NET/TEN Shareback: HartBeat Ensemble - Notes and Reflections from Indian Ensemble Member Irawati Karnik

2014 Spring Travel Grant Recipient

HartBeat Ensemble (Hartford, CT) further developed an intercultural collaboration with The Indian Ensemble (Bangalore, India). In September 2014, four members of the Indian Ensemble traveled to Hartford to continue their collaborative relationship by participating in a two-week creative residency with members of HartBeat Ensemble.


In September 2014, the Indian Ensemble (Bangalore) traveled to HartBeat Ensemble’s home theater in Connecticut to perform their most recent work Thook (spit) as well as to spend time working with the HartBeat Ensemble members. This residency provided an opportunity where issues of cultural difference were experienced, explored and mediated. It also allowed the artistic leadership of both ensembles to begin to define narrative ideas along with crafting a sustainable strategy to move a new joint project forward. Together the ensembles continued to define and build a structure for East West Stories (working title) and, more importantly, to share individual cultural perspectives regarding history, homelands and personal stories.

-HartBeat Ensemble

Notes and Reflections from Indian Ensemble Member Irawati Karnik on her investigative experience in Hartford

Irawati Karnik of the Indian Ensemble with Activist Stacey Spellman

On Hartford’s City Housing Projects: Having lived in Mumbai all my life, Hartford struck as me as one of the most idyllic towns I had seen. The simultaneous co-existence of such contrasting classes in the same neighbourhood was a very startling phenomenon. In Mumbai, very often one comes across highrise skyscrapers on one side of the road, while the other is lined with small shanties built out of bamboos and plastic sheets. But not for once do the people living in those shanties imagine that they have a right to be there. They live in constant fear of being ousted. HUD projects would feel like a dream to those people back home. The degree of cleanliness and hygiene maintained around these settlements was way superior to some of the localities in India where higher income groups reside.

On Homosexuality: The fact that there was something called the Hartford Gay and Lesbian Health Collective in Frog Hollow along with a performance space inside was beyond my imagination. The issue of homosexuality is an extremely delicate one in India. Individuals in the middle as well as upper class find it exceedingly difficult to be open about their sexuality. It is possibly not even one of the last ‘fights’ on the lower class’s agenda.

On Class and Mental Illness: Our interview with Enroue Halfkenny threw light upon another aspect of the lower class life that hardly gets any attention back home. Their psychological help. He spoke of the deep-rooted trauma that children growing up in dire circumstances live with and how important it is to address it in order to ensure a healthy psychological life for them. There is hardly a handful of organisations that work systematically towards the improvement of the mental health of that class. IPH (Institute for Psychological Health) is one rare such body.

Race, Class and Entitlement: The meeting with Stacy Spell raised a fascinating issue. The West River neighborhood where he works is hardly a ten minute walk from the Yale campus. We had performed our play Thook (Spit) a few days earlier for which we had invited a number of children from his neighborhood. He told us about how they had seemed excited when he told them about the outing. But as the day came nearer more and more of them dropped out. On the actual day of the show no one turned up. He said it was because they were being brought up to believe that had no right to have a sense of entitlement. That certain experiences and worlds were meant for 'white folks' and had no place for them. While this sounded like a distressing fact of their life, I was fascinated by the fact that there was still such a strong sense of self, of identity. When I think of the people who live in slums back home, their sense of entitlement is as weak if not worse. But they have no sense of identity. Especially those in cities are like weeds. They are born like an accident, survive on what they chance upon and die like animals.

Violence and Poverty: While violence related to poverty was so prevalent in Hartford (as well as the rest of America), such cases of violence are as good as non-existent in India. Yes there are robberies of course and sometimes people who resists during robberies are killed but poor neighborhoods are not violent neighborhoods. There are hardly any cases of muggings. Perhaps it is because weapons are not as easily available. But perhaps it is also a difference in psyche. As I said earlier, in India when one is born poor, fundamentally one does not believe it is in one's right to make demands of any sort.

The Community Center and Education: When we visited the Pope Park Recreational Center my belief at the fact that such a space exists, reached a whole other level. I don't know how many years it might be before India can actually build such an establishment.

At The Academy of Latino Studies at Burns (which is a part of the Compass Youth Collaborative), the principle Dr. Brazi talked about how they were working toward building the confidence of children in order to have them believe they could be whatever they wanted. To give them the courage to dream big and then to push them to work hard towards achieving their dreams. She spoke of their programs  that included scavenger hunts, backpack programs, fundraising activities, mandatory professional development for teachers, etc. She also told us of how teachers personally participate in the lives of their students outside of school in order to achieve consistent and increased attendance. Dr. Brazi also told us of how she wants in work on increasing assignments that are participatory action research based and believes that the students would hugely benefit from them. In India, government school often have the worst quality of education. Syllabuses  haven't been updated, teachers work under trying circumstances and therefore are hardly committed to their students. But the picture is very gradually changing. There are organisations like 'Quest' coming up that are focussed specifically on quality education for those in poor as well as rural areas.

We also paid a visit to a Boys and Girls Club and I thought it was such an ingenious idea to channelize the energy of under-privileged young people into constructive activities. If the issue of child labour were to be addressed strongly back home, there would be hundreds of children that would benefit from such spaces.

The thrift store was another simple but interesting idea. While in India, there are many many non-profit organisations that work at acquiring clothes and things that are being discarded and then redistributing them for free among those who need them, the idea of such stores felt like it might be a more dignified experience for those who want to pick out what they need.

There was a meeting organized at the home of Professor Enrique Sepulveda (Associate Professor of Education, Department of Education Chair at the University of Saint Joseph), which was attended by the likes of Vijay Prashad (Historian, Journalist and Commentator), Manisha Desai (Professor of Sociology and Women, Gender and Sexuality at U Conn), Professor Shyamala Raman (Professor of Economics and International Studies and Director of International Studies at the University of Saint Joseph) and others.

Some of the issues that came up in this meeting were regarding some fundamental differences in the nature of the lower class in Hartford and Bangalore (India). The fact that race was such a significant context in Hartford while caste is such an influential aspect in the kind of life one is born into. There was a large part of the conversation focused on trying to understand the different facets and implications of The American Dream and to find a parallel or reflection of it in the Indian context. 

We also identified that while HartBeat Ensemble would be more interested in exploring the psychological aspect of the impact of globalization, the Indian Ensemble might explore systems that have evolved as a result of globalization that facilitate investment among lower income groups. As an overarching theme, it was decided that both groups would attempt to understand what the trauma of poverty and the conditioning of belonging to a certain race/caste.


Abhishek and Ira talking about their play Thook, the process and collaboration.


A website dedicated to an international collaboration which also includes a short interview with Abshihek talking about the project Thook, which was performed at the Carriage House Theater in Hartford, CT and Yale University in New Haven, CT during their trip in September.

Indian Method in Acting, by Prassana on Amazon
‚ÄčIndian writing on acting has been shaped by literatures and manuals that have defined and delineated acting protocols by classifying in great detail, gesture, posture, stance and mudra, and their affects. Prasanna directs a modernist lens on this repository and looks at the current grammars that go towards making up today's toolkit; and in so doing, he places ancient and modern vocabularies and practices adjacent to each other.


Steven Riader-Ginsburg, HartBeat Ensemble,
Irawati Karnik, Indian Ensemble,

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

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