As we reflect during the last days of Ramadan, I know many are looking for zakat-worthy organizations to support. Please consider donating to Folk Arts Rajasthan (FAR), a small nonprofit based in New York City that runs almost exclusively thanks to volunteers. FAR supports a group of Muslims in Rajasthan, India known as the Merasi.
The Merasi are folk musicians and storytellers in a region of northwestern Rajasthan called Jaisalmer. Their music has been passed down from generation to generation for more than 800 years, making it an intangible cultural heritage, as defined by UNESCO. Since they are a minority group in a predominantly Hindu community, they are considered untouchables and regularly face discrimination, violence, injustice, and corruption. They are denied access to healthcare, education, and political representation.
The Merasi are derogatorily referred to as manganiyars, a word meaning “beggar.” Their lives are routinely threatened, their access to essentials like clean drinking water or electricity is cut off and anything acquired always comes at a steep cost. When hired to perform their music at ceremonies and celebrations, the Merasi aren’t paid fair wages. If the Merasi attempt to purchase essentials, like a rickshaw to transport students to and from their school, vendors will inflate prices making it impossible for the Merasi to afford it as many are impoverished.
No matter what you are passionate about, FAR’s efforts will resonate with you. The organization tackles several issues such as education, music, arts and culture, women’s equality, and human rights. FAR partners with an NGO in India, Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan (LKSS). Together, they raise money to fund Merasi School for young boysand girls, simultaneously educating and empowering them while breaking gender norms.
LKSS Director, Dr. Sarwar Khan used to worry that the Merasi’s musical legacy would die out as the current generation got older due to a lack of written history. When he first met Karen Lukas, now the Executive Director of FAR, he thought the Merasi children wouldn’t want to preserve their musical heritage. Now the children play not just one but multiple instruments, and the musical legacy is thriving, despite the lack of education and writing skills that previously existed in the community.
Thanks to volunteer efforts and donor contributions, FAR and LKSS have admitted more than 500 students to the Merasi School where they learn basic skills such as reading and writing in English. Aside from monetary donations, many supporters also give books for the school library, which children eagerly use to practice reading. In addition to the curriculum, the students learn to play the many native instruments, such as the nagara (a drum), khartals (a percussion instrument made of two pieces of wood) and murli (wind instrument that looks similar to a recorder).
The students host gatherings known as sammelans. During these gatherings, children celebrate their intangible musical heritage by playing instruments together. FAR empowers the Merasi to advocate for themselves through education and music despite the tough conditions in their community.
If you are fortunate enough to spend time with the Merasi and hear them play, you cannot help but be inspired to help their cause. The Merasi did two tours in America, selling out performances on a variety of stages such as community arts centers and universities. They also routinely travel to Mumbai to perform for larger audiences and spread awareness about their cause.
Demi Asvestas, a volunteer in NYC who traveled to India and assisted with their North America tour says, “the Merasi are the most giving and joyous community that I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with. Despite the issues they encounter daily, they are always ready to give what they have to help others. Their commitment to their community is strong, comes from within, and spans generations.”
The reality for the Merasi has become more severe as the community faces lockdown due to the global pandemic and heightened discrimination given the current political climate. With the support of a prime minister who propels Hindu nationalism and enacts anti-Muslim policy, the oppressors are validated in their war against the Merasi. The tension between the Merasi and their community strengthens as the political situation across India worsens.
Simone Salvo, another volunteer who spent time with the Merasi both in India and in the US says, “against the tide of dire social inequity, the Merasi always lead with their hearts. They work tirelessly to give the gift of music to the world and to their youth, education, opportunity, and courage to continue moving the needle of justice forward.”
Karen Lukas spends weeks at a time in India living with the Merasi every year, which she has done for the past 25 years. When she is back in the US, she communicates with the Merasi daily, hearing the heart-breaking updates firsthand. Their property is destroyed, they are physically harmed and threatened constantly for no reason other than being Merasi.
No matter how big or small, your donation can be impactful as the funds will help feed Merasi families during Ramadan and stock their school with supplies. As we pray for world peace and human equality around the world, please consider dedicating your zakat to this deserving group.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!
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.
Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.
The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.
Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”
The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”
Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.
The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.
Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.