How Sarah Mandie and Priya Srinivasan are trying to mobilise change to end violence against women through the arts
In 2014, two young cousins were brutally raped and hung from a tree in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. This brutal assault on the young girls, aged 14 and 16, brought India once again on the international spotlight. Far away in Melbourne, this distressing news shook Sarah Mandie so much that it prompted her to write a song titled That Girl.
Mandie, who is singer, songwriter and Community Music Victoria’s diversity coordinator, has since developed That Girl into a music video and workshop project taking it across communities in Victoria to spread the message of respect and empowerment of women and girls.
While the Uttar Pradesh incident resonated deeply with Mandie (being married to a Rajasthani folk singer and having two daughters), it was also the seriousness of violence against women in the Australian context that made her think of a creative way of using music for social action. “When this happened to these girls in India it made me think about my girls, their futures and their safety which then extends out to all girls from all countries. I was so angry and upset, I wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world,” reflects Mandie.
That Girl is a Community Music Victoria collaboration between Mandie and local communities. The outcome of the project is three, short, powerful documentary films – That Girl Wodonga, That Girl Yarra Ranges, That Girl Boroondara – made to raise awareness of the importance of gender equality, safety and respect for all women and girls.
This April 28, Mandie has teamed up with Priya Srinivasan, an artist and scholar to present Voices of Shakti with That Girl at the Immigration Museum. It is a day-long workshop of song, dance and dialogue for the prevention of violence against women, drawing on Indian cultural themes of the Goddess to educate, inspire, mobilise and create understanding between people of diverse backgrounds and genders, says Srinivasan, who is committed to questions of migration, female labour, and art.
“This event is about joining with Priya and recognising that there is a community movement going on and there are women who are concerned about violence from different perspectives. If we can all come together and put on something that uses dance, music and art, it will get people in to start talking a bit more deeply about these issues and problems,” adds Mandie.
The workshop will run into three sessions. Highlights include ‘Learn a song about the Goddess’ with Uthra Vijay, Melbourne-based renowned Carnatic vocal singer and director of Keerthana School of Music, rhythmical chants with Jay Dabgar, a well-known tabla player, ‘Learn Sarah Mandie’s ‘That Girl’ song and Bollywood dance with choreographer Marshie Perera and Mandie, classical Indian music and dance performance contrasting ancient Indian Goddess mythology and contemporary women’s stories in India and Australia, group song and flash mob dance.
The workshop will be held in partnership with and supported by Victorian Multicultural Commission, Immigration Museum, Keerthana Music School, Hrudaya School of Music, Jay Dabgar’s Music School, Jhoom Bollywood, Oorja Foundation and Intouch.
“It is a participatory workshop where participants will have the opportunity to sing, dance, talk and have the opportunity to respond to the feeling of the song and lyrics,” explains Mandie.
“The segments will triangulate to think about the question of family violence which is a difficult subject for all south Asian communities and other communities in general,” says Srinivasan, adding, “We find that dealing with family violence is hard for families to come to dialogue, so that’s why we are looking at how to empower girls, educate boys and parents around what is acceptable behaviour and, importantly, how can the arts help us do it in a non-threatening way compared to, say, a lecture where people often feel they are talked down to as opposed to being part of a movement of change.”
That is, perhaps, the biggest concept that both Mandie and Srinivasan want people to take away. The workshop will also be inclusive of gender and cultures. “We are using the wisdom of Indian art and culture and coming together as movement of change,” says Srinivasan.
Interestingly, both Mandie and Srinivasan have come together for this project in different ways. After obtaining a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, US, Srinivasan went on to publish an award-winning book Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor and has had a long career as a performer of post-modern Indian artistic practices in the US, India, China, and Europe. After coming back to Melbourne, her trajectory was to find a pathway “to not let go of the community while at the same time pressure the mainstream spaces to consider the alternate forms that co-exist beyond the typical multicultural label banner and to find a new pathway for that”.
Mandie has always been involved in music and lead choirs but is currently working in community music projects. She says she turned to a different direction when she went to India in 2005 and studied Rajasthani folk singing under the legendary Manganiyar performer Rukma Bai in Barmer with opportunities to perform in few desert festivals. Back in Melbourne, she started to look at the issues of violence against women in the Australian and Indian context and decided to write a song with a message.
The two got connected when Srinivasan was attending a performance of Mandie’s around girls and violence and with both interested in the intersection of research and performance, they found their niche – getting communities to come together around questions that are relevant to everyone through the use of art.
Trained in the classical form of Bharatanatyam, Srinivasan realised that one has to let go off forms and adapt to western forms to be contemporary. “And this is the thing that I work against. I say that our forms have already inbuilt in them a huge contemporary lens and we just need to be able to divert people and their minds and thinking outside of the box to convey these messages in a very different way. How can we continue to be contemporary dealing with social messages?”
Mandie believes Voices of Shakti with That Girl will create an impact going by the first incarnation of her program That Girl Wondonga which showed last year. “We had a big group of Indian and Bhutanese women involved, we had deep and meaningful discussion on why this is important. It gave them confidence and a platform to express themselves and after the workshop they got to celebrate that sense of empowerment through the dance and through the filming,” says Mandie.
Rest assured, both Mandie and Srinivasan are indeed mobilising change. And what a fun, fresh way to do so!