Nadhi Thekkek, Rupy C. Tut explore impact of British Indian partition through traditional Indian art

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As an Indian American, I can attest to how difficult it is to stay rooted in the culture and history of a subcontinent you never lived in. Growing up and experiencing the political climate of the United States is convoluted enough, so the idea of staying rooted in India, or any other country, is often out of the question.

For first-generation Indian Americans Rupy C. Tut and Nadhi Thekkek, this education is vital to staying in tune with the way history repeats itself. The othering and trauma associated with the British partition of India are eerily similar to the hate perpetuated in America, and that parallel is one that Tut and Thekkek explore in their new show “Broken Seeds / Taking Root.”

Tut and Thekkek worked together to create and direct their first show, “Broken Seeds (Still Grow)” in 2017, and because of an overwhelmingly positive response, they produced a sequel to explore this relation even more.

“Since I grew up listening to my grandparents talk about partition, since they became refugees in 1947 as a result of partition, it was basically a part of our conversations all the time,” Tut said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It became more relevant to me when I moved to the U.S., you know, when I was 12 and slowly realized, ‘Oh, wow, that home that I grew up in is out of reach.’ ”

Before they started working together, Tut, a visual artist, and Thekkek, a dancer, were already friends, united by their struggle as full-time artists and their interest in the idea of partition. They had both been creatively exploring the partition when they decided to work together on a show dedicated to the topic.

While Tut had more direct familial roots in the partition, Thekkek saw the exploration as a way to learn more about a history that had largely been separated from her; since she is South Indian, she was more geographically distant from tensions between India and Pakistan that are still alive today.

“It’s a very complicated subject because it’s not very clear-cut in terms of who is perpetuating racism or xenophobia. Sometimes, we all play a part,” Tut said.

As they approached the 70th anniversary of the partition in 2017, Thekkek and Tut saw many Bay Area events regarding India and Pakistan. Thekkek was struck by how little she knew about the strife, so she set out to explore the issue with Tut through art.

Thekkek is the artistic director of Nava Dance Theatre, a bharatnatyam dance company based in San Francisco. She applied her expertise in bharatnatyam, a South Indian classical dance form, to her work with Tut, who used traditional forms of Indian painting and calligraphy to produce the visual animation for the show.

The show features music in various South Asian languages as well, capturing the background of Tut’s childhood in India, where no one language was dominant.

There’s a fine line between reflecting and appropriating a struggle, and Tut vocalized that the pair was very careful to not fall into the latter category. Coming from a belief that artists need to know deeply what they are presenting, Tut emphasized that the two only wanted to take up space to reflect their own histories and not overstep.

Poring through archives of South Asian history and gathering oral histories from Tut’s family, they did the work, the research, to back up every aspect of the show. In addition, they looked at the South Asian American experience from the 1900s to today and the universally virulent “desire to treat immigrants as not a part of the tapestry,” Tut said.

“What these witnesses were saying about partition, it sounded eerily similar to what people are saying now about the current political climate … in the U.S., in terms of the political climate here and the othering of people who are immigrants, who are South Asian, or who are from the Middle East, who are trying to cross the border,” Thekkek said. “What was striking was that it very much is applicable to here.”

This relevance to today is why Tut and Thekkek wanted to open up a conversation with UC Berkeley students — on Wednesday night, as a part of their university discussion series, they spoke about their collaborative work and brought up current India-Pakistan relations.

As Tut explained, students exist in a space of critical thought and discussion, and the two artists believed that the campus would be the perfect place to ask: How do we take experiences that are traumatic and hurtful and turn it into art that is meaningful?

“Working together in itself has seemed like a political act … even though it’s all dark and dreary,” Thekkek said. “ We want people to walk away activated, feeling like their stories have been heard … and in a way, feeling validated.”

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.