Conversation and Reflection: CounterPULSE Performing Diaspora Artist Joti Singh

September 6, 2013

Joti Singh, creator and performer in Red, Saffron, and Green. Photo credit: Kegan Marling

summer in San Francisco comes Performing Diaspora, presented through
CounterPULSE Theater. A forum for traditional artists to experiment
in their disciplines, artists create works that challenge the precepts of such
cultural work (to paraphrase Marc Vogel of the Hewlett Foundation, a key funder
of the program). This year, Performing Diaspora offered work from three Asian
American artists.

I was
fortunate to the view the thought-provoking work of Jia Wu and Joti
Singh, as well as converse with each artist. Read our previous review of Jia
Wu’s Mama/Medea here.


This week, we review Red, Saffron, and
by Joti
, Artistic Director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company. Joti’s inspiration
for this work-in-progress is her great grandfather, Bhagwan Singh
Gyanee. From 1914-1920, Bhangwan was president
of San Francisco’s Ghadar party, a party formed in 1913 for the purpose of
fighting for India’s independence from Great Britain. Through original
music (by Ishmeet Narula), Bhangra choreography, spoken word, and video, Joti and her collaborators tell,
represent, and evoke Bhagwan’s story. The effect is a layered addition to our understanding of what it means to be American, Indian, and at home.

Red, Saffron, and Green highlights
its autobiographical underpinnings. Interwoven between several choreographies
is a documentary in which Joti speaks about being a resident of San Francisco
100 years after her great-grandfather. Her current apartment is close to the
Ghadar party's original headquarters, and she experiences literally walking in
her ancestor’s footsteps. In danced sections, choreography combines with spoken word material to illustrate Ghadar party

one danced section, Joti and her two dance collaborators (Alysha Higgins and
Priya Nyan) line-up stage left, facing the audience. Accompanied by Joti’s
husband and collaborator, Guinean drummer Bongo Sidibe, each dancer proceeds laterally across
the stage, their words punctuated by lifts and drops of their shoulders. As a
viewer, I had a strange experience. Semantically, I reconceived the
dancers’ shoulders as declarative statements, rather than as exclamations. I
began to viscerally feel the application of Bhangra dance in a politicized

our post performance interview, Joti confirmed that Bhangra's history is not
inconsistent its current popular practice. “Bhangra is fun,” she assured me,
“It was celebratory, a harvest dance.” However, part of experimenting with
Bhangra work, Joti explained, is not presenting it “with a smile.” I asked her,
then, “Why Bhangra?” Joti explained:

I have been studying
Bhangra since I was a kid. It is one of the ways my parents helped me stay
connected to my roots and Punjabi culture. Therefore, it is the most
appropriate vehicle for telling this story. It is my first language when it comes
to dance. It is also Punjabi, and Bhangra is the expression of Punjab in
dance… a part of Punjabi identity. It was danced during the Indian Partition
[of 1947, during which the regions of Punjab and Bengali were divided between
India and Pakistan.] Hindu and Sikh refugees coming over to the India side of
the divide danced in their refugee camps… The story [of my great grandfather]
is also very much this kind of story, one about nationhood and statehood and
freedom and independence. Bhangra has that sort of history…

short, Bhangra is an ideal container for her great grandfather’s story, and as
a Bhangra dancer currently living in San Francisco, Joti is the ideal person
to tell it. At once, Red,
Saffron, and Green
 makes visible an under-reported period of
Indian activism as well as the historical relevance and artistic
flexibility of Bhangra as a movement genre. Finally, Joti's autobiographical approach exposes invisible layers of accumulated
geographic and personal identity, so common in hyphenated America. In Joti’s words,
“Who we really are is
far more interesting than our outside containers…The more time that goes by,
the more layered everyone’s identity is becoming…”  In Joti’s case, she also
points out that her training in West African dance adds additional aesthetic layers
to her own practice of Bhangra.

finishes Red, Saffron, and Green by
speaking, in both prose and poetry, about her great grandfather, whom she terms
her “g.g.f.,” to great comic effect. She points to a picture of him on a table,
where he, to paraphrase Joti’s words, poses with a sword where others might
pose with their family. There is a sense of pride, but also of
loss. Joti feels connected to his work, but she also knows her grandmother,
while so proud of her father, did not not see him much. Joti told me that her grandmother did not see her father for over 40 years, while he was organizing. In
our interview, I asked Joti, “Can you position
your work for me, in terms of Asian Americans who perform work in diaspora. Why
do we do this?
” Her answer says it all:

One of the things that is important
for me is [that] knowing this history… makes you realize and question where we
are now, and where our struggle is… I feel inspired by this story to do
something with my generation, with my fellow Asian Americans, and, more widely,
I would say with people of color in this country. We have to realize that in
the past 100 years, we’ve accomplished a lot. But, there’s a lot that hasn’t
changed that much. Many of the struggles that these men faced were about not
being able to become citizens because of color... We could be talking about
today! These are the struggles and triumphs of our ancestors! Through this
piece, I have felt, very strongly, an extension through my ancestry, behind and
beyond myself. It is empowering to me, and we all need to feel empowered.

Red, Saffron, and Green manages to grapple with
loss, longing, and family while rooting into shared work and ancestry. In addition, she proves Bhangra dance
is available to us as a political performance language, given the appropriate
narrative. Joti’s work-in-progress has finished its current run through
CounterPULSE’s Performing Diaspora Program. But we can look forward to further
iterations through her work with the American India Foundation.