South Asian Americans are redefining traditionally heteronormative notions of gender and sexuality. Although the culture is still well on its way towards acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities, Fremont choreographer Amit Patel is bringing Desis — and the dance community as a whole — in the direction of progress.
Patel, who began learning Bollywood dance when was just 10 years old, is a professional choreographer for the Bliss Dance and Mona Khan companies. From performing at national events like the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C to bagging a spot among the top 48 of America’s Got Talent out of 70,000 acts, Patel has played a major role in the representation of Desi dance on global platforms. His Youtube channel, where he regularly uploads choreography videos for both English and Hindi songs, boasts a whopping 184,000 subscribers. He was a part of Lilly Singh’s historic A Little Late With Lilly Singh’s premiere and a pioneer of Eastern Contemporary, a genre of Patel’s own making where he fuses South Asian and Western styles of dance. He has been featured in KQED’s series If Cities Could Dance.
Patel has been opening doors and bridging barriers for what seems like his whole career, and his latest “Bollywood Heels” projects, where he dances in heels to challenge heteronormative stereotypes, are opening up the dance space for LGBTQ+ community. In an interview with India Currents, Patel chronicles both his journey as a dancer and as a gay Indian American man.
“There are so many different ways to create social change, from working in politics to working in media,” Patel says. “So for me, when I finally decided to pursue [dance] full-time, what interested me the most was artwork..that helped push the conversation.”
A Fremont native, he reflected on his upbringing in a ‘tech’ family — one of the many South Asians attempting to reach their version of the American Dream in the Silicon Valley. Bollywood gave Patel the freedom to both connect with his culture as well as a liberating, cathartic mode of self-expression. His love for dance began with the Mona Khan Dance Company, when he joined Khan’s classes held in Milpitas’s India Community Center at eleven years old.
“Everyone has a different origin story,” says Patel. “There is a huge conversation about identity and what makes “you” you, and what Mona provided [in] her dance company was this opportunity to explore our roots without having to give up the daily things that made us American.”
It was with Khan’s dance company that Patel learned to fuse Indian music with contemporary techniques, creating the medleys that lie at the heart of the Eastern Contemporary genre. With Eastern Contemporary, Patel helped create that ‘happy’, welcoming space for cultural diffusion in dance. With “Bollywood Heels”, his blend of Kathak and Jazz, he aspires to do the same — this time, for dancers of all genders and sexualities. Patel was inspired to initiate change after coming to terms with Bollywood’s internalized heteronormativity.
“As a kid watching Bollywood, I didn’t necessarily question Bollywood,” Patel told KQED Arts, reflecting on his childhood experiences. “All those traditional gender roles and expectations of a male dancer, that I would also be placed in. I didn’t necessarily resonate with that.”
Bollywood Heels seeks to remove these expectations in dance, allowing artists to unabashedly express who they are.
“I just intended to create a space where any queer person that wants to come can explore this movement without judgement,” Patel mentions in the same interview with KQED Arts. “And, also tie that in with culture, because in our South Asian community, that never existed.”
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar. Her work appears in the Apprentice Writer, Polyphony Lit, Brown Girl Magazine, Parallax Literary Magazine, among many others.
(Featured Image: Denel McMahan speaking with ABC News)
Weeks before a youth-led Black Lives Matter protest that took place outside the Dublin Civic Center, owner of local gun business Mike Grant posted a picture of the 17-year old organizer, Denel McMahan, on his Facebook page. The caption read, “Please bring your vests and helmets in case these BLM people start trouble. Remember this group is known as a left-wing anti-government group. Take Dublin back!”
Within days, the veiled threat garnered a swift and strong backlash from the Dublin community and beyond. From city residents to Congressman Eric Swalwell, people came together to defend “these BLM people” and the cause they champion.
When I first learned about the situation, I was curious to know who “these BLM people” were, and how Grant’s social media targeting has affected them in this increasingly polarized climate. I had a chat with high school senior, Denel McMahan, president of Dublin High’s Black Student Union, member of the Tri-Valley Black Lives Matter movement, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award at the City of Pleasanton’s annual Community of Character Collaborative. Denel was inspired by the string of protests that captured the heart of America this past summer and wanted to bring peaceful advocacy to his city.
Denel McMahan’s Thoughts
1) You’re a staunch supporter of racial equality and a member of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Gen Z activist, how do you think social media and the Internet Age have affected both racism and social advocacy?
I think that social media has been a great resource throughout this period of COVID-19 and quarantine. The thing that I love about it is that social media has no boundary when it comes to education. People are free to post about whatever in its true form. This includes history. In school, history is heavily censored and manipulated in order to make students comfortable. However, to make real change we need to stop desiring comfortability. We learn about history to avoid repeating it, but we are right now due to sheltering students from traumatic concepts. The same goes for the internet too. I’ve learned more Black history myself through Google than I have in my 11 and a half years of schooling. My parents are also a great resource, but not everyone has parents who understand Black history in its entirety or are Black in general. So, if you want to learn more about truthful history, I recommend looking through Social Media and researching through Google.
2) At school, you’re the president of the Black Student Union. How has this experience shaped your journey of raising awareness and initiating change in your community as a whole?
My presidency has allowed me to earn a platform that is being taken seriously by our administration. For 3 years, I sat and watched the past presidents and how they ran the BSU. Through that, I began to shape my leading style and figured out what I wanted to do with my position. With it, I wanted to do the best I could. I not only wanted to improve our BSU and increase its presence on campus, but I wanted to make sure that we were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement efforts in Dublin. A protest was held in Dublin and there was so much support. Eventually, the other BSU officers and I drafted plans for school change, and our admin engaged heavily with us and is even making more opportunities for us to help the community out more.
3) Post the election, we find ourselves at the precipice of extraordinary political change. What legislative changes do you hope our new administration will bring to address racism, criminal justice, and police brutality?
I just hope that there’s some sense of accountability that comes with a new president. Of course, the President doesn’t have all the power in the federal government, but I feel that at least when incidents of brutality happen, we will have his support. The other big thing that I would want to see is national reparations. Those have been promised to Black Americans since the end of Slavery, but they haven’t been done. They are currently planning a reparations task force in California, so that would be interesting to see what they try to implement. However, they need to be done at the national level since slavery was pretty much a national thing before it ended.
4) If you’re comfortable speaking about this, what was the experience of seeing Mr. Grant’s Facebook post like? Was this kind of backlash something you’ve experienced in the past?
It was very worrying for me. When I saw the post, I was in Las Vegas for my sister’s 21st birthday. When I got word of the post, I was physically shaking. My face had been posted in a public, alt-right Facebook group for many conservatives to see. I saw that it had 29 shares, so that was 30 people who saw me as some thug trying to destroy Dublin, which in no case I was. The event was passed unanimously and was city-sponsored. A huge part of my nervousness was also because this was the first time I received public backlash. I knew I would eventually get some, but never that quick and never by a grown man.
5) In a conversation with ABC News, you mentioned that you’re willing to have a conversation with Mr. Grant. Do you feel like conversations like this are possible at a larger scale, where protestors and counter-protestors can reach a middle ground in constructive, innocuous ways?
Honestly, I believe that the political climate has destroyed any possibility of large-scale, constructive conversations. I think the best way to have them is in private so that all you need to do is to listen. A simple one-on-one conversation to get to a middle ground is the most effective way to do so. However, I hope that one day, groups of people from different beliefs can come together and conversate without it becoming ineffective or violent.
6) What advice do you have for other young people who want to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement?
My advice is to be vocal. In this time, silence also means compliance. Take the time to understand it and bring it close to you. Even in this time of COVID, there are social media platforms. Making and sharing posts are still great ways to advocate for the movement. If you find yourself wanting to protest, don’t be scared. The supporters will always outweigh the opposition.
These are wise words, especially coming from an individual who helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest on November 15th. The demonstration was both peaceful and successful, with Denel and his peers giving speeches about racism, their participation in the Black Student Union, and the harsh realities of police brutality in America. In a creative display of solidarity, this protest featured a ‘Sign Garden’, where signs and posters supporting the Black Lives Matter were placed everywhere from City Hall to the Civic Plaza. These signs were both positive and united, some of them including messages like, “Fear and hate have no place here” and “Color is not a crime”.
Personally, I’m both relieved and overjoyed that this demonstration, despite the initial conflict, remained peaceful and constructive. It was interesting to see this single cause bring together different generations, ethnicities, and cities to reflect on racial justice. But I can’t help but harken back to Denel’s comment about initiating a conversation with Grant. What does the exchange between these two political antipodes suggest about the future of race relations in America?
In a flash of optimism, I’d like to believe that recorded displays of police brutality, such as the tragic murder of George Floyd, will bring different ends of the socio-political spectrum together. As said by Will Smith, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting recorded.” Before videos of racism had the opportunity to go viral on social media and mainstream news outlets, it was far easier for American citizens to exist within an ideological bubble, where systemic oppression did not exist. That’s much harder to do when they’re being confronted by a live video of police brutality and racial profiling at its worst.
Furthermore, I do think that the coronavirus outbreak may offer a moment for the public to self-reflect, and consider how racial and socio-economic privilege has ravaged the very ideals we consider the ‘soul’ of America. After the strong online response to his incendiary post, Grant discussed how he became ‘educated’ about what it means to be a person of color in the United States in a phone interview with ABC.
“I never thought a 17-year old-boy could teach a 65-year-old man something, but he did,” said Grant. “For the last four-and-a-half days I’ve lived it. Just with phone calls, and texts, and hate mail and stuff. Now I think I understand why this young man is doing this, to try to educate people.”
The First Amendment of the American Constitution offers each one of us a voice, but these voices are muffled or confined in echo chambers due to political polarization. And personally, I can attest to subscribing to certain echo chambers myself. My social media feed is primarily consumed by individuals who shared the same political views that I do. My choices in mainstream media are a reflection of my opinions as well.
As an Indian-American, I think my identity as an immigrant has definitely been splintered along the lines of these echo chambers as well. During the 2020 election, for example, I found myself isolating myself from certain subsets of the Indian-American population who identified as Trump supporters. Amid the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve seen so many Indian-Americans distance themselves from conversations about racial equality because they don’t learn (and perhaps don’t want to learn) about racial hierarchies and the myth that is America’s “Model Minority”. As immigrants, the echo chambers of this nation have only made our ignorance of the issues that plague our communities more convenient.
And while these tendencies may be very normal on both ends of the spectrum in our heated political climate, they also contribute to ideological myopia. Men like Mike Grant have no idea what it’s like to be a young black man, constantly targeted and unjustly policed. They read and watch media which feeds them highly distorted narratives on race in this country, and it shows.
Prior to this incident, I can’t help but wonder if Grant has ever had a constructive, honest conversation with a supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Could this gap be bridged? Perhaps the path to an educated America — an America willing to recognize its racism for what it is — requires a space where these conversations can take place.
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. Kanchan is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, and was the Global Student Editor for the summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication.
Trigger Warning: this article discusses sexual assault, rape, and trauma.
When 29-year-old Srishti Prabha said she was sexually assaulted by her boss at her first job, she said she did not file a complaint with human resources. She did not find a lawyer and contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were no courtroom dramas or scalding accusations.
Why? Because the only story that Prabha, like many other Indian American women who say they’ve suffered sexual harassment, can tell is a story of silence.
“I had to run. I didn’t understand that I could say something. I was uncomfortable,” said Srishti Prabha, Assistant Editor for India Currents, a community news website based in the Bay Area.
“Our generation didn’t have the language. Growing up, my parents didn’t understand the culture, so I had to understand these boundaries by myself,” Prabha said.
Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has provided survivors of sexual harassment and abuse with a platform to hold their abusers accountable. What began as a grassroots social media movement has brought thousands of sexual assault cases to light, penetrating nearly every sphere of public life.
Within the South Asian community in the U.S., however, women and activists say the #MeToo movement has a long way to go.
Childhood and Cultural Taboos
Prabha traced her silence about sexual harassment in the workplace to the cultural taboos she encountered as a child. According to Prabha, topics like sexual assault and domestic violence were left unaddressed.
“Indian culture sometimes doesn’t permit …flaws. It’s a culture that wants you to have the perception that everything is perfect, your house is perfect, your children are perfect, to give the perception of prosperity as opposed to honesty,” Prabha said. “Growing up, I didn’t understand what was going on…I didn’t know if someone’s mom was being abused. It was never a topic of conversation.”
Sex is still an unspoken and taboo subject in many Indian American households, agrees Pramila Venkateswaran, a women’s studies professor at Nassau Community College in East Garden City, New York.
“Indian Americans don’t even want to address anything sexuality-related. It’s a sort of a fear,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It’s a taboo they carry from their socialization that they bring here, and that refusal to discuss sexuality is to protect and barricade the family.”
Prabha’s personal experiences point to broader issues within the South Asian community. When dialogue about sexual assault is stifled across gendered and generational boundaries, survivors can become isolated.
“Women often carry the burden of unpacking their traumas alone,” Prabha said.
Public Speech and Private Pain
Unfortunately, laws and public pronouncements often haven’t supported those who’ve taken a stand against sexual abuse.
The harrowing 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,”a response to the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, was banned by the Indian government for fear of provoking “public disorder.” When that same rape case incited protests across the country, politician Abhijit Mukherjee called the women participating in candlelight vigils “highly painted and dented, no longer students” (“painted” denotes a woman who is sexually promiscuous). His sweeping generalizations about the protestors undermined their outcry against sexual assault.
Meanwhile, producers of the Bollywood film “PINK,”which was designed to raise awareness of sexual assault, grappled with India’s Central Board of Film Certification before its release. This movie’s arguably most pivotal scene, which discusses the kind of language that runs rampant in public discourse about rape, received multiple verbal cuts to block “abusive language against women.”
“The community feels more progressive than they actually are at times,” Prabha said. “They’ll say something, but their ideologies don’t match the words they speak.”
The Indian community’s reticence on sex reflects India’s inadequate, underfunded sex education curriculum. According to a 2015 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, sex education is banned in six major states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka for fear of aggrieving Indian values. A 2013 study published by the National Library of Medicine reported that less than half of students from Mumbai colleges received sex education from schools or parents.
Unfortunately, lack of education and information leaves room for rampant misinformation about sexual health, reproductive rights, and most notably, consent. Rather than shielding the younger generation from talking about, thinking about, and having sex, these restrictions only reinforce rape culture within the Indian community and its diaspora.
What Works — And How
So what does work to help women?
New York-based nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women, which assists South Asian immigrant victims of violence, aims to convert #MeToo outrage into constructive change.
According to Anusha Goossens, Sakhi’s sexual assault program manager, education and intergenerational dialogue are a crucial part of the solution. As someone who works with Indian American survivors on a daily basis, Goossens says abusers use a “lack of knowledge” to gain control over women.
“It’s not something we talk about with our children,” Goossens said. “Without discussing or learning about healthy relationships, these women become vulnerable to sexual assault and ongoing abuse.”
Sakhi offers a 24-hour confidential helpline, where a trained professional can listen to and record their experience. To prevent the continuation of this cycle of abuse, Sakhi crafts a detailed safety plan and connects its clients with external services, such as defense lawyers, financial support, and mental health counselors.
Following #MeToo’s explosion on social media, Sakhi has seen a “modest increase” in the number of sexual assault survivors contacting its hotline. While Goossens conceded that a majority of Sakhi’s clients are newer immigrants who are less aware of the movement, she pointed to what one writer called a “wave” of #MeToo second-generation Indian and Bangladeshi survivors in New York who are discussing rape culture:
In response to the movement, Sakhi is actively working on youth outreach, even creating a text hotline to make young people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. The text line was positively received by the nonprofit’s clientele and provided a necessary doorway toward intergenerational support –– the kind of support that was not available to Srishti Prabha almost 10 years ago.
The grassroots #MeToo movement has played a major role in dismantling a power dynamic that protects rapists. Though it can be difficult to use given cultural differences, it’s a platform that allows South Asian American survivors to discuss their experiences and educate the public, a remarkable change.
Recently, the @AdivasiLivesMatter handle used #MeToo to discuss the marginalization and abuse of tribal women, including the suspension of a case of a 13-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by police after she became lost while attending a fair in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
“(As) someone who works with feminist advocacy groups, I was pretty happy when the #Metoo movement happened,” Venkateswaran said. “It disrupts fear. It disrupts shame. That’s the kind of thing that has to happen all over.”
But #MeToo doesn’t necessarily protect Indian American women after they expose their abusers. When actress Tanushree Dutta accused film veteran Ganesh Acharya of abuse and sexual harassment, she was reportedly blacklisted in the industry, while Acharya continued to produce blockbusters and engage with the Bollywood fraternity.
And Dutta is certainly not alone. In the South Asian community, women are frequently blamed and ostracized for being honest about their experiences.
“What is not happening in (South Asia) is laws that actually help these women,” Venkateswaran said. “If some middle-class woman comes and outs her abuser, she will just be replaced. She becomes dispensable. Does she have a union protecting her? Does she have a support system that holds her job?”
But Prabha sees progress.
“I’m happy that the next generation is so much better off than I am,” Prabha said. “I’m always learning from the people younger than me. Maybe they’ll have the tools to address this. We’re late, but I think we’re really changing for the better.
If you’re struggling with sexual harassment, abuse or violence, please contact:
Sakhi For South Asian Women: Helpline: 1 (212).868.6741 or text 1 (305) 697-2544 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: https://www.sakhi.org/
Maitri: Helpline: 1-888-8MAITRI or 1-888-862-4874 Email: email@example.com www.facebook.com/maitribayarea Languages: English, South Asian languages (countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Fiji Islands, amongst others)
Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. This year, Kanchan was selected as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program.
Can you think of major experiences of your life and community, whether it is to celebrate birthdays or weddings, or to mourn a loss or even at the rituals around a funeral, without some music and song, be it folk traditions or prayer chants? Poetry is so seamlessly woven into our lives that we may turn to its wisdom by sheer instinct, to find what comforts and elevates.
The Indian epics of Mahabharata with the Gita, literally the song of the God, contained within it, and the Ramayana, or the more recent religious text from the five-hundred-year-old Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, are all written in verse. These verses are memorized and still sung aloud or chanted privately, as they were before the written word was invented.
Poetry belongs in the community, especially now, as the world goes through these transformative times.
On June 30th, India Currents(IC) andMatwaala held apoetry reading event with five award-winning South Asian women poets addressing activism. Matwaala director and poet, Usha Akella, said that it’s time to bring poetry, a minority art amongst arts, out from the university halls and into the community.
Two of the poets read poems about the Nirbhaya incident of the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh, showcasing how poetry can be activism by bearing witness. Sophia Naz, a poet on the panel, described each poem to be an experiment and an act of activism. She sees the process of subjective meaning as a democratic act of a dialog between the poem and the reader. The activism is inherent in poems as the reader must engage to make sense of it, with the meaning changing with every reading. At the end of the 90 minutes, Srishti, IC moderator, said how she found the session cathartic and was glad that several poems gave expression to what she felt.
Poems read in community have a way of connecting us to our spirit and with each other.
This is the first in a series of articles for the new column – Poetry as Sanctuary. Poetry for the poetry lovers and the poetically curious in our community. The articles will be written by our diaspora poets who are from the FB groupPoetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. This group meets weekly, on Saturday nights at 8:30 pm, to read and listen to poems, in all languages, with impromptu translations. We have poets who read in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Sindhi, Farsi, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean, and other languages.
About a half a dozen years ago, Mahendra Kutare, started meetups and formed a group that now goes by the nameKaavya Connections. Many of us met at the monthly gathering in San Francisco that Mahendra hosts. Three years ago, we started meeting once a month in Mountain View and has morphed into a weekly group since the shelter-in-place started in March.
Although the group is open to all, it is not an open mic, since we are not a performance space. Ours is an art practice space for poetry lovers who have a deep and old commitment to poems. Unlike some other poetry groups, we do not expect or provide a critique of poems. Our intention is to connect people through the love of poems, and we end up co-creating poetic conversations. It is an affirmative space by intention, following the Hindustani tehzeeb (protocol/tradition), where praise for the poets attending a mushaira or mehfil, poetry recitation event, is called, ‘daat dena’, where the listeners repeat words that the poet says or ask the poet to re-read some lines (mukarar), as a way to set the pace and punctuate the poems with generous praise, by saying ‘Wah! Wah!’ (great!) or ‘irshad’ (repeat please), depending on the response evoked by the poem being read.
We will be in touch with poems, and until then check out the recordings of the event.
I can recommend Sophia Naz’s the United States of Amnesia, where you might find yourself wanting to soak up phrases like “I know the smell of Genocide” or “I have fallen in your uncivil war of a thousand and one episodes. This beast you thought you tamed? He prowls the profiled night wearing a police uniform.”
Zilka Joseph’s poems on 25 responses to everyday racism, or the ghazal about Jyoti Singh, were immersive and evocative. She calmly stated the obvious, “Poets, words are witness, make darkness burn.” I was taken by her simplicity.
I heard poems about mothers who lost their sons and a reminder that George Floyd was a spark that ignited cataclysmic events brewing for hundreds of years – “take a breath brother because you are more than 400 years of hate and hurt”.
Usha Akella’s phrase, “Sanskrit mantras in my veins” or the poem Enough demanding “bring back our caged children to a field of sunflowers” kept me wanting more.
“How much of knowing do we need before we say it.” – I poignant end to a thought-provoking session. I knew I was ready for the next reading, as soon as this one ended.
Thank you, Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik for using the IC platform to elevate these minority voices that speak for the disenfranchised communities. I look forward to the next poetry reading.
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.
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of 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.