Grounds For Sculpture, NJ, exhibits stories of Indian Americans

Installation view of Local Voices: Memories, Stories, and Portraits
PHOTO: Bruce M. White (c).Provided by Grounds For Sculpture

“Stories transform us, inspire us, and transport us to different places. I believe in the power of stories to heal and connect,” said Madhusmita Bora, co-curator of the multi-media exhibition ‘Local Voices: Memories, Stories, and Portraits’, to News India Times in an exclusive interview.

‘Local Voices’ opened April 23, 2023 at the Domestic Arts Building of Grounds For Sculpture (GFS), will continue through to January 7, 2024, and hopes to attract visitors from the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. More than 500 people came to the exhibition opening, Bora said. Spread over 42 acres in New Jersey, GFS is a non-profit sculpture park, museum and arboretum founded by the late Seward Johnson.

Local Voices is part of the new Perspectives series at GFS. The exhibition consists of 15 3-dimensional portraits of select Indian immigrants in New Jersey, and includes voice, cultural identity, and an object personal to them.

Bora is a classical and Sattriya dancer, a teacher, and a journalist, bringing the right combination of sensibilities to the stories and the story telling. Trained in Kathak dance, Bora is  also the founder of the ‘Sattriya Dance Company.’

Sattriya is part of the Bhakti Movement of Assam. Sattriya dance is from the Hindu Vaishnav Monasteries of Assam, and originate from the one act play performances. Sattriyas are communities of devotees who live in the Monasteries of Ekasarana Dharma. Today, these dances are part of the living traditions of Sattriyas.

Telling stories and documenting them became important to Bora when during the pandemic, access to India was cut off. “During that time, many elders passed away in the monastery. I also lost my maternal uncle who was an elephant trainer. Many of his rituals, songs and tools went away with him when he died,” Bora said. It was then that she became acutely aware of the need to document stories, she said. Following that, she trained in oral history documentation.

For ‘Local Voices’, Bora gathered oral histories of the participants including images and stories after building a 10-month long relationship with them. Bora wanted to reach out to the community that was not just made of doctors or technology professionals. Bora said she drove around for close to 10 months, connecting with the community, selecting 15 story tellers who represented 8 different faiths, including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims and more. The selection also included Guyanese and Trinidadian Indians, Bora said.

According to lead curator and Chief Audience Officer Kathleen Ogilvie Greene, ‘Local Voices’ represents the themes of love, loss and resilience. “This connectivity is the impetus for Local Voices: Memories, Stories, and Portraits,” she says.

Story Teller Katayun K. Kapadia. Faravahar figurine and pin Courtesy of Katayun K. Kapadia,
Photo : Erica Lee, 2023 (c) photo: Bruce M. White.Provided by Grounds For Sculpture 

Bora and Kathleen Greene’s association goes back to the days when Greene invited Bora for a performance at the Barnes. In her new role at the GFS, Greene reached out to Bora for creating something for the local community of New Jersey. Bora said they narrowed down their choice to the Indian community due to her being an Indian and also due to having a large Indian community in New Jersey.

“The project would not have happened if Kathleen Greene did not have the trust of her boss, and she in me,” Bora said. Gary Garrido Schneider, Executive Director, said that ‘Local Voices’ has brought a new level of engagement with GFS audiences. The exhibition will appeal to visitors of all ages, according to him.

Participants of the exhibition were everyday persons from all walks of life, and were sharing their stories for the first time. “They were nervous and not sure if their stories were important,” Bora said.

“So after building a relation of trust, in February 2023, we invited them to GFS for a day-long retreat to mingle with each other and also have their photos taken,” Bora said. The photos were taken at GFS locations they chose, in the dress of their choice. The documentation of their stories was scheduled after the retreat. The story telling took place either at the GFS Lounge or at their home, depending on their choice, and was expected to be of 6 minutes’ length.

According to Bora, the first time storytellers were vulnerable and in an emotional state, after going back to retrieve memories of important events in their lives. Many took much longer than 6 minutes, and their stories had to be edited. All of them said they felt free and empowered after sharing their stories.

The life stories of the exhibition participants are being transcribed for the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) who will hold a future copyright of the story as well as the portrait which they will receive from GFS, Bora informed.

Bora is not sure if she would curate more such storytelling exhibitions. “We Indians don’t believe in holding on. When work is done, you let it go. We practice detachment. It is done and out in the world. Now let go of it,” is what I believe, Bora said.



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