South Asian storytellers take the stage this week in the first annual South Asian International Performing Arts Festival (SAIPAF) in New York City. SAIPAF hosted their opening night event Monday evening at Manhattan’s Access Theater to offer glimpses of the upcoming performances and emphasize the need for South Asian artistic spaces.
The performing arts festival showcases 50 productions from more than 100 artists focusing on South Asian and Diaspora perspectives. Performances range from bharatnatyam dance to stand-up routines by up-and-coming South Asian comedians. The festival also includes theater, live music, readings and spoken word performances.
Monday night’s showcase opened with musical performances by the multi-talented cabaret group Moon Owl Productions and sultry jazz tunes by Ashni Dave, and a handful of scenes acted from the plays “Post Office,” “Invasion!” and “Honour.” Pam Patel performed a hilarious monologue about her mother’s dogged efforts to marry her off to an Indian boy, while Zenobia Shroff recounted humorous instances of ethnic misidentification in “Exotic Observations.” The night finished with various stand-up sets, including Akaash Singh, Siddartha Rathi, Raj Belani, Mona Shaikh, Mahesh Kotagi and Gerrard Lobo.
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According to SAIPAF’s website, the festival aims to redefine “the very definition of the South Asian ‘artist’” by featuring the creative works of performers that are sometimes not considered artists, such as comics or oral storytellers.
“It doesn’t mean if you’re a dancer, you’re a Bollywood dance person—maybe you do classical or contemporary,” Arpita Mukherjee, SAIPAF’s chair and co-founder of the Hypokrit Theatre, said. “ For music, it doesn’t mean necessarily that you sing Indian classical–you have jazz singers and even our classical singers are melding styles. I think the idea is to expand this definition and these preconceived notions and deconstruct those.”
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The festival also seeks to connect South Asian artists and performers in order to create a well-connected South Asian performing arts community that spans the globe. Performers hail from the U.S., Canada, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the U.K., among other countries.
Several of the theater performances focus specifically on the varied experiences of South Asian women across the world. Nadia Manzoor’s “Burq Off!,” a powerful one-woman play about growing up as a British-Pakistani woman, will follow Wednesday’s evening show of another one-woman play, “Honour.” In “Honour,” Dipti Mehta’s performance explores the relationship between a mother and daughter employed as sex workers in Mumbai slums. Aizzah Fatima’s “Dirty Paki Lingerie” combats stereotypes against Muslim South Asian women as it focuses on the lives of six Muslim American women, all played by Fatima herself.
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Fatima is also involved with SAIPAF as the Director of Programming. When she spoke to the audience Monday night, she shared an anecdote about a time when her one-woman play wasn’t accepted in a theater festival because they seemed to have already “filled a quota for South Asian females.” Fatima herself doesn’t have a quota, as there are several distinct solo performances by South Asian women.
The festival also honored two of its guests with awards of recognition: Ram Devineni, director and co-creator of Priya’s Shakti, were recognized for Art for Social Change, and Qurrat Ann Kadwani, the first South Asian woman to have an Off-Broadway production with “They Call Me Q,” was named Trailblazer of the Year. Kadwani prepared an acceptance speech that rallied the South Asian audience to support the arts and seek representation in media.
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“How can mainstream American media give us a voice if they don’t hear us?” Kadwani said. “It makes sense and is proven through other ethnic groups, that if we yell together, those in power will hear us better.”
Kadwani reminded the audience that the paradigm in mainstream American media is shifting with projects like SAIPAF.
“SAIPAF is allowing us to showcase our culture, to raise our voices, in order for our beautiful brown skin to be seen,” she said.
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In a few short days, Mukherjee said she has already seen SAIPAF bring the South Asian artistic community together.
“I think it starts in these small moments–I see people say, ‘Hey, can I get your number? I loved your work.’” she said. “Artists can make good connections at the festival.”
The complete performances from Monday evening can be seen throughout the week between festival venues Access Theater and Urban Stages. Tickets, festival passes and an event calendar can all be found online at www.saipaf.org.