Austin-based Tat Tvam Asi formed with the goal of promoting classical Indian dances in its pure spiritual essence to inspire future generations. Founded by Sruthi Mohan, Tat Tvam Asi showcases a curated series entitled The Panchakanya Project, based on the five Panchakanya women Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari from the Indian Epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
A single prayer to these five women is said to cleanse the prayee’s soul from sin. Five prominent classical dancers were given the opportunity to depict each Panchakanya woman and free her from the often negative patriarchal interpretation. The Panchakanya women are still often considered controversial but Tat Tvam Asi’s series will break any discord to reveal strong-willed and intelligent women.
Renowned Malayalee actress and classical dancer, Divyaa Unni, took the role of Tara, “the ever illuminating star”, the beautiful queen of Kishkinda who lost her husband, Vali, in war. Through it all, Tara learned the transcendental message from Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, that although the body is perishable, the soul is eternal. With Rama’s help, Tara begins to understand her destiny.
Unni began her classical training at the tender age of three and pursued her studies to get closer to her spirituality. Opportunities wouldn’t evade her as Unni explained:
“Later on, I was finding new possibilities of taking it as a profession because the kind of dancing that I do is deeply connected to Indian spirituality. That connection keeps us going. The professional side, the money, the fame, wasn’t even the main thing. All of that comes secondary when you start practicing”.
[Divyaa Unni as Tara]
She had an unplanned calling, a gut feeling to preserve in her industry. Her involvement in The Panchakanya Project is far from coincidental.
In Tat Tvam Asi’s Tara, the music and choreography were original and specially composed for this performance. Tara began with a stunning choreographed introductory piece, an Alarippu, showcasing a bit of her intricate technique. Although Unni strives to focus on abhinaya, one cannot avoid her strong technical skills. She dances with strong precision and a captivating force. Unni’s grandeur was captured in her phenomenal abhinaya, or art of expression, that left the crowd speechless. Those originally unaware with the story, such as myself, were able to grasp every scene, every emotion that Tara endured. Unni’s abhinaya of Vali’s death held profundity, filling the audience with a sense of loss. The pivotal scene where Tara faces Rama and questions Him proved to be Unni’s most difficult to render, yet successfully captured. To question God’s motive, although intimidating, requires a lot of courage and passion. Through this brief act of defiance, Tara is granted her answers.
“Bharatanatyam is that art form that can take you to that [spiritual] level. In the olden times, they said that Bharatanatyam dancers did not need any sort of spiritual practice. It is like meditation. They are so much in union with the supreme being that when they dance, that in itself is enough”, Unni said.
Tat Tvam Asi reinforces the rightful connection between classical dance and spirituality, reminding the audience the crucial importance of continuing the practice of India’s traditional dances. Their choice to focus on the Panchakanya women is pivotal in our current moment of history. With South Asia’s growing plague of a lack of women’s rights, The Panchakanya Project series resonate with female audience members on the importance of strength and having a voice against oppression.
Catalina Campos is a graduate of the University of Houston earning her B.A. in English Literature. She previously managed a prestigious photography gallery and has worked as a music and fashion editor in Berlin. As a recent New York transplant, she currently studies Bharatanatyam and Kathak at Navatman, Inc and hopes to one day pursue a career in promoting South Asian arts. Catalina spends her free time indulging in films and exploring galleries. You can follow her on Instagram.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
Tina Singh, formerly known as Mombossof3 online, understands how to make her presence known in the parenting space. Seven years ago, she set out to create and share content related to motherhood, and there’s been no looking back since. Singh has mastered the idea of evolving with the times and the needs of her audience while staying true to her number one role in life — mom!
As she navigated her personal and professional life through the lens of a parent, she came across a void that just wasn’t being filled. So, in typical Singh style, this mom of three put her entrepreneurial hat on and got down to creating a solution for Sikh kids who struggled to find a helmet that fits over their patkas (a small cloth head covering).
The problem was personal — all three of Singh’s sons wear patkas and just couldn’t find the right helmet for their safety — and so the solution had to be homegrown. Enter, the Bold Helmets.
Singh gave Brown Girl Magazine an exclusive interview in which she talked about the Bold Helmets, the change in her journey since she’s become a public figure, and what it was like to innovate her very first product!
Here’s how it went:
Let’s start from the beginning. How did this idea come to mind?
This idea has been in my head for many, many years — over five years. I had issues with my kids and having helmets fit them after they turned age four or five.
I worked as an Occupational Therapist, in the head injury space, so I was always the one saying, ‘Okay kids, you’re gonna have to tie your hair in the back, do braids, or something in order to put on a helmet properly because I’m not gonna let you go down these bike ramps without a helmet!’ That’s just not okay for me.
So I talked to my husband and said, ‘there’s gotta be another way this works.’ So we did all the things that parents in situations like these do — they hollow out the helmets, some people go as far as cutting holes at the top of the helmet — you do what works. But I had in my mind an idea of what I think the helmet should look like based on what a patka looks like, and what my kids look like. I then found an engineer to draw it out for me to bring [my idea] to a place where I can actually take it somewhere and say, ‘Okay, how do I make this?’
But, yes, it started mainly with my kids and facing that struggle myself.
You mention that this idea had been brewing in your mind for over five years. How long did it take you to actually bring it to life?
To this point, it’s been about two and a half to three years. I let it sit in my mind for a while. Winters come here in Canada and then we forget about it again until we have to go skiing, and then there’s another problem, right?! I did let it lay dormant for a bit for sure, but once I made the commitment to do it, I made up my mind to see it all the way through.
You recently pivoted and changed the name of the product to the Bold Helmets. Can you talk me through how you came up with the new name?
Bold Helmets became the name because they’re designed to be bold, to be different and who you are. I also think that the way the helmet is made, even though it’s made with Sikh kids in mind, there are other applications to it. I do think that taking the Bold Helmets approach embodies its [the product’s] uniqueness and really focuses on being bold and who you are.
And the Bold Helmet is multi-sport, correct?
This helmet is certified for bicycles, kick scooters, skateboards, and inline skating. It is not a ski helmet. So every helmet you use for a different sport has a different safety certification or testing that it has to go through. So, this helmet is called ‘multi-sport’ because it covers those four sports but I wouldn’t take this helmet and use it for skiing. I’d have to make sure that this helmet, or a helmet like this, gets certified for various other standards for other sports.
Makes sense! I want to change the course of the conversation here a bit and talk more about how you pivoted from Mombossof3 to innovating your very first product. How was that experience?
So what I did throughout this journey was that I went from marketing myself as ‘mombossof3’ to ‘Tina Singh’ because I was sharing more of my life’s journey as my kids were getting older and in an effort to respect my children’s space as well, and letting them decide how much — or how little — they want to be involved with what I was doing online. And part of that was about the journey of what I was doing next, and the transition came naturally to me.
I think right now, truthfully, I’m struggling in the space where I kind of have a shift in audience and so my usual, everyday self that I share on social seems like it doesn’t work. I feel like I need to find a new balance; I will always be true to who I am, and I will never present myself as something that I’m not. But, just finding a space for me to continue creating content while also taking on this new endeavor with Bold Helmets, is important right now.
Aside from this struggle of finding that new balance, what is that one challenge that really sticks out to you from this journey?
I think my biggest challenge being an entrepreneur is finding that balance between my responsibilities as a parent, which is my number one role in my life and there’s no one that can take that role for me — my husband and I are the only parents — and passions outside of that.
Do you think it helped that you were creating a helmet for Sikh children so it allowed you to pursue your passion but also work with your kids in some capacity since they inspired the whole idea?
I never thought of it that way, but yes actually, it did! So all my entrepreneurial projects have involved my kids. Even now they were involved in picking the colors, all the sample tests we did they tried the helmets on! They’re probably sick of it since they’re constantly trying on helmets, but I get their opinion on them. Even as we pivoted with the name, we involved them and got their feedback on it also. So, they were involved in very large parts of this project.
And my husband is also a huge part of this project. He’s been heavily involved in this process, too!
You have a huge online presence, and I know that you’re probably not new to trolling and bullying that comes with being on social media. More recently, Bold Helmets was subject to a lot of backlashes. Is there something that you took away from this recent experience? Was it different this time around?
The extent to which things got was different this time around and that’s not something I have faced in the past. But I have been in the online space for about seven years now, and I’m accustomed to it. I think what I learned this time around is that sometimes silence and reflection is the best thing you can do. Sometimes reflecting and not being defensive on feedback that you get — and this may be something that comes with age as well as experience — is best.
But, I’m happy with the pivots we made, the feedback we’ve gotten, and the way we’re moving forward.
You mentioned that this isn’t your first entrepreneurial venture. But each experience teaches you something different. What did you learn while working on Bold Helmets?
I learned to be okay with taking things slow. I’ve never been that person; I’ve always jumped the gun on lots of things. It’s understanding that it’s ok to slow down and recognize that things have to just run their course.
And while the interview wraps up there, there is more to come with Singh on her journey! Catch Lifestyle Editor Sandeep on Instagram LIVE this Saturday, January 28, at 10 a.m. EST, as she has a more in-depth conversation with Singh on Bold Helmets and more!
In the meantime, Bold Helmets are available for pre-order now, and as a small token of appreciation, Canadian pre-orders will get $10 off their purchase until the end of January 2023!