I want to begin this short contribution to the Dancehouse Diary by discussing centers and peripheries in the unceded land we call Naarm whose custodians are the Bunnwurung and Wurundjeri people. As a migrant child, the turn to South Asian arts in a white Australia was my haven from racism in everyday spaces where I was often told, as an Asian, to go back to where I came from. I began practicing dance, already politicised from a very young age, questioning who or what belonged at the center and who was in the periphery here in Naarm. As I grew older, I began understanding that Asians were not recent entrants to Australia. As my friend and collaborator First Nations Yolgnu artist Sylvia Nulpintidj recently reminded me, her people and my people have been in conversation for over 4000 years but I do not forget that we, along with everyone else, are guests on this land and therefore peripheral to the centers that First Nations people have imagined for this space for over 80,000 years.
Although I lived in a seaside suburb in the Southeast, I grew up in the center of the Naarm arts industry performing regularly at Arts Center Melbourne. I was a member of the intercultural Asian experimental company called Bharatam. The Arts Centre became my home for 7 years where I performed in countless productions often spanning 3 seasons each year of classical South Asian and contemporary experimental pan-Asian work, consisting of 12-14 performances each season. Many other Asian Australian artists and other artists of colour were part of this journey performing in mainstream venues in the city center, obtaining funding to support their professional practice from the various funding bodies including the Australia Council, and developing their forms. However by the late 1990s, a dramatic shift in the arts industry took place, when many artists lost funding but people of colour and certainly Asian Australian artists were most affected. This situation was exacerbated by the defunding of the Multicultural Clause by the Howard Government in 2001 on the 100th Anniversary of the White Australia Policy. I point to this to remind us how the white center who became the center after colonisation 200~ years ago draws its margins carefully repeatedly in a myriad of ways to systematically prevent non-white bodies from accessing capital and entering its spaces.
I had already left Australia by then and only recently returned having developed my ideas as an artist and scholar keen to see what I could contribute to the current situation in the arts. I was quite surprised and dismayed to discover the lack of mainstream presence of South Asian arts; that were now literally divided by a cultural schism at the center of Victorian arts. Not only were there dismal numbers of South Asian full time professional artists, but the large numbers of schools of music and dance were relegated quite literally to the margins of Melbourne suburbs. These artists now rehearsed in garages, basements, living rooms, and performed in school halls and neighborhood houses without access to professional lighting, sound and stages. South Asian forms that had existed in the urban centers at the highest levels of professional engagement were now relegated to the periphery and dismissed as old, traditional “community arts,” not deserving access to professional spaces or capital.
So the question remains: why have South Asian performing arts been moved to the margins? Why was it possible for it to occupy a central position but no longer?
In the last 4 years since I returned I have made it a priority to question why this is the case and how we can change things moving forward.
In my time away, my practice, research and writing developed to indicate that what we think of as South Asian arts are actually quite hybrid; modern forms masquerading as tradition due to their colonial encounter. On the other hand, what we think of as western contemporary dance was formed through the appropriation of South Asian dance (among other Asian, Indigenous and black forms); its hybridity and traditions masked and made invisible by its impetus to declare itself as new and contemporary. These appropriations and maskings were enabled by the framework of racist anti-Asian immigration policies that prevented actual Asian bodies from contesting white bodies framing of their forms. The differences between western and South Asian performing arts are a matter of taste, aesthetics and who has the power to name what is defined as the “contemporary.”
These policies have shaped the cultural landscape and who gets to perform what kinds of dances and cultural practices has shifted and changed over time and centers and peripheries have moved as well. What radical acts would it take now for a critique of the possessive investment in whiteness in Victorian dance to actually bring Victorian artists of colour to share in the limited resources we have in the arts and to be presented in the same artistic venues with access to capital. What would it take to open up to a wider acknowledgement of taste, aesthetics, diversity within the very category of the contemporary, made hybrid by the history and movement of people, culture in this land and at the very bottom line the taxpayer dollar!
Priya Srinivasan is author of “Sweating Saris:Indian Dance as Transnational Labour”, Temple University Press, 2011.