Aroon Shivdasani, grande dame of Indian culture in US, to retire

Aroon Shivdasani, founding member and Executive Director, Indo-American Arts Council, in New York City, on May 6, before the commencement of the gala to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the organization. Photo: Peter Ferreira.

NEW YORK – The grande dame of Indian arts and culture in New York City, or for that matter, in the United States, is retiring. Aroon Shivdasani, the founding member and Executive Director of the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), who has molded – like fine vase from clay – ingrained Indian culture in all its myriad forms into the consciousness of the Big Apple, popularized it amongst the Diaspora to organize much-anticipated annual festivals of revelation, bonhomie and revelry, has called it a day, 20 years since the inception of the 501(c)3 arts organization.

Shivdasani, 72, broke the news of her retirement at a press conference at the Indian Consulate in New York City, on May 5, to launch the 18th edition of the annual New York Indian Film Festival, IAAC’s flagship event. When she did the same at a celebrity-studded gala on May 7, on board the Cornucopia Majesty yacht, announced she was stepping down for new leadership to take over the reins of the organization, there were groans all around the tables in the ballroom.

There was gloomy perception, and rightly so, that without Shivdasani, her effervescent zeal and commitment, influence to bring big name celebrities like Salman Rushdie, Mira Nair, Madhur Jaffrey, unfailingly to events, the IAAC was torpedoed. As if in tandem with that palpable feeling, the luxury yacht couldn’t cruise around the waters of Manhattan as it was scheduled to; was becalmed due to sudden engine trouble.

“In 1998, Indian artists were invisible, unknown and unappreciated in North America. For well over 20 years, we have blazed a trail promoting, showcasing and building an awareness, in North America, of the hitherto invisible arts of India through presentations of Indian film, dance, art, music, theatre, literature and fashion,” Shivdasani explained of the journey of IAAC, since it was founded in 1998. “My baby turns 20 this year and it is time to let go.”

Shivdasani founded IAAC along with the late Gopal Raju, founder of the India Abroad weekly English newspaper, Talat Ansari, Senior Partner, Kelly, Drye & Warren), and Jonathan Hollander, Artistic Director, Battery Dance Company.

Shivdasani, who grew up and lived in Mumbai and England, before emigrating to Canada and then the US, comes from a zamindari family who traces its roots in Karachi and Hyderabad. She has a master’s in English literature and drama from Iona College, New York. Her mind-boggling resume includes stints as running a theatre company in Canada, a docent at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, Editor of the Junior League Newsletter in Mclean, Virginia.

Shivdasani has “acted, danced, painted, thrown pots, worked in ceramics and stained glass,” it says on her website. She left her position as Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing and English literature as well as Vice President of her husband’s marketing company. Her husband Indur, is an alum of IIT Bombay, runs also a realty development company in New York City.

Apart from NYIFF, Shivdasani conceived and produced the first Festival of Indian Theatre in North America; annual Playwrights Festivals in conjunction with the Lark Theatre, a film festival of New Films from India at Museum of Modern Art, an annual Erasing Borders Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora; an annual Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance; and an annual IAAC Literature Festival.

A passionate philanthropist and humanitarian too, Shivdasani has raised money for umpteen organizations, and causes in India. Some of them include, FREA India (Front for Rapid Economic Advancement of India), The Spastics Society of India, SAKHI (for prevention of domestic violence – a cause for which she had invited some activists and journalists to her apartment on the Upper East side one day many years ago, including this writer), CRY, Project India (for street children of Mumbai), victims of the Maharashtra and Gujarat earthquakes (she raised money and personally went to the disaster areas to assess exactly how the money would help the victims) , prevention of communal violence in Gujarat (presented a play and organized discussions to get people to talk to each other), and for victims of the ravages of the tsunami in India. She was an active participant in the raising of money and final placement of a Chair for Indian Politics & Economy at Columbia University.

Shivdasani also sits on the boards of several institutions and has received many awards, though she is yet to get a Padma Shri or more from the Government of India. If there is one Indian American who truly deserves it, but is yet ignored, it is she. Perhaps the Consul General of India in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, who attended the gala, too, might read this, and recommend her for it.

For this writer, however, what stood out too is Shivdasani’s innate courage and commitment in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, refusing to let go of her cause and mission, despite the chaos and uncertainty that prevailed. She not only kept her festivals going, but admirably, expanded them, creating a bouquet of festivals. She was also huge inspiration for many young women in New York City who wanted to nurture the artist in self, found an outlet by volunteering at the festivals Shivdasani organized. Both benefited: Shivdasani was able to keep costs from overwhelming her; the volunteers cherished the experience.

There are examples like Priyanka Mathew, who emigrated to the US from Delhi in 1995, and today is Principal Partner, of an exclusive art dealership, called Sunderlande, which she founded. Mathew volunteered for many years with the IAAC, started her own theatre company, and then went on to work for Goldman Sachs and Sotheby’s too, before she decided to get fully into the arts world, which was what she really loved, and founded her own company to buy and sell art. Mathew was there this weekend at the gala, as a guest.

Then there is Priyanka Das, an aspiring filmmaker, a graduate from a filmmaking school from Ohio, who volunteered for the first time at this year’s IAAC festival. She will miss out on the mentoring after this year’s NYIFF concludes over the coming weekend.

Film director Mira Nair, voiced the sentiment in the room, at Shivdasani’s departure: “A lot of us have loved these 20 years.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter: @SujeetRajan1)




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