Of India, Arts and Multicultural Australia

Australia is home to scores of Indians. According to the recent statistics Indians account for 2.4% of the Australian population and are the third-largest migrant group in the country.  There are so many of us here that every suburb in Melbourne has an Indian grocery store that not only sells ready-to-eat rotis and freshly ground dosa batter besides the regular pulses and spices but also rents South Indian films DVDs.  Coles and Woolworth (supermarket chains) have a whole section dedicated to Indian food. Even the Chinese markets sell ‘India Gate Basmati rice! The very thought of Australian Chinese relishing ‘Made in India’ rice makes me gloat with national pride! We all know about desi restaurants and the Indian-born restaurateurs’ who hit it big overseas, but we seldom hear about the long wait on Friday nights outside Saravana Bhavan restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney.  Butter chicken is so popular that the cruise boats in Sydney have the dish on their buffet menu. Mind you, it’s not all about gastronomy; you can spot quite a few Yoga studios in Melbourne and Sydney suburbs.

If all of the above sounds cliché then consider this – Network Ten’s new dramedy, Five Bedrooms has an Indian character – a 30-year-old Indian doctor who is still living with his Indian mum and typically the mum doesn’t know he’s gay.  In 2017, Melbourne Theater Company (Australia’s largest theater company), had programmed an Indian play, Melbourne Talam in their Education season that went on to win awards and nominations. More recently, Australia’s iconic playwright, Patricia Cornelius, has woven an Indian story in the fabric of her new play. Last year Australian Shakespeare Company cast actors of color in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Karanvir Malhotra, the 23-year-old actor, best known for his work in Selection Day (Netflix Series), played the part of Paris in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Karanvir had trained at 16th Street Actors after moving to Melbourne with his parents.  Karan is excited about the emerging trend to cast diverse actors in the roles that were traditionally played by white actors. He is thrilled that the Australian performing arts industry is becoming more inclusive.

Karan is excited about the emerging trend to cast diverse actors in the roles that were traditionally played by white actors.

Just a couple of years back a veteran Indian actor had said in the passing, “25 years back you wouldn’t have seen any Indian in and around the Southbank Theater, leave alone on the stage at the Southbank.” If you take his statement as the reference then 21 shows of an Indian play (Melbourne Talam) at the landmark Southbank Theater or an Indian actor playing a part in a Shakespeare play becomes a political statement.  There’s no doubt we are seeing more Indian actors and works by Indian artists in the performing arts industry.  Is it because Indian influence is growing in Australia or is it a game of numbers? As the Indian population grows it needs more stores to shop in and more stage/platforms to show its stories. But what does culture mean to Australia?

Though Australia is geographically closer to Asia its culture is Western. There are at least 200 migrant communities living in Australia but the Australian culture is not a cocktail of the cultures of the diverse groups inhabiting the country.  Bernard Joseph Salt, an author, and columnist with The Australian and Herald Sun newspapers, recently published an article entitled, ‘Where is Australian culture now?’ in The Australian. Mr. Salt writes traces the history of Australian culture that has absorbed influences over the years to become seemingly more sophisticated. Mr. Salt ends his piece on a cautionary note, “Culture isn’t something that happens along the way of life, by accident; it is a powerful dividend of a people who know who they are and where they’re headed. And wherever we’re headed, we’ll be better placed to get there if we’re united by a uniquely Australian culture.”

Now what remains to be seen is where Indians will fit in this uniquely Australian culture. Jiva J. Parhipan, a Sydney based performing artist, producer, and educator who is working internationally in the cross-section of performing, visual and community arts thinks the growing presence of Indians on stage or screen does not mean Indians have been accorded a special status. Jiva has worked in the performing arts sector in the United Kingdom and Australia for over two decades. A Sri-Lankan Tamilian, Jiva, is trained in the Western and Indian classical dance forms and has an insider-outsider perspective.  Jiva considers the inclusion of the diverse people in the art world as a natural progression where Indians are a part of the bigger mix. The important thing to remember is that Indians are merely one of the diverse ethnic groups that make up Australia, just another story in the multiple stories of a play. This year a new Australian play about Sri Lanka’s civil war, ‘Counting and Cracking’ bagged seven Helpmann Awards. One year it is a Sri Lankan play, the next year is the turn of a Malaysian-Chinese story on stage.

Suhasini Seelin, an Indian actor in Melbourne is of the view that the attempts at inclusivity and multiculturalism are not enough.  “There is blindness when it comes to casting, where people of colour aren’t considered for general roles unless ethnicity is specified.” She adds, “I’ve been an actor in Melbourne for about 8 years and the only real embracing of an Indian form I have experienced is that of Bollywood Dance.”  While this statement will rattle the cultural pundits of India, the truth is India is synonymous with Bollywood.  I have heard young Australians talk about Bollywood dance on trams, “Is Bollywood dance from In..dia?” That’s right some of them can’t pronounce India.

Suahsini has had to consciously downplay what she refers to as ‘my Indian-ness’. “I have auditioned for characters that have needed an accent, and mine has either been too little or too much. As a female, I’ve been offered a lot of ‘mum’ roles and less complex characters than I’d like. This is not Australia specific, gender disparity exists across the world and here is no different.” She wonders sometimes whether working in India would have been more satisfying. 

Suhasini is trained in the Indian dance forms and Western style of acting. But her training in Bharatnatyam has not served her in the acting jobs in Australia.  The modern theater in Australia is text- driven, taut and minimalistic. Contemporary Australian theater has little use for Indian classical dance or exaggerated acting.  On the other hand, Suhasini has been able to draw from Japanese forms like Butoh and Suzuki in some of her performances. Suahsini feels, “an intermingling of ideas or art forms is too complex for consumption!”  The problem is that the Indian classical dance and music are inaccessible to the uninitiated audience. Unlike yoga that can be consumed by the masses, Indian dance forms are of little use to a foreigner.

This brings us to whether there is any place for the Indian Classical dance in Australia? Most classical dance performances are considered community events rather than professional concerts. The sub-text is that a community event is not high art. The Australians (non-Indians) who come to attend such concerts tend to be dancers, academics, or those working in the Multicultural Arts Department. Jiva points out that the Indian dances (referred to as the Hindu Temple dances) have been performed on the global stage by dancers from outside India such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries in the sub-continent. The cardinal question that Jiva raises is whether Indian dance should be located in the ambit of dance? Or is it a theatrical form? Western dance is centered on movement and precision but Indian dance places a lot of emphasis on abhinaya.  

Dr. Amit Sarwal’s upcoming book traces the early links between the Western and the Indian dance in Australia. Dr. Amit Sarwal is the Founding Convenor of Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network (AIIRN) and has a nuanced understanding of aesthetics. Published by Routledge, Dr Sarwal’s book, ‘The Dancing Gods: Staging Hindu Dance in Australia’ explores how a unique dance form (Kathakali and Manipuri especially) evolved in the meeting of travellers and cultures during 1930s-50s.  The blurb on the cover reads, ‘The intricately symbolic Hindu dance in its vital form was virtually unseen and unknown in Australia until an Australian impresario, Louise Lightfoot, brought it onto the stage. Her experimental changes, which modernized Kathakali and Manipuri dance through her pioneering collaboration with Indian dancers Ananda Shivaram, Rajkumar Priyagopal Singh and Ibetombi Devi, moved the Hindu dance from the sphere of ritualistic practice to formalized stage art. This movement enabled both the authentic Hindu dance and dancers to gain recognition worldwide and created in their persona cultural gurus and ambassadors on the global stage.’ When asked whether there is a need to metamorphose the Indian dances in order to appeal to the global audience Dr. Amit replied that Indian dances have already been transformed either for an Indian or Western audience. He cites Bhatatnatyam’s example that has evolved from Sadir which was performed by Devadasis. Louise Lightfoot had to actively transform the dance because the requirements of a stage are different from that of a pandal or a temple.

We Indians are an ethnocentric lot. We have grand notions about our civilizational superiority and the stature of our art forms. We are so self-aggrandizing that we remain oblivious to the world art forms like the Japanese musical drama Noh, African music, Sudanese drums, Chinese dance, Russian ballet and more.  In multicultural societies such as Australia Indians can only hope to be the seasoning with a distinct flavor. We are not the whole dish. Australia encourages equal participation of all cultures and accords the same status to all art forms. We are obliged to transform, translate, and blend our art in their art and culture landscape. Else, we remain a foreign dish savoured out of curiosity.

(The author Rashma N. Kalsie’s plays have been performed around Australia and India. Rashma’s writing credit for the theater include Melbourne Talam, Padma Shri Prahasana, The Lost Dog, and The Rejected Girl. TV credits include scripts for close to 100 episodes of Indian TV shows/docudrama with B.A.G. Films and News and Entertainment Television. Book Credits:  Ohh! Gods Are Online (Srishti Publishers, India) co-authored with a British writer. The Buddha & the Bitch (Hay House, India) co-authored with an American writer, released in May, 2018. Melbourne Talam (MTC Education production) won Drama Victoria Award for ‘Best Performance by a Theater Company for VCE Drama 2017’ and was nominated in 5 categories for the premiere theatre awards “Green Room Awards 2018” including Rashma’s nomination in the ‘New Writing for the Australian Stage’ category.)

(Cover image credit: Jeff Busby; Image source: Melbourne Theater Company)  

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