Lights, Drama, Action: The Commencement of South Asian Theater at Smith

Afreen Seher Gandhi ’15
Contributing Writer

I would have never majored in Theatre if it were not for my mother, who dragged me against my wishes to a summer theatre workshop in Allahabad, my small hometown in India in 2003. My first experience on stage was playing the role of Marjinah in an improvised production of “Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves.” Ever since I was ten, I knew that the stage was my calling.
When I came to Smith as an eager first-year ready to break into the world of the performing arts, I was rejected for every theatre production that I auditioned for, including a role in which I would have played a tree. Just when I was about to give up hope, Professor Andrea Hairston, who later became my major adviser and Professor Nalini Bhushan, who would become my South Asia Concentration adviser encouraged me to write and produce my own plays. This lead to a directing journey of seven plays at Smith College.
The most rewarding of these experiences was a play I wrote and directed called “Family Duty.” I could not believe that just one year removed from my doubts, I was not just staging my first play in college, but I was also staging Smith’s first South Asian play. It felt really special, and because it was based on a story that my mother wrote when she was in college, I felt like the process had come full circle.
This short play, adapted from a short story by my mother, Nighat M. Gandhi, highlights the issues that surround the lack of mental health care in India and the problems faced by middle-class Indian Muslim women. In order to break down the stereotypes about South Asian women and families, the play was my attempt to showcase the discrimination and day-to-day problems faced by those whose voices are seldom heard: women, the mentally ill and religious minorities. Because none of my actors or crewmembers were South Asian, they all learned what it is like to be from a different culture in a very intimate way.
I am happy that an array of Smith’s firsts has made it into the Smith archives as I graduate. “Mehru: The Sun Among Women” (Fall 2013) was a screenplay based on “Love Unclassified,” a story from my mother’s short story collection “Ghalib at Dusk & Other Stories.” It was the first Indian play part of the “New Playreading Series.” “Mehru,” (from the Arabic word Mehr, meaning sun) was a story of love, myth, magic, and the blurring of the socially constructed divide between masculinity and femininity. “Kamala” (Spring 2014) was the Smith Theatre department’s first Indian main stage production and focused on unethical journalism and human trafficking in the late 19th century in North India.
The South Asia concentration is a thriving forum that has helped sponsor and support events that foster the South Asian community at Smith. While it helped me with my first production at Smith, it also helped bring several South Asian artists, speakers and activists to campus. One of the major artist residencies that I organized in conjunction with EKTA, the South Asian student association, and nine different offices on campus was the Maya Krishna Rao residency. It was the first time that we had an Indian theatre artist come to campus and do workshops, performances and a global salon and share her expertise on “Kathakali,” the most ancient form of storytelling that originated in India.
After that we did many other projects together, like screening Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s ’02 Oscar-winning documentary “Saving Face,” inviting Pakistani documentary film maker and social activist Nameera Ahmed to campus to speak and screen her film “Mermaid of Churna Island,” which was about the first woman to become a scuba diving instructor in Pakistan and much more. This budding young concentration supports and welcomes students from all academic backgrounds who want to learn about South Asia. Being part of this concentration has allowed me to strengthen my identity not just as an South Asian international student, but also a student of color writing and directing work that is close to my culture.
It has been both intellectually and practically challenging bringing theater from across the world and making it accessible to an audience in the West. I welcome anyone to read my plays and act in them. Students do not have to be South Asian or look a certain way to act in an Indian play just like people do not have to be Russian when they are performing a play by Chekov. As Professor Hairston puts it, “You should be able to act the part, not look the part.” This year, when I directed “The Koyal’s Cage” as part of my Senior Honors Thesis, students from seven different countries and of twelve different ethnicities all came together to portray a family in Mumbai. The play was inspired from Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” and explored themes of marriage, Shari’a law, women’s independence and domesticity in 21st century India.
To this day, there are hardly any women directors out there, and even fewer who aspire to become one. When Academy-award winning Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy ’02 visited campus, I remember her telling me: “Afreen, aim for that director’s chair,” and after that I never doubted my ambition again.
I aim to promote diversity through my plays, and give opportunities to Smithies who are eager to earn their first stage experiences. Sadly, students of color, international students and those who have no previous theater background are generally not cast in main stage productions. It is important, therefore, that more student theater continues to occur and more opportunities for diverse and international plays are created so that these students can also experience the magic of theater and the power of being on stage.
I come from a country where it is not possible to pursue theater as a field of study. Coming to Smith, a school that has produced numerous artists and three Academy Award winners has kept my dream of storytelling alive.
Looking back at my theatre-filled Smith journey, I cannot help but reminisce and reflect on all the productions and artistic collaborations that have taken place during my time here. It has been an incredibly challenging, but equally rewarding four years. It is important for me to acknowledge the vital role of my mother, the faculty and staff of the theatre department and the South Asia concentration as well as the talented and hardworking Smithies for helping me put together these productions, artist residencies and creative projects.

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