By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Tasveer organization holds its tenth annual Aaina Festival, devoted to focusing on South Asian Women through the arts April 24 through April 26th in Seattle. Tasveer co-founder Rita Meher took some questions over email.
NWAW: This is the tenth year for Tasveer’s Aaina Festival. What have been the biggest changes to the festival over the years?
Rita Meher: In 2006 Tasveer created Aaina: South Asian Women’s Focus specifically to serve South Asian women and girls of the Pacific Northwest. This festival focuses on and celebrates the artistic and activist work of South Asian women through performance art, visual art, films, workshops, and conversations aimed at highlighting issues critical to the empowerment of South Asian women. We claim it to be the only South Asian Women Festival in the country, possibly a unique one globally.
The festival has grown stronger year by year. One big challenge for the festival was to find an intimate space to host “Yoni Ki Baat” (the South Asian adaptation of the “Vagina Monologues”) and the five-month practice space. In initial years we would have to scout for a location every year. Now we have found a permanent space at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, with a very successful collaboration with Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas. We are thankful to their ongoing support.
Another unique change we have put in place for this festival is that every program of the festival is led by two women and this method provides a leadership opportunity and empowerment for these women, in leading a program in the festival with very little guidance from the festival directors. We also recruit new “Yoni Ki Baat” directors every year and give chances to women who have not directed before.
NWAW: What are the most unexpected directions the Festival has experienced?
Rita Meher: When we started Aaina and “Yoni Ki Baat,” our goal was to provide a safe, non-judgmental, bold space and platform for South Asian women and girls. In recent years we have seen an increase in support from the men in our community as well. We put extra effort for men to speak on any issues during our program called Community Speaks. We are proud to say it is a very popular program among the men.
Having encouraged women from all walks of life to perform in Yoni Ki Baat has expanded its outreach and turned both participants and the audience members to be activists in their own right. It has started a conversation about the strengths and weaknesses as a culture and community.
NWAW: How did the “Yoni Ki Baat” live theater project get started? How has it grown and changed over the years?
Rita Meher: “Yoni Ki Baat” started in 2006 as a single script, and over the years the women who took part in it made it what it is today! A very unique feature of Yoni Ki Baat is that it features a new director (or co-directors) each year.
Each director has ideas on how to bring out the core issues that we want to talk about in “Yoni Ki Baat.”
The participants and directors start meeting in late fall and attend workshops devised by the directors until the performance—which typically spans five months. The directors are challenged to bring out the stories from the participants which acknowledge female sexuality as an essential aspect of identity. The performers in turn create narratives that shed light on the special challenges and opportunities experienced in the South Asian socio-cultural context. Because each year, there are new participants and directors, no story is the same, new people are brought into the fold.
For the first couple years, there were very few women who participated in “Yoni Ki Baat.” The scripts were borrowed. However, unlike the initial years, all the scripts are now written by the participants, all local South Asian women. The biggest and most gratifying change has been to see the Seattle and especially South Asian community come and support the festival! We now have a record number of audience members, the list of participants is long, and there is continued support of the community throughout the year.
NWAW: Who will be performing “Yoni Ki Baat” this year?
Rita Meher: This year’s directors are Pallavi Garg and Ashika Chand. We have nine women performing. They are all local and come from all walks of life- students, professionals, teachers, mothers! You can find more about them at: http://aaina.tasveer.org/2015/index.php?cID=123#sthash.k6irgJTE.dpbs
NWAW: Please describe the “You Follow” film. How was it selected?
“You Follow: A Search for One’s Past” features Indian adoptee Nisha Grayson and is directed by South Asian film maker Sharmila Ray. It provides a rare in-depth look into Nisha’s world as she explores her evolving identity while returning to her roots. Following the film, an interactive panel comprised of South Asian women adoptees will draw connections between the film and audience to the themes of women’s agency, voice, resilience, culture, family, and empowerment found within the film.
NWAW: What other attractions does the festival have this year?
SAPWN (South Asian Professional Women Network): Another program that was launched at Aaina was
SAPWN in April 2011.
SAPWN is hosting a panel on Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Join us for a panel discussion themed “How female entrepreneurs are changing the world with creative innovation.” We have a great group of female entrepreneurs from Seattle joining us as panelists.
Youth Voices: Youth Voices is a platform for South Asian youth to express issues about their identity. A platform like no other, it provides a safe space to discuss issues of identity, sex, abuse, love without judgement. This year Jaya Ramesh and Angeli Bhatt will lead and facilitate the Youth Voices program. We are inviting youth to join for a game of Frisbee, pizza and a talking circle on bullying.
Community Speaks: We invite South Asians, all genders, to share experiences of self-determination and empowerment at Community Speaks. Community Speaks is a creative community forum where people share your stories, expressed through any form of media (spoken, video, paintings, written, photography, dance, movement). We are also happy to accommodate people who would like to share their story but wish to remain anonymous.
Gupshup Artist Showcase: Every year we showcase about four or five local South Asian women artists in various unique disciplines. This year we have Savita Krishnamurty, Yasmin Christopher, Rashmi Tritha, Kamini Raghavan & Sapna Dhar.
NWAW: What’s in the future for Tasveer, Aania, and yourself?
This year I am co-directing Aaina with Rituja Indapure. A goal for Tasveer is to also find a permanent place for the film screening, an office space, some paid help to join the Tasveer team. Leading the administrative work of Tasveer can get very tedious. My dream is to find more help and funding to support those positions. (end)
For the Aaina Festival schedule, visit http://aaina.tasveer.org/2015/#sthash.KadILIzc.dpbs. For background on Tasveer and its festivals, visit http://www.nwasianweekly.com/2014/10/film-festival-evolves-tragedy-seattle-south-asian-film-festival-features-theme-daring/.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.