Promotional art for Aaina Festival, which runs from April 15 to 17 at Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Promotional art for Aaina Festival, which runs from April 15 to 17 at Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Tasveer, an organization dedicated to the South Asian community of Seattle, is presenting the 11th annual Aaina Festival, which offers performances and film screenings focused on the lives of South Asian women.

Tasveer founder Rita Meher aims to make the Aaina Festival both educational and participatory. “We choose films that represent a current urgent issue that relates to South Asian women,” Meher said. This year, Aaina features Petals in the Dust: The Endangered Indian Girls, which explores themes of gender discrimination and violence against women in India.

Meher explained the importance of sharing this issue with Asian Americans in Seattle. “By profiling the unimaginable stories of brave survivors,” she said, “viewers enter the chilling realities that girls and women are currently enduring, providing a sense of urgency in helping to change status quo.”

To increase community participation in the festival, Aaina also includes live presentations of storytelling theatre called Yoni Ki Baat, inspired originally by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. This year, director afrose fatima ahmed teams up with seven South Asian women performers to tell stories of female sexuality and identity.

Ahmed said she is looking forward to directing this project. “I am a working writer, producing everything from poetry to arts and culture reviews, to teaching creative writing workshops,” Ahmed said. “I have developed a workshop called ‘Dancing on the Page’ that focuses on somatics and embodiment in the creative writing process. I felt that Yoni Ki Baat would be a wonderful venue to bring this approach, given that the title itself refers to women’s bodies as speaking, particularly our yonis, which are our centers of creative power.”

This year’s cast hails from varied backgrounds. “Yoni Ki Baat is historically open to any South Asian women-identified people,” Ahmed said. “We welcome anyone who responds to the call. I always find that whoever shows up is the perfect medicine and that has been very true for this year’s cast.”

Ahmed explained how her writing process works in the rehearsal room. “I focus on somatics in my work because I find that writer’s block comes from being too much in our heads and not embodied enough,” she said. “Our modern lives don’t really give us much room in which to feel our emotions and meet our bodies’ needs for rest and relaxation.”

Beyond basic physical needs, Ahmed said this project can also foster healing for women. “It is also the case that trauma causes us to retreat to our intellect,” she said. “So when writing about the yoni, which is so often the site of trauma for women of all cultures, we are particularly hard pressed to find the words to express our experiences.”

Ahmed considers this project a good learning process. “I’ve had to play an incredible balancing act in holding emotional space for people to explore and express some of their deepest feelings and experiences on the one hand,” she said, “and on the other hand, keeping an eye towards the finished production and creating a show that all of us can be proud to put our names on.”

Meher said she is also proud of the progress that Tasveer and the Aaina Festival have made in the past decade. “Eleven years ago, we were not sure whether this would have worked,” Meher said. “A decade ago, when my friend Farah Nousheen and I founded Tasveer and started Aaina, we did not have any non-profit experience, nor considered ourselves ‘activists.’ The Aaina festival is unique, one and only of its own kind in the country. We wanted to create a platform, a safe space open to all forms of expressions by women belonging to the South Asian diaspora.”

Meher and her colleagues began slowly. “At the first Aaina festival in March 2006, in one of the programs, during the open mic, a woman read a script from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues,” Meher recalled.  “This first reading of the monologue generated a plethora of push-back from the community. It was unique, it was different, and it was considered vulgar.”

But Meher understood that there was promise in this new exploration. “Despite the negative reactions to the first reading, Farah and I understood the power of it and knew it had to continue in its own safe space,” Meher said. “We started doing Yoni Ki Baat (translation: A Talk of Vagina), in its full form, properly, creating a safe space for writing stories and performing them.”

The response changed from negative to positive. “It has been incredible to see the community mobilize and grow along with us,” Meher said. “A show that was once a hush-hush production, and which only some people wanted to attend, has now become a ‘must attend’ event.”

Meher reports that, over the past 11 years of the Aaina Festival, over 70 women have participated in Yoni Ki Baat, over 50 artists have displayed their work, and over 7,000 people have witnessed the stories of South Asian women.

This year, the Aaina Festival is again hosted by Seattle Asian Art Museum. “We work with the museum through an art organization called Gardner Center for Asian Arts and ideas, located in the Asian Art Museum,” Meher said. “Gardner Center’s mission is to present a holistic view of Asia.”

And this year, Aaina and its audiences now have the benefit of a Seattle Department of Neighborhoods grant, which has made the festival free to all audience members.

Aaina Festival runs from April 15 to 17, at Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 East Prospect Street, in Volunteer Park, Seattle. For more information, visit http://aaina.tasveer.org/2016_pv/.

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