2020 Festival Report: Case Study
SVA Kranti: The Revolution Within
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SVA Kranti: The Revolution Within is a one-woman-show created and performed by activist, actress and Indian classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai. Presented by Footscray Community Arts Centre for Asia TOPA 2020, the work incorporates dance, music, multimedia and theatre, exploring the Indian women’s resistance movement through an imagined conversation with Mahatma Gandhi.
First presented in 2005 in Chicago, SVA Kranti has continued to evolve and react to political issues in India and abroad, exploring the lives of women who have struggled non-violently with truth and democracy, and considers the relevance of Gandhi’s teachings to the contemporary female experience.
Sarabhai wrote SVA Kranti as a response to the 2002 Gujarat riots in western India, a period of violence following the burning of commuter train filled with Hindu pilgrims. Fire killed 59 commuters, mobs raged for more than two months, approximately 1000 people were killed, some 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses and 360 places of worship were destroyed, and roughly 150,000 people were displaced.
The riots caused division across India. Critics placed blamed on the now Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, meaning that SVA Kranti remains a contemporary political dialogue. A vocal critic of the riots, Sarabhai was amongst a group of litigants who filed against the government and the state. As a result, Sarabhai went into hiding where she created SVA Kranti as a response to what she describes as genocide.
Mallika Sarabhai is one of India’s leading choreographers and dancers, in constant demand as a soloist and with her own dance company, Darpana, creating and performing both classical and contemporary works. She has a Ph.D. in organisational behaviour and has been the co-director of the prestigious arts institution, Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, for nearly 40 years. She first came to international notice as an actress when she played the role of Draupadi in Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata for 5 years, first in French and then English, performing in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, Australia, Japan and Scotland.
Always an activist for education, human rights and women’s empowerment, Mallika began using her work for social change. In 1989 she created the first of her hard-hitting solo theatrical works, Shakti: The Power of Women. Since then Mallika has created numerous stage productions which have raised awareness, highlighted crucial issues and advocated change, several of which have toured internationally as well as throughout India.
Nithya Nagarajan is a dancer, performance-maker, researcher, curator, and currently serves as the International Market Adviser - South and South East Asia at the Australia Council for the Arts. At the intersection of these interests are her passion for agency and activism through artistic pedagogy, process and practice. She holds an award-winning PhD in Performance Studies from Flinders University and has worked in the creative sector in the diverse cultural contexts of the Middle East, South Asia and Australia.
In 2019, Nagarajan proposed to Asia TOPA Associate Director Kate Ben-Tovim that Sarabhai be invited to present SVA Kranti as part of the 2020 festival.
“Kate took a huge leap of faith that I had seen it” said Nagarajan. “She didn’t know Mallika, she hadn’t come across her in India, but because she had been to the previous work that I had curated, which was also with a contemporary female dancer in her 60’s, she embraced the idea. Further, Stephen had seen Mallika speak publicly during his time in Jaipur and he was keen to work with her in some capacity.”
Footscray Community Arts Centre – an independent creative precinct in the western suburbs of Melbourne, whose curatorial focus is on the nexus between creativity and social justice - was already identified as an Asia TOPA Program Partner and were keen to connect with artists that connected with their local communities. After considering various options, the team decided that Footscray Community Arts Centre would be the ideal performance venue.
“The reason we went with Footscray Community Arts Centre is because there is an in-house South-Asian producer, and there is South-Asian expertise on the marketing team” said Nagarajan, “we knew they would be able to reach different audiences, and serve the work with a cultural consciousness and acumen that it would need. I cannot emphasize how valuable this was in navigating not just the joys but the challenges of the project too.”
Alongside the support from Footscray Community Arts Centre and investment by Asia TOPA, Nagarajan was named an independent curator to help contextualize the work for a local setting. This was not only important to make sure all audiences were able to engage deeply, but also because the work has been created to be able to be adapted when touring outside India. As Nagarajan says, “it’s set up in a frame where there are five paragraphs where some of the local incidents can be contextualized for the space and the community that the work is presented in.”
Two sold out performances of SVA Kranti were presented for Asia TOPA, the result of the highly-effective strategy employed by the team at Footscray Community Arts Centre, working with Nagarajan and Priya Srinivasan, a community consultant engaged to lead a grassroots, multi-lingual outreach campaign targeted to Melbourne’s resident South Asian communities.
Although primarily presented as a dancer, Sarabhai is a multifaceted artist with a substantial professional career as a practitioner. She is also a powerful speaker, social commentator and feminist who has broad appeal beyond a dance audience.
Nagarajan explained that the presentation of Indian classical dance within the context of a major international festival such as Asia TOPA is unique to Australian audiences. Instead, renowned performers such as Sarabhai are often presented within an educational or community context in Australia, “Indian dance doesn’t get presented in professional context in Melbourne or Australia at large, even when very famous artists come in it gets programmed in schools on the edges of suburbs, it’s [rarely] presented in headline festivals… the programming of SVA Kranti gave Asia TOPA audiences access to performance in a context that they wouldn’t regularly be exposed to otherwise. This was very important to me because of the message it sends to younger artists/audiences within the community.”
The performances were successful in attracting a largely Indian diaspora audience, which for Sarabhai, meant that many had pre-existing knowledge of the themes and topics explored in the performance, and for her, performing the work in Australia was not really different to performing it in India.
“It’s great to be able to see a performance like this that has come from a place of pain and suffering at a major festival and I want to thank Asia TOPA and Footscray Community Arts Centre for bringing it to a mainstream audience.” (Audience member)
Acknowledging the challenging issues raised by the performance, including rape, suicide and political violence, safe spaces were provided outside the theatre for audience members confronted by the content. In describing the work Nagarajan said “It really head-on addresses the fact that there is a complicity amongst the diaspora and feeding the violence on the mainland, further unpacked in the conversation afterward”.
Audience surveys suggested that those who were not already familiar with the political and social context found the work more difficult to engage with. “I wish I knew more of the references being made. Despite this I really enjoyed the performance and it was my first time at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.” (Audience member)
Following both performances, almost all of the audience remained for extensive Q&A with Sarabhai and Nagarajan. One audience member said “For me this was the highlight of the evening, contextualising the performance in Sarabhai’s history of practice across art and activism, and in the present moment.” .
With a deep understanding of her work, Nagarajan wanted to make sure that Sarabhai’s visit was not limited to only the diaspora community, and that she was “not just read in the one way that she is presented” through SVA Kranti.
Sarabhai also appeared in a number of aligned events as part of the Asia TOPA public program, including:
- Moving the Margins, a presentation to the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, Victorian College of the Arts;
- appearing as a guest speaker at the Australian Performing Arts Market offering a provocation on moving beyond the market model for art making and distribution; and
- Dancing Democracy; Choreographing Protest a 5-hour workshop at Temperance Hall.
Dancing Democracy; Choreographing Protest was an intimate workshop, limited to 12 participants, for people with a body-based creative practice. It taught dancers working with autobiographical material how to navigate authorship and agency in their own practice.
However as Nagarajan recalled, “There was somebody that had never danced in their life, but said the workshop spoke to her so deeply and she's a painter but felt incredibly stuck physically, she didn't feel free, she said she'd never felt free in her life and asked if she could come?” to which the answer was, of course, yes.
The presentation of SVA Kranti demonstrates the importance and effectiveness of engaging artistic and producing teams who are best placed to reach and connect with diaspora communities. Nagarajan was a critical intermediary for Asia TOPA, who had previously written her PhD thesis on intersectional feminism and Indian contemporary dance, which referred heavily to Mallika Sarabhai's work and was central to inviting and hosting her in Australia.
Beyond Asia TOPA presentations, Sarahbhai’s visit was also leveraged across a wider itinerary with adjacent events organized by South Asian artists who were employed to curate and shape the program – a legacy Nagarajan describes as “nurturing an ecology not just for diaspora artists, but diaspora producers, curators and marketers because then they had to put the whole thing together.”
Sarahbhai’s wider engagement through presentations and workshops, not only during Asia TOPA, but also a sold-out event at Sydney’s Information Cultural Exchange Re-imagining Dance: Brown bodies on the global stage, also demonstrates the reach and impact that artists presenting at Asia TOPA can have.
In addition to engaging people more deeply with social and political themes of her work, Sarabhai’s appearances at aligned events was also an effective audience development strategy – drawing audiences to the performances at Footscray Community Arts Centre.
Sector leaders in connecting with diverse audiences, Footscray Community Arts Centre achieved two sell-out performances, attracting a significant diaspora audience. The team attributes this success to a combination of:
- engaging a specialist consultant to connect with the local South Asian diaspora community;
- utilizing WhatsApp networks and groups to promote the performances and share context;
- promoting the work through traditional marketing methods, including the overarching Asia TOPA marketing campaign; as well as
- hosting dinners for senior members of the South Asian community in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs home to a large South Asian population (minimizing geographical barriers to initial engagement).
SVA Kranti continues to attract audiences around the world. Sarabhai, now in her sixties, continues to perform, but her concerns relating to the environmental impact of global travel mean she wishes to restrict further presentation. Instead, she is turning her attention to co-creation of new work, and through her appearance at the Australian Performing Arts Market, has established new collaborative relationships.
Leah Jing – Nithya Nagarajan headshot
Darpana Archives – Mallika Sarabahi headshot, Gallery image 3
Sarah Walker – ‘Presentation’ embedded image (Mallika at APAM)
Gianna Rizzo – Main image, Gallery images 1, 2, 4-7