- Minneapolis has a thriving art scene with Indian Americans making major contributions to help indigenous and marginalized artists find a voice. One such voice is Pangea World Theater.
Dipankar talks to me on zoom from an artist retreat in Ely, Minnesota, with winds gusting at least 30 miles an hour and he is constantly “trying to fix” his famous long mane in that wind and trying to stay warm in a bright orange scarf. I, a couple days later, write this blog from somewhere up in Northern Minnesota as well. The wind is equally gusty, the lake water churning and giving me sometime to introspect. The morning was a bit of an adventure – the 15-yr-old decides to go canoe and the wind carries him off further. He is fine, but the only-child-syndrome-inflicted parents panic and send for a speed boat to “fetch him.” He is embarrassed, me swearing to ground him for rest of his life and life carries on as usual for us both. He is out biking now, and I am drinking wine and writing.
Back to Dipankar and Meena — I have known Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan, the founders of Pangea World Theater for more than 18 years. Their Pangea recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a new look logo by their board chair and close friend Mona Carloni. “Our theater is shaped by the stories forged from artists who dared to speak their truth and blessed by our elders from multiple communities. We renew our commitment to the artists who are architects of our collective imagination and whose courage has been a part of the skein that created Pangea. “We commit to a world of equity for the next 25 years and beyond,” the husband-wife duo pledged to the greater Minnesota community, to the rest of America and to artistic communities across the world.
What drew me to Pangea is what they are about. Pangea is run by two Indians living in America. They are both artists — Meena an acclaimed playwright, Dipankar a theater director who first came to Minneapolis as director for the famous Guthrie Theater. But early on they both realized how corporate the world of art was. “I always wonder why The Ordway, The Guthrie and other famous Drama centers all over America would invite artists the world over including England, but they would never reach out to provide a helping hand to the struggling Native American artists, the Latina, the LGBTQ artists who are trying to change this world one street theater at a time, one play in the park at a time,” Dipankar muses.
That’s what drew them to focus on providing an artistic space to those who needed it the most. Pangea’s repertoire is chock-a-block full of artistic endeavors by artists of color, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrant artists, artists from the LGBTQ community trying to make a difference. Dipankar tells me how the narrative that is told is as important in changing the systemic and entrenched racism as it is in how we behave with each other. History books in America tells the story of America through a White gaze — the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” looks at an alternate aspect of American history – what remains untold. “The fact that as late as 1940 there had been a lynching of a Black Man in Duluth, Minnesota – the fact that the American Indian Movement was born on Franklin Avenue in the 1960s in Minneapolis – and to have no public space for giving voices to these indigenous folks – that made no sense!”
It’s been months since the world witnessed the horrifying murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis by a white cop, saw amazing uprising on the streets all across America and the world. Since then there have been more murders, more police shootings of Black men at the hands of white cops. So what is different this time round? Well, for one thing, the narrative is shifting – from sheer indifference towards such killings to more engaging dialogues – at least across social media. There is also that shift towards Black Lives Matter among white and brown folks who earlier may not have thought that their silence may be contributing towards the systemic change that is needed. “Through our space, our scripts, our staff – through each and every protest and through every performance, we try to make a difference, bring a change to the entrenched White narrative of the times and we’ve been doing this for 25 years and will continue to do so.” Organize, Mobilize and Resource — these are the three standing blocks at Pangea through which change is constantly happening.
As a response to the murder, Pangea curated a project called “Another World is Possible — Pangea Artists Respond” where the directors commissioned the staff to create in response to current times. Dipankar says, “At this time, when it feels impossible to simply go back to work, we ask the artists in our ensemble to respond to this time, this space, this moment. Going back to business as usual is not possible. We are charging the artist/activists we work with every day to document this moment in history, this potent moment charged with resistance. Through plays, song, visual arts – we create an equitable and just space from burnt ashes, debris and shattered glass. We rise and proclaim – Yes, another world is possible and it’s time is NOW!”
The Burning Truth Project
One of the projects that came out of this was “The Burning Truth Project.” It is a cabaret performance created in response to recent events. Through storytelling and song, the artists speak about identity, race relations, social justice and life during this global pandemic. As the curator of the Burning Truth project, staff member Katia Cardenas remarks in her curator’s notes, “As artists, we are used to processing through our creative work. This pandemic has grossly limited our ability to respond and perform as we are used to. As the future of performing remains uncertain, we are grieving and reeling in response to persistent injustice, the proliferation of hate, and our inability to dream beyond tomorrow. We had truths burning within us, waiting to be released.”
This cabaret concert was originally performed outdoors in South Minneapolis before a limited, socially-distant audience on Sunday, August 9, 2020. “May 25th is a day etched in our collective consciousness – we saw an adult crushed to death by another man – literally. Pangea is not just an artistic philosophy — its very literal presence on Lake Street, the scene of uprising where George Floyd was murdered mere blocks away, adds to its authenticity and commitment to community building. Our friends in the suburbs implored us to move in with them for few days till everything died down. But that’s not who we are — we stand in solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters in this time of upheaval,” Dipankar recalls.
Gandhi Mahal, the restaurant that was burned down that momentous night “was our hub — we met there to discuss plays, activism and to celebrate. And to leave them and the people in our street in this hour of need was unthinkable.” Post riots and a couple months later, Pangea is working with other Lake Street businesses to keep the street in the hands of the stakeholders who live and work there. The Board at Pangea and other businesses are working closely with the City of Minneapolis to turn the entire Plaza into a place for solidarity — a place that represents fight against social injustice and for equality and peace.
Pangea also pledged to keep all of its employees on board through the tough Covid days when Corporate America was laying off workers left, right and center. “At Pangea we are family — no one will lose their jobs, we’ll weather this storm together,” Dipankar recalls telling their board early on in March.
Which brings us back to the Indian American community. At Pangea Dipankar and Meena have worked closely with local Indian organizations like India Association of Minnesota and the Hindu Temple. Which in turn have raised some interesting dynamics. Dipankar and I have had talks about how entrenched a certain section of our community remains in perpetuating racism, casteism and every other ism that promotes their self-righteousness religion. Islamophobia is high as is the need to not look at or acknowledge the racism that exists in the American society.
In Dipankar’s words: “In order to leave a different world for the next generation and be able to face them with integrity, we must take accountability. We must know our own history and acknowledge the debt we, as immigrants from India, owe to the Civil Rights movement as it’s because of this that we have the privilege of being on this land. We must look at our own practices in our communities.. we are not a monolith.. we have different faiths, different languages and we come from different parts of India.. many of us are raising our voices and holding intergenerational community forums on “truth and accountability” Scripts and performances, discussions about strategies and community engagements to end cruel practices in our community is taking priority..we have organized gatherings to raise our voice and take strong action against islamophobia, homophobia, racist attitudes, colorism, patriarchy and domestic violence within our communities. Reaching out and standing in solidarity with Black community and indigenous community is our duty and understanding that we are a part of this ecosystem called America!”
Over the years Meena and Dipankar have worked with multiple organizations like SEWA in raising awareness about domestic violence in the community and other issues. I remember how moving, compelling and awe-inspiring their play “5 Weeks” was in 2017, working with individuals from the local South Asian community. It took only 5 weeks for the British to draw borders on a map and seal the fate of millions and the impact continues to this day. “5 Weeks” explored multiple narratives that form the silenced history of the Partition of India in 1947 – it told stories of broken hearts, shattered images, longing and memories of home during the tumultuous time after borders were drawn to create India and Pakistan in 1947. Inspired by real life events, interviews and fiction, “5 Weeks” weaved together multiple strands of stories of people of different faiths and cultures, bringing to life those forced to flee what they once called home, the pressures to choose allegiance, and the desperate search for compassion in a time when humanity hung in the balance. My days visiting National School of Drama plays was realized right here in Minneapolis.
More About the Dynamic Duo
Dipankar Mukherjee is a professional director originally from Calcutta, with a 30-year history of directing. He is the Artistic Director of Pangea World Theater, an international theater in Minneapolis that is a progressive space for arts and dialogue. As a director, he has worked in India, England, Canada and the United States. Dipankar has worked at the Guthrie Theater, Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, New World Theater, Alliance Theater and at the Young Vic in London.
Dipankar has worked with dancers to create cross-cultural work using his knowledge of Kalaripayattu, an Indian martial arts form. He has worked with choreographer/dancers from India, U.S. and Canada in the capacity of a director. His aesthetics have evolved through his commitment to social justice, equity and deep spirituality and these factors, along with a response to relevant politics, forms the basis of his work. Dipankar has been awarded the Twin Cities International Citizens Award by the Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul for contributions in the area of human rights and international cooperation. He has received the Humphrey Institute Fellowship to Salzburg and has been a Ford Foundation delegate to India and Lebanon. He is a recipient of the Bush Leadership Fellowship award to study non-violence and peace methodologies in India and South Africa and a Doris Duke Fellowship at Shangri-La. He co-taught a week-long masterclass on ensemble building using Pangea World Theater’s methodology at PA’I Foundation in Hawaii. Dipankar facilitates processes that disrupt colonial, racist and patriarchal modalities of working and collaboratively searches for an alternate way of working.
Meena Natarajan is a playwright and director and the Artistic and Executive Director of Pangea World Theater, a progressive, international ensemble space that creates at the intersection of art, equity and social justice. She has led the theater’s growth since it’s founding in 1995. Meena has co-curated and designed many of Pangea World Theater’s professional and community based programs. She has written at least ten full-length works for Pangea, ranging from adaptations of poetry and mythology to original works dealing with war, spirituality, personal and collective memory. Her play, Etchings in the Sand co-created with dancer Ananya Chattterjeahas been published by Routledge in a volume called Contemporary Plays by Women of Color: The Second Edition. Meena leads ensemble-based processes in Pangea that lead to works produced for the stage. She has also directed and dramaturged several original theater and performance art pieces and is directing River Sols with Carlton Turner and Dipankar Mukherjee. She is currently on the board of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists and is on the advisory committee for the Community Arts Program at the University of Minnesota. Until recently, she was a National Theater Project Advisor at New England Foundation for the Arts. She was on the Advisory Committee of the Community Arts Network, was on the founding board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters and was the president of Women’s Playwrights International. She has been awarded grants from the Theatre Communications Group, Playwrights Center and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She was recently awarded the Visionary Award for mid-career leaders from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.
Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.