Brahman/i, meet Hari

B.’s not the only one who uses comedy to confront racial divides. Check out the New York Times profile on Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu.

Hari

“It’s cathartic for me to make people laugh because it means I’m not alone. Other people find this absurd as well.”

Citing Richard Pryor’s groundbreaking stand-up as inspiration, Kondabolu turns the pain of the past into laughter while riffing on post-colonialism, homosexuality in pop culture, and why America needs new superheroes. Or find out why Kondabolu is waiting for 2042 in his interview on NPR’s All Things Considered.

I think Brahman/i would admire Hari Kondabolu’s conviction. And that deserves a big “Heliocentrism!” salute!

Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation

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Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation is an exhibition currently running at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. — it showcases Indian-American culture, history and experiences. As reported by the BBC:

The curators from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center say it about the “history and contemporary experiences of Indian Americans as they have grown to be one of the more diverse and well-recognised communities in the United States”.

With a population of 2.8 million, Indian Americans are the third largest group among Asian Americans.

They are also among the wealthiest communities in the US, with a median annual household income of $88,000 (£52,900) compared with the national median of $49,800 (£29,900), according to one study.

And more than 70% of Indian American immigrants over 18 years of age speak English very well, compared with 53% of all Asian American immigrants.

The vast exhibition covers everything from Indian American food to yoga, engineers to cab drivers, and the LGBT community to hip hop.

In addition to the physical exhibit, the museum has also curated a fantastic digital collection that you can view from anywhere online, as well as a blog featuring interviews and insight from the artists and people involved with the project, and a collection of Indian American family portraits on Pinterest.

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There’s a lot of amazing context to explore – check it out!

These Ape Paintings Are Gangsta: The Mewar Ramayana

The Ramayana — “Rama’s journey” in Sanskrit — is one of the oldest written epics and a prominent pillar of Hindu literature and Desi culture. Most children grow up hearing tales of Prince Rama, either through books, comics, movies, or, like, B. in BRAHMAN/I, from relatives. The Ramayana is one of the Easter eggs in the DISPLACED HINDU GODS TRILOGY, and each play bears thematic links to the epic.

The Ramayana deals with the Hindu concept of duty, dharma, and, through the adventures of Prince Rama, readers or listeners learn how to behave virtuously and fulfill one’s duty. Rama himself is the seventh avatar of Vishnu, and thus displays the decorum and leadership expected of a warrior king, heroically defeating the ten-headed demon Ravana. The supporting characters include Sita, Rama’s devoted and faithful wife, Lakshmana; his loyal and brave brother, Hanuman; the Monkey King and Rama’s ally; and the hijras, who are rewarded for their fealty to Rama after waiting fourteen years in the forest for him to return from exile.

Each play in the trilogy either directly references or is inspired by Rama’s story. In BRAHMAN/I, B. resents identification with the “genetically stupid” hijras despite Auntie’s enthusiasm for them and instead prefers the “gangsta” Hanuman. But B.’s path to self-discovery includes fulfilling their duty to themselves and accepting that they are don’t have to fit into the dominant gender binary. B. casts their back-up musician J as Odysseus from the ancient Greek Odyssey, and at the end of the play, both characters have returned from a kind of outsider’s exile and learned to accept each other and themselves. Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu, struggles in THE CHRONICLES OF KALKI to come to terms with her present humanity and its attendant emotions that are an obstacle to fulfilling her duty to vanquish evil. She remembers her past incarnation as Rama and being “loved for doing so little.” Though SHIV’s direct reference to the Ramayana passes quickly (listen for the conversation about Vimanas — ancient flying machines), Shiv’s conflicting duties to honor the memory of her father while pursuing her own happiness reflect the Ramayana-inspired struggles with responsibilities in a world beyond binaries.

Aditi’s trilogy incorporates riffs on the Ramayana story, but hundreds of versions of the epic exist dating from the eleventh century to the present day for those wanting to read the original tale. One favorite we discovered is displayed online in the British Library’s virtual rare books exhibit. The Mewar Ramayana is a lavishly illustrated copy prepared for the Maharana Jagat Singh, who ruled the western Indian kingdom of Mewar in the seventeenth-century and whose family traced their lineage back to Prince Rama and the sun god. A team of artists created the book for the king, and it features over 450 full-color illustrations. The British Library digitized the manuscript and has created a clickable folio that readers can browse through.

The Mewar Ramayana has Easter eggs of its own: multispectral imaging during the digitazation process revealed multiple layers to the paintings that show the techniques used by the artists, as well as revisions and corrections painted over later. Below are some scans of the battle between Rama’s army and Ravana and include a secret appearance by the Trimurti. Check out the rest here!

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The Shadow of the Mountain: Everest’s Impact on Identity

Mountain

In BRAHMAN/I and SHIV, the story of the forming of the Himalayas becomes an important totem in navigating the relationship between West and East, the “aliens” vs. the “explorers” as Bapu says. B uses comedy to explain Britain’s desire to colonize India and performs their own mockumentary of Brits with size issues attempting to build Stonehenge higher than the mountains; in SHIV, Bapu translates the history into sci-fi stories for his daughter, while the Professor has mythologized his upbringing in Britain-occupied India and proudly boasts of the family’s connection to Sir George Everest, the man who “discovered” Mount Everest.

From BRAHMAN/I:

B
Fast-forward to the conclusion back in London at the Royal Geographic Society, 1860.
(as Nasal British Lord): “Well. It’s now 1860, and we’ve measured and triangulated and re-triangulated and I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. The highest peak in the world is in the Himalayan Mountains, sir!”
(Other British Lord) “Dammit! I really thought we gave them a run for it with Stonehenge! But since we can’t move the bloody thing, I say we name it.”
(British Lord 2) “Ooh! BRANDING!”
(Ditsy girl) “It’s just the [Best-est] EVERest!”

Stonehenge

From SHIV:

BAPU
Once upon a time, India was a spaceship floating across the universe. For centuries, none could tempt her away from her independence, until one day, her captain answered a distress call from a distant planet, and with a final thrust of her heavy pelvis, she crashed into The Planet Where Everything Is Forbidden. When she came to, she saw that a great mountain had formed in the impact. She was trapped in the wreckage.

PROFESSOR
The story, you remember the story. My father took me and my brothers, you must have heard the story … we went to see Mount Everest one summer, traveled by a car very similar to this fraudulent vehicle, there’s a distant family connection, not to the car, to Everest. Our name, Everett, comes from Everest, the man who named Mount Everest, some colonel in the British army, from what I hear never even saw the place….

 These differing narratives reflect the characters’ personal relationships to a fraught period in history and led to rehearsal questions about the facts surrounding the naming and “discovering” of Mount Everest. The mountain, located on the border between Nepal and southwest China, is 29,029 feet tall and grows taller by at least 4 millimeters every year due to shifting tectonic plates. Its name in Sanskrit and Nepali – Sagarmatha – translates to “goddess who sits on the mountain.”

The Professor is indeed correct that Colonel Sir George Everest never saw the mountain that bears his name. Everest, whose name was actually pronounced EVE-rest rather than EVER-est, took over the job of superintendent of England’s Great Trigonometric Survey in 1823 to finish the work of mapping India and its mountain ranges that had begun in 1806. Everest was later appointed as Surveyor General in 1830 and held the post until 1843. In this time, he made many improvements in the accuracy of instruments used to measure great heights. One of these instruments was called a theodolite and weighed over a ton, requiring at least twelve men to move it from place to place.

Theodolite

The Professor would love this miniature theodolite

 Illness forced Everest to leave India in 1843, and a man called Colonel Andrew Waugh took over the survey. Mount Everest was identified as the tallest peak in the world in 1852 based on the trigonometric calculations applied to the Survey’s measurements by Bangladeshi surveyor and mathematician Radhanath Sikdar.

George

Colonel Sir George Everest

George Everest was never happy that the mountain was named in his honor. He argued that “Everest” would be difficult for natives of India to pronounce and pointed out that the name could not be written in Hindi. However, Colonel Waugh, who had suggested naming the peak in his predecessor’s honor, insisted and cited the plethora of local names given to the mountain as a reason to give it a new name that didn’t favor a particular regional one. The Royal Geographical Society agreed and officially declared Everest as the mountain’s name in 1865.

Read the Royal Geographical Society’s accounts of the history of Everest here. The University of Michigan has a great online exhibit and gallery about the Great Trigonometric Survey and history of mapmaking in India.

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Backstage Sneak Peek: The Loot

As we head out of standard rehearsals and towards tech, we’re beginning to layer in more props and elements of “magic” into our work, as the designers refine them. Recently, we added Shiv’s pile of loot, assembled by Props Designer Liz Panneton, to the mix. Over the course of the play, Shiv’s raft/bed accumulates the detritus of her past: symbols of the psychic residue of post-colonialism, and an inheritance from her father. The trick is that each item is free-standing, and has to be balanced and constructed into a solid towering pile.

How do we do this?

With a loot map, of course.

loot map

(Some items are placeholders, but each gets added to the pile in the order that it’s numbered.)

Now just imagine it taller, and a lot shinier.

The Power of Pisces

COP
Ok, and, here’s a question, does the fish ever look up? Rather than side to side, you know?
GIRL 1
What are you even talking about?
COP
Does the fish ever wonder, ‘is there something more?’ You know? As she gazes to the heavens?

In rehearsals, both the KALKI and SHIV casts have been exploring the images of fish that pop up in the trilogy. In THE CHRONICLES OF KALKI, the Cop uses a discussion of goldfish to get underneath Girl 1’s standoffish attitude. In SHIV, the image of fish transforms from the lake-bound fish at 27 East Lake Road into the Pisces inhabiting Shiv’s cosmic ocean.

Pisces

The astrological sign Pisces appears last in the Zodiac and forms part of a trilogy of astrological signs that include Cancer and Scorpio. Because of its position in the Zodiac, Pisces represents the fluidity of ending and beginning, and in Hindu mythology is associated with Vishnu. Pisces is imagined as two fish swimming in a circle, one fish facing down and one swimming upward. Twentieth-century astrologer Robert Hand wrote that the fish facing upward is swimming towards the heavens, seeking spiritual illumination. The other fish swims downward, concerned with material things. Together the two fish, eternally entwined, represent the difficulty in extracting the good from that which appears bad. Astrologers classify Pisces as a mutable sign because of its connection to ever-changing, ever-flowing water, which transforms as it fills or empties vessels.

The Pisces connects to Vishnu and Shiva because it is a symbol of fecundity; eighteenth-century astrologers consistently defined the moral meaning of Pisces: “the severe season has passed; though your flocks, as yet, do not yield their store, the ocean and rivers are open to you, their inhabitants are placed within your power.” The purposes of Hindu gods Vishnu (especially Kalki the warrior avatar) and Shiva (the “Destroyer god”) can often be construed negatively as destruction, but these gods do not destroy so much as prepare the way for rebirth and peaceful motion toward a new age. They restore the balance of the world and preside over the liminal space where endings become beginnings.

Goldfish

In KALKI, Girl #1 and the Cop argue over the experience of a goldfish in a moment that connects to the Pisces symbolism. When the girl compares him to a goldfish who sees only what is in front of him, the cop does not respond with a question about the case, but challenges her by asserting that the goldfish may have an interior life. He casts the girl as the goldfish: “Does the fish ever wonder, ‘is there something more?’ You know? As she gazes to the heavens … you never know what miracles the fish may be living.” Girl #1’s response shows her own tunnel-vision: “It’s still a shitty life.” Her point of view is concerned with the material; like the Pisces’ downward swimming fish, she can only see her recent humiliation at school, her absent mother, her unhappy home life, and her discomfort in her own skin. Her point that goldfish can’t float up because of the fat around their middle echoes her earlier statement that she hates her own stomach. The cop tries to use the goldfish metaphor to inspire the girl to look up and see the potential in herself for miracles – he is the only adult character to show her concern. This scene is revealing because it shows how much the cop comes to care for Girl #1.

Matsya

The first avatar of Vishnu was a fish called Matsya.

 Shiv, named for Shiva, is torn between her past and her future. Floating in her cosmic ocean, she is pulled into her memories; like her modernist-poet father, she creates a narrative through association, using the “topography of [her father’s] humiliation” to define herself. Armed with memories of Bapu, Shiv returns to 27 East Lake Road. She tries to become the colonizer, equating power with lights, stars, and illumination. “Nothing like a constellation for breakfast … if I catch a fish, it’s mine, I’m eating it,” Shiv tells Gerard when the two are fishing.

BAPU
Who even remembers what India was before. What she might have been. For all we know it looked exactly like this, a dirty mattress sailing across the ocean like a barge of found objects and found souls.

 It is only when Shiv embraces the power of the Pisces that she is able to let go. On her cosmic ocean, the waters are open to her, and the moment of destruction holds the most possibility. The past, rather than an anchor pulling her downward toward the material symbols of loss, becomes hers to rewrite in the future. As Shiv sails away to rebirth, Bapu possesses all the time in the world to fish for Pisces. He wants to catch both, striving for the balance of material and spiritual that eluded him in life. Shiv’s Pisces is the promise of a future – she sails forward into the unknown, but no longer fears it. The ending of this painful chapter in her life frees her to begin anew and find the light inside herself. The woman who once wished to devour stars finds that possession is not necessarily power. A far more important power source, the play seems to suggest, is the act of creation, fueled by accepting brokenness and destruction.

Illuminated Woman

A Bollywood Education

KALKI
This is your Bollywood education, I’m not repeating myself, so pay attention. – Ok, her. She’s crying cuz she loves him so much. See how she really really means it? With her whole face.

GIRL 1
Now they’re just staring at each other. I mean really, just staring.

KALKI
Look at all those feelings. They’re feeling all over the screen, it’s like slick with it! Mmmmmmmmmmm-

bolly

Bollywood is the Hindi language film industry based in Mumbai, India. The term is a portmanteau of Bombay (the former name for Mumbai) and Hollywood, though unlike Hollywood, Bollywood does not exist as a physical place.

The plots of Bollywood movies are usually melodramatic, featuring familiar tropes of star-crossed lovers and angry parents, love triangles, sacrifice, corrupt politicians, conniving villains, courtesans with hearts of gold, siblings separated by fate, and dramatic reversals of fortune.

Bollywood films are known for their elaborate dance sequences and musical numbers, and have developed their own signature style of song and dance that combines classical and folk dances from India with more modern elements of jazz, hip hop, Arabic, and Latin dance forms. It is not unusual to see Western pop and pure classical dance numbers side by side in a Bollywood film. Songs typically comment on the action that is taking place in the movie. Sometimes a song is worked into the plot so that a character has a reason to sing, or a song is an externalization of a character’s thoughts.

Check out this YouTube playlist of Bollywood clips to get a sense of the typical tropes and aesthetic of the genre:

Khajuraho, Temple of Love

BRAHMAN:

That’s right. Where right wing politics, wimpy school districts, and squeamish parents fail their teenage constituency daily, the loud embarrassing relative with the South Asian art history textbook comes through!

(Auntie) “Khajuraho! The Temple of Love!”

I would now like to share with you a few of the more memorable illustrations.

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Khajuraho, sometimes referred to as the Kamasutra Temple or Temple of Love, is actually a group of monuments spread over about 20 square kilometers in the northeastern part of Madhya Pradesh, within the Vindhya mountain range of central India. It is a major tourist and archaeological site, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site. Khajuraho is renowned for its intricately sculptured temples dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, and Jain deities, and for the sexually explicit carvings that make up about 10% of the temple art. The temples are divided into three sections or zones – western, eastern and southern. The western complex is the largest of the three and comprises the most popular temples.

Most of the Khajuraho temples were built during the Chandela dynasty between 950 and 1050 AD and were in active use through the end of 12th century. This changed in the 13th century, after the army of Delhi Sultanate, under the command of the Muslim Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak, attacked and seized the Chandela kingdom. The region remained under the control of various Muslim dynasties from 13th century through the 18th century, and during this period, several temples were desecrated and many others left in neglect. Of the surviving temples, six are dedicated to Shiva and his consorts, eight to Vishnu and his affinities, one to Ganesha, one to Sun god, and three to Jain Tirthanks.