Boston’s first South Asian American Theater Festival makes its debut this weekend with an array of performances that highlight the many unique perspectives of the world’s largest diaspora. The festival will be held at the Dorothy and Charles Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown from Aug. 19-21, and will include seven plays, a solo performance, a panel discussion, and more.
Boston-based Bengali theater group Off-Kendrik created the festival to help foster a sense of connection and inclusivity within the wider South Asian community. When the theater group originally began holding performances in 2008, Off-Kendrik artistic director Sankha Bhowmick said, their shows were performed entirely in Bengali. Over the years, the group began trying to broaden the reach of their performances by introducing multilingual productions, piloting a series called “Voices” modeled after the Moth, a nonprofit that hosts creative storytelling performances, and incorporating English supertitles into their plays.
The pandemic created another incentive to organize a South Asian community-wide gathering, Bhowmick said. To combat the sense of loneliness and isolation that characterized much of the time spent in quarantine, Off-Kendrik’s leaders decided “that we should bring the South Asian community together, we should offer [people] a platform to express themselves in whatever way they feel most comfortable,” Bhowmick said.
SAATh-Fest’s performances include stories that extend beyond India to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and explore an array of issues and experiences through the lens of religion, gender, and caste. Though some plays will be performed in English, the festival incorporates a variety of South Asian languages, including Hindi, Marathi, and Kannada, with supertitles in English. Some of the plays have been performed at other venues, but many will make their debut at the festival.
“Some are retellings of old stories, some are really modern stories, and then the final performance is actually a very traditional [theater piece] from Karnataka [in South India],” Bhowmick said. “It’s a beautiful mix.”
“Unveiled” by Rohina Malik, to be performed in English, highlights issues Pakistani-American women face while navigating a post-9/11 world as practicing Muslims. Sarbpreet Singh’s “Kultar’s Mime,” which will also be performed in English, explores how the collective trauma that Sikh residents of Delhi endured during the 1984 Sikh Massacre connects them to the Jewish community.
Though many plays highlight modern struggles that South Asian immigrants face, a few reinterpret traditional fables and stories in a more modern context. “The Misadventures of Lotus Brothers,” written and directed by Pampi Das, follows the journey of a transgender character from the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic. “Shikhandi” by Sudipta Bhawmik also explores gender identity and dysphoria through traditional Hindu folklore.
“We have a strong emphasis and support for the LGBTQ community,” Bhowmick said. “The new generation, they’re looking at these fables in a completely different light.”
The festival will also feature a panel discussion, moderated by author and Rhode Island School of Design professor Avishek Ganguly, about South Asian theater and the conflicts that can arise within different aspects of the diaspora’s many cultures.
“One of the challenges we always run into is we don’t tend to agree with each other all the time,” Bhowmick said. “But rather than getting isolated, we really want everybody to come share the platform, put out their stories, put out their play, and then really develop meaningful conversations out of it.”
If the festival is a success, Bhowmick hopes that Off-Kendrik can bring it back as an annual event.
“It should be both a celebration of performing arts and an opportunity to learn, appreciate, and develop tolerance and love for each other and the different cultures,” Bhowmick said.
For tickets, visit mosesianarts.org.