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Engendered.Org and its I-View Film Festival

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New York amazes with the variety and depth of the talent it houses. One treasure of an organization, unknown to most, is Engendered.Org, a group that is committed to “exploring gender, sexuality, religion, and culture” in and from South Asia. Started only three years ago by the astonishing Myna Mukherjee, the group produces more events annually than many of us produce in a lifetime. Their two major festivals include the fall I-View Film Festival (now underway at venues around the city), a Spring Dance Festival, and many unique programs, meetings and organizing efforts, including a recent South Asian Queer Leaders Summit.

In an interview published in June 2010 by Narthaki , a web site devoted to Indian dance, Myna talked about how she started Engendered and her ambition for its impact. (http://www.narthaki.com/info/intervw/intrv120.html). “My home and world was dance. I had left many worlds, including one on Wall Street as a management consultant, to found Nayikas, New York’s first feminist classical Indian Odissi dance theatre company. Dance was an immense educator for me. It taught me about my body – both personalizing and politicizing it… I wanted to contextualize the work that Nayika did by bringing together other art practioners, theorists, and activists who would in turn, create a platform of mutual support and opportunities, active social and political networks, and be publicly recognized. It was also a space that would not shy away, rather embrace the challengingly complex and often dizzying cultural references of South Asia.”

When the interviewer, Sunil Kothari asked her how she proposes to deal with gender and sexuality “as you know…there are so many silences around gender and sexuality within South Asian culture.” She reframed the question. “[W]hat about the two spaces of ritual and religion, which shape almost all our lives and cultures? This boundary is where Engendered starts. I believe that cultural change is one of the most important ways to advance activism and the rights movement and that religion needs to be part of that conversation….Religion is all pervasive and manifests itself in South Asia’s art, architecture, social norms, even pop culture. Religion and ritual permeate both the everyday of our lives, but are implicitly and explicitly present in our politics. Have we not seen the use of religion by both ends of the political spectrum when it comes to gender and sexuality?”

I went to see the premiere of the film “I AM” on the opening night of the 2010 Engendered I-View Film Festival on Saturday September 18. The evening and the film was provocative, multi-facted, exciting and moving. The film is a riveting feature that tells contemporary stories of women and men in India that are never seen by western audiences, much less Indian ones – a professional woman in Kolkata who wants a baby and discovers that her husband’s resistance to it is due to his infidelity with another women, so she decides to use a sperm bank to have a child alone – there is still something radical in Indian society to a woman alone. A second story is all about Kashmir, told through the eyes of a tough woman who returns to her hometown of Srinagar to find it occupied and transformed by the war between muslim nationalists and the Indian government. The story was the most astonishing in my mind because of the deep history which it evokes through just a few characters. The third story shows the impact of sexual abuse by a stepfather on an adult man, and how he comes to terms with it. Remarkably told and acted. And the final vignette depicts a far too typical story of extortion of a gay man.

The film maker, Onir, collaborated with many others and manages to show us through characters, gorgeous cinematography and compelling situations what Hollywood seems only to do through overt voice-overs. This movie should be seen widely in the US, as should many of the other films at the I-View festival (check out the schedule on line).

Myna noted in her interview that the questions she is raising through her work include, “
What do the aesthetics of gender and sexuality tell us about South Asia? How could new narratives and new perspectives in these aesthetics raise new questions and discussions? How do our aesthetics of gender, sex, sexuality and the body, add to or limit our ability to speak of them politically and personally?\” She added that her “..hope is to highlight not just what is being said on these issues, but also fights the silences that still abound within these conversations.”

Engendered is a terrific organization trying to open up conversations and space through art.

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