Meera opens at the ASB Waterfront Theatre. Photo credit: Marija Nesovic.

What makes an ‘Indian’ story just an ‘Indian’ story?

What makes a piece of art ‘Indian’? What makes it ‘English’? Aarti Bajaj, director of new theatre production Meera, unravels our prejudices around art and what makes people put art into boxes.

Every time I hear someone mention that our show Meera is an ‘Indian thing’, or just for an Indian audience, I have to ask: when they come across a show like My Fair Lady or Beauty and The Beast, do they say it’s a ‘white’ show?

Just like those are stories, so is Meera. It just so happens that the story of Meera follows a princess from the 16th century in a Northern part of India. But that doesn’t mean it’s a story just for Indians, any more than Aladdin –being an unspecific Middle Eastern story – makes it just for people from the unspecific Middle East. It’s just because the story of Aladdin is something that people have heard, thanks to Disney, and are familiar with. People like familiarity, but trying something new and different only pushes us out of our comfort zones. In turn, that broadens our perspective.

Art varies depending on which part of the world it comes from. Brazil has samba, China has dragon dance, Cuba has salsa, and so on and so forth. But it’s all art. Art can be a powerful, transformative life-changing experience. But when it’s categorized in different boxes and caged within limited boundaries, it paralyses its ability to enchant the souls of audiences – especially if they think it’s not for them.

Today, the world is a global village, and it’s about time that we start to feel like internationalists within it. People are migrating all around the world today. Migration not only brings people of different races, colours and ethnicities across borders, it also brings their food, their culture, and their art. Human life becomes richer, there’s more to learn, more to share and more to love.

A daughter of an Indian friend of mine, who is only six years old, was told by her non-Indian friend at school that she could never play the princess in the school play because she’s not fair-skinned. If a six-year-old has to have a conversation like this, what kind of unknown divide and hierarchy is being grown at a subconscious level in these little brains, which have obviously been grasped at from the communities around them? It’s no wonder that we have such an intense divide among grown-ups.

This incident inspired me: I have to break the rules, that’s what real art does, right? When art breaks the rules, it starts a compelling conversation.

Meera went through a colour-blind casting process.

And so I created Meera in the most globally palatable form I could. I weaved theatre, music, dance, and state-of-the-art technology to showcase the scale of the production. I took a colour-blind casting approach so I could create an inclusive environment. For example, while Meera is a story of an Indian princess who falls in love with an immortal God, the characters are played by actors from a variety of ethnicities: Indian, Caucasian, Māori, Samoan, Sri Lankan and Filipino, among others.

Even when I was choosing the cast from these different backgrounds, the only thing on my mind was that when the story is happening on stage, it should be so powerful, so potent, that the audience doesn’t care what colour artist is performing in front of them. It’s not an Indian story, it’s not a white story, it’s a story for everyone.

We have eight different dance genres which are performed in the show. Indian classical and Indian contemporary may be new to audiences, but other forms are more familiar to the western world such as ballet, jazz, contemporary, aerial, pole, and belly dancing.

Above all, the entire production is in English in order to reach a wider audience. So again, I ask: why do people continue to limit Meera as being ‘just for an Indian audience’?

Meera incorporates over eight genres of dance. Photo: Marija Nesovic.

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There’s a lack of awareness and knowledge about how many rich cultural histories, artforms and stories are present in New Zealand and Australia. Not only can these be enjoyed by everyone, but they can also be useful in informing our perspectives about the rest of the world. People’s lack of interest in trying something different only strengthens their preconceived assumptions about a culture or art form. This way of thinking limits our human capacity for acceptance and exploration.

We live in the best of times: knowledge, awareness and education are at our fingertips. Let’s not stay ignorant anymore. Through Meera, we want to contribute to a better, more inclusive society, we want to break stereotypes and we want to disrupt mundane mindsets. By doing so, the arts will grow and the world will grow.

Let’s get out of the box by stepping out of our usual habits.

Meera shows at the ASB Waterfront Theatre from May 31 – June 2. You can buy tickets here.


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