Un-settling, 2012. Photographer: Zahra Saleki

My being is not your colonial hotel: Performance as a ceremony of reflection and reclamation from a QPOC theatre maker by nisha ahuja

Part of Special Issue #2 – Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto

Author: nisha ahuja

As artists we are often subject to others, from reviewers to academics, writing about our work, either by consensual choice or not. So, I felt some hesitation when I was offered this rare opportunity to contextualize the art that has come through this being I inhabit. Perhaps this slight hesitation arose in me from fear of being seen as arrogant and, dare I say, as taking up space. How ironic that is given that so much of the theatre my being has created over the last seventeen years has been focused on cultivating, opening, and shifting space for Queer-Transgender spectrum Black, Indigenous and/or People Of Colour (QTBIPOC). Its purpose has been for us to share transformative artistic and spirit-connected experiences together, and to take up space on mainstream stages by centering stories that live in our hearts, minds, bones, flesh, and spirits. This hesitation that I, a Queer South Asian Fluid Femme who has Class and Caste privilege in my mix, feel about taking up space to talk about my half a lifetime of heart and soul dedication to creating art that is precisely about taking up space, is a glimmer of how White Cis-Hetero-Patriarchy shows up in so many facets of our beings.

Staying true to these seventeen years of relentless space making and taking, I will push against this system in my own heart and mind by writing these words, in hope of transformation. Albeit in a colonial language, these words help me share the premise of why I create theatre and performance. Using the examples of Yoga Cannibal, Un-settling, Cycle of A Sari, 30 People Watching, and Maan-i-fest, I will be discussing how this notion of colonial tools being used by colonized peoples shows up in some of my solo and collaborative pieces. My artistic practice is rooted in reclaiming the space of the body and spirit that White-Cis-Hetero-Ableist-Capitalist-Patriarchy has tried to consume, or at least tried to occupy. But I am no colonial hotel. My artistic practice is a call to QTBIPOC communities to examine how we can sift through the mucky residue stuck to our insides from centuries of colonization, and unearth our expansive, luminous, and profoundly powerful beings rooted in truths that have existed and will continue to exist beyond the systems of oppression that attempt to dictate our beings.

Being Queer and Brown is essential to how I experience this relative material world, how the world responds to my being, how I relate to and shape the world around me, my spirit practice (rooted in Yogic, Buddhist and some sections of Hindu teachings), and also the art I create. At a young age I began to challenge what was normal because my experience never really fit within others’ concept of normality. I would ask myself, “Whose definition of normal is it anyways?” – The normal of brownness and South Asianess, the normal of girl, of female body, of middle-class immigrant model-minority aspirations, the normal of what I should look like and who and how I should love. These “normals” were constructed through several centuries of Colonization, Capitalism, Cis-Hetero-Patriarchy and White Supremacy. Challenging, subverting and transforming these normals has been integral to my artistic practice – at first subconsciously, as a child performing Bollywood sagas as an unintentional “Drag King”, and then more directly as an adult and professional artist, generating work steeped in socio-political and spiritual commentary, healthy doses of laughter, and a big heart.

In addition to this, my being (who shares theatre, performance art, music, as well as Yogic practices, meditation, and Attmic Energy Healing/Sound Healing/Reiki, and now Ayurveda) experiences theatre and performance as a ceremony, a ritual, an offering to the community in the form of “audience”. These ceremonies aim to open hearts, provoke thought, transform stuck-ness, and offer reflection and/or celebration of experiences and stories often untold – most often, intentionally untold. In many cultures around the world the act of “performing” was established differently way before colonial expansion and the exportation of European theatre traditions. Performing was and, to me, still is a process of being an energetic conduit for stories to open and unfold. In many cultures of now racialized peoples in North America, for instance in many Indigenous nations of Turtle Island as well as in South Asia, queer and gender-expansive peoples were often revered as spiritual conduits and held space for ceremony that involved what in a conventionally-modern/colonial context would be viewed as performative elements (music/sound/song, movement/dance, happening in a physical space viewed by others). Even in its current “modern”/colonial meaning, the word “performance” still references spirituality, as exemplified by the root of word. In English, “per” means through, and “form” refers to the medium of expression, as in body or voice. This definition rings true for my practice, as I consider myself to be a medium through which energy, emotion, and story is expressed. This is true whether I get up in front of 10 or 100 or 1000 people conjuring sound and poetry in the form of song, Bollywood Drag, or new physical-political theatre, and yes even as an “actor” in Western-Canon “classical” theatre. 1 

It is only after colonial contact that the divide between art, medicines, meditation, spirit, and politics was formed. As in the cultural examples noted above, for many different peoples around the world art was woven into spiritual practice and both of these were woven into political thought and action. They were not separate; their division is a colonial and capitalist framework. Divide and conquer wasn’t just a political strategy on a macro level, but one that seeped into our very essence of being. In this dividing, for centuries our voices, our stories, and our medicines were quieted. Ignored. Erased. Dividing us from each other. Dividing us from our own selves.

Our bodies carry within them and are imprinted by colonized histories, generational trauma, and just as importantly, survival; our bodies continue to absorb the impacts of colonial legacies through Capitalism, Classism, Ableism, Racism, Shadism, and Gender-Normativity. In continuing my practice in both art and healing modalities I attempt to subvert and transform how colonization exists in my body, my mind, and my spirit, and in doing so contribute to a collective mobilization of the body, mind, and spirit in our QTBIPOC communities. I am interested in how these stories are blocked, how they can be opened, and then transformed into storytelling through text, movement, song, and shape. From my experience, both the performing arts and healing arts give us access to unheard stories within and amongst us as QTBIPOC communities.

In tapping into these stories, we gain an intimate knowing of the complexities of our experiences. This tapped knowing, like a deep well surging out from the earth, mobilizes us to push past being occupied by the colonial structures and systems that have attempted to construct us for centuries. At this point in time in mainstream performance art and theatre, the embodied experiences of South Asian-ness continue to be exotified, commodified, and sellable (as with many racialized peoples, especially those of Black Diasporic cultures and cultures Indigenous to Turtle Island, presently commonly known as North America). And sadly, the majority of the work by South Asian theatre artists that is being programmed by mid-size to larger theatres gives in to this Western gaze, a gaze that makes us consumable by White audiences, and/or middle-class to upper-class model minority and/or caste privileged South Asian communities. Colonialism, Capitalism, and Casteism work hand-in-hand to consume and control us, and how our stories are told and remembered. South Asian artists can therefore be at great risk of replicating these hegemonic ideas about our communities. In Toronto, we are at a dire moment to not only challenge notions that exotify or demonize the diversity in our South Asian Diasporas, but also simultaneously and just as importantly, challenge the complexities of power and privileges within our own communities and in relation to other BIPOC communities.

In recent years we have witnessed in North America an important re-surfacing of a willingness to acknowledge the depth of the continuous violence endured by Black and Indigenous peoples. This violence is nothing new, nor are the calls to action for change from Black and Indigenous communities. These movements across the continent are shifting the political landscape through mass scale mobilization and organizing work. These movements led by Indigenous and Black communities have implored other People of Colour, in addition to North American society in totality, to deepen our understandings of how we replicate the very harmful systems we live in. As one part of solidarity work, we need to work within our specific cultural communities and more broadly to shift these dynamics so the burden does not lie on the shoulders of Indigenous and Black communities yet again. Over the past two decades and more intensively in the past eight-year and three-year cycles, I have received tremendous generosity from Black and Indigenous friends, colleagues, collaborators, partners, family, activists, and academics in educating my being and sharing this request to essentially love bigger. It became clear to me that to only focus on our specific cultural subsects of misrepresented or colonized experiences negates the need to understand how we too are complicit in upholding systems of oppression and harm, and that our communities are inundated with Anti-Black Racism and Anti-Indigenous sentiment that is replicated in everyday interactions, workplaces, inter-racial relationships and friendships, in our fashion, and artistic aesthetics.

Because of the generous teachings from those who have been harmed most in our society, and my own journey of unearthing and shifting how White Supremacy, Anti-Black Racism, the manifestation of the myth of model minority, Classism, Casteism, Misogyny, and Ableism show up in my subtle thoughts, actions, and speech, it has become ever more clear that these notions were informed not just by society at large but from within the South Asian community itself. South Asian-Canadians often unknowingly embrace the model minority status, mistaking Capitalism’s promise of power through class ascension as a bandaid to the pain of racism and colonial survival, equivocating class and race as the same oppression. 2 Alternatively, or coupled with this, is a victimhood that ignores how the same systems we survive are internalized and perpetrated on other colonized, marginalized, and oppressed peoples, specifically Black and Indigenous peoples. Many South Asian arts workers in Toronto often occupy spaces and positions that should be offered to Black or Indigenous peoples; in a quest to gain more status there is an erasure of those with less access to organizations that have yet to understand the depth of Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous sentiments within their structures and personnel. Also under-acknowledged in Toronto is how class-privileged and caste-privileged South Asian artists and arts workers benefit from the struggles, movements, and stories of these perpetually marginalized communities. This may fit into a model of “diversity”, a model which, when not just a game of public relations optics, can at its best lead to more perspectives, cultures, and colours to be highlighted. But diversity is not within a framework of justice. This pattern is a replication of White/neo-liberal attempts to “help” the oppressed while receiving praise, status, and public acknowledgment without actually having to shift one’s position within a system that benefits those with privilege at the expense of those being hurt.

My attempts to flip this script show up in all my performances. However I will focus on five pieces that resonate close to my heart as examples and offerings to QTBIPOC communities and/or White and mainstream audiences to ask them to shift their positions of power as well. In the first three pieces that I discuss (Yoga Cannibal, Un-settling, and Cycle of A Sari), the principle characters are South Asian women who are untangling the threads woven into their beings from systemic oppressions and, through the dramatic arc, also coming to a realization of how they have replicated these violences on either themselves or other colonized or oppressed peoples, or both. Another piece I discuss is 30 People Watching, a theatrical response to the 1997 murder of Reena Virk, co-authored with Amelia Sargisson. The physical visceral telling of this story exposes how youth in our society are inundated with hierarchies of race, class, gender, beauty, ability, and class. The last piece, Maan-i-fest, explores the possibilities of magic and power that QTBIPOC communities can unearth within ourselves when we find ways to shed the consuming residues of colonization from our beings.

(Jump to section)
Yoga Cannibal
Un-settling
Cycle of a Sari
30 People Watching
Maan-i-fest

Yoga Cannibal:

Poster of Yoga Cannibal, courtesy of the artist
Poster of Yoga Cannibal (2006-2009), courtesy of the artist

*Ting* (actor earnestly imitating new-age meditation bell) Feeling a little empty? Needing to fill a void? Welcome to Omega Orange Yoga Studio, and to our most successful yogini’s class. Yes, Monica may be heartbroken, but her success, fame and patented yoga can still lead almost anyone to enlightenment – for a price. *Ting* (actor earnestly imitating new-age meditation bell)

Yoga Cannibal offers a playful and cutting look at the consumption of culture in the quest for spiritual fulfillment. Yoga Cannibal was developed during my residency at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in the “Ladies’ Creator Unit” (2006-2007), and premiered as a workshop at this same theatre’s Hysteria Festival (2007). It was then presented at the Fringe Festivals (2008) in Ottawa and Vancouver, as well as Winnipeg’s FemFest (2009), and independently produced at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille (2009).

The commentary on the consumption of culture is articulated three-fold: 1) Yoga being consumed as a diluted, sellable product; 2) Monica consumed by the commercial Yoga Industry for her South Asian-ness; 3) Monica consuming the fame, prestige and monetary gain by selling her South Asian-ness. Monica is a writer and poet who ends up at a Yoga Class to get into bed with a new lover, a White blonde woman who thinks Monica will be a “natural” at Yoga. As the only Brown person attending the Omega Orange classes, Monica is immediately pedestalled as a master yogini. She is given the title of a cultural ambassador for Omega Orange and begins to teach classes of her/Omega Orange’s patented yoga, as well as marketing and selling their branded paraphernalia, yoga props, and clothing lines, finding success in the illusion of power and validation of the Western Capitalist Yoga Industry. Throughout the play, set as a yoga class Monica is teaching, she sneaks bites from a brown paper bag, which is full of torn pages from her old poetry notebook, trying to fill the shell of a person she has been made to become. As Monica leads the class, she and her lover are breaking up by text message, and through this break up she begins to break down emotionally, cracking open the revelation of her own understanding of being consumed and consuming simultaneously. Similar to how yoga within a Western Capitalist system has become relatively devoid of its spiritual roots or the depths of its vast history (from Kimetic Yoga from East Africa, and beyond the Brahmanical/Castist attempts to dominate these widespread practices from all over South Asia), Monica also becomes devoid of knowing and being her true essence. She realizes how she is consumed by a White mainstream culture but is also consuming, not valuing her authentic feelings, hopes, and inspirations.
Back to top


Un-settling:

Un-settling (2012). Photographer: Kevin Jones
Un-settling (2012). Photographer: Kevin Jones

Do you hear that?
In the distance, but like it’s right underneath us?
She’s running from that rumbling.
In White Face.
The colonized becomes the colonizer.
The settled-on becomes the settler.
Dis-ease settles into the body, heart, mind, and spirit.
Until the rumbling erupts, forcing an unsettling.
Who is on top?
Who is at the centre?
And is that really where we want to be?

Un-settling was originally commissioned by The Ontario Council for International Cooperation for touring to Ontario schools for International Development Week 2012. This is a continuation of my previous work World of Bananas (developed in 2004-2005 and featured at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Hysteria Festival in 2005).

Un-settling (2012). Photographer: Kevin Jones
Un-settling (2012). Photographer: Kevin Jones

Un-settling’s commentary on replicating colonial patriarchal power systems in order to survive is more overt than the other pieces. Belle, a Brown working class custodian, enters the space dragging with her a large trunk, with a deep pain in her gut and hearing echoes of a rumbling getting louder. She transforms physically, painting her face into white-face and shifting her attire into a symbolic embodiment of the dominant constructs of power – a Capitalist White Man – while singing “Brown Girl In the Ring”. She “colonizes” the room by roping off where the audience can and cannot be, and falsely calms their fears by saying that she is there to help by implementing three modules: 1) Speak Only English, 2) Toughen Up (and forget your feelings), 3) Make Money (essentially through cash crops that will benefit the peoples she now represents, and forgetting plants are medicine unless they are packaged and sold for money). The pain in her keeps growing along with the sound of the rumbling and she keeps trying to run. Discovering a giant gushing bloody wound in the bottom of the trunk, she gets sucked right into the bottom of the trunk (the wound), and emerges again while half stuck in the wound at the bottom of the trunk. In a trance-like state, she realizes that the rumbling is coming from the centre of her being – “a sleeping giant”. While in the trance she pulls out bones linked like ladders and jars of traditional medicines of both South Asia and original peoples of Turtle Island. When she rises from this trance she comes to recognize that she has been severed, figuratively, from herself and has replicated the same harm on herself, the original peoples of the land she is on, and others who have also been colonized. She then creates an altar of the trunk, medicine jars, and bones, and sings to be led to the truth she always knew before this cyclical violence became the predominant way of the world.

Un-settling (2012). Photographer: Kevin Jones
Un-settling (2012). Photographer: Kevin Jones

In this performance there is an unearthing of how White Supremacy and Cis-Hetero Patriarchy is internalized because it is a pervasive legacy of colonization replicated around us and within us. Furthermore, the play highlights that, if unaddressed, these internalized systems of oppression can and will inflict the same harm onto us, our own communities, and other communities.
Back to top


Cycle of a Sari:

Cycle of A Sari (2014). Photographer: Leah Snyder
Cycle of A Sari (2014). Photographer: Leah Snyder

Enter into the realm of Ancestors.
Women who love women
Partitioned from Land and Love
A cosmic combination of aerial silks, song, storytelling, and shadow play.

Cycle of A Sari was inspired by an ancestrally connected dream. It was developed over the span of almost seven years, initially through collaboration in Judith Rudakoff’s Common Plants project, followed by creative and dramaturgical support from Diaspora Dialogues and my artist residencies at Canadian Stage, Cahoots Theatre, and Patio Taller. This process mostly came from ongoing ancestral ceremonies over the years, meditation, stillness and intuitive movement, which all helped open me up as a conduit for the stories to reveal themselves. It also led to a public workshop production with sold out houses coupled with community dialogues and panel discussion  in September 2014.

In Cycle of a Sari, Rani, partitioned from land and love in Sindh, travelled to present day India, and eventually to Turtle Island, also partitioned Indigenous land. After Rani’s passing, her granddaughter, Asha, tries to scatter Rani’s ashes into a river they both love, but the ashes are confiscated by municipal authorities attempting to ban religious rites in the name of environmental justice. Asha then calls Rani into her dreams for answers on how to move forward after this interrupted ritual. In the cosmos with grandmothers (the audience) from other places and times, Rani roots into ancestral wisdom and her life during the Partition and Independence of South Asia, threading three generations of women who love women, all the while longing for her lost love, Farah.

Cycle of A Sari (2014). Photographer: Leah Snyder
Cycle of A Sari (2014). Photographer: Leah Snyder

Although Rani recognizes that her daughter was coerced by a colonial/capitalist façade to come to Canada/Turtle Island to “live their dreams”, it is only here, as she unsuccessfully tries to ascend into more expansive ethereal realms to be with Farah again, that she has the revelation that she has been so stuck in her own pain of Partition from Sindh and Farah. She realizes that by being stuck in her pain she was unable to recognize that she was replicating a similar kind of colonization and perpetuating the Partition on Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island and the erasure of enslaved Black people on whose backs the settler-colonial nationstates of Canada and USA have been built on. She calls on her queer ancestors to ask what the ancestors of this land would like us to do. She finds that while she thought Asha was emotionally stuck after her death, Asha had actually been re-creating unique ceremony and rituals to honour Rani and ancestors of this land. The combination of Asha offering love, gratitude, and honour to the multiple realms of ancestors at the same time as Rani comes to understand her pain within the vast scope collective pain amongst different colonized and racialized peoples, allows Rani to connect to an aspect of the luminous-spirit being realm, and finally also connecting to Farah.

Cycle of A Sari (2014). Photographer: Leah Snyder
Cycle of A Sari (2014). Photographer: Leah Snyder

In attempt to subvert and turn on its head the stereotyped gender and cultural norms of South Asian women and characterization in the mainstream, it was essential to me, during the seven years of developing Cycle of Sari, to create a complex non-martyr, non-victim, bad-ass funny South Asian Queer woman character who breaks social norms. Rani rides her bicycle with her sari billowing in the wind, a simple act which during the 1940’s pre-partition South Asia would be disruptive of gender norms. She has a woman lover, whom she boldly and yet covertly thrives in revolutionary love with. They both are activists who are a part of the Freedom Fighting movement, an often ignored aspect of the Gandhian-focused narrative of Independence. Despite Rani being subversive and courageous, her journey, as the play goes on, reveals that she is not free of flaws despite the ways she may have suffered, breaking the one-dimensional concepts of victim narratives. In this play, it was key to celebrate the generations of Queer and Trans ancestors, singing aloud that we have existed for a millennium and will exist for a millennium more. It was also crucial to parallel histories of colonization and show how such histories can easily be replicated by colonized communities onto others. I explored how our own individual or community-specific pain, trauma, and need to survive could transform radical activists into model minorities, and prevent us from building movements towards collective liberation. Lastly, it was invaluable to explore ancestral memory in the body, the threads that weave the space within ourselves, and between ourselves and others beyond time and space. If we offer healing to ourselves in this realm, our ancestors will experience it in their own realms, and vice versa.
Back to top


30 People Watching:

30 People Watching (2014). Photographer: Hamidah Hemani
30 People Watching (2014). Photographer: Hamidah Hemani

November 14, 1997, Victoria B.C. A South Asian teenager is swarmed and beaten by a group of her peers. There are up to 30 witnesses. After the initial assault, a 16-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl take the victim under a bridge and commit a second fatal assault. Subtle Vigilance Collective 3 tackles the disturbing implications of this Canadian murder.

30 People Watching is a collectively created play, developed over five years, in response to the 1997 murder of Reena Virk, a 14-year-old South Asian girl who was killed by her peers in Victoria, British Columbia. I co-wrote this play with Amelia Sargisson, and it was directed/dramaturged with Mark Cassidy. It premiered in October 2014 at Aki Theatre of Native Earth Performing Arts at Daniel Spectrum cultural hub.

I was Reena’s age when she was murdered. We were both 14-year-old girls. At the time of creating this piece, I had entered into the years equivalent of living two of her lifetimes. I had that chance. Growing up in Ottawa as a bigger-bodied South Asian girl, I was very aware that it could have been me or any of us as young Brown women. And as I grew older I learned that Reena’s murder became a pinnacle point in the lives of many South Asian girls and women of colour growing up across Canada, often in White-dominated cities and towns. It was Reena’s life that had been taken though, and I wanted to honour her beyond the one-dimensional victim she had been painted as, and imagine the possibilities of who this courageous being was that challenged her peers by pushing the boundaries of normativity structured around and within them.

In the plethora of news reports that followed Reena’s murder, girl-on-girl violence and bullying was sensationalized, while societal status based on race, culture, “normative” ideas of beauty and gender was almost completely ignored. Reena did not fit into ideals of gender or beauty, amongst many other ideals, dictated by White-Canadian-Suburban-Middle-Classness. The fact that Reena was considered unattractive and ostracized because she was a bigger-bodied South Asian female with abundant body hair was rarely taken into account as a factor in her murder in the media or during the trials. The fact that she was burned with a cigarette in the middle of her forehead was not considered reason enough for her murder to be considered a hate-crime in the media or judicial system.

30 People Watching, 2014. Photographer: Zahra Saleki
30 People Watching (2014). Photographer: Zahra Saleki

In this play we were determined to undermine the sensationalized accounts of Reena’s murder, and her erasure in the media and judicial system. We were committed to explicating how the young people involved in the events surrounding her death were inundated with social hierarchies of race, class, and hetero-normative ideas of beauty, and of glorified aggression and dominance over others, which remain prevalent in the colonial state of Canadian society today.

In this theatrical response, the end of Reena’s embodied life became so profoundly impactful on my continued embodied life journey. The physical creation process allowed us (myself as a bigger South Asian woman and my colleague a petite blonde White woman) to tap into subconscious responses embedded in our bodies and allowed our bodies to be sites of complex symbolism of systems of power and oppression for our audiences .

80% of the audience was QTBIPOC and BIPOC. Despite the emotional provocation and pain that could come up for racialized peoples who are most impacted by the violence illustrated in Reena’s murder from witnessing this piece, it was QTBIPOC and BIPOC communities who showed up. This suggests that, perhaps, the mainstream White audience was less interested in examining the condition of our colonized society. That is what privilege can do; it provides the privilege to not have to reflect on how one benefits from a system that inflicts pain on others. However, those who came, from all demographics, continue to share with me, and the whole collective, the impact that the piece has had on them: It urges them to examine the subtle thoughts and actions that come from privilege and/or oppression, and to remember the history of violence on this land that continues to brutalize racialized populations, and particularly Indigenous and Black folks here on Turtle Island.
Back to top


Maan-i-fest
:

Mann-i-fest (2014-)
Mann-i-fest (2014-), co-created with melisa moore. Courtesy of the artist.

Maan = The heart-mind in the Buddhist/Hindu/Yogic context
“i” = The “ego”, the illusion of our individual selves as being separate from each other and the universe/multi-verses
fest” = A celebration, referring to ritual and performance
Manifest: To bring into fruition, reveal, expression
Through Maan-i-fest, we investigate how interdependence impacts manifesting our realities, and further, how that investigation might open up space for deeper internal knowledge.

Co-created with MeLisa Moore, Maan-i-fest is an ongoing series of multi-disciplinary audience immersive investigations/performances combining movement/dance, live experimental sound/music, vocals, and environment/installation. More than all these “artsy” words, MeLisa and I share Maan-i-fest as ceremony, ritual, and offering for transformation and healing.

Various incarnations of Maan-i-fest have been offered in multiple spaces including World Pride (Toronto, 2014), Insatiable Sisters (Toronto, 2014) at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and Transmodern Festival (Baltimore, 2015). The series has also been offered as intentional Therapeutic Sound Baths in locations across Turtle Island since 2016 with plans to tour internationally.

MANN-I-FEST (2014-), CO-CREATED WITH MELISA MOORE
MANN-I-FEST (2014-), CO-CREATED WITH MELISA MOORE. COURTESY of the artist.

Within the series of these pieces/rituals, we see a direct link to individual/interpersonal connectivity and the interdependent relationship between artist and audience or, as we the duo creating this series experience it, community. An underlying exploration of this piece is how energetic imprints and manifesting (or not being able to manifest),and our hopes and dreams in our present lives are connected to ancestry and the impacts of colonization. A central conversation within this piece is between the vibrational movements of sound energy (electronic, acoustic, and vocal) and physical movement, and unlocking ancestral vibrations that lie within the body, between performers, environment, and “audience”/community.

As queer women/gender-queer people of colour from colonized lands (MeLisa of African American, Caribbean Diaspora and Cherokee lineages, and myself from partitioned parts of South Asia as mentioned previously), we are particularly interested in examining the impacts of colonial history on our vibrational imprints (in both physical bodies and subtle energetic bodies, the layers of every human’s electromagnetic fields), how they can stifle and disconnect us from our ability to be active co-creators of our lives and realities, and how we can shift, move, and transform these imprints. In doing so, we explore going beyond and underneath the imprints of colonization and other current pains in this lifetime, entering into our intrinsic expansive electromagnetic fields that give access to our innate ability to create relationships based on abundant possibility, healing, love, and magic.

Much of our ancient and ancestral wisdoms, and spiritual practices and ceremonies as BIPOC and colonized peoples have known the power of sound and vibration as a very potent and sacred medicine to reconnect us to our whole-beings in our unperforated or imprinted electromagnetic fields. Much of this wisdom has been buried through colonial centuries of demonizing, erasing and disconnecting our spiritual traditions and teachings. In recent decades, modern science, quantum physics, and new-age conscious communities have come to parallel conclusions of matter and vibration being interchangeable and affirmed the presence of our electromagnetic fields, which our ancestors have known along. The series of Maan-i-fest pieces/rituals is a reclaiming of that ancestral knowledge, which often gets co-opted and culturally appropriated in spaces where BIPOC folks do not feel welcome because of this very erasure and co-opting. For communities comprised of all demographics who experience this offering, Maan-i-fest has become a powerful tool to shift the idea of where these knowledge systems come from, that they have existed for thousands of years, that we can collectively shift our relationship to pain and suffering, and that BIPOC communities, as much as anyone else, can pull out and transform the mucky imprints of centuries of violence inflicted on our beings and use that very energy to cultivate new realities together.

In conclusion, the artistic practice that I’ve been developing over the past seventeen  years, which uses the body as a central canvas for storytelling, is intrinsically endowed with ceremony, ritual, transforming self, and offering reflection for community to do the same. It has been a practice of reclaiming space outside of the body where QTBIPOC folks are often ignored and erased, and also within our bodies as a space that colonial legacies have been attempting to occupy . In retrieving stories from the body through theatre and healing modalities, we not only reclaim our bodies, but also re-examine the histories and systems that shape us (as exemplified in Cycle of a Sari, Un-settling, and 30 People Watching), resist being sellable objects (as demonstrated in Yoga Cannibal), and revitalize our hidden truths (as experienced in Maan-i-fest). Our truths are challenging and complex, with their myriad of power and privilege. Our truths also need to be recognized and cherished. These performances and ceremonies examine how White Supremacy and Cis-Hetero-Patriarchy have tried to take up space within our beings and respond to how we, as QTBIPOC communities, continue to make space within ourselves and with each other to recognize the oppressive systems and structures that try to work through us. They can bring a deep transformation and release – a release that allows us, in our plethora of identities and experiences in QTBIPOC communities, to re-enter into our fullest, truest, and expansive powerful individual and collective selves.

Notes:

  1. Although to be real, Western-Canon type theatre is not what I’m feeling these past seven years. There was a time I felt strongly about being an actor who performed in Western-Canonical performance in an effort to shift representation in mainstream theatre and to visibilize actors of colour. I’ve been more than happy to let go of that role and for other theatre actors of colour to focus on it if that is where their hearts and aspiration lie, which ultimately benefits the movement to have more People of Colour on these stages. It is important work, just not what I feel drawn to do at this time.
  2. It is important to note that the impact of racism and classism are very different and distinct in regards to access to various aspects of dignity and equity in our society and resulting emotional trauma. When these two systems of oppression intersect the impacts on the individual or a community are multiplied, and as such are often conflated as the same. In colonized lands some access to power within the subjugated sects was often through royalty or wealth, so the illusion of class ascension erasing the pains of racism and colonization, is a product of the global colonial project.
  3. Subtle Vigilance Collective co-created 30 People Watching through a collective creation model. The play was co-authored and performed by nisha ahuja and Amelia Sargison, and directed and dramaturged by Mark Cassidy.