The arts are in my DNA

Aroon Shivdasani, doyenne of the Indian arts in the U.S., discusses her multifaceted life and many passions with Pratika Yashaswi

A 13-inch screen brings Aroon Shivdasani and me face-to-face, bridging a gap of more than 8,000 miles and ten time zones.

Where I am, I’ve just risen. Where she is, it is bedtime for most people. Not long ago, she fought off the coronavirus and suffered its painful after-effects. Still, despiting having returned home at the end of what must have been a long day, there is no trace of weariness on her face.

She turns up on time, attentive and present in the conversation as though she is just beginning her day. She makes time to chat about her fight with COVID-19, and about getting children to go back to school as the pandemic rages on. She is sharp, alert, and full of energy. Perhaps these are the qualities that have made possible her long list of contributions to South Asian art.

Shivdasani is the founder and the erstwhile executive and artistic director of the Indo-American Arts Council. She brought visibility to India’s arts outside India through events and festivals that have inspired many others.

Shivdasani has also worked for social causes, sometimes using the arts as a platform to bring about social change.

When she and her partner Indur Shivdasani were in India, she volunteered extensively with the Spastic Society as well as FREA India (Front for Rapid Economic Advancement of India), working to help villages barter with each other for food, water and other basic necessities, and setting up medical mobile vans to visit them each month.

Any introduction to her career would be remiss without highlighting her active political engagement in whichever country she lived. In Canada, the Shivdasanis actively campaigned for then Liberal candidate Pierre Trudeau. Now the veteran New Yorker is directing all her energy to campaign for Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate taking on President Donald Trump.

Actor, activist director, producer, founder, volunteer, impresario… The list of titles Shivdasani has held runs long. Her career spans decades and several countries. She shared the absorbing story of her life with SEEMA in an email interview.

You’ve lived in several different countries and had a diverse, colorful career. Where did it all begin?

My siblings and I spent our formative educational years at an elite boarding school in the Simla Hills—The Lawrence School in Sanawar. Here, protected from the hurlyburly of the world outside the school borders, we learned about the arts, sports, the love of learning, and the joy of living and sharing with people of different languages and customs from all over the country and beyond.

Holidays were spent with my parents in Bombay as well as with my nani (maternal grandmother) in Lucknow. Mummy ensured we visited museums, art galleries, concerts, theater, and had dance and music lessons from teachers at home.  Nani  would tell us stories of our heritage, of the saints, the Mahabharat and the Ramayana and even ensured we learned to embroider our petticoats — something she believed every young lady should know!

Books, theater, art, song and dance surrounded us as we performed both in school and at home, and actively engaged in music sessions at home with my talented mother and her siblings, who all sang beautifully.

After Sanawar, I continued my education in Bombay, with every intention of going to Oxford for further studies. However, fate had other plans. I met my husband (Indur Shivdasani) and joined St. Xaviers College in Bombay (now Mumbai) instead, pursuing a B.A Honors in English since he was then a student at IIT [Bombay]. College kept me busy with studies as well as the College Union Council. My extracurricular activities included track, badminton and netball. I acted with Alyque Padamsee’s Theatre Group, and also played hockey for Bombay city and Bombay University. Post my graduation, I joined Grant Advertising as an account executive while Indur finished his last year at IIT.

We got married immediately after Indur graduated, and left for our honeymoon and then London where Indur did his master’s at the Imperial College while I worked at the Observer newspaper, doing media research. We then moved to Canada, where I joined the Bear Theatre Company, producing and presenting plays by T.S. Eliot and Chekov.

In 1980, Indur was offered a job he couldn’t refuse in McLean, Virginia, so we moved from Canada to the U.S. with a toddler and an infant. Three years later, we moved to New York and spent the next 20 years in New Rochelle, Westchester.

I have now lived in New York for 41 years, loving this amazing cultural jewel and everything it offers. I am delighted to see Indian artists in the performing, visual and literary arts finally visible, appreciated and working in mainstream venues and with mainstream American artists. We have four grandchildren from our two daughters. Both Indur and I have retired, and life continues to hurtle along without missing a beat. Indur plays bridge and indulges in music. I belong to several film, theater, art and women’s groups as well as charitable institutions.

How did the Indo-American Arts Council come to be?

[From New Rochelle] we would make regular forays into the city for opera, theater, art exhibitions, concerts. However there was a big hole as far as Indian arts were concerned. They were invisible. In New Rochelle, I organized small arts events like a festival of the city’s 200th birthday and a masterclass in my home with the artist Solanki.

In the summer of 1998, Jonathan Hollander and I founded a much needed organization to present the arts of India to mainstream America. Gopal Raju gave us our seed money and an office, Talat Ansari completed all the legal paperwork and BINGO! The Indo-American Arts Council was born! I initiated festivals in every artistic discipline and worked 24/7 to ensure visibility for artists of Indian origin. My fervent mission was to make mainstream America sit up and notice our artists and artistic heritage.

Besides initiating festivals in film, dance, theater, literature, music and art, listed [I have worked] with Indian artists and fundraisers to [organize art] benefit [programs when there were] disasters in India.

You have been called the czarina – or grande dame – of South Asian art abroad. Does that accurately reflect how you see your own work?

I pioneered a movement in North America and gave Indian artists visibility. I established the first Indian Film Festival, the first Indian Literary Festival, the first Playwrights Festival of the Indian diaspora, the first Indian dance festival, the first Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora in North America. Subsequently, festivals in all the various disciplines popped up all over the country. Indian artists now have myriad platforms to tell their stories and display their talent. Our mission is on its way to success. Today Indian artists in all these disciplines are recognized on stage, television and film. We still have a ways to go – but I started the ball rolling.

What drew you to Indian arts? Were you always artistically inclined?

The arts are in my DNA. My mother was a professor of English and drama and the head of the Bombay University Drama Society. She herself acted and sang beautifully. We were exposed to the arts all our lives and looked for them wherever we went. I participated in the arts in school, college as well as in life. My sister Reeta is an international visual artist whose forte is murals.

Do you continue to practice any art form (apart from curation)?

I have painted, crafted ceramics, thrown pots, made stained glass windows, acted, directed and danced. However, once I started the IAAC I worked 24/7 365 days. I had no time for myself and gave myself completely to showcasing and promoting both veteran and emerging artists from the Indian subcontinent in every discipline.

What’s the secret of your productivity?

Passion! I have a passion for life, have a very loving family and tons of friends in every city and country in which I have lived. I have always been surrounded by love and am confident in my own skin. I have indulged in the excitement and culture of every city in which we have lived, worked with the underprivileged, made lots of friends, and got involved in the community. I also have tons of energy and thoroughly enjoy my work, my family and my friends.

As someone who has been curating and promoting Indian arts for decades now, what is your advice to budding curators of South Asian descent?

Don’t stop at recognized artists. Look for the new voices and emerging talent. Depending on your agenda, you may wish to invite a couple of veteran artists as “draws” and then give exciting new voices a platform to display their work. Ensure you do your homework.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future of Indian art abroad? What would you like to see more (or less) of?

I’d love to see Indian artists recognized as household names by mainstream Americans – and appreciated to the same degree.

What does your family usually do for Diwali? And what plans do you have for the coming pandemic Diwali?

As children in school we lit a bonfire, set off firecrackers, received gifts, wore new clothes, exchanged sweets with other families. My parents would buy something new for the home and organize a special dinner with family and friends. Here in New York I try and replicate some of those festivities. I do a puja involving the whole family, read stories of Diwali to my grandchildren, send mithai to my family and friends, prepare a special dinner, and light sparklers on the back porch. In the past, we have had Diwali parties with all this as well as a table of card playing friends paying homage to the Goddess Laxmi.

This year, with COVID in the air, we will limit the festivities to just the family. I will still do a puja, light sparklers, prepare a special dinner and distribute mithai. But we will not invite all our friends to join us…..maybe next year.

Tell me about the work you’ve been doing with building Democratic support among South Asians. How long have you been involved in this? What has it been like?

Unfortunately I haven’t done as much as I would have done in a non-COVID world. With the after-effects of COVID on me, and a handicapped husband who I am determined to keep safe, my activities have been limited to online and phone help. I co-host and help spread the word about Democratic fundraisers to my list, volunteer by making phone calls, contribute to the effort, and help other groups organize democratic support. I am passionate about getting this monster out of the White House.

Despite Trump’s policies often being very anti-immigration, several Indian Americans support him. Why?

Trump is an immoral, racist, egoistical, gun supporting, misogynist, fraudulent, corrupt, cheating, lying, ignorant , divisive bully. [Two of] his wives [were] recent immigrants and his in-laws became citizens [in the midst of] his rants against new citizens. This hypocritical selfish narcissist is against immigration from non-white countries. He encourages separating families, snatching babies from their mothers, calls Mexicans rapists and thieves. I think Indian Americans who support him have sold their souls. They are looking at the tax advantages for their wealth and turning a blind eye to the reality of his disgusting racism, his assault on the integrity of democracy, which is the basis of the creation of the United States.

The Statue of Liberty echoes the message of America to the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Trump has ignored this fervent quote and polarized the nation. I am really amazed and angry at Indian Americans who pay more attention to their pockets than morality.

I just don’t understand how we can ignore the myriad sexual harassment cases against him; his lack of support for gun control, climate, women’s rights, LGBT; his complete denial of the spread of COVID; his nepotism and cronyism, his abuse of power; and his hypocrisy regarding immigration. Indian Americans who support him (unfortunately I know some of them) need to rethink their moral compass.

Biden isn’t a lot of people’s first choice, even among Democrats. Was he yours? If not, whom were you rooting for at the beginning? What are your thoughts on his leadership?

True. Biden wasn’t my first choice either. However, he is a moderate, decent, honest human being. We NEED a foil to this evil monster (Trump) who has NO regard for law, justice or the American Constitution. I think Biden will surround himself with intelligent people with integrity, and steer the country back to the country we loved and the world respected.

What are your thoughts on Kamala Harris?

She is a smart, tough prosecutor, knows her stuff and won’t back down from a fight. I think she will challenge Biden on several important issues and will help move the country in the right direction. I am proud to know her mother was Indian.

For more articles on arts check out Krishna Soma and her passion for dance.