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Far away, so close

The South Asian immigrant experience is explored among the diverse offerings at the four-day event known as Art Wallah.

June 26, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

On stage, two middle-aged university professors toss a cricket ball back and forth as they engage in a good-natured round of Shakespearean quizzing.

Mukesh (Shelley Malil) throws out, "If music be the food of love

The two friends meet every Thursday night for drinks and witty repartee -- they've been rivals since college days in India, then came to the U. S. for grad school and stayed for their careers. While they seem comfortably assimilated into Western culture, however, one soon senses their underlying yearning for home.

During a break in rehearsals for "Chaos Theory," director Babu Subramaniam, a television director ("ER" and "Ed") trying his hand at the stage, and playwright Anuvab Pal, who has just arrived from New York, join the actors in the courtyard of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Village, where the play is part of ArtWallah -- a four-day festival highlighting art and performance of the "South Asian diaspora," which kicks off tonight.

Pal says his characters are living "on the edge of a culture, versus the mainstream," although they are definitely better-educated, professional immigrants whose questions may not be so much about economic survival as intellectual and spiritual survival.

"That was what's so refreshing about Pal's play," says Chamarbagwala. "He's writing about people like us, who came to the U.S. to study, sometimes at major universities, and stayed and tried to find our way working here. It is an immigrant story, but not one told as often."

This less-told story joins others at ArtWallah, in its fourth year and opening with a program featuring Los Angeles talents.

On subsequent evenings, through Sunday, artists and performers from other parts of the U.S., plus Canada and England, will present music, dance, film and literature on the main stage.

A group art exhibition opens Friday night and, during the day Saturday and Sunday, there will be screenings, discussions, readings and various outdoor performances.

Vijai Nathan, a New York-based comedian, will host the evening shows, as well as perform her own 45-minute solo, "Good Girls Don't, but Indian Girls Do," on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

Reached by phone, Nathan says she first performed at ArtWallah three years ago and keeps coming back because "it was such a great experience."

"It was the first time I experienced being a comedian, not necessarily an Indian comedian," she says.

"Good Girls" is inspired by her upbringing by two vibrant parents -- she does hilarious imitations of both, plus her two older sisters -- in a Jewish suburb in Maryland. Since her comedy spares nobody, she also puts on the distinctive twang of several Jewish mavens in her storytelling.

"I put in that extra effort to make it funny, but everything is really based on truth," says Nathan. "It took a year to develop, and I was so scared for my parents to see because it was so honest."

In one scene, she finds a secret cache of Playboy magazines at home; in another, her father confronts each of his daughters, in turn, with the accusing question, "Are you having sex?" In the end, her parents loved the show. "In their minds it was an act," Nathan says. "They forgot it was based on truth."

For the performers and artists, ArtWallah is a labor of love -- their participation is largely voluntary. However, there are other rewards. "It fuels me creatively, and it's a wonderful support system," says Nathan.

Furthermore, she finds that it's inspirational to see other creative artists.

"Last year I was blown away seeing a dancer mixing classical Indian dance with R&B and hip-hop -- it exposed me to another way of performing. I think we're here pushing the boundaries of what art can be."


ArtWallah 2003


L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's the Village, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles


Tonight through Sunday, with evening shows tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 7; gallery reception Friday 6 to 8 p.m.; daytime programs Saturday noon to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m.


Tonight, $15 general admission, $10 for students; Friday to Sunday nights, $20 in advance, $25 at the door; for daytime programs, a $5 donation is suggested.

Info: (323) 860-7300;

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