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American Taal

New York gets its groove back - and Indian Americans join the party.

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New York or New Delhi?

 
Scene from Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, performed by the New York City Opera at the Lincoln Center

Where would you be able to watch a world class Marathi play, hear a thought-provoking talk on Satyajit Ray, sit through over 30 movies with a South Asian connection, catch an opera of a Salman Rushdie novel, see a British production of Passage to India and enjoy Bollywood movies on demand on TV?

All in the same week, many on the same day!

If you guessed New York, you're right.

Indeed, if you have an interest in India-related arts and live in the Big Apple, chances are you are exhausted, ready to drop! But it's a happy, satiated kind of exhaustion, the kind you feel after you've indulged yourself at a huge banquet.

You've overeaten and wish you could still go back for more, because there are just so many wonderful dishes that you haven't even tried yet.

 
Scene from Passage to India at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Just this past month, you could have caught the Tendulkar Theater Festival scattered in different venues across the city or seen diverse films from the Indian Diaspora at the IAAC Film Festival; If you're an opera fan, you could have had the unique experience of watching Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories in opera form by the New York City Opera at the Lincoln Center.

Want theater? You would have to choose between Passage to India at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sakharam Binder at 59E59 Theater or Bombay Dreams on Broadway. If you wanted an Indian connection in a topical hot play, there was Aasif Mandvi playing in the powerful Guantanomo downtown. Not to mention the scores of plays put on by South Asian theater companies.

Want something more Bollywood? You could catch Gurinder Chadha's latest Bride and Prejudice at not one but two South Asian Film festivals. Want live celebrities? You could have had a rare sighting of Mira Nair, Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor, Shabana Azmi and Madhur Jaffrey all on the same stage at the same time, accessible and chatting with the crowds at the Indian Diaspora Festival.

On NPR's Fresh Air program, they're chatting about the intricacies of Bollywood music and the mighty Time Warner is actually showing pay per view Bollywood movies! Notably none of these are traditional desi outlets, but rather mainstream efforts or collaborations with the mainstream. A decade ago immigrants would have found it hard to believe that this would come to pass.

So what exactly is happening in New York - the city seems to be on speed, with just so many things happening that it's like a mad, mad exuberant desi wedding procession, with everyone singing and dancing and jumping, all at the same time.
Ask Salman Rushdie, that astute chronicler of this and imaginary worlds, and he says quite simply: "New York has got its groove back."

And he's right.

Everywhere you turn, you hear the city reverberating with music, song, dance and the spoken word. It's been said that New York is the center of the world, but for a time, after Sept, 11, the city seemed to lose that title. There seemed to be barricades, mental and physical, everywhere and the smell of fear pervaded everything.

 
Scene from Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, performed by the New York City Opera at the Lincoln Center

The city that never sleeps seemed to be awake more in shock and horror. Slowly life resumed, but the arts scene seemed to have been dealt a mortal blow, especially ethnic projects. Funding was cut, programs were put on hold.

Yes, for a while, after 9/11, New York seemed to be ripped right out of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It looked like the sad, sad city of Alifbay, drained of stories, drained of color, held hostage by the arch villain Khattam-shud, the Prince of Silence, the foe of free speech. The towers fell and with it the self-confidence and bravado of New York.

If you had a South Asian face or a strange sounding name, if you wore a turban or spoke a different tongue, you had little right to be here, leave alone flaunt your strange arts and exotic culture in the face of the majority population.

"I think three years ago the city went through a very low point and it's taken a couple of years to recover. And I don't just mean recover from fear and all that, I mean recover culturally," says Rushdie. "I think now we are seeing that it's going back to being what it used to be and the reasons, for a start, I think they are financial."

Indeed, the opera of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by the NY City Opera was supposed to have been developed two years ago, but after the 9/11 attacks, the public funding just dried up and the production had to be canceled. For a time nobody could even guess if the money would ever come back and it's taken three years to reconstruct what existed before.

 
Sarita Choudhry and Bernard White in Sakharam Binder
"This is one production that suffered in that way, but I think many, many cultural programs were just rift by the financial backlash of 9/11," says Rushdie. " So for just that reason the city seems to be vibrant again, because that level of funding is available again, and the people are back to see shows and it's great to see New York getting its groove back."

So it was that Rushdie's magical Haroun and the Sea of Stories was finally being seen by opera buffs on the grand stage of the New York State Theater at the Lincoln Center, with an overwhelming response rarely accorded a new opera. The auditorium was filled with a sea of faces of every nationality and the applause was deafening. In a changed world, everyone could identify with it.

Indeed, the story of Haroun has taken on added meaning since it was first conceived. As Charles Wuorinen, composer of the opera, observed, "After the events of Sept 11, 2001, the significance of the work changed for me in the sense because we all joined Salman Rushdie in the boat he'd been the sole occupant of."

To which Rushdie retorted with his droll humor: "Well, I got out of mine!"
While advocates who deal with civil liberties will tell you the city has still a long way to go, the arts seem to be reviving. And in that renewal, if you listen carefully, there seems to be an unmistakable South Asian beat to the wonderful cacophony of New York, a distinct taal that is Indian has been added to the rhythms of the city.

Arts from South Asia seem to be flourishing at museums, theaters and galleries in New York and there's something new to savor every month. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, which had earlier shown Peter Brooks' The Mahabharata, recently showcased a British production of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, a story that acquires added relevance in these difficult times when living with different cultures becomes an everyday challenge.

 
Scene from Bride and Prejudice

Joseph V. Melillo, Artistic Director of BAM, says, "We want BAM to be NYC's global center, so I travel a lot internationally, looking to bring work to New York City." In fact, BAM"s Next Wave Festival is dedicated to encouraging new works and collaborations between artists. Passage to India, which was shown at The New Wave Festival received a rousing reception at the 2000 seat Howard Gilman Opera House was full, and Melillo agrees that New York is definitely getting back on its feet.
"In this city specifically I think there is a curiosity and a sincere interest in the art and culture of India," he says. "You come to New York City because you want intellectual challenges and if you're intellectually curious then you'll also have a great appreciation of the cultures and the art of that culture.

"That's why I think specifically India and Indian art and culture is of interest to New Yorkers, because we are challenged by understanding the philosophies, the belief systems and traditions and again how that informs contemporary art."

Is India possibly just the flavor of the month? "No, no, not at all," says Melillo, who has traveled to India to research the arts. " I think there's a genuine interest on the part of New Yorkers. I really do think India inspires our imagination."

 
Cast members from the new Despina play 'Broke'
Vijay Tendulkar is one of India's greatest playwrights and the Tendulkar Theater Festival organized by Indo-American Arts Council brought in readings, workshops, film screenings and discussions by this celebrated playwright in venues across New York. The Play Company, a New York City not-for-profit theater, showcased his powerful play, Sakharam Binder, which was banned in India after its initial opening.

So how did The Play Company, which links American theater with world theater, hear about a Marathi play revolving around an obscure bookbinder in Mumbai?


The Festival was the idea of Aroon Shivdasani, Director of IAAC, who knew Tendulkar and invited representatives of all the South Asian companies and several other mainstream companies like the Lark, the Play Company, the Martin Segal Center, the Queens Museum, CUNY Graduate Center to a lunch and brainstorming session.

"I thought the more wider the stretch, the more the mainstream will find out about it," she recalls. " I gave them all copies of the collected works of Tendulkar and told them about history of theater in India and introduced them to Vijay. I told them all to read the plays and decide what you want to do, and it was wonderful. From there, it was like dominoes, it all fell into place."

Kate Loewald, founding producer of The Play Company, was amazed by the relevance of Sakharam Binder to contemporary audiences for even though it's rooted in a very specific place, the issues about morality, social pressures, religious differences and relations between man and woman resonate even today.

She says, "So it seemed quite relevant and urgent to me. Most important of all, I just couldn't get the play out of my mind. For me, it's a very complicated play, and I ultimately felt compelled to produce it."

 
Salman Rushdie: "New York is getting its groove back"

The play received great reviews. In fact, the response has been so encouraging that Loewald is exploring the possibilities of taking this powerful production, which stars Bernard White, Sarita Choudhury and Anna George, to other cities, to Britain and perhaps even to India!

Asked if she saw more of an openness for different cultures, she says, "It does seem like a lot more Asian things are happening. This experience has been great and I always thought that in New York, of all places, why are there not more plays from other parts of the world. There are people from all parts of the world, why don't we have a theater that hreflects that? So that's why we started the theater company and I do think things are progressing."

Last year Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and was hugely successful with workshops and lectures at Columbia University. The truth is audiences are becoming more open to lives different from their own.

And it's happening in almost every aspect of the arts, be it theater or films. Gitesh Pandya, who heads BoxofficeGuru.com, is a media consultant and box office analyst for CNN Financial News, besides being the producer of the film American Desi. Moving in several different circles, desi and mainstream, he has seen the mood change in the city over the last few years.

"After 9/11, there's a lot of interest from mainstream into cultures in parts of the world they may be did not think too much of before," says Pandya. " They are realizing the world is a small place and not as big as it used to be, and so it makes sense to learn more about your neighbors, even if your neighbors are 12,000 miles away, and it's good because more people are trying to understand people who are different from themselves."
  
Indeed, the mainstream media is also paying more attention to Indian theater and Bollywood films, which earlier had been on the margins. Out and out Bollywood films like Bhagat Singh, Koi Mil Gaya and the latest, hottest Veer Zara have all been reviewed in The New York Times, even though some of them ran at traditional Indian outlets.

Says Pandya: "I think it's great. For a long time they've known about Bollywood cinema and Indian talent in the world of film, but now they are getting an opportunity to see it firsthand. I think earlier some of the channels weren't there, but now the doors are opening, and they are having access to the films and they are learning about Bollywood films in the process and I think it's going to only increase over the years."

Just this past month The New York Times ran reviews of Bride and Prejudice and gushed over Aishwarya Rai, comparing her to Liz Taylor and anointing her as among the top five talents to watch this holiday season.

Pandya, who handles the American press for some of the films, says: "Over the years I've seen them become more experienced in Bollywood films as they cover them. Whereas some of these critics were brand new to the genre a couple of years ago, they are now more knowledgeable about how Bollywood films are and you can tell that from their reviews."

Another factor is that big studios are also taking an interest in promoting films such as Monsoon Wedding or Bride and Prejudice, which will be opening in February in 400 theaters across the country. The next step will probably be when they start distributing mainstream Bollywood films, realizing they are the goose that lay the golden eggs. Consider Veer-Zara: It ranked #15 at the North-American box-office last weekend with a $843,010 gross!

And indeed, that brings us to the other reason for New York's resurgence as a great place to experience the South Asian art scene - its huge and dynamic desi population. The New York metro is the largest populations in North America and South Asians are especially concentrated in it. New York events, whether it's a one night show or a play or film which runs for a long time, draw from a large audience, which has historically been steeped in the arts.

This concentration has a lot to do with the vast audiences that come out and because of that the people who are putting on these programs are aiming higher. As Pandya points out, " The South Asian art community is at the point of going from the minor leagues to the major leagues. We've done a lot of work on the smaller level in the smaller venues.

"Many people in the American mainstream have taken notice and are now also interested in taking it to the next level, and so several ambitious South Asian people are out there, rolling the dice and trying to do events bigger and better than ever. "
The hope, of course, is that people who are not South Asian will also come out to the event so organizers are trying out new marketing techniques to reach out to a larger audience that may be interested in a certain type of play or film or certain type of music.

The way, they are discovering, is to organize events at well-known mainstream venues, such as Manhattan Center, Rubin Museum, the Lincoln Center and theaters like the Walter Reade Theater, the Anthology Film Archives, and the Zeigfeld Theater, which have a track record. Says Pandya, " When a film or a play runs at such a location, it adds a sense of legitimacy to the event because of where it is."
 
Interesting collaborations are also occurring, enabling Indian Americans to bring their homeland culture to the mainstream outlets. Bollywood On Demand Video On Demand (BODVOD) is a new programming service that will deliver South Asian movie and television content through on-demand platforms. BODVOD is a partnership of NY-based [212] MEDIA and Schramm Sports & Entertainment.

Young Indian Americans in the arts are also having their say, moving from films about their own culture to also addressing the larger world

The recently concluded IAAC Film Festival screened films, ranging from Bandhak, a film made by Indian Americans in New Jersey and New York, addressing racism after 9/11, to Sacrifice, which tells the story of an Indo-Guyanese family struggling to fit into a new world.

For many young Indian American filmmakers, New York has been a fertile nurturing ground with its many film schools, its arts communities and its wonderful audiences that are willing to wait in line, endure subtitles and are happy to be transported into cultures not their own.

The result has been not only feature films, but hundreds of documentaries from Indian American filmmakers, a cinematic essay of what they believe. Many of the stories are about here and now, about racism and the aftermath of 9/11. Indian Americans artists, having found their place in the American landscape, express their political and social views.

There is Whose Children are These? - a film by NY social activist Theresa Thanjan about the after-effects of 9/11 on the lives of three Muslim youths impacted by Special Registration. Then there is Reinventing the Taliban, a film about the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan by New York filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid, made with initial support from New York Times TV.

As South Asian talent continues to grow and multiply, filmmakers are taking on mainstream projects and collaborating with other filmmakers, truly becoming a part of New York's energetic arts world. Dancing on Mother Earth, a PBS documentary, directed by Jim Virga and produced and edited by Tula Goenka, was partially funded by a grant from Native American Public Telecommunications and with in kind contributions from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

According to Pandya, "I think documentary film making in the world and in the U.S. has had a large resurgence in the last two years. There's a lot more attention to them, they are making more money at the box-office and they are doing well on video and TV, so there's some good funding going into the production of documentaries. So I think a lot that is going on in the Indian world is a mirror image of what's going on in the general documentary world."

One of anything is rarely enough for frenetic New York. Hardly is one South Asian film festival over that another is opening. The South Asian International Film Festival, a collaboration between Time Warner and SANA, the South Asian Networking Association, is starting with a bang with Bride and Prejudice at the Ziegfeld Theater. Shwaas, and this year's Oscar entry from India will be the closing film. All in all, 38 of the latest films and documentaries will be shown at the Clearview West Theater and at the newly opened South Asian themed Rubin Museum of Art.
 
And so even though the South Asian population lives under the shadow of the Patriot Act and its assault on civil liberties, the art world is alive and well. While social activists know that the state of the country is far from perfect, it is the artists and the writers and poets who are putting their dissatisfactions and their beliefs out in the open with their work.

In small ways too South Asians are getting their voices heard, and what better place than New York? There is certainly a lot of empathy here for different lives and cultures. Rehana and Rohi Mirza are two sisters who formed a theater company, Desipina along with Ashok Sinha to produce their first project Barriers, a pan-Asian family drama that deals with the loss, as well as the backlash and prejudice towards South Asians after the World Trade Center tragedy. This production was funded in part by the Manhattan Community Arts Fund/New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
 
Interestingly, their new play Broke is about New York lives, four mechanics in an auto shop in Queens. Only one of the actors is Sri Lankan, the other characters are Italian and African-American, and by being so particular yet universal, the play is attracting audiences that are very diverse. Indeed, it's an example of how South Asians can produce theater without making the desi experience always the central part of a story and in that way, reaching out to the larger audiences out there.

So is the India wave here to stay or is it a passing breeze? According to Rushdie part of it is fashion and that part of it will fade away: "If there's an India wave right now, there will be a something-else wave in two years time and we just have to accept that. But I hope in this period when people are getting attention that a lot of very gifted people will be able to break through. I just think we've reached a moment when there's a lot of talented people in a lot of different areas and the collective effect of that is greater than the sum of its parts."

And then he adds subversively, with his eyes laughing, " Wherever Indians go, we take over. We're just in the process of taking over!"  

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NRI | Magazine | December 2004

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