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September 20, 1999
Festival of Social Activism
Aparna Narayanan in New York
On the tenth floor of an old warehouse in Manhattan's Chelsea district, a quiet revolution is taking place. Brochures hailing anarchy and condemning the death penalty are stacked against a dingy wall. A web of metal pipes festooned with electric wires spreads across the ceiling. There is little natural light or fresh air in this run-down space, but the atmosphere is festive.
Scores of young South Asians of Indian origin mill around the room, watching videos, attending panel discussions, and viewing the art displayed on the walls of the loft. The energy in the room is palpable, as is the enthusiasm of the participants, some of who have come from London and Vancouver to attend 'Diasporadics', a pioneering festival of South Asian art and activism in the United States.
The three-day festival, from September 17 to 19, brought together artists and activists working in diverse cultural fields, including dance, music, video, literature and visual art. The performances were supplemented by a series of workshops and panel discussions that encouraged direct participation by the community.
"In New York city there are many kinds of South Asian communities but the diaspora is split around the city. There was no structured space for south Asian artists and activists to show how art could work for social change," says Sunaina Maira, co-founder of the collective that organized Diasporadics.
"We want to reach out to local communities here, and by working with taxi and domestic workers, to find out what it means to be a wife and a poet, a taxi driver and artist," she says.
According to co-founder Natasha Singh, 26, Diasporadics was inspired by Desh Pardesh, a Toronto-based cultural organization that showcases South Asian American art. But Singh, a Canadian writer, feels Diasporadics would be better being activism-oriented. The 14-member core group reflects a cross-section of society, including a dancer, journalist, writers, artists, students and academics.
The collective held its first meeting in January and funded the festival through private donations and a series of well-attended fund-raisers featuring artists such as writers Marina Budhos and Jhumpa Lahiri, and jazz musician Madhav Chari. The organizers are considering seeking corporate or government funding in the future.
A call for submissions from artists in the summer, led to an impressive and unexpected spate of responses. "There was lots of enthusiasm for the project," says Maira. "It showed us the need for more spaces like this." The festival hopes to serve as a forum that critiques and resists social structures that discriminate against individuals or groups based on factors such as class, race or gender.
Svati Shah, 28, a medical anthropology student at Columbia University and a committee member, says Diasporadics is an event that "showcases artistic work at the intersection of political and social categories, targeted especially at South Asian progressives interested in a dialog between art and activism in New York."
The direct result of this aim were workshops such as "Laboring Art/Provoking Images: Organizing around Immigrant Struggles in NYC," which brought members of the audience face-to-face with members of activist groups such as the New York Taxi Workers' Alliance.
Elaborating on the collaborative aspect of the festival, Surabhi Kukke, 25, a public health student at Harvard University, says, "The aim is to get artists and activists to articulate what these connections are. Activism requires creativity and imagination-labor organizing is an art form in itself."
Arvind Rajagopal, an NYU professor and editor of Samar magazine, says fora like Diasporadics facilitate "a cultural exchange within second generation Indian Americans that helps to understand the context within which the youth live."
Participants at the festival echoed his sentiment. Imtiaz Popat, 36, a freelance journalist from Vancouver, says, "It is important to come together in this forum to exchange ideas and views to better understand ourselves. It is the unique place to have a discourse about our identities."
Deepika Reddy, 25, says her interest in public interest work brought her to the festival from Boston, where she is a law student. "It inspires me to see people doing the sort of work I would like to do someday and to discover creative ways to get to that goal."
Natasha Singh would like to see Diasporadics become an annual event. Articulating its vision for the future she says, "We want to organize in a way that the festival is not the prime focus but the process leading to the festival is equally important. We would also like to start programming throughout the year, through fund-raising or community-building events. It would be great to see more representation... We want South Asian groups other than Indians to get involved."
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