T

he wafting aromas of hot pakoras and fresh bhel puri collided with the sounds of Gujarati-English rap and Indian classical music mixed with electronica. Colorful kurtas brushed up against ethnic-inspired western wear and blue jeans. A palpable electric energy sizzled alongside the relaxed camaraderie in the atmosphere. For four days in July, ArtWallah 2004 provided a delicious feast for the senses, tantalizing all kinds of tastes at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and Art Park in the Hollywood Hills.

This annual cultural banquet first commenced in 2000, when Los Angeles-based South Asian artists were achieving a critical mass but lacked a dedicated forum—such as Toronto’s former Desh Pardesh or New York’s Diasporadics—for support and expression. As a result, the Indo-American Cultural Center and the South Asian Artists’ Collective cooked up the ArtWallah Festival. IACC founder Sarita Vasa says that ArtWallah was “a product of two South Asian movements coming together—the student conferences and the artistic movements.” The first festival was held in a downtown LA industrial warehouse that could barely hold 100 people. Adds Vasa, “They didn’t know if people would come that first year, but they did. Three hundred people came that weekend.” Since then, the festival has grown significantly, seducing nearly 3,000 people to come see this year’s offerings.

ArtWallah is important because South Asian artists need support and community. I like the fact that it is by artists for artists.

Loosely translated as “one who provides art,” ArtWallah is certainly true to its name. Nearly 80 South Asian artists from around North America and the United Kingdom traveled to Southern California to participate, and their contributions to the festival were as varied as the subcontinent itself. The park’s amphitheater, gallery and courtyards provided delights in every flavor. A seriocomic dance performance entitled Bovinatrix told the story of Bovie, a young cow who migrated to the US from India. Medical student and poet Dipti Barot read “Ode to Chutney,” her take on the second-generation experience. Toronto-based band LAL combined hip hop loops, global dance beats and traditional South Asian music to create a unique and mesmerizing sound. And those were just a few flavors in a rich selection of cultural offerings. The festival, which began with a kickoff concert on Thursday night, was a hotbed of emerging, innovative artists in every medium, ranging from dance and theater to the visual and literary arts.

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Shaheen Sheik entertains the crowd at ArtWallah 2004.
Artists and audiences connect

Performing for a receptive audience (comprised alike of folks desi and non) is thrilling enough, but ArtWallah artists also get to connect with other South Asians with a yen for art. ArtWallah public relations consultant Natasha Alim explains that “ArtWallah is more than a festival—it represents a larger artistic movement that promotes original expressions of the new South Asian diasporic culture. It is a unique space for artists and audiences to connect, communicate, validate and ‘experience’ this bi-cultural reality through refreshing material. The ArtWallah Festival also provides talented established and emerging artists a venue to share varied and innovative works in a supportive environment. It is one of the only thriving festivals of its kind today and several creative collaborations have been born between artists that have met here.”

Participating artists share Alim’s assessment. Painter Tamima Farooqui feels strongly about the festival’s capacity for bringing South Asians together: “So many of us were moved to tears of joy because of this general feeling of togetherness and dialogue … As South Asians, many of us come from roots that did not encourage us to follow our heart’s work, because the traditional mindset that neglects creative work has prevailed in our communities for so long.” Poet Dipti Barot, who performed her poems “Ode to Chutney” and “Pleats of My Sari” at the festival, felt “so excited to read to a brown audience” at ArtWallah. “When I’m writing about the context of my culture, I don’t need to explain the Gujarati words used in the poem even if some people don’t understand them. There is no need to create that distance.” Music producer Saurabh Bose, who performs under the moniker DJ Sharaab, adds that “ArtWallah is important because South Asian artists need support and community. I like the fact that it is by artists for artists.”

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As the sun sets, the evening becomes eclectic with hot beats by DJ Sharaab mixed with the traditional sounds of the tabla.
Art and politics intersect

And though the subjects of the art and performances run the gamut, there are some common themes in much of the work featured at ArtWallah. Many pieces touch on activism and issues that are important to the South Asian community. Slam poet champion Shailja Patel performed her poem, “Today I Dismantled My Gods,” an impassioned response by a young Hindu to the 2001 massacre of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat. Patel says that she was thrilled to perform at ArtWallah, particularly “because I see the South Asian community coming together politically and engaging in activism around issues here in the US and India, and I think that political voice in our art is the most vital thing our generation can do.”

So many of us were moved to tears of joy because of this general feeling of togetherness and dialogue … As South Asians, many of us come from roots that did not encourage us to follow our heart’s work, because the traditional mindset that neglects creative work has prevailed in our communities for so long.

Apul Patel, on the other hand, sticks to issues that are a little more close to home. His satirical one-act play, Airport Boogie, touched upon issues that South Asians face at airports across America. The piece opens with a young South Asian couple in an airport having a pre-flight conversation about their plans to elope in Las Vegas. An overzealous security guard mistakes their talk for terrorist plans and what ensues is a hilarious exchange in song and dance between the guards, the young couple and even John Ashcroft, whose copy of the Patriot Act is really an issue of Mad Magazine.

And though ArtWallah attendees included young and old alike (immigrants and the children of immigrants), the festival’s message of triumph transcended age. It was best demonstrated by Chiraag Bhakta‘s Pardon My Hindi, displayed in the Barnsdall Gallery. The two-color silkscreen was made employing a technique called overprinting to blend two colors to create a third. The poster depicts a woman surrounded by dots, which represent Indian tradition. The silkscreen’s description explains that “the woman breaks through her struggles with overwhelming emotions, proud of whom she is.” It’s as though the poster is a metaphor for ArtWallah’s participants themselves—artists who have merged cultures and colors together to create their own distinct voices. n

Pavani Yalamanchili with additional reporting by Ismat Sarah Mangla.
Published on September 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of Walter Giordani

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