Desh Pradesh 1993

Are we family?
By Amir Ali Alibhai

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This year's third annual Desh Pardesh (Home away from Home) conference, about the politics of South Asian Culture in the West was an undoubtable success; it was an empowering five days (March 24 -28th, 1993) in Toronto where many artists, activists, performers, musicians, writers, poets, filmmakers and other cultural workers of the South Asian diaspora (and others) gathered to confer and celebrate. The organizers and volunteers that made the conference possible should be thanked and commended for their excellent efforts. Except for some unfortunate technical problems on opening night, the programming seemed to flow smoothly and was almost always interesting. There is a comprehensive review of the conference which appears in the Spring, 1993 issue of Montreal Serai,(Volume 7, No.2 available by calling 514 445.0532), which gives a more detailed account of conference programming. In this article, I would like to raise some questions about the conference itself and the direction in which it is headed.

I attended every single performance and panel that I possibly could. I was not, however, able to participate in any of the caucuses that were organized. There didn't seem to be a caucus for me at the conference and this got me thinking about the great responsibility that a festival like Desh Pardesh has to South Asian cultural workers in the West. After all it is the only conference of its type in Canada, and perhaps the entire West. I'm South Asian, I'm an artist, a curator and an educator. (For some reason the fact that I'm male and heterosexual seems to be important to some people as well). I see a need for Desh, for others like (and unlike) myself. I expect a lot from a conference that calls itself a 'conference and festival exploring the politics of South Asian Cultures in the West.' I expect such an entity to have the capacity to include a vast diversity of thought, perspectives, and work. It should reflect the great heterogeneity of our diaspora and provide space for all of us who are marginalised in the mainstream.

I also would expect such a conference to be a place where artists can share their work and ideas with each other, and where we can show our work to our (true) peers and to new audiences. This concern was also voiced at the plenary (Are We Family?) on the last day of the festival. I don't feel that the chair fully understood the statement/question being made/asked. I read it as a plea for the conference to develop so that there would be some space created for the discussion of process and aesthetic. Some attention should be paid to not only the political discourse(s) but to the work done and, as well, to help develop the art and the artists who create it in its many forms. It was not as an activist or a politicised being that I (and others) felt excluded, but as an artist(s).

It's really difficult to be critical of the fledgling Desh Pardesh, but it is also necessary to be so at this stage, in order to can move on with the work to be done. The programming of the festival has evolved through asking questions about access and dealing with overt and 'hidden' racism as South Asians in the West, into a highly politicised and relatively narrow set of 'politically correct' agendas. This no longer makes Desh Pardesh about "South Asian Culture in the West." It is significant that the cut line for the conference/festival is no longer 'A Conference and Festival Exploring South Asian Culture in the West.' It is now, a 'Conference and Festival Exploring the Politics of South Asian Cultures in the West.' That's all fine for the activists and some of the writers and artists in the cultural sector but not inclusive of many of us.

As cultural producers, we need safe spaces (like Desh Pardesh) where we can meet and talk as professionals. Our aesthetic as artists is new and fragile; it is still developing and needs a nurturing environment in which to grow. Yes, all cultural production is political, and therefore it has the strength and capacity to not only serve a social purpose but can also itself be an inspiration for change and amelioration. Art whose sole purpose is to serve a political cause always fails. We cannot allow a space like Desh Pardesh to go; we need it to progress. There are too few safe spaces for artists in our traditional South Asian communities and families. Being marginalised at a conference about Diasporic South Asian culture, because of my sexual orientation and gender, is not acceptable. Perhaps future festivals could include more workshops and caucuses for artists working in different media. A chance to present work and ideas as well as to share with others working in the same field would be welcome.

There seems to be an attitude at Desh Pardesh expressed through programming and media reviews, that looking at our history and reclaiming images, texts, oral traditions, traditions in craft and aesthetic from our roots is somehow nostalgic and self-exoticising. This is not only a false assumption, but it hinders the important processes of reviewing our heritage and constructing our identities as diasporic South Asians. We need to do this on our own terms and in our own words, not the borrowed definitions of the coloniser or the political agendas of particular activist groups.

On opening night there was a reception at the Art Metropole of South Asian Women In-sight, an exhibition of artwork by South Asian women visual artists. The exhibit was well presented and showed a good range of work, from interactive installation to traditional folk paintings. There were many images that I was able to see myself in and there were many questions that I had about the art. I wanted to meet and talk to each one of the artists represented, but there was no formal effort made to facilitate such encounters and dialogues. There wasn't even a catalogue or proper curatorial essay to accompany the work; the type of documentation which, in my opinion, is crucial for this type of event. Why wasn't there a caucus for visual artists? Maybe artists working in different media would like to meet and discuss issues with other artists; maybe we'd learn something from each other. Desh Pardesh has provided a much needed platform for gay and lesbian-identified cultural work, but its challenge and responsibility lies in trying to define and expand its conception of who actually are its constituencies. Bus-bus, enough.

One other criticism focuses around the three panels which were all held on the same day at the festival mainspace (the Euclid Theatre). These were entitled, Arranging the Marriage of Art and Politics, Running from the Family, and Fundamentalism and Communalism. Except for the Running from the Family panel, I felt these meetings to be situations where the converted were being preached to. There weren't any viewpoints presented that challenged the orthodoxy of thinking that prevailed at each panel. Perhaps because there was no safe space created for alternate views to be expressed. The question periods were too short and in many cases the panellists seemed to be there just to further their own causes. Many important questions were flippantly answered or even ignored.

The plenary to establish Desh Pardesh as a permanent organization was one of the most interesting gatherings of the conference. It turned out to be a rather squeezed meeting, where many resolutions were passed through without fair consideration. It was obvious what opinions could and could not be voiced. For instance, I don't feel that the decision to keep Desh Pardesh in Ontario was a wise one. While I agree that the headquarters should remain in Toronto, I also support the idea that the conference itself should move around from city to city and even from country to country; only then can the conference claim to be about 'South Asian Culture in the West.' Otherwise, it's just the South Asian culture of 'Ontario and friends'. If the festival organizers are really interested in building coalitions and creating a sense of community amongst cultural workers who are South Asian, this is a point they need to seriously consider.

I started this article on a positive note and I would like to end that way. I would like to see Desh Pardesh grow and develop into a truly international and inclusive festival. The festival has done a more than respectable job to date. I did experience a great sense of empowerment, what with all those brown faces in one room and all of them working in the Arts or involved in working toward social change. I was entertained and impressed with a great deal of the creative work that was showcased. I also met some very friendly, open, and interesting artists, writers, and performers with whom to share ideas in between events.

Since the conference and the founding membership meeting (plenary), the organizers have requested feedback (and this is mine) on the programming, and have held a community forum Rap On! (June 6, 1993 in Toronto) to evaluate feedback and to develop future strategies. I hope that the new membership and executive rise to the challenge of truly making Desh Pardesh a conference and festival exploring the culture and politics (culture is never apolitical by-the way) of South Asians in the West. Just exploring the 'Politics of South Asian Culture' is not enough. Where's the Art, I ask? If the conference refuses to accept the challenge, it cannot continue to present itself as an organization which represents South Asian culture in the Diaspora, unless culture is defined as only that which is overtly political or predominantly gay and lesbian identified. We need to get to a point where the race, gender, or sexual orientation of a human being is not used to classify and stereotype them; who I fuck is my business and seldom affects the work I produce.

Okay Desh, are we family?

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Amir Ali Alibhai
Amir Ali Alibhai contributed to Rungh Volume 1, Number 1 & 2, and Volume 2, issue 1 & 2.
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