5 Questions: Dipanjali Rao & Aparna Ananthuni

We speak to Dipanjali Rao and Aparna Ananthuni about their upcoming event, The Colour of Desire.  
11 November, 3pm-5:30pm. South Oakleigh College.

Urban Layas

What’s behind the name, The Colour of Desire? How did the event come together?

Dipa: Aparna and I were discussing a song I was learning (she actually teaches me Carnatak music, the classical music of South India) and we were talking about the meaning of the song. The song, Kanjadalayadakshi, talks about the Goddess Durga in quite a sensuous way, but then ruins it by describing her as a parrot in the golden cage of Lord Shiva. I was exasperated by the fetishisation and simultaneous subjugation of Durga, and said that I was sick of singing about passive women and women as mothers, goddesses. Why don’t we sing about women as lovers? Aparna’s eyes lit up, and she texted me later saying we should sing about women as lovers, and call the concert The Colour of Desire. And thus our concert was born!

Aparna: The truth is, the female erotic voice—the ‘heroine’ who sings of her sexual longing— pervades South Asian music and poetry, and Carnatak music is no different. What’s really interesting is that this female voice of desire can have a personality, and an agency, and a confidence, that is a complete contrast to the way ‘named’ women/female figures in songs and stories—Sita, Durga, etc—are depicted. What’s surprising is that most of the repertoire we learn in Indian classical, and the most prominent surviving texts in the poetic traditions of South Asia, have been composed by men. So men have appropriated the female voice of desire to talk about sexuality and longing— yet real women still live with sexual repression and conservative ideas about their bodies. So The Colour of Desire is also about us as women putting that extremely nuanced, varied female voice back into female bodies.

What will the concert program look like?

Dipa: The concert of a mix of contemporary and classical. The performances are quite varied: a classical Odissi piece by Soumya Raghavan, a ritual dance piece by installation artist Anindita Banerjee and Indian classical dancer Shyama Sasidharan, spoken word poetry by artist and activist Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa, a piece on how female sexuality is indeed political by dancer and academic Priya Srinivasan and a contemporary reinterpretation of 9th century female poet, Andal by Manjusha Manjusha. And then of course, there’s music! There’s folk, Carnatak and Hindustani classical music, bit of Western pop and a bit of Bollywood. We’re singing in Hindi, Urdu, English, Tamil, Bhojpuri and Pashto! Our singing group calls ourselves Urban Layas, and it’s made up of myself, Aparna, Manjusha Manjusha, Thusheka Uthayakumar, Theebigha Uthayakumar, Kavya Kottampally and Keerthi Kottampally, who have all been performing Carnatak music together for a number of years.

Aparna: Yes, so the idea is to offer audiences a taste of everything—poetry, dance, music, ritual, history. To give an insight into just how much female desire is key to the world of South Asian performing arts. But we’re also doing some fun and hopefully funky musical experiments—teaming up with Western musicians to put new sounds into South Asian music, and even doing a couple of mashups of contemporary Western and contemporary Indian music. We’re accompanied by local Carnatak musicians Narayanan Ramakrishnan and Venkat Ramakrishnan, and Western musicians Jessica Yamin, Tim Henry, and Kath Yong.

 So—the concert becomes a space for both contemporary and classical forms. What was behind this decision?

 Aparna: We’re both Carnatak performers, and have a real enjoyment of the art form as an engaging, challenging, complex contemporary form. However, we were also keen to experiment with Western music and contemporary music – we wanted to see what juxtaposing traditional lyrics with a more modern sound would be like; it’s our first time doing it, and so that was an exciting idea in itself.

But more importantly, we want to present female voices of desire in the most accessible way for as wide an audience as possible—so not just those who understand and appreciate classical. Because ultimately we want this to be about women and their voices, and their agency, as much as about the music.

Dipa: I for one have been dying to sing a few of these songs, and they worked with the theme so we went with them!

What do you hope your audience will take away from the performances?

 Dipa: I’m hoping for two things: one, that people will start think about women expressing desire, and being sexual beings, as something that has been a part of Indian culture for a long time, and not something that is a ‘Western’ or ‘modern’ thing. I have no idea how that idea has perpetuated itself and has hung around for so long!

Secondly, I want people to think of us, the women in the concert and everyday women, differently. There’s a dichotomy that exists, of women who uphold ‘traditions’ like classical singing, and women who are seen as the trope of the ‘modern, independent’ woman. For example, someone just the other day commented on a dress I was wearing and said that based on my ‘look’, he didn’t think I was South Indian, much less someone who did classical music. I want to challenge these narrow, preconceived notions of what is traditional and modern. We know these dichotomies are really harmful for women, so I’m making a point, while also indulging a rebellious streak.

Aparna: Pretty much what Dipa said! I’d also like to add that I hope audiences will walk away with a sense of how interesting, diverse and rich South Asian music and dance is, and how relatable it is. We also want people to donate to an incredible new documentary film that we’ve been involved with, ‘Geeta’, which follows the journey of a woman in Agra who goes from being acid attack survivor to courageous and inspiring activist against domestic violence. All the proceeds from the concert will go the film’s post-production.

Geeta sounds incredible. Can you tell us a bit more about Geeta and your involvement? How can we support this project?

Dipa: Writing about domestic violence and gender is a passion for both Aparna and me; in fact we were both nominated for a Walkey Foundation Our Watch Award for Excellence in Reporting on Violence against Women earlier this year. I met the director of Geeta, Emma Macey-Storch, when I was covering an event, and have been working with her since as social media manager and on social impact for the film.

Geeta is the story of an incredible woman, an activist and acid attack survivor, whom we’ve been filming for three years. We’ve finished filming and need 60,000 dollars for post-production—editing, subtitles, music, editing. If you’d like to support us, come to the concert, or make a donation to the film here.

Aparna: I became involved with Geeta more recently, when Dipa introduced me to Emma. I think it’s important to say that this film and our theme of female desire are strongly linked, because women having full power and control over their bodies and desires is so crucial to women being able to live free from violence.


Buy tickets to The Colour of Desire here.

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