Swarthmore’s Arts in Action symposium was years in the making and ultimately realized in a Monday morning webinar moderated and largely organized by Lang Center Associate Director Katie Price. The day-long online lecture series with funding from The Cooper Foundation focused, in Price’s words, on “non-hierarchical shared discovery.” The speakers and panels were selected with an intention of cementing the broader notion of activist art in the experiences of individual people and specific spaces.
The symposium began with speakers Pallabi Chakravorty, the director of dance at Swarthmore, and Mahasweta Dutt, a Philadelphia-based Kathak teacher, describing their work with the Courtyard Dancers and the Pluralism Project. Kathak dance originates in north India and takes place in a courtyard or comparable area, combining aspects of Hinduism and Islam as well as creating through movement a common language between the linguistically diverse Indian regions. The speakers focused on the idea of the courtyard zone as a threshold and liminal space, neither a private living room nor a public theater. Chakravorty explained that the courtyard as a place of in-between is consistent with her understanding of the immigrant experience.
“This kind of liminal space is important for artists,” Chakravorty said, “there is fluidity in the way you are conceiving the space.”
The dance form emphasizes community building and inclusivity, existing as its own method of communication and expression among multilingual communities. The dance fosters communication between people coming from different regions of India, often with English as a common language. It aims to answer the question of how these diverse language communities can unite and perform together, building a sense of belonging. The group is also cognizant of difficult political and economic situations in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. As such, their most recent performance was created with the intention of dance as a force of unity. In considering pluralism, multicultural layering also applies to courtyard dancing. The initial presentation of the power of creating accessible, socially mobile, and purposeful, multiform art established key themes of the symposium.
The second portion of the initial lecture, featuring Sinta Storms of Modero and Company and Swarthmore music Professor Tom Whitman, focused on the preservation of traditional Indonesian culture as arts activism, specifically by raising cultural awareness in South Philadelphia. This lecture further developed the idea of occupying space through dance. The dance network also has worked to establish a community presence in Philadelphia, holding classes, supporting those facing deportation, and providing language access in linguistically inaccessible situations such as doctor’s appointments and filling out paperwork. Members of the network serve as both dancers and community members, listening to community needs and reacting on a peer level.
The event continued with equally inspiring and impactful lectures and discourses centered around socially engaged art addressing extra-artistic issues. In the culminating presentation, keynote speaker Nato Thompson wove together the common threads of the day’s discussions through his reflections on art-oriented intersectionality. Although the symposium was on Zoom, and participants were confined to their individual screens and rooms, it also was a fitting example of how art is ever-changing, and has especially shifted during the pandemic to assume a greater online presence.
“The internet doesn’t connect cities, it connects living rooms,” he said, commenting on the personalization and connective power of cyberspace.
Thompson closed with the incredible distinctiveness of Philadelphia as an affordable city that maintains its cultural heart, a reminder to attendees to value the intrinsic artistic and cultural complexity of the area.