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

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - BAZAAR -

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.

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