The 'Sangam' between Australia and India
Dr. Priya Srinivasan is a performing artist and a writer based in Melbourne. The main theme of her artistic expression focuses on social issues and raising awareness about the importance of social justice. Srinivasan aims to merge the theoretical understanding of art and culture with practical application to enhance people-to-people relations among Indian and Australian communities as well as increase the space for authentic South Asian representation in Australian society. Her organisation, Sangam, aims to build a bridge between the South Asian and the Indigenous Australian cultural traditions.
Priya Srinivasan's Sangam is a leading organisation bringing the power of Indian performative art forms to Australia.
Aayushi Sharma: You are known to use your art to convey your expressions towards various social issues. Why and how did you decide to use this artistic medium to raise awareness over these issues?
Priya Srinivasan: I think because when I was growing up in Australia, I was learning Indian classical dance and it was my haven really from the racial torment and racial inequity and the kind of issues that migrants had at that time. Growing up, there were a lot of issues at that time because there were so few of us. There weren't that many Indians or South Asians and often I was mistaken for being indigenous. There was a lot of confusion at the time about who we were and there was very little understanding. Dance was a place where I escaped in a way and felt whole and myself. Even on TV we only had images of white people and blue eyes, we never saw images of ourselves.
So it was only through dance that I felt strong and I felt like there was something that connected me to a sense of power, a heritage, a long lineage and a culture that was ancient. Especially, dances and themes about the goddesses like Durga and Kali. Even, role-playing different roles and understanding that you can be a male in one role and a demon in another. This way dance and art became my refuge from the political issues that we used to face. Therefore, growing up, I was also a part of a dance company that intervened in very important issues of the time. I was part of a company called the Bharatam Dance Company that my dance teacher established.
We used to get funded and perform in very mainstream venues like the Art Center, Melbourne, we did many shows a year and many different themes that were quite political. So I think that's why it was always inside me and even though a classical dance form generally tends to be spiritual and sometimes religious in nature. Certainly the Bharatanatyam margam is a repertoire that follows a particular structure. I think, because I had exposure to contemporary forms and also many different kinds of practices so that's why it was always something inside me that said that it's not just a practice for cultural nationalism or even the diaspora and the migrant subject to replicate culture, it was much more than that.
AS: Thank you so much for sharing that. I want to take it a little further, how did you decide to establish your organisation, Sangam?
PS: Well, to tell you that I'd have to quickly tell you about my journey. I left Australia to do a Masters' and a PhD in the US. That's when I actually understood that the form that I thought was 2000 years old, the Bharatanatyam form, was actually a modernist form that was created in the 20th century. That's when I began understanding the history of hereditary artists and how they have been marginalised in the histories. I did research and found out that many hereditary artists have been in the US and have shaped what we call the American modern or contemporary dance. So I realised that I had kind of been living a lie and thinking that I had this ancient form, of course it has elements of it but really it's a 20th century contemporary form, masking its modernity. On the other hand, American forms were masking the traditions that they had taken from naachwalis and devadasis and so many others that were hidden. So I did my research on this while I was also dancing and creating artistic work. So I finished my PhD and was hired at the University of California in Los Angeles at Riverside which had a PhD programme in Critical Dance Studies and I used to teach there.
Circumstances led me to leave the US and return to Australia after living for some time in China and in Holland. By that time I had published my book Sweating Sarees: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor and I came to Melbourne thinking that I wanted to bring back those ideas to Australia where I had grown up. So when I returned I had naively thought that I could bring these ideas of dance, artistic practice and theoretical understanding to Melbourne and thinking I would be able to get my foot in the door but the doors were shut. I could not get my foot into the University nor in any other performing arts venue or organisation. The place that I had left twenty years earlier, no longer existed. There was no funding or sponsorship on South Asian art forms. All the South Asian artists were living on the fringes of the city and only in the mainstream venues were Eurocentric white performers. It wasn't a shock per se but it still was. I could not believe that despite the fact there were hundreds of schools of classical dance and music, there were no professional artists or very few. I was thinking that how can it be that there are so many of us and yet no one is actually claiming the space of an artist. I actually talked to many organisations and they said there's not that many of you, you are not professional enough or that there is no audience for your work which I did not accept because I felt that our arts were amazing and had so much value. I wanted the artists to have a proper platform to be equal , to have equity and justice in terms of the fact that we are a very large population now and the demography of Australia has completely changed in the trade and the business sector, everything is shifting. Yet, why are we not seeing representations of ourselves in media and the art space whether it is live or mediated performance.
The fact that all the other doors were closed, I myself had to create the space that would then enable the South Asian artists of my generation and those after me to have an avenue to have a self-represented space. So this is something that people in India might not understand that we become this racialized minority in Australia and we really have to work hard to get ourselves seen, to be represented and take control of the terms of our representation, not as tokens but really as people that have to have a say in how they are seen and how the arts are understood. So that is why I established Sangam as that space.
I was also interested in China and in Holland in how the South Asian arts could be used as a soft power approach to diplomacy. I feel that if the diaspora was engaged with, the idea of Australia-India engagement would completely shift.
AS: You have already touched upon the need for South Asian representation but why do you think that artistic representation of South Asian communities could translate to an improvement in the general representation of South Asians in Australian society?
PS: The thing is, if you don't see a representation of yourself, you don't even know what you are. Your sense of self is destroyed, you really cannot even find your identity if you don't even see a representation of yourself. So it's one thing to say demographically, there's a lot of us but, on the streets or in the business areas but not in the positions of power. Very few of the people are in positions of power and that's because of two-fold things that many come here thinking they have to be good citizens of Australia, they have to be good migrants and a model minority who shouldn't push back beyond a certain point.
Somehow this issue then translates into accepting the glass ceiling and therefore not pushing for your rights when you have the right as a taxpayer in this country to see your arts on these platforms and to see where your money is going. If your stories are not being heard, how are we going to keep a sense of ourselves? Also the idea that South Asian stories bring wisdom and interesting ideas of the feminist thought and power. Stories of how power is not one way and that it is actually mediated and present in many of our mythological stories and folktales and so many legends. Australian culture is being enriched by what we bring and that is its absolute strengths, the complexity and multiplicity. Therefore, South Asian stories can also become Australian stories.
There are important connections between Australia and India that go beyond 200 years, that is beyond the colonial time period. This is a project that I did, called Churning Waters for Australia Festival in India in 2019 where I worked with indigenous artists, both in Australia and also in South India with Thilagavathi Palani and her Koothu troop from Mettu Mulluvadi village in Kanchipuram and connected them with artists with Yolngu artists from North Arnhem land.
This was when we realised that there were all these connections that went back thousands of years between India and Australia so art actually helps us see connections and trade that was pre-existing before white European understanding of the same. We can see that the Australia-India engagement can be without a colonial culture because our stories have similarities. The ways in which our culture connects to Australia go back so far in time but we bring them into the present in a contemporary experimental engagement that shows us what an Australia-India trade, business and cultural engagement could look like.
Recently I did a production called the Durga Chronicles which looks at the prevention of violence against women but by using Durga's stories and everyday stories of violence, rape and murder and other forms of violence too that really show a very diverse audience as to how our mythological stories can be very relevant to contemporary issues. They can empower women and girls and can educate communities so that we can actually think of our material not just as ours but something that can be shared with a diverse Australian population.
AS: So you did talk about partnering with the Australian indigenous communities. Do you see a strong artistic partnership building the South Asian and the Australian indigenous cultural traditions?
PS: Absolutely, but one thing that we must remember is that our position here is also as settlers and migrants. We are part of the settler colonial frameworks and there is no treaty on this land. While we know that we have these deep connections, I think politically we can never get over the fact that we are also settlers participating in their domination. So one of the important things that we need to do is to bring out the fact that we were also colonised and bring our colonised perspectives to decolonial praxis and develop alliance with the indigenous people, their issues and rights alongside creating artistic work.
I do see the many connections we have. Just as an example, Sylvia, who is a Yolngu woman from Arnhem land, had never left Australia before. Her first flight was to Chennai and when she landed she was amazed and so were the other indigenous people. They said, "this is the first time we are actually in a space where everybody looks like us and that has never happened before." I think these deep connections go back and are so different to the ways in which we have become urbanised. I think now, going forward, India has to still be an ally to indigenous sovereignty, right alongside the connections and deep seated stories that can emerge from that alliance.
AS: Absolutely. One thing that particularly struck me was your take on decolonisation. Your focus has also been on the feminist aspect of decolonisation. How do you think your performing arts have contributed to that?
PS: I think they are very interrelated. My work has been in the global south feminist thinking and about the black and indigenous feminist scholars who have been thinking about these questions for a long time. It is really about thinking beyond singularity and into the collective. I am very much interested in how the 'me' turns into the 'we'. I think the collective and the individual responsibility within the collective as well as the collective's responsibility towards the individual shapes everything. It shapes how we might re-imagine the global future whether in trade, business, agriculture and arts. That is what my artistic practice really looks at. How do we look at the 'we' in relation to the 'me' and how do we do it in a way that accounts for power and everybody takes responsibility for that power. Power, being a shifting relationship which means that not one entity remains in power always. The focus is on how we use the knowledge that we have when we are in the positions of power. So we use our shifting knowledge of power to effect change and that to me is at the core of all my practice around decolonial feminist thinking and it toggles between the theoretical and the practical in the studio-artistic space. It has always been like that for me, how do we go from the theoretical understanding to the practical, how do we implement it in engagement of ideas, conferences and dialogues and placing the vulnerable female bodies at the centre of that.
AS: Right. So as we come to the end of this interview, how do you think the performing arts contribute to creating a bridge towards even stronger ties between Australia and India as they stand right now?
PS: I think that soft power through cultural practice is the key. If we do not put the arts and the humanities at the core of our education systems and keep pushing them into the margins, how are people going to interact with each other and understand each other? The arts actually have the capacity to transform people and their understanding of each other.
Without the arts and the humanities at the core, I don't think you can do trade or business because you are not going to be able to get beyond a certain point. Every successful trade relationship also has to have the people-to-people connection. I am a true believer that the arts have the power to show, educate and bring complex dialogues into place.
The arts and the humanities need to be funded and placed at the centre of all intercultural engagement. This is because ultimately that is what the India-Australia engagement is, it is an inter-cultural engagement at the core. The benefit that Australia has is that it has Indians and South Asians inside it that can offer a deeper understanding and engagement of this space and we bring that know-how as the bridge for an Australia-India engagement through the arts.
AS: Dr. Srinivasan, you have really presented some thought provoking ideas through this conversation. Before we end, do you have any last messages for our readers?
PS: I just want to add that I didn't do this alone and I have had many collaborators. In particular, Sangam began because of two people who joined me in the process, Hari Sivanesan and Uthra Vijay, who have been integral to how we began the process and how we have continued and developed Sangam from nothing into what it is today. It was a festival and now it’s a platform and a hub. It is really changing its nature. We are also very excited about a big collaboration that is coming up in February. It is called Agam and it is the collaboration between Sangam and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on the largest platform stage in Australia called the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on February 15th 2023 and we hope that everybody in this space is watching because this is part of the building of these deep connections into the future of the Australia-India engagement. It is a symbol and a metaphor for the intercultural engagement done by considering cultural equity, representation and power. It is a very important moment I think.
AS: Thank you very much Dr. Srinivasan for doing this. This has been a very relevant conversation on the importance of building artistic cooperation and soft power diplomacy to strengthen the ties between our two countries. Thank you!
PS: Thank you very much for reaching out to me! Thank you.