ArtWallah, an annual festival of arts held in Los Angeles, presents innovative works of South Asian Americans through music, dance, performance, literature, film, the visual arts, spoken word and comedy. This year’s festival, titled THRIVE, is the 20th anniversary of ArtWallah, and will take place at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica on June 1 and 2. The festival is directed this year by Sheetal Gandhi, award-winning director, choreographer, performer and teacher. Gandhi was a creator and performer in Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion and played a leading role in the Broadway production of Bombay Dreams.
ArtWallah, loosely translated as “one who creates art,” explores the rich and diverse expressions of the global South Asian diaspora. South Asia refers to the countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The initial emigration of South Asians out of the subcontinent began after 1833, when slavery was abolished across the British Empire. The subsequent demand for indentured laborers caused many South Asians to be enlisted to work on sugar, cotton and tea plantations in the West Indies, Africa, Caribbean and Southeast Asia. In 1947, the Partition of India into present-day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan led to another wave of migration to Canada, England and the United States. These migrations, forcibly and otherwise, resulted in the spread of the South Asian population globally.
The festival, then, is a coming together again, “a place to see each other and look forward to seeing each other every year,” Gandhi said, who opened up her home studio to this year’s artists to help them push the boundaries of their work so they could see it in a “different light, get feedback and grow.” The artistic works at ArtWallah are inspired by a shared history and common struggles, by the lingering impact of migrations, the breaking and remaking of identities and traditions, and engagement with larger political and cultural issues of our time.
“ArtWallah was founded in 1998 as a collective dream to make ourselves and our work as artists visible in America and to create an annual festival that expresses the vastness of the South Asian diasporic experience,” said Shilpa Agarwal, author of the award-winning novel Haunting Bombay and one of ArtWallah’s founders. “We began by sharing our own work with each other, and in doing so, began to voice who we were as people in this society, people who had roots in another country, and yet who claimed a space here in America too, and we realized how these experiences impacted our storytelling in such incredibly creative and diverse ways. We then put out a call and curated our first show in the downtown L.A. Arts District.”
ArtWallah quickly grew to partner with arts institutions around the city, including the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Barnsdall Art Park and the Japanese American Community & Cultural Center. They put on events attracting artists nationally and internationally, selling to crowds in the thousands, and organizing film screenings, an outdoor music stage, food and clothing vendors, and workshops on topics such as "South Asian Lives Post-9/11." "Recently we’ve gone back to our roots, featuring local L.A. artists and reinvesting in our community here," Agarwal said.
In conceptualizing this year’s theme, Gandhi didn’t want to frame the art in terms of resistance, which was “easy to do in this time we’re in. While I admire the value of that, I don’t want to frame my life against something. I want to frame my life, my art, my relationships and the way I move through the world in terms of taking the armor down and creating a space to say we are free and we can take ownership of it and thrive there.”
ArtWallah has served as a platform via which established artists have mentored emerging artists through collaborative works and workshops; just as important, festival artists have always had the opportunity to collaborate with artists outside their genre. This year, Gandhi encouraged several of the participating artists to meld their pieces together to create something new.
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“When working with another artist, you put your ego aside to convey the spirit of the piece, which is bigger than any of us as individuals,” Gandhi explained. One of the performers, Bollywood and Kathak dancer Danish Bandhara, said she usually “choreographs to music,” but that ArtWallah has given her a chance to work with a poet and thus explore working with “someone’s speech rhythms rather than sticking with a definite meter or measure of time. She said the experience of interacting with a “speaking body” rather than “dancing body” inspired new ways of creating for her. Participating musician Gaurav Sharma, guitarist for Southern California rock and world fusion band Rusty Rickshaw, calls this process of collaboration “the art of the possible,” saying that it has given him “fuel to take my work to the next level.”
This year’s ArtWallah festival has three components: a visual arts gallery; a daytime workshop on Saturday titled “KidWallah,” with hands-on art making, live dance performances by the Dancing Storytellers and a guided dance party; and an evening show on both Friday and Saturday nights. The show features dance, theater, poetry, comedy and music, including international performing artist and composer of ragajazz chamber music Paul Livingstone, one of the few American disciples of the legendary Ravi Shankar; a comedy sketch by Jimy Shah, former intern at Saturday Night Live and writer-producer at BET, on what she learned about love by watching Bollywood movies; and dancers/actors Richa Shukla (NCIS: L.A.) and Shalini Bathina (Grey's Anatomy) performing a duet featuring the classical Indian dance forms of Kathak and Kuchipudi.
ArtWallah has always been a space to negotiate old and new, traditional and contemporary, in which the pressures of dislocation and finding one’s place in America, not just for one generation but each generation, have compelled work to rise up through the confusion, and voices to stake claim to new ways of creating, articulating and shaping this American landscape.
Following Saturday night's event, ArtWallah will host a reception for the audience to meet and mingle with the artists. “Ultimately,” Gandhi said, “my hope is that audiences will leave having been moved by at least one thing they saw or heard. They will see and experience this unique blend that comes from constantly being in dialogue between two cultures. It is what we as artists in the South Asian diaspora experience quite acutely in our lives, through our upbringing, through the choices we make and in the art that we create.”