Fulbrighter Arshiya Sethi brings arts and activism together in her work across various fields.
Arshiya Sethi is a dancer, writer, development communication expert, and a scholar on Indian classical dances, especially sattriya. She served as the creative head of programs for the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi for a decade. Sethi is a founder and the managing trustee of Kri Foundation, which promotes different ways of looking at the arts, combining art and activism.
She has won Fulbright Fellowships twice. In 2003-04, she was a Fulbright Arts Fellow, attached to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. Her work there culminated in “Saraswati Project,” which showcased Indian dances during the Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors festival in 2004. In 2017-18, Sethi went to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, as part of her second Fulbright where she was associated with the Department of Theater Arts and Dance. She is currently writing a book on Indian dances in the diaspora.
Excerpts from an interview.
When did you first become interested in the performing arts, and dance in particular?
I have been actively involved with Indian arts for more than four decades now. I believe the arts have been the subtext of my entire life. My association has changed over time, compelling me to play different roles, but the attachment and commitment have been constant.
I was not born to a family associated with the arts. In fact, when my mother learned dance, it was still pretty much a tabooed activity. It was geography that made it possible for her. She grew up in Patna, which boasted of music and dance conferences. In that environment, she and her sisters were encouraged to pursue dance and music. I became the fortunate beneficiary of her pioneering spirit. After her marriage to my father, who was an officer of the Indian Police Service in the Punjab region, she was unable to continue, but she instilled in me a love for the arts.
I love watching dances of all kinds, on stage and in film. Out of this love, I have created a dance film festival, called DanzLenz, which features dance-based films from around the world.
What is “artivism” and how is it promoted through your Kri Foundation?
Kri Foundation was founded in 2003. It is best known for its association with the arts, for innovative showcases, for pushing the boundaries of the artistic practices and for catalyzing collaborations, rather than encouraging competition.
Gender and social justice programming became our curatorial contribution. It was during the performance called “Black & White,” which was based around the issue of Muslim personal law and Indian Muslim women, that Lalit Mansingh, former Indian Ambassador to the United States and India’s Foreign Secretary, created the portmanteau word “artivism,” from art and activism, for the work that Kri Foundation did. Two other works that I would like to mention in this context are an early theater work we did in 2005 on the ills of child labor for the International Labour Organization and “Dance of the Birds,” a bharatanatyam Margam that carries the message of protecting the environment.
How were your Fulbright experiences in the United States and how did these programs help in your own work?
My first Fulbright as an Arts Fellow saw me associated with the Lincoln Center in New York. It was an amazing experience. I loved New York and the throbbing arts scene. At Lincoln Center, I helped promote a bigger engagement of Indian arts with the programming there. This was reflected in 2004, through the Saraswati Project, a featured program at the Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors festival.
During my second Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Minnesota, I was working closely with the theatre arts department, especially the renowned dance scholar, dancer and choreographer Ananya Chatterjea, within the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change and the Institute for Advanced Studies.
During the 2017-18 academic year, I spoke extensively not just at the University of Minnesota, but also at Hunter College, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and many others. In Dallas, the mayor honored me for my contributions to arts and to bringing communities together, at a kathak and flamenco evening, where I gave the keynote address.
What are your future plans?
My second Fulbright gave me my next big project—Indian Dance in the Diaspora. At present, the Indian diaspora accounts for just over one percent of the American population, but is poised to double within a few years. That makes this work even more significant. It is an exciting area that weaves a multihued jacquard. I travel to America every year for research. I am fortunate to have been able to interview some of the pioneers of the 1950’s as well. It is emerging as a work rich in anecdotes, but it lends itself well to critical analysis as well. I am very excited about it.
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.