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IAAC – Spunk and Ambition
Where would you get to rub shoulders with Salman Rushdie, Shabana Azmi, Danny Boyle, Shashi Tharoor, M.F. Husain, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Madhur Jaffrey – and the late, great Ismail Merchant? Well, I met all these topnotch names in New York, all thanks to a small, spunky organization which has survived and thrived by sheer chutzpah. It’s brought a mix of Indian cinema, art, theater and dance to barren city streets, making them all a natural part of American life.
Indeed, if you’re talking about Indian art and culture in the city, you can hardly go a few sentences without mentioning Indo American Arts Council or its creator, Aroon Shivdasani. This year IAAC celebrates its 15th tumble and toss year, and so here’s the story of the little engine that said I think I can, I think I can, against all odds.
Most years with little funding and a gang of enthusiastic volunteers, IAAC has become one of the leading organizations promoting Indian arts in the US. On November 21st it celebrates its 15th anniversary with a bang – with the Oscar winning duo of singer/songwriter/composer Paul Williams and pianist/ composer Kenneth Ascher – and a fashion show with the surreal collection of Manish Arora. In this grand evening at the Orensanz Foundation for Contemporary Art, IAAC will also recognize three leading Indian-Americans from different spheres – Salman Rushdie, Mira Nair, and Dr. Manjula Bansal.
“The IAAC has done invaluable work in creating a showcase for Indian Americans in many art forms,” says Rushdie. ” I’m delighted to have been a supporter from the earliest days.” As for Mira Nair, she puts it even more succinctly: “Love and Salaams to the dynamic Aroon and IAAC for bringing us our cinema. 15 Years, Woo Hoo!”
IAAC – Filling a Void in New York
To understand this enthusiasm, one has to realize that fifteen years back it was an arid landscape in America where Indian arts were concerned. Few mainstream organizations were showcasing Indian art or film or dance, and there were even fewer organizations which were catering to second generation Indian-Americans or giving them access to the arts of their heritage.
Enter art impresario Aroon Shivdasani who has became a very vocal one-woman band for the cause of Indian arts and culture.
“Arts is in my DNA because of my mother Dru,” she says. “Fleeing her life of feudal aristocracy in Sindh to the newly partitioned India, she did her Ph.D, taught school, college and university, excelled in the performing arts, threw herself into social work, raised a family and gave of herself to all – academia, family, community.”
Dru Gidwani, a former professor of English and drama at Bombay University, passed away last year at 94. An unabashed art lover and tireless cheerleader for IAAC, she was at every event, sitting in the front row to video the events when her eyes became too weak to see from afar.
This inborn passion for the arts has got passed on to Shivdasani, who through her growing up years in a boarding school in Sanawar, Simla right to pursuing a masters in English and drama to teaching in New York has been immersed in all art forms. She says, “You became a complete individual. Even if you aren’t the king of it – you know it all.”
Shivdasani, who came to the US via India and Canada, found that Americans were unfamiliar with the Indian arts which were mostly invisible in mainstream circles. She founded IAAC with Jonathan Hollander back in 1998 with some seed money from Gopal Raju of India Abroad, to give Indian artists exposure and to create a space for the arts. Her husband Indur, a successful entrepreneur, has supported IAAC through several financial ups and downs.
A Passport to Indian Art
One of her first ventures was Passport to Indian Art, in which visual passports were issued to guests which took them into a whole new world – the real live world of little-known Indian artists in New York, to see them in their natural habitat, working in their studios. The Erasing Borders art festival has brought exposure and space to many emerging artists of the South Asian diaspora, and many have gone on to solo shows and representation by noted galleries. The Erasing Borders exhibition is now a traveling show which takes the art to different cities in the US.
Since then, several firsts have followed for IAAC – it pioneered the first Playwrights Theater in collaboration with Lark Playwrights. Audiences have got to see big names like Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani, as well as emerging playwrights who bring their dreams and passion to the stage. Perhaps one of the most notable and exciting success stories is of Aasif Mandvi, now the big name on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. I recall first seeing him in ‘Sakina’s Restaurant’, a one-man show that he wrote and acted in, promoted by IAAC. At that time, few knew his name but his talent shone brightly.
The annual Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance has brought the many nuanced aspects of Indian dance to mainstream venues and also to city streets with an amazing free concert in the Wall Street area where bankers and hedge fund folks merge with art lovers, surrounded by traffic and tall buildings, as they check out everything from Kathak to bhangra and Bollywood moves.
NYIFF – Cinema, Cinema!
The star event of the IAAC roster is the annual film festival, which has undergone a few avatars and name changes – like any New Yorker! Currently known as the New York Indian Film Festival, it has become known for its energetic mix of independent films, documentaries and shorts as well as Bollywood offerings. Fans can not only get to meet major stars and emerging talent but also sink their teeth into thoughtful programming and discussions, as well as after-parties.
All these big developments at IAAC have had their germ in personal connections and it was noted names like Mira Nair, Salman Rushdie, Shabana Azmi and Madhur Jaffrey who have been supporters since the early days, and their presence has given credibility to the organization and achieved visibility for the new emerging talents.
Besides opening up the doors to the best films, dance and music from India and the Diaspora, Shivdasani has been a nurturer of emerging talent in all these fields with play and book readings, art openings and salon gatherings of artists and writers. The organization has received critical acclaim in mainstream media like The New York Times and WSJ, as well as some grants from noted foundations.
A Home for Indian arts
Funding for the arts, however, continues to be a challenge, and IAAC has struggled with this for much of its existence. While corporations and institutions do support and fund arts organizations in the West, it has been more difficult getting this kind of support for IAAC. Nor are many Indian-Americans that engaged when it comes to supporting their own art and artistes.
“I’m now 67 years old,” says Shivdasani. “People must know that I want IAAC to continue even without me, so artists know there’s a platform for them even without me. I want it to be a valid entity with staying power. We work very hard constantly 24/7 to get this out – and it would be fantastic if we had a space.”
She envisages a home for the IAAC where artistes can meet each other, get visibility and accessibility – and be nourished. There would be readings and exhibits, a salon to celebrate the arts.
In this 15th year, Shivdasani hopes that people will lend a hand to this feisty organization which puts on the Big Indian Tamasha with very few resources. A shining White Knight from the corporate world would be wonderful, she says, a visionary who sees all the possibilities.
Sometimes we do tend to take good things for granted – until we don’t have them anymore.
Meanwhile, come celebrate and give a thumbs up to IAAC’s 15 years at a joyful bash.
Details at www.iaac.us.