Editor’s Note: In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, California’s State Treasurer Fiona Ma wrote this call-to-action to Chinese Americans, especially those living in her home town San Francisco: Fill out the census, or risk losing hard won gains!
Chinese immigrants, like my parents, began coming to America in the mid-1800s in search of a better life and greater opportunity for their children and grandchildren. Today, more than a fifth of San Francisco residents are of Chinese descent, and the City is home to the second-largest Chinese population in the United States.
Despite our numbers, however, political power and representation for Chinese Americans was a long time coming. The first Chinese American on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors wasn’t appointed until 1977, and we had to wait until the 1990s for the 11-member Board to include more than one Asian American supervisor. Since then, San Francisco has elected its first Chinese mayor, I am one of two statewide elected Chinese constitutional officers, and Asian American elected officials at all levels of California’s government now number in the hundreds.
During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we celebrate the contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders past and present – but we also look to the future and how we can ensure our voices are heard. One of the most critical ways we can take a stand for our communities and our families is to be counted in the 2020 Census.
Census data informs billions of dollars in federal funding for key programs such as Head Start, childcare and development programs, community mental health programs, nutrition programs, educational and health care resources, and much more. Many of these programs are especially important now – in the midst of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis – because they impact the state’s ability to appropriately plan for emergencies and critical patient care needs. Estimates show that for every person uncounted, California could lose $1,000 a year for 10 years, or as much as $10,000 per person over the next decade.
Census data also determines the state’s political representation through the number of representatives in the U.S. Congress and the redrawing of political lines at the local and state levels. That means that participating in the Census will help ensure your community’s voice is heard in city halls across the state, at the State Capitol in Sacramento and under the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C.
That’s why it’s so incredibly important that your entire family and everyone living in your household is counted. The Census is a simple, confidential nine-question survey that you can complete online now at my2020census.gov or by phone. Paper Census forms will soon be arriving in the mail for those families who have not yet completed the Census. Most importantly, you must count every person in your household – whether that’s extended family, small children, tenants, and anyone else who stays with you most of the time.
When you dive into the response rate data in places like San Francisco’s Chinatown, you see the need for greater participation in the Census. Whereas the Bay Area is outperforming other regions with a median response rate of 68.4 percent regionally, as compared to 60.8 percent statewide, San Francisco County has seen less participation, with a response rate of 57.7 percent.
Of particularly concern is the fact that hundreds of thousands of the hardest-to-count households in California still have not yet participated in the Census. In San Francisco, these include people who live around Chinatown, the Sunset and the Bayview neighborhoods, among others.
As a child, my parents instilled in me that education was the great equalizer and encouraged me to pursue one of the so-called “LEAD” (lawyer, engineer, accountant, doctor) professions. They were initially hesitant to embrace my career as an elected government official. But today they are proud I am using my education and public- and private-sector experience serving as the State Treasurer of the fifth largest economy in the world and working to ensure that other Asian Americans are seen and heard at all levels of government by urging everyone to stand up and be counted in the 2020 Census.
The most far-fetched prophecy I have ever received is: maybe you can live on the moon in the next century! Although all Bollywood and Western romantic numbers croon about flying up to the moon, I feel safer on terra firma.
To pull out a fortune from a cookie seems gimmicky to me. Regardless, it’s okay to succumb to a little bit of self-love and to justify this behaviour, we read our message in a cookie with an enthusiasm that slowly dwindles as we go around the table and read each other’s luck.
In 2013, our friendly yoga teacher gave us a mason jar with a picture of her place of worship, a fragrant herb, and a colored strip of paper with a blessing. Mine was – “Get up and out, the day is bursting with moments.” by Rabindranath Tagore. We all went home with our jars and I put mine on my kitchen alcove. Over the years I kept putting other blessings in this jar along with strips of fortune.
Growing up, we ate Indian food at home every day and so to change our taste we went once a week for and Indian Chinese dinner in Mumbai. Hakka noodles, American chop suey, chili chicken/paneer, and big bowls of hot and sour soup were our favorite entrees. Indian Chinese food is not available in Huntsville but the next best option for my Indian friends is the American style Chinese food at PF CHANGS, doused generously with extra hot chili sauce. After spicing our palettes and clearing the sinuses, it’s time to read our fortunes. Unlike my other friends, I don’t like to eat the sugar cookie. I just hold the twisted fortune crisp in my hand and take a tentative bite of the vanilla and sesame flavored shell. Then I put it down and after everyone else has read their fortunes, I read the vague aphorism silently. Then I put it in my purse and at home transfer it to the mason jar. Every time I open the jar, I think of my yoga teacher and once again I read my fortune. I turn it over in the palm of my hand, look at the random lotto numbers and stash it away in my jar.
I did not know that these fortune cookies are not Chinese. They were popularized in America by Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. They were first made in the Benkyodo bakery in San Francisco and served with hot tea. Later, Kito the founder of “Little Tokyo” in Los Angeles sold his flour tea cakes with fortune slips to the Chinese. During World War II, when 100,000 Japanese were in internment in America, the Chinese started mass producing these cookies. Ever since that time, they appear as a courtesy dessert along with the check at Chinese restaurants. These cookies are accepted all over the world, including India, where people are fond of fortune-tellers, soothsayers, and Palm readers. Strangely enough, they are not popular in China and are considered to be too American.
I have never visited China but I have lived in America for almost three decades. We live in a sparsely populated region in the South but my American friends, family members, and strangers are all sheltered in place. A few of us go for solitary walks or wave at people from our porches. Friends FaceTime us to update us about their health or share their thoughts on social media. We wash our hands, run fingers through our hair, take naps, and spend days and nights in our pajamas. Time as we know it has slowed down. There’s nothing rushed. We all are running out of projects at home. We clean, purge, organize, sort, grow herb gardens, sew and donate masks, cook, share jokes, indulge in arts and crafts, read the stack of books put aside for a rainy day.
Today, I decided to open my jar of fortunes to look for a clue to solve the viral pandemic. I pour a cup of coffee and pour out my fortunes on the floor and arrange them in a cyclic semblance of destiny.
You will be honored with a prestigious prize or award.
Your dearest wish will come true.
A pleasant surprise is in store for you.
You will always be surrounded by true friends.
You have a strong desire for home, family comes first.
Good news will come to you by mail.
You have the ability to sense and know higher truth.
You will conquer obstacles to achieve success.
You are an evening star in someone’s romantic eyes.
You are competent, creative, careful. Prove it.
Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals.
Focus on your long-term goals.
Good things will happen sooner or later.
Golden hours are coming to you eventually.
A cynic is only a frustrated optimist.
These strange words remind me of the hilarious attempts of two Asian women working at the Fortune cookie factory in Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” who are not able to translate these proverbs into Chinese. They give up thinking that they don’t contain any wisdom but just bad instruction.
Your smile is a curve that gets a lot of things straight. Answer the call to help a friend.
Now is the time to call loved ones. Share your news.
Don’t pursue happiness, create it (Mango?!).
Your luck has been completely changed today.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen?
The joyfulness of a man prolongs his days.
What you plant now you will harvest later.
You will learn about love and a peaceful heart. A smiley face and a Spanish translation.
Be prepared to receive something special.
The best times of your life have not yet been lived.
Everything will now come your way.
You will discover an unexpected treasure.
Now is a lucky time for you to take a chance.
You are going to change your present line of work.
Soon someone will make you very proud.
You were born with a sixth sense.
Confidence is at a high? Whose?
If it seems fate is against you today. You are right!
A closed mouth gathers no feet!
You will die alone and poorly dressed!
How about another fortune
Blank fortunes are the scariest because you freak out that something bad is going to happen to you.
I look at all these fortunes and put them back in the Mason jar and sit on my deck under a blue sky. I pray for all the people who are ill with this virus and especially for those who have succumbed to this terrible illness. I take a strip of green paper and tune into higher consciousness. I breathe in and out. I write, “VIRUS BEGONE!” and put it back into my mason jar.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
Back in ancient China, people once held that their magnificent culture was a gift from the heavens. Art was a way to explore this connection between humankind and higher realms. Today, Shen Yun is reviving this tradition. Through the universal language of dance and music, Shen Yun weaves a wondrous tapestry of celestial paradises, ancient legends, and modern heroic tales, taking you on a journey through 5,000 years of authentic Chinese culture.
Shen Yun combines ancient legends with technological innovations, historically authentic costumes with breathtaking animated backdrops and classical Chinese dance with expressive storytelling, to share with you beautifully diverse ethnic and folk traditions. Filled with an enchanting orchestral sound, this is a mesmerizing experience you won’t find anywhere else.
Shen Yun cannot be seen in China today, where traditional culture has been devastated under decades of communist rule. Yet Shen Yun, a nonprofit based in New York, is now bringing the wonders of this ancient civilization to millions of people across the globe. The stunning beauty and tremendous energy of the performance are leaving audiences uplifted and deeply inspired.
See for yourself why Shen Yun is leaving millions around the world in awe, and why they return again and again.
“I’ve reviewed over 3,000 shows. None can compare to what I saw tonight. Five stars, mind blowing!” – Richard Connema, renowned Broadway critic
“My heart was open and I started to cry. The spirit of hope, beauty, and blessing…It’s a fabulous gift to us.” – Sine McKenna, award-winning Celtic singer
“This is the finest thing, the finest event I’ve ever been to in my life! I was in tears, because of the human spirit, the dignity, the power, the love, coming out of those people was astounding!” – Jim Crill, producer
Buy tickets HERE or check ShenYun.com/CA for more information.
The San Francisco Press Club held its 42nd annual journalism awards dinner at the Hilton San Francisco Airport Bayfront Hotel in Burlingame on November 7, 2019. More than 100 journalists were recognized for their work in digital media, blogs, newspaper, magazine/trade publications and radio. Entries were judged by the journalism clubs in Milwaukee, New Orleans, San Diego and Cleveland.
The San Francisco Press Club’s Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards ceremony and dinner honors the outstanding work of Bay Area print, TV, radio and digital media journalists, graphic designers and photographers, as well as the work of documentary filmmakers and PR materials from nonprofits and corporations.
This year the team at India Currents won 8 awards! The winning entries are here:
First Place: Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, Jaya Padmanabhan, “What Does Our Society Need?” India Currents
NBC Bay Area Senior Investigative Reporter Stephen Stock was the keynote speaker and spoke about the news media’s role in bringing important information to light. Kathi Duffel, a journalism teacher at Bear Creek High School in Stockton, and her student Bailey Kirkeby were presented a First Amendment Award for their bravery and commitment to the core principles of journalism. The Bill Workman News Writer Award was presented to Michael Barba of the San Francisco Examiner, making this his second time to be honored with the Workman award.
The advent of winter brings with it the annual 3rd i Film Festival, a visual smorgasbord of fresh perspectives and brave new voices by independent filmmakers from South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora, including stories from India, Sri Lanka, UK, Italy, and the USA. 3rd i’s 17th Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond (SFISAFF) launches at the New People and Castro Theaters in San Francisco from November 7-10, moving to Palo Alto on November 16. Some of the movies are unafraid to explore issues that are uncomfortable, give voice to the oppressed and shed light on matters often overlooked or ignored.
A highlight for this year coming straight out of TIFF and Venice Critics’ Week is Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature Bombay Rose. In the rich, colorful and layered hand-painted animation there is an ethereal brightness to the chaotic Mumbai streetscapes where Bollywood cinema is both satirized and romanticized, and small town folks in the big city can be crushed by its mean streets, or redeemed by love. The film moves seamlessly between a documentary feeling of present-day struggles in Mumbai, to the lusciously designed dream sequences set in ancient India and inspired by Mughal folk art. Yoav Rosenthal’s original score merges swooning ballads with traditional Bollywood music and a haunting Latin love tribute.
This year’s special focus is on Young Voices, with a host of films that feature stories with strong youth characters. Dar Gai’s Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence is a witty, off-beat take on the road movie, set against the breathtaking landscapes of Ladakh. The film features an inter-generational storyline about the relationship between a young boy and an elderly man, as they head for the peace and tranquility of the Silent Valley, leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind. Filmmaker Gai, a philosopher by training and originally from Ukraine, has made India her filmmaking home and is touted as an exciting new voice in Indian cinema.
Also part of this youth focus is Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing. The film takes us back to the timeless beauty of the northeast in this bittersweet narrative that draws inspiration from her own experiences of growing up in the Assamese countryside. This is no simple rural idyll however; in Das’ deft hands, the film transforms into a deeply compelling exploration of love, loss, and adolescence.
Safdar Rahman’s heartwarming story of young Chippa features Sunny Pawar (award-winning child star of LION). Chippa sets out into night-time Calcutta looking for a father he has never seen, finding a city of migrants who speak in a curious mix of languages. Chippa is not oblivious to the grim reality and communal suspicion surrounding him, but chooses to encounter this world with a mixture of bravado, curiosity and humor.
Another film in the youth category is The MisEducation of Bindu screening in Palo Alto, which premiered at Mill Valley Film Festival, and follows a day in the life of formerly homeschooled Bindu as she endures an American high school and tries to graduate early. Her mother does her best to keep Bindu on track while maintaining her South Asian heritage, and her clueless stepfather tries to give Bindu advice on boys and high school life in America. Paying homage to Bollywood rock with one fantastical Bollywood dance number, Bindu dreams about escaping and longs for her home in India. Director Prarthana Mohan will be present for a Q&A session after.
Rounding out the youth films in Palo Alto is romantic comedy Bangla, with Phaim. An awkwardly charming 22-year-old Italian-Bengali panics when he falls in love with an impulsive and spirited Italian girl. The attraction between them is immediate, and Phaim will have to figure out how to reconcile his love with his life full of rules. This whimsical lens on the clash of cultures is based on the director’s own life, who plays the lead fictionalized version of himself.
Another stellar narrative in Palo Alto is Rohena Gera’s Sir, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival. A nuanced and sensual film, it explores the forbidden attraction between Ratna, a maid, and her employer Ashwin, a wealthy Mumbai bachelor, with each character quietly yearning to break free from the narrow bounds of their class and gender-based expectations. Gera achieves a particular delicacy in her directing, combining an appealing, understated sweetness with an edge, and thwarting all expectations and stereotypes of a typical Indian love story.
The festival features stories of addiction, which includes acclaimed black and white photographer Ronny Sen’s indie Cat Sticks. A gritty and haunting narrative, the film follows the stories of several addicts looking for the high of halogen, a synthetic brand of heroin that created havoc in India at the turn of the millennium.
The other film in this focus is Bhaskar Hazarika’s quietly shocking The Ravening (Aamis), which opened to great acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival. An unforgettable meditation on taboo and transgression, the film blends gentle romance and body horror into a unique cinematic experience. Hazarika masterfully concocts a tale of love and addiction that builds slowly – from a lilting rhythm to a pounding finale.
While this year’s program predominantly showcases narrative features, documentaries are also part of the lineup. Equal parts comedy and self-discovery, Laura Asherman’s intimate doc American Hasiis a portrait of Indian-American comedian, Tushar Singh. In an attempt to accelerate his career, Singh maps out a 35-day tour in India (with his mom in tow), taking part in India’s flourishing stand-up scene.
Comedy also features prominently in this year’s edition of Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s signature shorts program which brings California filmmakers into conversation with filmmakers from South Asia and the Diaspora. The program includes Varun Chounal’s Gabroo about a young Sikh boy’s complicated relationship with his hair, Mahesh Pailoor’s portrait of Pakistani-American comedienne, Mona Shaikh, and Andrew Sturm’s political satire on the border wall, 31 Foot Ladders, along with a variety of short docs, narratives, and music videos.
This year for the first time in the festival’s history, 3rd i will offer a free Master Class in filmmaking from the talented documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain (City of Photos, Lakshmiand Me, At My Doorstep, Gulabi Gang). Jain returns to SFISAFF to talk about her filmmaking process, to present excerpts from past work and the present, and to talk about the different social and political movements in India and its alignment with her work. Jain’s work holds up a mirror to some of the most pressing concerns in India today, including India’s #metoo women’s movement.
Women’s issues are at the forefront of several other films in the lineup. Vasanth S. Sai’s Sivaranjani and Two Other Women pays a cinematic homage to the “everyday” woman and is a deeply moving work that focuses a critical lens on patriarchy, with outstanding performances by each of the lead actresses. The film captures the micro awakenings of identity and self-worth when family dynamics, early marriage, and pregnancy threaten to usurp the individuality of three women, unfolding across three different time periods.
The festival brings back Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage with a screening of the historical epic feature Children of the Sun (Gaadi) about a Sinhalese Buddhist woman in the 1814 Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, stripped from nobility, who subverts the destiny forced upon her. His searing masterpiece is a period drama that takes on caste conflict and British colonial influences in Sri Lanka in the early 1800s. Director Vithanage will join a panel discussion following the film.
Among the voices to amplify, LGBTQ+ themes feature prominently in Poonam Brah’s Home Girl about a British lesbian woman’s coming out story while navigating her mother’s death in Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s shorts program, as well as Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks illuminating the life and trials of a transgender sex worker, and Rima Das’ engaging youthful exploration Bulbul Can Sing.
Castro Passes ($35) are only available online until Nov 5. Tickets to individual films are $11/online and $13/at the door. More information about the festival, including expanded program, guest and ticketing information, please visit www.thirdi.org
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines.
Cover photo credit: 3rd i Films.
This article was edited by Culture and Media editor Geetika Pathania Jain.
Lunchtime at the intersection of Third and Geary in downtown San Francisco is a concerto of movement. Cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, strollers, bags, carts, pets perform a score as they make their way through narrow passageways that open and snap to shapes and bodies. Generally, all things great and small keep to the rhythm of the red, green and yellow lights.
We broke that rhythm one day.
It was 1993. I had been living in America since 1988 and the newness of my American skin had just about begun to recede. I no longer looked around curiously. I no longer answered hesitantly. The country I grew up in, India, was no longer dominantly inhabiting my thoughts. I was now a citizen of the world. What I saw others seeing in me was a person from another land, different in many ways, and alike in many too. What I saw in others were people like me who’d grown up unlike me.
So, it didn’t register that people were looking at me curiously, hesitantly.
My husband and I were meeting friends for lunch, and my husband was driving. It might have been Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar who was crooning over the car speakers as we both hummed along. The light turned yellow and he distractedly kept the forward momentum going. And then the light turned red. We were caught with the nose of our car a foot or so into the pedestrian walkway.
Trapped, we looked out as folks converged on us from both sides of the walkway. One or two people glared at us as they made their way across. Most ignored us. But as we watched, a man on roller blades stopped directly in front of us. He pressed his hands down on the hood of the car and banged once, twice, three times, hard and then harder with his fist, shaking the car, and then, looking directly at us, he yelled, “Go back to your country.” He paused, waiting for it to register before he turned and continued on.
Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar continued singing, but we had stopped humming. The lights changed and we drove on.
1993 was the first time I was told to “go back to my country.” Since then I’ve received the words in a Target Health and Beauty aisle; while leisurely walking into Le Boulanger cafe with my nine year-old twin daughters chattering away beside me; and on several occasions in response to articles I’ve written. It was only the time with my twins that it scored painfully, for the deliverer of the message could hear my children babbling in their American accents, wearing their American clothes, and carrying their American books.
Those words should not really hurt, though. The strangers who uttered the words were angry, yes, but it was a careless, vaguely defined anger at their loss of momentum. They didn’t know enough about me, what I stood for, how long I’d been sharing their country, or for that matter, which country I came from for their anger to have much depth.
Their anger was not directed at me, but the idea of me—a non-white, non-native, un-American looking person competing for scant resources. For them, the words “going back …” were neither compensable nor redemptive. It merely seized the inconvenience of the moment and illuminated a shallow-seated aggravation, rooted in history and circumstance.
The notion of going back, it seems to me, demands a commitment to turn back time and space, both emotional and geographical; to return what is gained and to prevent further acquisition. It doesn’t matter that what I have gained has not come from someone else’s immediate loss.
Being told to go back gave me pause, each time, then and now. The words reflect how people place a value on me, my body, and my ideas. This value is inherently transient, for all three can be devalued instantly if I, my body or my ideas are not congruent with them, their bodies or their ideas.
My children and I never talked about the incident that occurred eleven years ago at Le Boulanger. At the time, it could be that they brushed it away as a rant, or they buried it because they could see that it disturbed me, or that they couldn’t understand what was said for they had never known any country other than the one they lived in.
I didn’t address the subject even in the years since because I wanted my children to process the words “going back to your country” without my own aspirational interpretations. Their belief in their belonging to America is something that they own. This ownership shouldn’t need affirmation or confirmation. They were born into this relationship between personhood and citizenship.
Yet I believe that they must prepare for the questions and comments. And if they lose some of their agency because of these questions or comments, it is only because they doubt who they are and where they’ve lived. Yes, we do own our spaces, though often we cannot choose our neighbors. We cannot control what others say, how they say it, or where they say it, so we must learn to regulate how much we allow it to affect us.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.
WomenNow organized a Sari Parade where over 600 participants walked down the streets of San Francisco, flaunting their culture and identity woven in five yards of grace.
The Sari Parade was held at the fifth annual Spring India Day Festival this June and this unique parade took place for the first time ever. Both events were free for all, resulting in an amalgamation of cultures tied together with dance and music. Lining the parade were stalls of food, clothes and jewelry similar to a street market in India.
The buzzing excitement of participants wearing Incredible India sashes, the dances along with live Dhol, and the colorful landscape of Union Square evoked emotions beyond a national pride. This truly was a showcase of India’s true colors and heritage.
The event was held in collaboration with Compassionate Chef, which works with the Tenderloin After School Program to help impoverished kids obtain the resources to become global citizens.
Notable guests in attendance included Mayor London Breed and the Consul General of India, Sanjay Panda.
Mayor London Breed gave an encouraging speech about how our different cultures and families bring us together, and how our different backgrounds are an important identity of the city of San Francisco.
A vast spectrum of participants from housewives, to models, Silicon Valley technology gurus, doctors, engineers, as well as representatives from every other professions were present. The vast spectrum of saris were showcased and every style of sari from traditional to modern, every type of drape, and every color were in attendance.
In the midst of the parade were demonstrations of how to drape a sari in various styles for everyone to learn more about what exactly a sari means to an Indian women.
The parade was sponsored by Incredible India! India’s official tourism agency, to showcase Indian tourism. Other sponsors include Zee TV, Rotimatic Singapore and Shasta India.
Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, is in the San Francisco Bay Area for a conference at Stanford on global poverty. I met Dr. Banerji in San Jose during her visit.
First, a few facts about Pratham: Pratham started off in the slums of Mumbai, 1995. The educational NGO, one of the world’s largest, focuses on “high-quality, low-cost, and replicable interventions to address gaps in the education system.” It has helped about 50 million children to date, with 15 chapters across the United States, all run by volunteers. Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator of charities based in the United States, rates Pratham with its highest possible rating of four stars.
Asked about her vision for Pratham, Dr. Banerji says that they complete a strategy review once every five to ten years. Based on this review, they’ve decided on implementing three or four major programs. While school enrollment levels in India are high, functional literacy is not. Their focus is on raising the foundational educational levels for children quickly, on a large scale and in a cost effective manner.
I ask her what differentiates Pratham from other educational NGOs, considering that the Bay Area alone has over 160 registered institutions working in this arena. Dr. Banerji says Pratham’s mandate is not to buy school buildings. They don’t want to come in as outsiders, tell communities how to educate themselves, then leave. They see themselves as facilitators who facilitate community building through education. This emphasis on structuring learning is not just for the kids, but for whole communities.
According to Dr. Banerji, as these kids enter the workforce, they will need to learn to work in teams, they will need to learn to collaborate. This, she feels, is best done outside of the school curriculum.Towards this end, they bring together children in groups. Funding from companies like Google and Facebook, allows Pratham to provide each group with a tablet computer preloaded with projects, in their regional language of instruction. These tablets have a choice of mini courses. The content is grouped into videos or games; it is up to the kids to decide what they use. As a group, the kids choose a course or a plan, it could be a football game, if that’s what they want. The kids are required to find their own coach, present their plan, then ask for mentorship. This coach is someone within their own community – it could be an older sibling, it could be someone’s grandmother. But it has to be someone who can hold the children accountable. For maintenance of the hardware, Pratham assigns a mentor, one for every villages.
Dr. Banerji recalls a group of kids who came up with project on skeletons. For this, they sought out the local bone setter as their coach. Dr. Banerji feels that schools are so focused on academics that they sometimes leave behind kids who do well in collaborations. In sharing a tablet, and a project, these children learn to work together, learn how to use content that is made available for their use, and how to apply what they know. In this ‘hybrid’ learning model, the children are responsible for their own learning.
The previous year the kids were given a choice of themes – water, mango etc. The kids could choose to go with the theme, or pick something on their own. So many videos were created that village level juries – picked the kids themselves, voted on the best ones, and then uploaded them to Pratham volunteers. Currently, this program covers about a thousand villages. Pratham tests out various such projects in focus labs. Once they begin to show results, they are moved to the mainstream.
Another area that Pratham focuses on is the development of vocational skills. They have tie ups with companies like the Larsen and Toubro and others. Pratham helps train young people for entry level jobs. These youngsters are then absorbed by the organization with which they have an existing tie-up. Dr. Banerji estimates that people have been able to take advantage of this program.
On a smaller scale, Pratham runs a program for women who had to drop out of school, called “Second Chance.” Since 10th class certification is necessary for so many government programs, including government jobs at the village level, Pratham provides help to finish high school studies if the women choose to do so. Dr. Banerji estimates that young women have taken advantage of this program.
Dr. Banerji is very optimistic about the future – “India has changed quite a lot,” she says. There are major shifts even within the government to explore new technologies. When asked how people in the United States can help Pratham, she points out that most of the work of the NGO happens on the ground in India. The best way for people based here to get involved, is through fund-raising believing in the organization’s laudable vision and mission.
Rasana Atreya is a novelist and technical content writer.
The San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) is pleased to announce a day-long, two concert dance program featuring four different Indian classical dance companies embodying a variety of styles and regional influences.
Indicative of India’s east coast is Guru Shradha led by founding director Niharika Mohanty specializing in the Odissi dance form. Representing the north is Shambhavi’s International School of Kathak (artistic director Shambhavi Dandekar). These exemplary companies are joined by two practitioners of the southern form of Bharatanatyam, featuring the much respected Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose (artistic director Mythili Kumar) and an upcoming ensemble Samudra Dance Creations founded by well known dancer Jyotsna Vaidee that premiered a full length production on women’s empowerment at the 2018 Festival to critical acclaim.
Festival director, Andrew Wood said of the program, “We are very excited to have such great artists representing some of the rich and varied traditions of India performing in the Festival. Our primary goal in putting the program together was to celebrate the vibrant and innovative next generation of Indian and Indian-American choreographers making classical Indian dance in the United States in the 21st Century. We are especially interested in posing the question about the future direction of the art form as it exists in this country.”
Guru Shradha and Abhinaya Dance Company will perform at 2:00pm and SISK and Samudra Dance Creations will perform at 5:30pm. Single tickets can be purchased for as little as $15 during the Early Bird period in the month of March. After that tickets are $25 in advance or $28 at the door. After March the best deal to see both performances is a $40 two-show pass. Children’s tickets are $15.
There will also be a panel discussion moderated by India Currents journalist Priya Das featuring the artistic directors of all four companies at 4:00pm. Food will be available for purchase.
The details of each company’s performances are as follows:
Guru Shradha (USA)
An Enchanting Odissi Odyssey (45 minutes)
Shared bill with Abhinaya Dance Company
Odissi dance, one of the oldest surviving Indian dance forms, is captivating through its unique grace and poses evoking temple dance sculptures. An Enchanting Odissi Odyssey takes the audience through a spiritual journey showcasing contemporary and traditional choreography revealing a tapestry of its devotional, emotive, intricate dance and haunting music.
Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose (USA)
Stories of Justice (2018, San Francisco Premiere) (45 minutes)
Shared bill with Guru Shradha
Stories of Justice will examine the non-violent resistance strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. to demonstrate that the fight for social justice is ongoing and that past struggles provide lessons that enable us to confront our current problems.
Samudra Dance Creations (USA)
Earth Speaks (World Premiere) (45 minutes)
Shared bill with SISK Dance
Earth Speaks is a dance-music production that explores humankind’s intricate physical, emotional and spiritual relationship to the EARTH (PRITHVI in sanskrit). When that connection, that umbilical cord is disturbed or even severed what happens to our being, our existence? The production incorporates Indian mythology, Greek mythology and contemporary stories to tell the story of Mother Earth in HER voice.
Shambhavi’s International School of Kathak (SISK) (USA)
Horizons… Kathak and beyond! (45 minutes)
Shared bill with Samudra Dance Creations
Horizons…Kathak and Beyond is a beautiful array of choreographic work in Indian Classical Kathak dance style. Horizons features traditional as well as contemporary themes in Classical Kathak. The performers include SISK’s founder, principal dancer and choreographer Shambhavi Dandekar along with her highly trained and accomplished disciples from India and USA.
SFIAF 2019 Calendar Listing
Who: Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose, Guru Shradha, Shambhavi’s International School of Kathak and Samudra Dance Creations / Joytsna Vaidee
What: A Day of Indian Classical Dance
Where: Cowell Theater, Herbst Pavillion, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture
When: Saturday May 25, 2:00pm (Guru Shradha followed by Abhinaya)
Saturday May 25, 4:00pm Panel Discussion moderated by Priya Das
Saturday May 25, 5:30pm (Samudra followed by Shambhavi)
Tickets: $15 – $28general admission (Two show passes are $40)
Stories are powerful entities. They hold entire universes within them. The human experience across the world, depends upon the telling and sharing of stories to shape its cultural identity. Narratives come in forms that are as varied as the plots and characters that inhabit them. Music and dance have played an important part in storytelling from times immemorial.
Speaking with Bay area based Kathak dancer and teacher, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh opened up another dimension into the world of storytelling. Reading her biography on her website, Noorani Dance, only whet my appetite to delve deeper. Farah’s life is a story of many beginnings.
Like most immigrant narratives, it begins with a multi-generational series of journeys. Starting in Partition-era India, it winds its way through Pakistan, before reaching the shores of the American dream. And there it finds yet another beginning in the dreams of a young girl who falls in love with the dance form of Kathak. Honing her skills over a period of nearly two decades under the tutelage of her Guru, the late Pandit Chitresh Das(Chhandam School of Kathak), the story evolves to see her spread her wings and invent new plot lines.
Farah choreographed the full length production of “The Twentieth Wife” in 2015 based on Indu Sundaresan’s award winning novel. This was followed by “The Forgotten Empress”, scripted by well known playwright and director Matthew Spangler. Her latest work “The Partition Project”, was co-produced in collaboration with EnActe Arts to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. In 2016, Farah founded “Noorani Dance”, an organization which provides in-depth Kathak training to students. Apart from performing internationally and actively teaching, she writes, blogs, and uses her voice to highlight issues that are close to her heart. Her most important role is that of a mother to her 8 year old daughter. These achievements over the years have only served to stoke the fires of her passion for dance and journey further both spiritually and creatively.
The recipient of awards and grants from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, San Francisco Foundation, and SVCreates to name a few, Farah was the guest choreographer for the World Dance Program at Alvin Ailey Extension in New York City, and the Mona Khan Dance Company, besides being involved in theatrical and feature film choreography as well.
P.K: Let us start by talking about your upcoming production. An interesting choice for a title! The word Nazaakat (delicate/delicacy) is not often seen associated with the word – Taaqat (strength).
F.Y.S:The word ‘Kathak’ is derived from the word ‘Katha’ which means ‘story’. Performers were originally called ‘kathakars.’ In this dance form, the four elements of ‘Tayaari’ (technical readiness), ‘Laykaari’ (rhythmic virtuosity), ‘Khoobsurti’ (beauty) and ‘Nazaakat’ (delicacy/refinement) , are equally important. One cannot and does not take precedence over the other. Here we see complementary yet contrasting elements making up the whole. Kathak requires years of discipline. A dancer certainly has to develop strength (Taaqat), but it is a fragile and delicate skill to maintain that discipline – ‘Sadhana’. So in a sense, delicacy itself is such a powerful thing! Delicacy is also about sensitivity and consciousness. It also speaks to femininity. The stereotypes explored and examined in this production will show that often delicacy shrouds an innate strength and power. The ability to be mothers, possessing a deep sense of nurturing – that in and of itself is a strength!
P.K:What is the main story central to this production? Have you taken a new approach to your craft in terms of choreography?
F.Y.S:The central story is that of Heer and Ranjha – the equivalent of Romeo & Juliet. The opening piece is based upon a light classical film song which has been rearranged musically to fit into the structure of a classical piece. Heer and Ranjha’s story can be placed in so many contexts. I was moved by the idea that two people were forced to separate on the basis of caste, social class and creed. Religion and betrayal play a big part in their story. I wanted to explore how we use religion to our advantage… and how it works against us, even in this day and age.
This production has retained the traditional Kathak style as far as structure. But I am exploring many things that I have tried during my workshops in Pakistan. This is the first time I will be sharing that on stage.
P.K:Reading your blog is a revelation about you – the person, the dancer, the woman. What has dance taught you about cultural and religious identity?
F.Y.S:I believe strongly that my art form, my creativity, is essentially a study in human emotions. For most people culture and religion are two sides of the same coin. But for some, one might supersede the other. There was an instance when I was a student of Pandit Chitresh Das where I was approached by a fellow student, a Muslim like me, who wanted to know how I could relate to or accept some of the aspects of Kathak that might be perceived as ‘Hindu.’ I have always held strongly to the idea that creative expression and art is a language that goes beyond labels. It certainly does not make me less of a person, or less of an artiste – to be who I am, creating the work that I am doing. During my time in Pakistan I was initially hyper-aware about not performing pieces that could cause trouble. Eventually I learnt that the people who attended the performances were there out of sheer interest regardless of what I chose to showcase. My work was warmly received, and I never felt alienated. My experiences there made me realize that these relationships should be fluid. There is no need to categorize and box myself in any way.
P.K:You have based your work on several female ‘Nayikas’ or protagonists, with productions like“The Twentieth Wife”, and “Forgotten Empress”. What draws you to characters from that period in history, other than the obvious reason of empathizing with them as women?
F.Y.S:Stories need to go beyond just the storyline or characterizations drawn from an epic or a book. Exploring the lives of these woman, taking them out of the zenana, from behind the jaali, allows us to get up close and personal with them. Noor Jehan was labelled as having been a shrewd woman because she managed to hold on to her power from behind the scenes. Why is that so wrong?! I wanted to explore all aspects of her attributes and celebrate them. For me personally, this exploration took on a new dimension in my understanding of Kathak.
As for the time period in history, there was an amazing spirit of tolerance, an acceptance of diversity in all forms – in arts and culture – during the Mughal era; especially during Emperor Akbar’s time. It must have been an incredible time to have been an artist! That is also why these women were able to exert such an impact on the world around them.
P.K:Speaking of watershed moments in history, you performed as part of the Partition Project in March of 2018. The Partition of India and Pakistan in many ways rewrote your own family history, did it not?
F.Y.S:Yes, I grew up watching movies from that time period and was always very interested in the topic. My parents’ families lived in Mumbai in 1947 during the Partition. They were both very young at that time and did not move to Pakistan until 1948, following the civil unrest after Gandhiji’s assassination. Although they do not have direct memories, I have heard stories about what it was like during that time. My grandfather left behind a thriving business to make the decision to move his family, only to realize how difficult it was to start over from scratch on the other side. The helplessness and demoralization that he and others in his situation experienced was heartrending. But despite this, many people survived and made something of themselves. Noorani Dance partnered with EnActe Arts to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Partition in March 2018. Titled ‘The Parting’, the production was very close to my heart!
P.K:Since your first solo performance in 2007, your journey with Kathak has been about personal exploration and self discovery. It is evident from your blog posts that it shares space with social activism as well. Is this a natural progression for you as an artiste?
F.Y.S:Yes, it is! My Guruji, Pdt. Chitresh Das, planted a seed in me which went beyond my love and passion for the art form in and of itself. It was the idea of creating art within a larger context and message. While I absolutely love Kathak, and it enriches me in so many ways, it also has incredible power as a medium and a vehicle in the realm of storytelling. Visual display, movement, music – all these layers make for a powerful instrument. I find myself naturally gravitating towards issues with social and political merit. It is exciting to be able to find ways to express my opinions through the medium of Kathak, with an inherent message underlying the elements of dance.
P.K:Can you share with us about your time training with Pdt. Chitresh Das Ji?
F.Y.S:I have an immense amount of gratitude for the skill and knowledge he imparted in the years I was his student. My training with him began when I was a student in SFSU. It was in many ways an intense and demanding relationship. He was very old school in the way he trained. It was all about tough love and lessons happened both on and off the dance floor. He was an exacting teacher and I definitely benefited from his demands for perfection!
We live in a liberated society in the U.S, but this traditional art form, like many others, requires a complete submission to the Guru. Many people who are committed to traditional art forms face challenges when it comes time to allowing their students to explore on their own. This is quite common. Unfortunately it became challenging to study with him when that time came in our relationship. I had to make a hard decision very much against that ‘Parampara’ (tradition), and struck out on my own. As difficult as it was for me, and I am sure for him as well, I will always honor and cherish my time with him forever!
P.K: What are the next steps for Noorani Dance?
F.Y.S:I don’t envision a large institution for Noorani Dance, but want quality over quantity. Forming a nonprofit organization is at the top of the list. And as always, I have several new ideas for projects! Keeping my work in Pakistan ongoing is very important to me. I would like to travel and work there, building bridges between Indian and Pakistani artists, even if that happens here locally in the U.S.
P.K: How do you see yourself evolving as a teacher?
F.Y.S: As an artiste, I see two aspects that are equally important; my performing career and being a teacher and mentor to my students. Teaching is so much more than just imparting the dance form. It is a combination of having clarity, but being fluid and open without becoming rigid about evolving. I don’t call myself a Guru – that label has to be earned!
“Nazaakat aur Taaqat – A Delicate Power”opens on May 4th, 2019, at the Mexican Heritage Theater in San Jose. Featuring an impressive lineup of talented musicians and singers, along with the dancers from Noorani Dance, the production promises an evening of visually rhythmic journey of dance and music to enthrall our senses.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.
“Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & The All Stars, the 1990s pop song, filled the street as community members, volunteers and employees of Catholic Charities assembled, sheltering under rain canopies. February 26, 2019, was the first anniversary of Catholic Charities Bayview Access Point, and the jovial crowd made sure that there would be “no raining on this parade.”
The Bayview Access Point provides multiple services targeting the needs of San Francisco’s homeless families. Through rental assistance, legal referrals, childcare, and even housing subsidies, the nonprofit has helped numerous families and individuals in finding safe housing options for the past 25 years.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, world-renowned actor Danny Glover, and Reverend Amos C. Brown, graced the stage in honor of Black History Month and to express their gratitude towards the community members and employees of the Bayview district — highlighting the fact that San Francisco’s homeless population is disproportionately African American and LGBTQ.
Mayor London Breed zealously stated, “As Mayor of San Francisco I, too, stand on the shoulders of so many incredible leaders from the Bayview Hunters Point. A place that has a rich history, a rich tradition of African Americans… the folks in this community played a critical role in [the building of this city].” Mayor Breed continued highlighting a call to action, “We have work to do, to change some of the things that exist in San Francisco! [However] thank goodness we have an amazing community willing to wrap their arms around [struggling families] and ensure their success.”
Nothing about the perennial crisis in the Bay Area is easy, with more families getting pushed out of the city center, scaling rental prices, and competitive buyers. However, honoring Black History Month, the speakers challenged the audience to work constructively towards common community goals with dignity, respect, and love for one another. And with the right political investments, compassion from residents, and the support of an organization like Catholic Charities, society can prevent family homelessness and ensure individuals receive the assistance and care they need.
There is a distinct nip in the air as the calendar inches towards Christmas and the approaching winter break. After the eggnog has been consumed, gifts unwrapped and holiday visits checked off, there is still the matter of keeping hands and minds busy with indoor activities. Here is a great option for those moments when you hear the dreaded “I’m bored!”
San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is currently home to a wonderful exhibit featuring paintings from the Mithila region of India. Aptly titled ‘Painting is my Everything’ – the exhibit showcases wonderfully detailed, vivid representations created by some of the foremost of Mithila artists. This style, also known as Madhubani painting, has gained in popularity since the 1960s. Rich in pattern and color, it is not only a feast for the eyes but also inspiring in its content.
Interspersed among the art on the walls, are short video interviews with the artists whose hands shape this rich legacy. The documentaries help put a face to names like Dulari Devi, Dr. Rani Jha and Shalinee Kumari; women who have taken the art form, made it their own, and are ushering it into the contemporary world of today.
How is a work of art created? What happens at the moment of creation? How does an apparently everyday scene take on a distinct nuance and magic through the language of art? And how can such a creation shape the world around it?
Art and its expression go beyond stylistic representations and labels. For the artist the process of creating takes precedence over all else. Yes, there is the commercial aspect to the making and selling of work that can be a motivator. But if you ask artists why they create, they will tell you that they do it because they MUST. It is an extension of themselves. It is as much a part of their identity as the color of their eyes. Creating their art is their voice.
Especially when the expression is part of a larger identity – a community spirit. People in the Bihar region of northern India have been creating wall murals since times immemorial. Mythology has named this region ‘Mithila’ and its people continue to identify with it. The Indian epic Ramayana describes the beautiful art covering the walls of the kingdom of Mithila to celebrate the wedding of their Princess Sita with Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya.
Another important feature of this form of art is that traditionally women were its guardians. Female hands created the murals and adorned the walls of their homes to commemorate special occasions. It was up to the women of the villages to keep the art alive, safeguarding their distinct styles marked by caste differences, and passing it on, along with the folklore, mythology and customs inherent in its creation.
Over time, with the popularization of Mithila art, the responsibility of creating these wonderful murals is now being shared by both genders. And, the style is now showcased on paper, fabric and all manner of materials.
Founded in 2003 in Madhubani, Bihar, the Mithila Art Institute received initial funding from the estate of Raymond Owens and the Ethnic Arts Foundation. The institute’s focus is the to shape the next generation of Mithila artists. Teaching traditional conventions, imagery and techniques, the Institute’s curriculum also allows for personal exploration and stylistic variations. The Mithila Art Institute has successfully trained and launched artists since its inception. It is regarded as a major cultural institution in India. Several graduates have received national and international recognition and many have been featured in exhibitions, books and articles in both in India and across the world.
Dr. Rani Jha is a Master Painter and instructor at the Institute. Her own work often deals with women’s issues and stems from her personal life experiences. She is proud to represent and celebrate women in all aspects of life. In 2015, Rani Jha was a Visiting Artist at Syracuse University. “I am Mithila’s daughter”, she states proudly in her interview documentary.
Among the many decorative and mythological motifs at the Asian Art Museum exhibit, are some striking pieces with contemporary messages. In an age replete with social and political movements jostling for space on the world’s stage, these colorfully artistic voices seem to speak loudest of all!
Sita Devi was one of the earliest trailblazers of the Mithila art community. She was among the first artists to paint on paper. In 1976 she traveled to Washington D.C to participate in the Smithsonian’s annual Festival of American Folklife’s “Old Ways in the New World” demonstration program series. Included in the exhibit is one of her paintings which documents her visit. Iconic monuments like the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and Arlington National Cemetery have been captured via the lens of her imagination in a painting titled ‘Monuments in Washington, D.C’.
Shalinee Kumariis one of the younger artists who is changing the tradition of Mithila art with her intensely personal narratives of self-expression. She draws from global subjects that also impact her life and community. Topics like gender-equality, women’s rights, terrorism and global warming come alive under her painstaking brush strokes. She was the first graduate of the Mithila Art Institute to have a solo exhibition at the Frey-Norris Gallery in San Francisco in 2009. Shalinee’s painting titled ‘Women’s Power’ is a celebration of the Devi and by extension of womanhood, in its representation of a three-headed, multi-armed goddess standing atop a lotus. In her hands she holds symbolic objects associated with various Hindu deities. The lower half of her body is depicted in the form of ‘Ardhanarishwara’ – a half man – half woman representation of the God Shiva. Beneath this form lie male corpses. It is a symbolic but succinct declaration of the innate power of women.
Gopal Saha is one of many male artists whose work has a distinctive quality to it. A tea stall owner, Gopal took up painting after an injury caused him to be physically challenged. He is known to depict scenes from everyday life around him. Gopal’s painting titled ‘Railway Station’ makes a notable impression. A family of four is shown at a ticket counter purchasing a fare to board a waiting train. Both the locomotive and the subjects are rendered in the stylized manner of the art form. At the same time, attention to details like the cap worn by the driver and guard, and mechanical elements of the train itself are not overlooked. Mr. Saha’s work is considered an important part of the history of Mithila art.
Artist and teacher, Dulari Devi’s saga of personal transformation deserves mention. Living a life of servitude in the Ranti area of Bihar, Dulari was inspired by the work of artists in whose homes she served. She received training from Karpoori Devi, an established Master painter. Now, Dulari Devi is a herself Master Painter and Instructor at the Mithila Art Institute. She received the State of Bihar Award for Excellence in Art in 2013, and authored her award winning autobiography ‘Following My Paintbrush’, published by Tara Books in 2010.
Mithila artists often use their work to document life around them, both as it applies to them locally and on the larger world canvas. A wonderful depiction of current affairs is Dulari Devi’s painting documenting Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s campaign visit to Bihar leading up to the 2014 national election. Accompanied by his staff, he is seen flying in a helicopter. The artist has managed to show the helicopter via the lens of her imagination – adorned in traditional patterns and accompanied by a flock of birds flying above it’s stylized form. The gathering of rural womenfolk welcoming his arrival, speaks to the significant percentage of women who make up Bihar’s electorate.
Dulari, Shalinee, Rani and others like them have overcome significant economic and social hardships. Art, as their self-expression has given them legitimacy and a personal identity. Their journey is a testament to the place this art form has acquired in the world today.
Mithila’s children have joined their voices and hands to keep her traditions alive for the times to come.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.