MASTER OF ARTS
After 15 years and countless exhibitions and initiatives, AROON SHIVDASANI shows no signs of slowing her efforts to take Indian art international By Rebecca Suhrawardi
aroon Shivdasani opens the door to her Upper East Side townhouse, wearing a beaming smile, her silvery mane of thick hair falling gently at her neck. Dressed in an emerald green silk blouse and black trousers, she is framed by the wooden doorway very much like the art she collects, promotes, and adores. “Please don’t mind, this is a family home, not a formal one,” she says of her art-ensconced first floor, which is filled with books, colourful artefacts, and furniture, while a well-adored Eames lounge chair sits in the corner.
She is just a few days away from leaving for a five-week excursion to India. “I am going to Delhi, and Benares and Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. One village is full of musicians, both vocal and instrumental, and the other one is full of black pottery,” she explains with zeal. “Then I am going to a village outside of Delhi, Rakhighari I think, where there is an archeological site that has a civilisation that is said to be 1,000 years older than Mohenjo-daro,” the last part told with excitement mixed with an almost curious disbelief. After those visits, she would continue on to the India Art Fair, then to Mumbai to meet friends, and finally to Goa for a birthday party and also to see a dancer who performs on a stage in the water. “It’s just heavenly,” the 68-year-old says with a romantic sigh. Shivdasani’s Indian itinerary is part personal and part professional. She is the executive director and founding member of the Indo American Arts Council, a notfor-profit organisation which she has helmed for almost 15 years and whose aim is to promote and build awareness of Indian artistic disciplines in North America. Since its inception, the IAAC has
It is her position that Americans have historically had a hard time understanding Indian culture. “It’s my business to make them aware.”
grown to host a variety of events across many forms, including the first Festival of Indian Theatre in North America and the annual Playwrights Festivals in conjunction with the Lark Theatre, California. Over the years, she has crafted the New York Indian Film Festival, a five-day showcase of the best of Indian artistic cinema, and has partnered with some of the foremost cultural institutions in the United States, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Asia Society, and the Museum of Modern Art. As a result, Shivdasani received the Outstanding Citizen award from the City of New Rochelle, New York (1988), and has been on the juries of the Emmys, and various art, film, and theatre contests.
Shivdasani has helped position the IAAC as the top organisation of Indian culture in New York and her events have hosted luminaries like Mira Nair, while equally providing a platform for emerging Indian artists. On its advisory board have sat names like Shabana Azmi, Mallika Sarabhai, MF Husain, Salman Rushdie, Ismail Merchant, Javed Akhtar, and Deepa Mehta amongst many others. It is her position that Americans have historically had a hardtime understanding Indian culture because they had little exposure to it. “It’s my business to make them aware,” she adds, “And make them understand and make them comfortable with it.”
And she has prevailed in creating the very comfort of which she speaks through highly successful programmes like the aforementioned film festival, now in its 14th year, and Erasing Borders Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art, in its 10th year. “In addition,” she explains, “whenever there is a major disaster in India, we raise money and awareness through a programme in the arts.” She cites the Latur and Bhuj earthquakes, as well as the tsunami, the Gujarat communal riots, and the Mumbai terror attacks as beneficiaries of charity of the IAAC.
Before moving to the United States in 1980, Shivdasani lived in Canada and India, and began the arts council at a time when she believed Indians in the US were perceived as either impoverished beggars or elephant-riding rajas. “If they (Indians) were here, people didn’t pay attention to them,” she says. “There was nobody to put them on the main stage to show them to New York and to America. So I decided to do something about it.”
“It’s about visibility, access, and comfort levels,” she continues, explaining further her philosophy towards the acceptance of the diaspora into US society. “As soon as people are comfortable with you, they don’t care where you come from. I think that’s the key to it.” As a result of showcasing Indian artists and artistry, she has helped spread Indian culture across North America. “We made sure that mainstream America knew who we were through all these different disciplines, by presenting them in mainstream venues, by marrying them with mainstream artists, together with presenting them through mainstream organisations like The Met and MOMA, so people say ‘I love that, I should see more of that,’ and that I think breaks down barriers.”
Shivdasani is the daughter of a zamindar from Karachi. “My family grew up in Sindh before the Partition,” she explains of her roots. “I was sent to a co-ed boarding school in Shimla and I think living with a bunch of other people automatically allows you to feel like you can deal with different types of personalities.” Her love and fondness for her parents are undying and she prides her strong family upbringing as the footprint for her adult life. Her mother was a professor of English and drama, and also an actor and singer, and Shivdasani holds a special place in her heart for her. “She is my mentor, she taught us to love life,” she says with a laugh. “Every time we had holidays ,my mother made it a point to take us to zoos and aquariums and plays, and I think my understanding of art came from these formative years,” she recalls of her youth. “There was so much love and laughter at home, I am lucky that I never felt needy.”
Shivdasani believes it is this lack of neediness that makes one able to give. “That’s why I am involved with several charitable organisations like Sakhi. One does things with different people out of wanting to give. In humanity and in life, everything is important, and you have to be sensitive to other people.”
She has an infectious laugh, reflective of a life of peace. “I enjoy my life, I love my life,” she says, “I think I’ve been very lucky that I have great family that I was born into, and a fabulous family I have nourished with my husband, with whom I have just celebrated our 45th anniversary.” Shivdasani has two daughters—her first, Sacha, whom she adopted from Canada, and her second, Misha, born 18 months later.
As for the future, “The coming year is extremely busy starting with two book launches in March,” she says, adding that the opening of the Erasing Borders Exhibition of
Contemporary Indian Art and the New York Indian Film Festival follow.
Shivdasani seems to be closer to bridging the gaps between Indians and Americans, and even between her own Indianness and American-ness. “We have come a long way,” she says. Then she pauses, and continues with a laugh, “Actually, I should say the Americans have come a long way.”
“As soon as people are comfortable with you, they don’t care where you come from. I think that’s the key,” Shivdasani says, explaining her philosophy towards the
acceptance of diaspora.