ARTS

If you’ve seen a com­pelling South Asian play here lately, chances are Ro­hit Chokhani has been in­volved.

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - By Janet Smith

One way to de­scribe Ro­hit Chokhani’s ap­proach to cu­ra­tion at Di­wali in B.C. is, as he calls it, “find­ing the di­ver­sity within the di­ver­sity”.

While putting to­gether this year’s fes­ti­val, the artis­tic direc­tor has found per­for­mances that cover vastly dif­fer­ent South Asian ex­pe­ri­ences. There’s a U.K. play about on­line ex­trem­ism, an in­ti­mate play about a Van­cou­ver Pun­jabi fam­ily deal­ing with tragedy in their home­land, and a clas­si­cal-in­dian-dance ren­di­tion of a Bengali myth.

But Chokhani’s work is also about a kind of cultural diplo­macy—a honed mix of col­lab­o­ra­tion, net­work­ing, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And that’s no big sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing this is the pro­ducer and theatre artist who won the Van­cou­ver NOW Rep­re­sen­ta­tion and In­clu­sion Award at July’s Jessie Richard­son Theatre Awards.

Not only is this fast-emerg­ing lo­cal arts leader work­ing with such groups as SACHA (the South Asian Cana­dian His­to­ries As­so­ci­a­tion) and the Van­cou­ver Tagore So­ci­ety on this year’s Di­wali shows, his provincewide fest is co­p­re­sent­ing the Van­cou­ver pro­duc­tions with the Cultch. All will be staged at its Vancity Cul­ture Lab and York Theatre, and he’s worked closely with ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Heather Red­fern on pro­gram­ming.

“I al­ways be­lieved that al­though Di­wali has roots in In­dia, we’re do­ing it in B.C.,” Chokhani tells the Straight over the phone. “How do we take that con­cept and make it wel­com­ing to other cul­tures?”

For Chokhani, that’s meant not only reach­ing out to marginal­ized artists and arts groups within the South Asian com­mu­nity, but also team­ing up with a more main­stream theatre to reach a wider au­di­ence.

To­gether, Chokhani and Red­fern at­tended the 2017 de­but of lo­cal wri­ter­di­rec­tor Pa­neet Singh’s A Van­cou­ver Gul­dasta, set in an ac­tual Van­cou­ver Spe­cial. In it, a Pun­jabi fam­ily strug­gle with the trauma of the 1984 armed in­va­sion of the Sikh Golden Tem­ple in In­dia, while their daugh­ter forms a grow­ing re­la­tion­ship with their young Viet­namese ten­ant.

“Heather and I went into this small house and we said, ‘We have to do some­thing with this,’” re­lates Chokhani. “It was ac­tu­ally very pow­er­ful—we felt like part of the fam­ily, and we felt the story was very Van­cou­ver.” (Di­wali in B.C. and the Cultch are now co­p­re­sent­ing it with SACHA.)

Sim­i­larly, Chokhani and his men­tor headed to the Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val last year and found The Be­liev­ers Are But Broth­ers—a one-man play that en­cour­ages au­di­ence mem­bers to wire into What­sapp as it draws par­al­lels be­tween the on­line ac­tions of two ISIS re­cruits in Bri­tain and a white alt-right ex­trem­ist in the U.S.

“It was tak­ing me into a world I didn’t un­der­stand at all,” Chokhani says. “Why do cer­tain young men feel pow­er­less around money and power and sex, and what lengths will they go to get it?”

Chokhani looked closer to home to help de­velop Shyama, work­ing as direc­tor for Bengali-cana­dian artist Arno Kamo­lika, who’s in­ter­pret­ing fel­low Bengali Rabindranath Tagore’s epic tale through the an­cient In­dian dance form of bharata natyam, work­ing with the Van­cou­ver Tagore So­ci­ety and Man­dala Arts & Cul­ture.

Be­yond that, Chokhani has spread Di­wali in B.C. events as far as Ver­non, Maple Ridge, and Nanaimo. He says that’s one rea­son he’s named this year’s fest New Hori­zons; the other is to po­si­tion the pro­gram­ming as a way to look be­yond our di­vi­sive world. As he puts it, “How do we look at things in a dif­fer­ent way?”

LOOK­ING AT THINGS in a dif­fer­ent way has been a part of the Mum­bai­born Chokhani’s suc­cess in get­ting di­verse voices heard on lo­cal stages.

He spent his early adult­hood in com­puter pro­gram­ming, first earning his mas­ter’s in the field, then leav­ing it to delve into the arts af­ter he ar­rived here in 2010, by way of the U.S. If you feel like you’re see­ing more and more com­pelling South Asian sto­ries on Van­cou­ver stages, chances are the artist-pro­ducer has had his hands on the project.

In 2016, he worked, as part of Di­wali Fest, with Touch­stone Theatre to present Brothel #9, a sear­ing ac­count of sex slav­ery in Cal­cutta that won him a spe­cial Jessie award for “out­stand­ing work in ex­pand­ing the di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of Van­cou­ver theatre through ex­cel­lence in fes­ti­val pro­gram­ming”. Last year, his reimag­ined ver­sion of Anosh Irani’s Bom­bay Black, about a blind man’s love for a cour­te­san, blew away Van­cou­ver Fringe Fes­ti­val au­di­ences and was reprised at the Fire­hall Arts Cen­tre. In the sum­mer, he co­helmed the Mon­soon Fes­ti­val of Per­form­ing Arts, pro­gram­ming strong work like Anita Ma­jum­dar’s The Fish Eyes Tril­ogy. And he’s also cre­ated Project SAT, an on­go­ing ini­tia­tive to help South Asian artists de­velop, tour, present, and pro­duce new theatre work across the coun­try, through work­shops, men­tor­ship, and other pro­grams. (Red­fern has been a key men­tor on the project.) And news re­cently emerged that Chokhani will codi­rect a 2019 pro­duc­tion of Shake­speare’s All’s Well That Ends Well at Bard on the Beach—one set in In­dia and spiced with South Asian mu­sic and dance.

It’s a lot to have achieved in a short time here, where a cul­tur­ally di­verse theatre pro­duc­tion was once a rar­ity on the cal­en­dar. But Chokhani knows how to build bridges—an art he chalks up not only to his tech­nol­ogy back­ground but to liv­ing and learn­ing.

“Some­times my friends will ask me, ‘That mas­ter’s pro­gram for three years—do you feel all that work went to waste?’ But I think that’s where I get the strate­gic brain and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills: how to com­mu­ni­cate with dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, how to man­age high emo­tional set­tings,” he says, and then of­fers: “But also, when I was younger, I made some mis­takes. A lot of these con­ver­sa­tions about cul­ture and eth­nic­ity would be­come more par­a­lyz­ing. I’m older now, and I see we need to be more col­lab­o­ra­tive to un­der­stand what these sys­temic bar­ri­ers are.” And then, strate­gi­cally dis­man­tle them, one by one.

I al­ways be­lieved that al­though Di­wali has its roots in In­dia, we’re do­ing it in B.C. How do we…make it wel­com­ing to other cul­tures? – Ro­hit Chokhani

Di­wali in B.C. co­p­re­sents A Van­cou­ver Gul­dasta un­til Oc­to­ber 21 at the Cultch’s Vancity Cul­ture Lab; Shyama on Oc­to­ber 27 at the York Theatre; and The Be­liev­ers Are But Broth­ers from Oc­to­ber 30 to Novem­ber 10 at the Cultch’s Vancity Cul­ture Lab.

A Van­cou­ver Gul­dasta, by play­wright Pa­neet Singh, ex­plores the ef­fects of the 1984 in­va­sion of In­dia’s Sikh Golden Tem­ple on a lo­cal Pun­jabi-cana­dian fam­ily. Ro­hit Chokhani says works like this show “the di­ver­sity within the di­ver­sity”.

Di­wali in B.C. artis­tic direc­tor Ro­hit Chokhani (left) has had a di­rect role in bring­ing sev­eral re­cent South Asian works to the stage; right, the U.K.’S The Be­liev­ers Are But Broth­ers.

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