Sangam South Asian Arts Festival launches, featuring over 100 artists

Over 100 artists come together to celebrate the South Asian diaspora, smash patriarchy and call out climate inaction at Sangam 2021 showcase of South Asian performing arts. 

The founders of Sangam - Priya Srinivasan, Hari Sivanesan and Uthra Vijay - return with the Sangam Festival 2021 in Melbourne. 

This year, the venue and festival partners for Sangam are Bunjil Place in Narre Warren, Dancehouse in North Carlton, Abbotsford Convent, and the Drum Theatre in Dandenong.

Sangam was born in 2019 when the founding trio decided to fill the gap in South Asian arts and culture in Australia. 

They believe that South Asian diaspora artists are necessary for Australia since the community's population growth. 

Based in Melbourne, Sangam exists for South Asian culture. 

It is a platform that celebrates South Asian Australian artists, upcoming and of professional capacity, to showcase their art through dance, music, comedy, and spoken word. 

Since the platform’s inception, the festival is returning for the second time in February 2021. Commencing this Saturday, 20 February, Sangam 2021 will spread over four weekends at four different venues and feature over 100 artists globally.  

The official trailer for Sangam 2021 (YouTube). 

Defying all odds during the lockdown, the directors and over 100 artists have worked together in 2020 to realise the festival. 

Strict social distancing will be followed throughout the festival, and the audience members will have to wear masks at all times. 

Produced in collaboration with Multicultural Arts Victoria and the Victorian Government, the festival addresses violence against women, climate change and homelessness due to wars. 

Dr Srinivasan and Mr Sivanesan, Co-Artistic Directors of Sangam festival 2021, say this year's performances are unique and “people have never seen something like this before.” 

Behind the Scenes 

Dr Priya Srinivasan

Dr Priya Srinivasan. Image: supplied and edited. 

Collaborating with Mr Sivanesan and Ms Vijay, Dr Srinivasan started Sangam with a three-day inaugural festival in 2019. 

Ms Vijay, co-curator of the platform, says, Sangam is the brainchild of Priya Srinivasan. 

It was founded after Dr Srinivasan was shocked to see the lack of space for South Asian artists to flourish. 

“Sangam was born to give young artists opportunities and pathways to professionalise their art,” Dr Srinivasan said. 

Born in India and raised in Australia, Dr Srinivasan is a choreographer and a dancer. She has been a professional artist since the age of 15. 

After performing in Australia and exploring a few other South Asian countries with her teacher, Dr Srinivasan completed her Masters and PhD in the United States. 

When she returned to Melbourne with her new knowledge, she discovered that the government had reduced funding for the arts in Melbourne all over.
 
There was inadequate funding for artists, lack of space to express their creativity and a diminishing South Asian culture. 

“When I was growing up, my dance school was well funded, so I was shocked to see the lack of funds,” she said. 

“It is scary. On the one hand, you want to watch Netflix and shows when you’re bored, and on the other hand, you don’t want to give funding.” 

Having seen enough, she decided to build Sangam, a platform for artists. Sangam will produce Sangam festival due to start on Saturday, February 20, 2021. 

The four-weekend festival will have multiple shows directed and co-directed by Dr Srinivasan. 

Sneak Peek at the Festival 

Sunanda Sachatrakul, comedian and co curator of Dada Desi. Image: Supplied and edited.

Saturday, February 20: Sangam at the Convent 

The festival takes off this Saturday with three already booked out events at the Abbotsford Convent.

The highlight of the evening is the ‘Dada Desi’ event. It is co-curated proudly by Sunanda Sachatrakul and will be emceed by award-winning comedian and performer Vidya Rajan. 

Dada Desi is a combination of stand up comedy, dance, music and spoken word performed by 18 emerging and professional artists. 

Ms Sachatrakul describes it as an “experience of diasporic South Asian communities” and says it was born last year during the lockdown.

Last year, Ms Rajan and Ms Sachatrakul mentored artists for seven months to add fresh content to their acts. 

"It was all done via zoom because of the lock down," Ms Sachatrakul said. 

She is performing on the first evening, is an emerging artist and was trained to be a comedian in Los Angeles. She moved to Melbourne last year. 

“I do improv, sketch, clowning and stand up comedy,” she said

She says her life will inspire her comedy piece this Saturday. 

Sunanda Sachatrakul. Image: supplied. 

“I am a Punjabi-Thai comedian, and as a woman of a South Asian family, I didn’t have a lot of freedom that my brother had,” she said. 

“But this piece focuses on the effects patriarchy has on men. For instance, even though I was not allowed to hang out with my friends till late, I don't have the burden of family expectations.” 

“Sons are expected to be unemotional, join the family business and marry a girl their parents find for him.” 

She said she has recently come to acknowledge what her brother must have faced because of family expectations.

“I have come out as gay to my parents and chosen a profession as a comedian instead of something conventional. If I were my brother, I would have to uphold so many expectations,” she said. 

Dada Desi artists in their creative forms (Sangam 2019). Image: Supplied.

Ms Sachatrakul is performing LIVE comedy. Her character on stage is a young boy who loves to dance but is afraid of his dad finding out that he loves dancing. 

“So he has just discovered some progressive agendas and is trying to change because he knows it affects him as well,” she said. 

“It will be an explicit act. This young boy loves to dance, but he realises that guys dancing is considered gay.”

“And he vocally expresses that he is not gay, but we don’t know for sure.”

For a night of expression, creativity and lighter, Dada Desi features solos and duets of dance, music and comedy. 

Saturday, February 27: Sangam at Dandenong - Earth Matters

Sangam at Dandenong - Earth Matters Walking Experience. Image: supplied.

For the second weekend, the directors have planned an interactive evening for their audience. 

Prepared to ‘takeover’ The Drum at Dandenong, the festival will showcase the ‘Earth Matters’ event where the audience members participate. 

Dr Srinivasan says the show wants to connect the environment of Dandenong with the South Asian arts. 

“Dandenong is home to the largest South Asian population, so ‘Earth Matters’ just wants the city to see and feel the South Asian culture,” she said. 

“Earth Matters asks what happens when local communities of artists interact to transform the sonic and visual landscapes that have excluded them for so long.”

Saturday, March 6: Sangam at Bunjil 

Sangam at Bunjli. Image: supplied. 

For the third weekend, Sangam festival at Bunjil Place plans to mesmerise their audience with three premieres. 

The first act is a newly composed musical work directed by co-directors Hari Sivanesan. Called ‘New Homes’, the composition is, he says, inspired by his life. 

Mr Sivanesan was born and raised in London. He came to Australia five years ago. 

He says the art and culture in Australia are very different from what he is used to. 

“I was raised in London through the ’80s and ’90s where the migration was strong and so was showcasing culture,” he said. 

“But when I came to Australia five years ago, everything was different. I was so confused.”

“Then, I worked with other co-directors and started Sangam in 2019 because I want my children to be a part of my community.” 

Hari Sivanesan. Image: supplied and edited. 

He says the musical composition ‘New Homes’ relates to migrants who have left their homes to find new ones in a different country. 

“The composition will show the ups and downs they endure when they move, like leaving their loved ones behind.” 

The second act in ‘New Homes’ is a groundbreaking choral work by the eminent singer, composer, teacher and Sangam co-founder Uthra Vijay. 

Ms Vijay, who will be a part of the choir, says music is her life. 

Uthra Vijay. Image: supplied and edited. 

“I have been connected to music since I was five years old,” she said. 

Ms Vijay came to Australia in 2000 and using her degree in education and expertise in music she founded Keerthana School of Music in 2003. 

She said she came to be a founding member of Sangam later. 

“Priya and I have been friends for a while and have done performances together. So we got around to work towards Sangam together.” 

This unique Carnatic choir will premiere on March 6 and through spoken word and instruments and will be about climate change and Earth. 

The third act, called ‘The Flowering Tree’ is a multi-artform performance directed by Dr Srinivasan and Mr Sivanesan.  

The performance is a screen adaptation of Indian folktale performed by nine emerging artists in Australia. 

Mr Sivanesan believes something similar has never been done before. 

“Not in an egotistical way but Flowering Tree is unique in itself, and we have ever seen anything like it.” 

Mr Sivanesan has reasons to be proud as local and international artists trained these emerging artists over the last eight months under the ‘South Asian Arts Pathways’ program. 

The program works with classically trained artists of Melbourne’s South East to professionalise and develop new work. 

“The artists are now  part of something different and new at a professional level.” 

Thursday March 11 - Sunday, March 13: Sangam at Dancehouse

For its last weekend, Sangam has planned quite a rollercoaster with six performances scheduled over the three days. 

‘Commissions’ will take place at Dancehouse in Carlton North and feature both contemporary and classical dance forms.

 

Commissions at Dancehouse. Image: supplied. 

The performances will focus on a range of issues that post-colonial South Asians endure, including homelessness due to wars, migration, identity and sexuality issues. 

March 13 will also feature a free panel discussion online called ‘Sangam in Conversation’. Local and international artists will attend the discussion to review the representation of marginalised communities in the world through art. 

Panellists will discuss the power of arts for representation from three different perspectives: First Nations artists in Australia, marginalised artists in India and the minority South Asian artists in Australia. 

The events are carefully designed to celebrate South Asian art in Australia. Dr Srinivasan says that the artists and mentors worked hard even during the lockdown.

Sangam 2021 artists and directors meeting for the first time after lockdown last year. Image: supplied.

The artists thank Sangam for being the reason they could get through lockdown with something to look forward to in 2020 and 2021. 

To purchase tickets for Sangam performances, visit the Sangam 2021 website


Sheetal Singh is a freelance writer who holds a Masters of Journalism from Monash University. She is based in Melbourne, and is a regular contributor to SAARI. You can connect with her via LinkedIn

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