03 Aug South Asian Arts and Me
In January of 2009 I had my first meeting with South Asian Arts.
We were planning on cooking something up together: butter chicken. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Chicken was a South Asian-centric sketch comedy show Leena Manro and I had created as an outlet for our jokes, ideas, and Bollywood weirdness. And after only a few shows in a box studio that was actually called Box Studio, South Asian Arts wanted to work with us.
I hadn’t the slightest notion that it would be the start of a lovely nine-year partnership and journey.
Back in 2009 I was simply happy that people wanted to work with us. Having just moved to Vancouver a few years prior, I quickly realized that having an idea is one thing; it’s another challenge to put it to paper, and an entirely different beast to finally get it on its feet. And after all that, who knew if audiences would even enjoy it? South Asian Arts believed they would, and they believed in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Chicken.
So they wanted to get in the kitchen with us.
Now, to put this in perspective, let me give you a little South Asian Arts history on one hand and a little Butter Chicken history on the other. On one hand, South Asian Arts started out as a company in 2005. The original team of Raakhi Sinha and Gurp Sian had already partnered with Neworld Theatre to bring Anita Majumdar’s Fish Eyes to The Cultch. They had also graced the cover of the Georgia Straight paper, had a dance team that had performed on many stages and functions in the greater Vancouver area, produced a couple of shows at the PuSh Festival, and were about to premiere their first written work.
On the other hand, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Chicken had done 10 shows. Total. What had started off as a one-night-only, invite-all-your-friends-to-come-see-the-show show had blossomed into a four-show run to a packed 75-person audience. Still, we were looking to expand; and when South Asian Arts came on board, we did.
This meeting about one creative opportunity opened the door to another. South Asian Arts cast me and the rest of the Butter Chicken crew in Bollywood Wedding, their first full-length play, in the summer of 2009. It was my first role as a professional, bumbling around as would-be groom Hanuman Singh. It was a dream first show. Not only was it a great production to work on, but it gave me my first taste of community, and it excited me for what was to come.
Finally in 2010 we produced our very first Butter Chicken show together. It was a “best of” show that comprised the very best sketches we had done in the past year and half. It was put on in the then-new Studio 700 in the CBC building downtown, the first show of any kind done there. We went on to produce shows with South Asian Arts for three years. At the height of our Butter Chicken madness we were doing 10 sold-out shows to 150 people, Wednesday to Saturday for two weeks. Twice a year. ( We did two shows on Friday and Saturday nights.)
To this day I still have people call me the Butter Chicken guy, or yell: “Dance-O-Gram!” at me.
In 2013, after much praise for the original production, South Asian Arts decided to remount Bollywood Wedding and asked me back to play Hanuman Singh. Of course I said yes. The show gave me more lovely memories but it also brought two other gifts: Kathleen (Kathy) Duborg came on board to direct. She would become a friend and one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. Later, I asked both her and Gurp to read a one-act play I had written called Mrs. Singh and Me. I had applied, unsuccessfully, to a festival and few theatres in the hopes of having it produced. I received nothing but rejection from some, and words of encouragement from others.
However, South Asian Arts had my back. Again. Rohit Chokhani, the new artistic producer for South Asian Arts, read it and liked it; Gurp liked it; Kathy like it but said it needed work. So we worked. Kathy eventually agreed to be dramaturg and to direct the play. Her guidance, knowledge, and friendship was and still is invaluable to me. South Asian Arts once again did its best to foster a supportive creative environment. And thanks to a little luck, Rohit won a spot in the Vancouver Fringe Festival through a lottery.
Mrs. Singh and Me premiered at the 2015 Fringe in one of my favourite places, the Historic Theatre at The Cultch.
It was one of the scariest moments of my life. Thankfully people enjoyed the play. The work we had all put in was appreciated, and we received the honour of being called a “Pick of the Fringe”. It was another first in my life that I had the pleasure of sharing with South Asian Arts.
Then in 2016, when South Asian Arts was about to launch the inaugural season of the Monsoon Festival, what was the first choice they made? They got the Butter Chicken crew back together to do a one-night-only show and packed the Historic Theatre at The Cultch. We finally had our one-night-only show ⏤ and at The Cultch no less!
This year for the Monsoon Festival I will be reading the latest draft of my first one-person show for the workshop and reading series. The show is slated to premiere at the 2020 Monsoon Festival. Next year, South Asian Arts will premiere the full-length version of Mrs. Singh and Me, also at the Monsoon Festival.
Almost 10 years later, South Asian Arts and I are still cooking together. Not only have they respected my skills as an artist, but they have given me a space to find my voice. With the growing belief that inclusivity and diversity should become mandates and not just trends or a matter of checking a box, artists of different backgrounds and lifestyles are starting to find space and opportunities to be seen and heard. Making art can be a challenge. No matter how strong, resourceful, and creative you are, you still need people to believe in you.
For me South Asian Arts are those people.