.

“I needed to find a point of entry into the industry,” he said, speaking of the time of tumult towards the end of his education. Following Delhi University and a graduate diploma in Communication from Mumbai, Paras found himself at a production company that exclusively worked on daily Indian soap series.

“It was not something I wanted to work with because I hated watching them as a kid,” he said. While it was a grind for him, he knew that it would be the best way to network into the industry. It taught him about working under pressure. He recounted staying up late into the night, coming up with storylines that would be filmed at 7am the next morning. But still, the industry was stagnant, the plotlines of mothers-in-law and revenge were often hard to identify with as a young person. 

Borgohain’s thirst for mission driven work brought him to Galli Galli Sim Sim, India’s Sesame Street. Collaborating with in-house educational researchers breathed life into his career. He was finally doing something that mattered to him: shaping the development of the next generation of Indian children. 

Galli Galli Sim Sim was a safe space for the production group. People on the team got married – that’s the kind of family the show was. 

“Writing for children isn’t what I thought I’d be doing in terms of my artistic goals,” he said. He wanted to write about things that mattered to him, metafictional narratives and stories about minority groups, topics too heavy for a children’s television show. Due to this, Borgohain took up several freelance projects over the next few years. He worked on community radio shows for UNICEF, for pockets of the world that didn’t have access to television. He assisted with the screenplay writing for Turner Broadcasting. He helped contribute to a National Geographic documentary about how the 1980s changed India. Through these projects, he learned about the issue spaces he cared deeply for, but he realized he needed to stop doing commission work. 

“I was afraid that I would lose my individual voice,” he said. 

This was the tipping point for him. He decided he needed to write his own feature film, “Deepest, Darkest or How Not to Lie.”  

The story begins with a gay man who dies mysteriously. He writes a letter to his friend, a PR professional, and she is tasked with figuring out what happened to him. She explores his life and must come to terms with their mirrored experiences with unrequited love and suppression. She must find out what lead him to believe that life was hopeless. 

Paras Borgohain, winner of the BlueCat Roshan Award (Image taken from BlueCat)

The story, about loss, acceptance, and identity, had huge success, winning the Bluecat Roshan Award for best Indian screenplay in 2016. Paras finally had a way into the industry, telling stories close to his heart of the struggles of LGBTQ+ communities in India. This was the type of storytelling he always dreamed he would be known for.

Soon after, Borgohain enrolled in UCLA’s professional program at their film school. Here, he sharpened the core of what he wanted to write about. 

“Do your words on the page do your thoughts justice?” He always found himself asking himself about the authenticity of his words. 

Today, he is working on fleshing out projects that he began at UCLA. He’s working on a project about Assam from the 70s to 90s, taking a historical lens that has rarely come to the mainstream media. He is in pre-production for a film about the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, called “The Crash of ’14,” which was his final project during his professional education. 

The project closest to his heart is one about an LGTBQ+ activist and author from the 90’s named Stan Leventhal. Back in 2013, Borgohain had written a blog post about how much Leventhal’s writing had moved him, with its lucid and unique voice about the AIDS epidemic. With serendipitous help from the internet, he managed to get in touch with the late Leventhal’s family, who gave him permission to turn his book into a movie. 

Paras looks back at his career with gratitude. 

“It’s taken me 14 years to get from working on soaps to something I give a damn about.”

His advice for aspiring Indian American filmmakers is simple: be open and resilient. 

“If you want to break into a tough industry like entertainment, you have to be thick skinned,” he said. It took him several failures and jobs to get to where he is today. 

But above everything, he says to trust your internal creative compass. 

“What’s going on inside you as an artist, what your personal experiences are, that’s your next creative masterpiece.”

Swathi is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.