A 20-Year Journey To Showcase Indian Arts In New York City

Story by Fiona Teng
Photos by Kimberly M. Wang

“New York was such a vivacious city, and yet, where was India?” Where was the Indian representation in the artistic landscape of New York? Those were the questions Aroon Shivdasani, the founder and president of the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), asked herself in the ‘90s.

As an immigrant to New York in 1983, Shivdasani viscerally understood that learning about other cultures was an important form of education that could break down barriers across differences. And for her, art was the way to do that. Her mother was an English Literature and drama major who acted and sang, so the arts had been a part of Shivdasani’s life early on.

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Aroon Shivdasani founded the Indo-American Arts Council in 1998. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com.

“The arts reflect the life, spirit, and energy of a people. It helps break down suspicion of the unfamiliar. Just because I look different from you doesn’t mean I can’t understand you,” said Shivdasani. ”I wanted to create a platform where Indian arts could be visible and represented.” And in 1998, she did just that by founding the IAAC, which has been contributing to the popularization of Indian art in New York City and beyond ever since.

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Erasing Borders highlights the works of Indian dance artists. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com

True to her vision, IAAC has grown to showcase a diverse array of Indian art forms. In 2008, the organization started the Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance as a part of its larger mission to promote and build the awareness of Indian art in North America. Every year, Erasing Borders puts out a call for submissions for talent and invites a mix of performers from the Indian subcontinent and diaspora. Their range of classical and contemporary dance forms complements each other.

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Dancers help each other with their makeup. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com.

“When we select dancers, it’s not just about the single performance alone but how all the performers fit together,” said Parul Shah, a dancer and one of the regular curators of the festival. “All the curators watch the submission videos separately first, then gather together five times throughout the selection process. You can tell by the quality of the video whether they’ve been dancing professionally for years or created a homemade video in their living room. But if the dancing is good, that’s what matters.”

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Members of Kalanidhi Dance get ready to perform. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com.

Shah is known for her contemporary work but has a deep appreciation for classical Indian dance forms. “Indian classical dance has longevity because it’s about the connection of mind, body, and spirit. More than just about executing virtuosic movements, the dance is an invitation to both reach for the sky and root into the earth, connecting the body to the natural world. It is deeply spiritual; and a dancer in her 60s may be able to express herself in ways she couldn’t have in her 20s.”

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Next year is the IAAC’s 20th anniversary. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com.

In addition to Erasing Borders, the organization puts on annual festivals and events for theatrical, cinematic, visual art, and literary works. Next year will be the organization’s 20th year bringing Indian arts to New York. To celebrate, IAAC will host an anniversary gala on May 6th, followed by the 18th Annual New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF). The organizers are calling for a  range of submissions that show the lives and societies of the Indian subcontinent, including Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The film festival doesn’t set a theme for submissions; rather, the filmmakers often organically create work that are thematically in sync with one another. Shivdasani believes this is merely a reflection of the mood of the region.

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Parul Shah is one of the curators of the Erasing Borders Festival. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com.

“Last year’s theme was on parents and children, fathers and sons in particular. The year before that was women’s lives and rights, ranging from the dowry system to infanticide,” said Shivdasani. When asked if she predicted what may be the organic theme this year, she answered, “Perhaps it might be community violence across religious lines, between Hindus and Muslims, and Hindus and Christians. It’s a bad situation over there. And natural disasters could be a part of it, too.”

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Ashwini Ramaswamy performs. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com.

After discussing the challenging political climate in both India and the United States, Shivdasani reiterated the importance of the arts as a way to nurture herself and her loved ones. “The arts nurture our souls,” she said. 

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In addition to Erasing Borders,  IAAC will host an anniversary gala on May 6th. Photo © Kimberly M. Wang/eardog.com.

What does she hope IAAC could do at the mark of its twentieth year and beyond? “I hope that young people will pick up the baton and run with it, making sure that wherever they go, Indian arts grow more visible. I want New York to sit up and take notice.”

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Fiona Teng 鄧穎恆 is a Hong Kong-born, Bay Area-made, and New York City-based writer and activist. Her work has been accepted into Voices of Our Nation’s Art (VONA), and published in Huffington Post, RESIST Media, and Philadelphia Printworks Zine, and has a forthcoming piece with On She Goes. Fiona is a fan of 90s hip hop, bubble tea, and liberation politics.

Kimberly M. Wang is a director, producer and production executive whose work has been as diverse as her clients which includes: PBS, ESPN and MTV. Her company, Eardog Productions, creates branded storytelling content for small businesses, start-ups and non-profits. And as a photojournalist, she is pursuing a passion project comprised of photo essays exploring the creative processes of renowned artists from a wide range of disciplines.

Copyright © 500 Pens. November 2017.