Dear Desh…

‘Letters’ from Nayan Shah, Melina Young, Ayisha Ibrahim, Atif Ghani and Gitanjali
Edited and compiled by Ian Iqbal Rashid

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Canada's annual festival and conference exploring South Asian cultural practices in the West has become a major presence on the Canadian cultural landscape. It began four years ago as a 'one of' festival coordinated by yours truly, Ian Rashid and run by volunteers at Toronto's Euclid cinema. It is now an established organization running activities year round with a paid, permanent staff. What has been gained and what has been lost in its growth from a small, barely funded grassroots organization to cultural institution. Rungh asked Gitanjali, Nayan Shah, Melina Young, Aisha Ibrahim and Atif Ghani, artists and activists with varying levels of familiarity with Desh, to comment on the most recent event which took place this last April, as well as their thoughts on past years and their hope for future Deshs. The Desh organizers have been asked to offer their thoughts and hopes as well. We hope to present them in a future issue.

Cutting in on the Safety Dance

by Nayan Shah

When I returned home this year, I wondered if Desh Pardesh had perhaps become too safe. This time there had been no passionate, wrenching debate which questioned the cultural practices and programming of the festival. Maybe I had just become addicted to the disputes and drama of years past. But as I mulled it over again and again, I realized that I had experienced my share of political clashes, intellectual discussions and traumatic moments on the peripheries of the festival. What I craved, however, was a sense of critical engagement at the festival main space. Instead, too often, I felt that what we had there was a 'safe space.'

After the 1993 Desh, Amir Ali Alibhai in the pages of Rungh (Vol 2 No 1 & 2, pp 67-68) asked for inclusion into the 'safety dance'. He argued that Desh Pardesh had failed to serve as a safe space for him—as a male, heterosexual artist. Alibhai deliberately misunderstood Desh's mandate to promote the voices and expressions of those constituencies that have been 'systematically silenced' in mainstream South Asian settings, particularly 'women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, people with disabilities, working class people and seniors'. What he wanted was an artistic forum disengaged from a particular political commitment; he favoured a festival that was not 'overtly political' or 'predominantly gay or lesbian identified'.

There's a refusal to recognize that the Desh Festival has produced a progressive labour, feminist, queer coalition with a pledge to shape diaspora South Asian cultural politics. At Desh, the politics are crucial to the art presented. However, there are times when the substance of Desh's commitment to social change gets lost in the carousel of events: as the week's momentum builds, the events and issues tend to blur. The artists' identities can appear to be a liberal litany of 'difference' rather than a reference to liberatory politics and aesthetics.

In order to bring the issues of social change to the forefront, the festival has to transform into a critical space rather than a safe space. The work presented deserves challenge, critical engagement, and the kinds of discussion and debate that can expose possibilities and potential. The addition of the question and answer period after each program was a well-intentioned effort to open the performance space to discussion. The result, though, was individually addressed questions that often heightened the discontinuity between items. Neither the programming blurbs nor the MC's introductions were able to convey to the audience why the items had been selected and grouped together. As an MC, I know this had as much to do with our lack of preparation as with the programmer's cryptic style which left programs without strong themes. Even the 'women' and 'queer' nights seemed strung together only on the basis of identity.

In the future, the Desh working committee could experiment with more tightly curated programming, perhaps by inviting seasoned curators to design an evening. Since most curators are often constrained by disciplinary boundaries, Desh could provide the training grounds for its particular brand of multimedia, interdisciplinary curation. Desh programmers could also draw on the expertise of critics and curators who have special experience with dance, spoken word, theatre and film to deepen the presentation of specific art forms. For instance, I have often desired the presence of a dance critic on stage after the performances of Ratna Roy (1993), Sudarshan (1993, Anurima Banerji (1993/94) and Ananya Chatterjea (1994) to contextualize how their performances appropriate and disrupt Indian dance forms and traditional narratives. It might even be fascinating to tackle issues of appropriation head on by exploring different dance interpretations in a single program.

Desh should take its mandate to 'foster and develop cultural practice' to also create new practices of cultural criticism. All too often our participation in dominant structures reinforces an association between criticism and displeasure or outright hostility. Desh can provide a site where we can candidly exchange ideas and assessments. At a setting like Desh, where the audience summons feelings of solidarity and enthusiastic appreciation, it is possible to read candour as a sign of respect and concern instead of viewing every challenge as a threat. To encourage cultural criticism, the working committee could plan to hold several late afternoon seminars, guided by cultural producers and critics, to explore ideas generated by the programming or by broad changes in cultural practices. By interspersing discussion throughout the festival rather than saving it for the plenary or for the individual programs, the festival can provide more spaces of conversation. The working committee could also consider sponsoring workshops for work in progress and discussion groups for reading criticism throughout the year.

Work is not oppositional or transformational simply because it is produced by a brown person, or even a woman or working class or queer person. It is a struggle that creates critical consciousness and the energy for social change. In an age of 'visible minorities' and multi-culti fetish, cultural critique is a necessity if we are to develop cultural products that will not be simply received, accepted and applauded because of tokenism. It is imperative to turn safety into critical expression if we are to re-imagine and re-make the worlds we live in.

Nayan Shah has been involved in Desh Pardesh as a participant and an adviser since 1991. He writes history and creates video programs in Chicago.


Confessions of a Homemaker

by Melina Young

Desh—where is desh? If next year and the year after and the year after there was no Desh Pardesh, would there still be a desh?

In order to answer the burning yearning restlessness that comes with not knowing home, I sought clarity in mobility and flung my body between London and Berlin and back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. I was looking for the line, wanting to cross it. I was looking to know in my body that I am alien, I do not belong. In the end I did find it for myself in Berlin. "Woher kommst du?" "Kanada." "Ah, Kambodia!" and he made a grab for my anatomy. I found a place that disowned me and saw in me again and again only Far East flesh—not first world born 'n bred. I stayed and worked under the table for a bit, discovering a kinship with two women from China who had overstayed their visa. At the same time, I was painfully awakened to the fact that our fates were completely different. Alienation and bottomless gratitude were intensely juxtaposed. I found just how far my club first world membership went, and discovered not all rich western countries are alike. And anyway, back in Canada, there were dykes and dykes of colour working together to make a home away from home and a home at home. Back in Canada. So I come to Desh with background as a homemaker. In different places and with some overlapping experiences of London and Toronto, and this may account for, in part anyway, why Desh Pardesh hits close to home for me.

Making a home is a healing art: listening, remembering, inventing. The delight in drinking in the images, people and poetry is the relief in finding kindred spirits on the same voyage to desh. Knowing you are at home is first feeling comfort from your body. Desh lets me let my hair down (it's been flowing and growing ever since I found myself in a waving sea of shiny black a couple of Deshs back. A convert of another kind). There is an intimacy and sensuality that opens to me and opens me up telling me this forum is not just concepts and word games but experience and vision from deep within being expressed and appreciated. Collected at Desh are stories about the voyaging, told with the understanding that none of us really reach the same shore. It's a subtler and more soulful project than, say, deconstructing or reclaiming codes and modes, and so is capable of rejuvenating without getting into conceptual quagmires on contemporary South Asianness. This focus on the journeying rather than the boundaries has made for inviting space and I've found myself affirmed—I find myself a participant.

Having said that there is one more thing on my mind—I share with most Desh-goers the privilege of holding a passport from the North. While Desh explores the joys and pains of being/not being South Asian in the diaspora in a post-colonial world, there are brothers and sisters lined up who would give everything they have to trade places. The migration of people in this world is happening on an unprecedented scale. To make a long story short, I suggest that explicit inclusion of information and discussion around immigration are vital in current and future explorations around identity. We have to see ourselves as relatively privileged in the world, those of us on the 'inside' (although there are many insides within 'inside' and lots of room to be subversive). What is my relation to other people living in the world today, not just to be a 'back-there-where-I-cannot-go to'? I'd like to see Desh become as urgent as it is fun and warm and ensure that 'diaspora' keeps getting challenged and not become just another 'funky' flavoured mush. Go Girl!


Redefining the Diaspora

by Ayisha Abrahim

I was invited as a visual artist to Desh Pardesh this year. Since it was my first experience of the festival, I cannot compare it to previous years. I was impressed by how well it was organized and how much interest it generated in Toronto, especially outside the South Asian community. I enjoyed meeting many wonderful people and being with artists, writers, filmmakers over an intense three days. There was an impressive range of work and each day had a richly textured feel. It was a pleasure to hear the work of Shani Mootoo, Ramabai Espinet, Ian Iqbal Rashid, Shyam Selvadurai, Kaushalya Bannerji and others, and to have seen films like Alia Syed's The Watershed, Acting Our Age by Gurinder Chadha and the marathon screening of Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia.

I was very moved by those poets, writers, filmmakers who saw their identities doubly displaced via Africa or the Caribbean. The hybridity and creolization evident in the language and in the cultural norms seemed to break away from constructions of 'pure culture'—there was a certain freedom in which this 'not-quite-here' and 'not-quite-there' was expressed (as in Shani Mootoo's excellent reading). It struck me that to be able to rid oneself of the pathological notion of 'not-quite-coming-from-the-Subcontinent' and expressing freely, and with humour those inherent contradictions, without having to revert to proving one's authenticity, is quite liberating. It opens doors to understanding the Subcontinent's fractured, divisive history and how as individuals who live in the West, our lives are inherently connected to its histories of migration, its socioeconomic realities of the past and present.

However, a festival such as Desh has to constantly redefine itself. Its strength is that it can bring together South Asians across national, religious and class boundaries, and explore the premises of difference and solidarity in the issues facing the community—the politics of globalization and fundamentalism, for instance. Do ethnic/racial groups fulfil the desire of mainstream institutions of seeing identities fragmented and made into commodities? If South Asia is being inundated with images of Western Soaps, then how do we, as cultural workers with progressive views of the West and South Asia, intervene? How do we provide a cultural politic that looks critically at issues of tradition, representation and cultural interpretation? The Diaspora has to extend its definition from both ends; the dialogue in the West has to look at South Asian politics and culture as a changing, living reality, and the countries of South Asia must take the Diaspora seriously, so that a trans-national communication is possible.

It is not a bad idea to include reports on topical activities in South Asia and elsewhere as part of this celebration of identity, and extend the Diaspora to include countries that are not in the West. For instance, the Conference this year occurred right after the South African elections; discussions and films on South Asians struggling to negotiate their identities would have opened up a more complex understanding of the Diaspora.


Grappling with Privilege and Accountability

by Atif Ghani

Occasionally, there is a need for people who are working in very disparate fields of cultural politics to gather together and exchange strategies. More often than not, as someone attempting to contribute to ongoing debates around conceptualizing identity politics, I find myself working very much in isolation. What often results is a sense of schizophrenia, where one loses all sense of place, importance and self worth.

The reason that Desh Pardesh was important, was that it provided a space for me, as an individual working in a very particular field of cultural politics, to make connections with individuals who are working in very different fields and forms of cultural politics. The fact that I was able to make links with people working in centres ranging from San Francisco to Montreal was important. The problem was that it required a certain privileged position to simply attend Desh. Maybe the larger question lies in how much this privileged position is a part of the politics of which I, and Desh, are part.

The other thing that struck me at Desh is the question of responsibility. In becoming larger and more institutionalized, political-cultural organizations can slip out of the role of being responsible to someone. For good or bad, the burden of representation has always been placed, fairly or unfairly, on the shoulders of artists of colour. This burden requires that we grapple directly with the questions of responsibility. When we free up cultural works from their contexts and particular points of reference, their ability to speak from, or to feed into, that context becomes in a way weakened. This is the first Desh that I have attended, but I feel from reading/hearing/asking about previous years, there seems to have been a definite shift this year. I think it is important that Desh continues to ask itself questions about accountability and responsibility as it grows into a bigger and better festival.


There's No Place Like Desh (I clicked my heels 3 times...)

by Gitanjali

A few years ago (but has it only been four years?), I was approached by Ian Rashid to show one of my early student works, and to put up some posters at my school for a festival he was putting together call Desh Pardesh. Many of the posters got torn down at my school. I think it was because they clearly stated that the event was sponsored by KHUSH, South Asian Gay Men of Toronto.

Exploring South Asian cultural work being produced in the diaspora—a new concept to me. I was thrilled by the idea of an event organized by South Asian gay men for the community at large. Despite some well-founded criticisms of the event by women and despite feeling rather intimidated by the discussions at some of the sessions, the event moved me—and on many different levels. So much work I had never seen before, and so many new ideas and questions that I kept bumping up against. I agreed with some things, disagreed with others but it was all useful to me. It was one of several important events and experiences which helped me to build a foundation for my practice. More importantly, it helped me to meet people who would help me explore the directions which much of my work has taken. As I started to take my own work more seriously, I found out that many forces, both out there and within myself wanted to stop me (me!: a really nice lesbian artist of South Asian origins hailing from the streets of Edmonton) from expressing myself in a way that I felt was responsible and in right relationship to the many communities to which I belong. During those moments, I used to close my eyes and think of Desh and it would help me to continue. My work and I have been growing up in Toronto, alongside Desh, since that day many years ago, when Ian asked me to show my film. Since then, Desh has shown almost all of the work I've made. Since then, there have been many controversies and conflicts that have come and gone. New faces. And new directions.

This year's festival has grown even larger and is, in some ways, more ambitious than ever before. Increasingly, I feel that it has become an institution which has made for some pretty tall orders to be filled. While further establishing itself as a high profile international cultural festival which showcases theatre, film, writing, performance, music, visual arts and so on, it also attempts meaningful political and community grassroots organizing amongst a multiplicity of South Asian cultures and communities. Somewhere in the middle of all this, it seems to me that innovative political questioning and rigorous artistic practice have lost their priority within Desh as an organization (except in the works of individual artists and within a very few sessions). These are but two aspects of Desh but vitally important to the empowerment and development of a vibrant and confident cultural community and arts practice.

Although part of me still deeply mourns the loss of what was or could have been at Desh, I have also reached a point where I find I do not regret these changes. Desh can never again be what it was. It is too big, and the structures that have been set up seem to have a different purpose and audience in mind. The event is obviously serving the needs of this audience— people are coming out in droves. So many have been donating their precious time to this gargantuan project. I still think it is one of the most, if not the most, dynamic festivals of its kind in North America. As an audience member, I can honestly say that I enjoyed myself this year, and especially felt encouraged and enlivened by seeing so much new cultural work and the excitement it generated amongst newer artists (not to mention the fashions, the food and the music).

But I was able to enjoy myself because my expectations of Desh as an artist and cultural activist are gone. All I can say is that I truly hope that there will be many other organizations with different names, doing different things, and with a political consciousness, and a commitment to different South Asian constituencies that emerge. I feel that having one organization that sets the agenda for how South Asian cultural communities in Canada are defined, is potentially dangerous and can only dampen the creative spirit. Having different points of reference can only strengthen the entire community and inspire new heights of creativity, (just as the work of many artists with different sensibilities speaks louder than an individual voice, Desh should be able to see how fleeting and illusory star systems are). The establishing of Desh Pardesh has been a milestone in the Canadian cultural community; but the road before us is long and wide.

As my relationship to my own work unravels, I realize that I have just scratched the surface of what is possible. There are so many complicated questions that need to be raised, and so few examples out there. I continue, both in my own work and in cultural organizing like Desh, to seek out places and people that chase dreams and make them tangible. I know that the real secrets of meaningful connection and communication are not revealed in oversimplified political rhetoric nor academic jargonese. I have realized that there is really no place like Desh. I still want, and want more.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Nayan Shah
Nayan Shah is a queer activist and writer in San Fransisco.
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Melina Young is a Canadian Chinese dyke discovering NATURE right now. She lives in Ottawa and has been attending Desh since 1992.
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Ayisha Abrahim is an artist living and working in New York.
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Atif Ghani
Atif Ghani is an Edmontonian, living and playing in London.
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Kaspar Saxena is an artist.
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Ian Iqbal Rashid
Ian Iqbal Rashid is a London-based poet, screenwriter and filmmaker. His films have screened at festivals from Sundance to Toronto and been distributed theatrically. He is the author of three award-winning volumes of poetry.
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