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Setting the stage for future

Hari Adivarekar | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 15, 2017

Backing up: People trickle in as the stage is set for SubDrift open mic. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Pakistani-American comedian Nasser Khan didn’t fall back on cultural clichés to get the room guffawing. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Pakistani-American comedian Nasser Khan didn’t fall back on cultural clichés to get the room guffawing. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Bring on the cheer: Jocelyn Chia, a Singaporean comedian, came up with a sharp, rhythmic set that drew big laughs. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Bring on the cheer: Jocelyn Chia, a Singaporean comedian, came up with a sharp, rhythmic set that drew big laughs. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Hearty pats on the back, high fives and bear hugs greet young South Asian performers nervously testing their talents at Subcontinental Drift, Manhattan’s open mic

We’re stuffed into the back room of the misleadingly-named Parkside Lounge, a dive bar in the lower east side of Manhattan, on a warm August evening. A stage and a mini-bar sandwich a bunch of tiny circular tables, illuminated by candles and dim bulbs, with a few frayed velvety booths thrown in. First-timers shuffle around nervously as they speak with the SubDrift NYC organisers — Tara Sarath and Aaliya Zaveri — about the order for the evening. Each performer gets 10 minutes on stage, with Sarath wagging a long index finger when a minute remains. They only have the stage for two hours, so this means some eager ones will not perform tonight. A little hustle is required to make sure that their all-important slot isn’t skipped. “I think first-timers are really important. My favourite thing is when someone comes to me towards the middle or end and says, ‘these people are amazing and now I want to perform too’,” says Zaveri, a multidisciplinary artist.

The audience of around a hundred people is mainly made of performers, their few friends and random revellers. They are warm and encouraging, cheering the loudest for first-timers and anyone who shows any sign of nerves. Hearty pats on the back, high fives and bear hugs greet every performer as they leave the stage. The atmosphere is very intimate and boisterous, like a bunch of friends getting together for drinks and karaoke at one of their living rooms. The average age is 18 to late-20s although there are some exceptions such as a middle-aged Indian man unsuccessfully trying to get on the roster to sing some old Hindi songs in the very last minute.

Even after a few hundred stage appearances, the nerves never quite leave. They’re always there as reminders of less-prepared, less-confident times. The option of a safe stage can be valuable. This is where a regular open mic such as SubDrift comes in. This monthly event, which began in Washington DC in 2007, was meant as a safe space for South Asian performers, especially those taking tentative first steps as musicians, comedians or spoken-word artistes. Since then chapters have sprung up in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and New York City. SubDrift NYC organiser Sudeep De breaks down the prevailing attitude. “We have an atmosphere and policy of welcoming everybody, to help people feel comfortable performing for the first time. We don’t necessarily want it to be a space where you have to already be established in the field. Every person who has the courage to get on stage helps others who might be thinking about it.”

Veteran SubDrift performer Uliya, who is a medical advertisement editor by day and musician by night, challenges this notion of a safe space. “What is safe to some people might not be safe to others. I don’t always feel safe at SubDrift. Some performers are not always mindful of what they say, so they kind of throw certain groups under the bus, whether it’s women, black people, Muslims, people who have recently immigrated. And it’s not about being politically correct. To exploit those experiences to make people laugh, we’re not creating safety, we’re upholding harmful patterns. If we’re not holding each other up to a higher standard, then we’re not doing anything,” he says.

Writer and marketing executive Sarath, who has been a community organiser for over a decade in a variety of artistic spaces in the city, was also one of the first people to push the concept of SubDrift NYC, often funding the events from her own pocket. She has a firm hold on its raison d’être, “Open mics foster community and artistic talent. In a hungry, relentless city like New York it’s important to give people the opportunity to develop their skills with a warmer and more receptive audience. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to see a bunch of people mature and grow in their careers, and it’s thrilling. I try my best to introduce SubDrift audience to other art groups to work in concert with them, groups like SAWCC (South Asian Women’s Creative Collective), Basement Bhangra, Muslim Writers Collective and Mipsterz.” She’s quick to add that SubDrift is not limited to the desi community but reaches out to a broader diaspora, given the current political scenario.

Uliya sang a ballad of hope and love over beats produced on his phone. Jocelyn Chia, a Singaporean comedian, had a sharp, rhythmic set that drew big laughs, but she finished a little before time and had to dive into her phone to pull out a couple of jokes to wrap up. Poet Taj Fyzah spoke her truth in the most eloquent, authentic way, bringing together her sexuality, family and history. Kashmiri-American comedian Bassam Shawl said in a high-pitched voice, “Every time a white person asks me where I’m from and I say Kashmir, they go, ‘oh my god, that’s soooo cool, I bet you get the best Cashmere from there!’”

When identity, public space and art come together in a commingling, complex issues are bound to be thrown up.

Sikh comedian Narinder Singh has a goofy laugh, sports a bright red turban and spouts a thick Queens accent, “I once did a five-minute set for an American audience — it went really well, but one audience member came to me after my set and said, ‘you should talk about being a terrorist’.”

Ayan Sanyal, of the duo King Pleaxure, echoes a similar experience in Boston, “I performed at this one open mic, I played a song, everyone loved it. A white comedian went on right after me and his first joke was, ‘That sounded really good, if John Mayer was a terrorist.’ And it got laughs. I was just shocked, I didn’t know what to do, no one had my back.”

Others such as Nikki Chawla, actress, teacher and comedy-circuit veteran, who has opened for Aziz Ansari and Hasan Minhaj, have faced issues more related to gender than cultural stereotypes, “Being a Sikh female comedian — I think I’m the only one I know in NYC (guffaws) — has been a challenge for me. I worked hard to get where I am. Comedy is a boys’ club, so you gotta roll with the punches. It takes a while to find your voice.”

Uliya has learned to channel his life challenges into a creative drive. “Growing up, the fact that my parents were separated and were from two different parts of India (Gujarat and Karnataka), caused some tension. On top of that, I was different — I was more effeminate. I was seen as weird, among both Indian and white people. It was lonely growing up that way. But it made sure that I became very strong and gave me a lot of material and pain to draw from while creating my music.”

As the performers come and go off the tiny stage, it becomes evident that some are notches above the others but every single one, no matter the approach, is given the freedom to perform.

It is also clear that this will be the last free edition of SubDrift. Sarath, between bouts of emceeing and sharing NYC anecdotes, says there will be a $5 entry fee along with a two-drink minimum, for performers and audience alike. Some feel this will be a dampener, as Singaporean comedian and ex-lawyer Chia, fresh off the stage and waiting for her Uber pick-up, says, “I do worry that after changing it from a free mic to a paid mic with a $20 minimum, people might not show up as much. Just when I found the most supportive mic I’ve been to in a long time, it may not be able to continue this way.”

Sarath echoes this sentiment while offering insight into the travails of organising events such as this. “Because we have to find homes in bars, we can’t fully develop a community-centric model (that is, no-cost). Parkside Lounge has been generous, but they need to keep their lights on, and their bar open. We’re at a crossroads, because even with my network, I can’t think of a space we could find for free that would also be adequate as a performance space. I am worried that we will lose sections of our audience, because even though people earn well in NYC, it is an expensive city in which many people must live frugally.”

Some things, though, are larger and more important than money. Open mics such as SubDrift nurture aspirations that can span generations. “There might be a small kid out there who will be inspired by us. Maybe he’s the real star and he’s an Asian-American. Maybe we won’t make it, but he will. It’s about, paving the way. That’s only possible when you have people continuously pushing the border in these spaces for art to thrive,” insists Sanyal. Fyzah brings this point closer to home, “As a Muslim whose family is from Gujarat, everything that happened post-Partition, and even close to now — 2002, the violence between our communities, the violence that has stemmed from colonisation, is really heartbreaking. So it’s really nice to be in this kind of space where you see Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs coming together.”

When a varied group of people still shy of 30 see such hope in a simple but hard-earned gesture such as SubDrift, you know that $20 won’t sink it. And even if it does, there will be others inspired to stand on the strong shoulders of these intrepid organisers and artistes, who will dare to dream bigger to push the boundaries of the artistic and political diasporic experience.

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photojournalist based in Bengaluru and Mumbai

Published on September 15, 2017
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