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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

*Pardon My Hindi

A conversation with Chiraag Bhakta
By Arun Venugopal |
MARCH 23, 2017

On April 8, 2017, SAADA hosted Where We Belong: Artists in the Archive, a day-long symposium in Philadelphia bringing together artists, activists, academics, and archivists to explore ways to challenge the systematic erasure of stories of marginalized communities in America. Five artists, including Chiraag Bhakta, premiered prototypes of new works inspired by overlooked histories of South Asians in the US.

Over the course of his career, Chiraag Bhakta aka *Pardon My Hindi has collaborated with many of the most prominent South Asian American cultural figures, including DJ Rekha, Das Racist, Vijay Iyer and Sanjay Patel. And perhaps more than anyone else, he has articulated through visual language the political consciousness of the diaspora. SAADA board member and WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal spoke to Bhakta about his work, growing up in a New Jersey motel, and visual activism in the age of Trump.

AV: We’ve kind of known each other for a long time, haven’t we? But mostly from a distance.
CB: Yeah, I think the first time we met was in… 2003?

I’m pretty sure it was at SOB’s, when Basement Bhangra was still held there.
I think you wanted a quote from me for an article that you were writing.

For India Abroad! That’s where I was on staff back then. 
At that time I was helping DJ Rekha out. It must’ve been a question about visuals or something along those lines.

So you did collaborate with her. I think it’s interesting, looking at your body of work. Your work has been associated with some of the most prominent names in desi entertainment. Do you see yourself as having been part of any ‘movements’ or genres, the way we look at, say, the Asian underground in the UK? 
Nothing specific. I feel part of just the South Asian voice and arts, either with music or visual or whatever medium.

When you see all that, say the early 2000s, do you see from a distance, whether it was visually or culturally, something that characterizes a particular moment like that? 
I graduated in ‘99 from Hartford Arts School, and there was no South Asian at that arts school. And there might’ve been one, a couple years younger than me. And before that, I went to Catholic school, from kindergarten all the way through high school. And it was predominately white, and me and my sister were pretty much the only South Asian kids that were there. So moving to New York, it was just a natural thing. And one of the first communities I found in New York was Mutiny. It was more the acceptance, or a platform that I could experiment with. It just felt like there was a platform for my voice there.

For those who don’t know, what was Mutiny?
Mutiny was a monthly party that started in ‘97, by Vivek Bald and Rekha. It was initially a one-off event that was a fundraiser for his documentary, focusing on the South Asian British scene, and the music going on there, with acts like Talvin Singh and Badmarsh and Shri and all those guys. The first party was a hit so it became a monthly. It was bringing in a lot of British acts that were playing electronic music. And there were resident DJs like Rekha and Vivek, who went by Siraiki, I think. And Anju and Navdeep. There was nothing like that in New York, so it felt pretty fresh. And it was at a great venue. It started out at the Cooler, then at times at the Frying Pan, this old rusted-out tugboat on the west side. Do you remember the other?

I don’t. I was just coming in to New York. How did you navigate all this, artistically speaking?
After coming to one or two of the parties, I told them that I was interested in being part of this. And I told them that I did design work and it would be great to be part of something like this. They gave me a platform. It started with me creating a flyer.

I think the South Asian American voice or diasporic voice has experimented aurally, through music. And it’s been experimented in different ways with music. But visually, on that level, it was never really experimented with. Or if it was, it was a lot of cliched images, like Hindu gods. Or paisley. (laughs)

So they gave me a platform to create a flyer. And they really enjoyed it, and it helped me make friends within that community that noticed that as well. They gave me free range. They were pretty open with what direction I took it.

Was there an explicit politics that was informing the consciousness of the crowd as well as your work? 
My work, I don’t think so. But just having all those predominantly brown people in a space kind of enjoying themselves in this new sound or new movement was an act in itself.

I started doing that in ‘99 and it was a lot of purely aesthetics I was trying to pull. That was really early. It was my first hired work that entailed my own voice, my own South Asian voice, experimenting with South Asian visuals. That was the first time I used Pardon my Hindi as well, on a flyer or something.

Oh yeah? How did that happen?
I came up with the name and bought the URL in 2002, I think. I was just looking for a website to house my design work on. I went through a list of names and I just kept going back to this one, because I thought it was kind of funny.

It is. 
People definitely react to it in different ways.

Even using that name, I’ve always had mixed feelings about it, over the past 15 years. I thought it was funny and it was appropriate with the voice I was putting out there. But it just pigeonholes in different ways. It’s just another hurdle to jump over, just like if I was using my own name.

Let’s talk about White People Doing Yoga. What prompted you to do that?
A lot of my work stems from collecting ephemera, and then either repurposing it or putting a perspective on it, or leaving it as an object, as is.

From ‘99 to 2000, I was in New York, and I moved to San Francisco in 2007, I just needed a change. When I first arrived in San Francisco, in the first year or two, it’s just a different energy than on the East Coast. And especially with Eastern philosophy… it was 2007, and the growing of the yoga studios and the eastern philosophies were going up.

It just started with picking up either a book, or a record -- some piece of ephemera that I found, some yoga ephemera, and I just started picking up more and more along the way. And initially it started off as a Tumblr, I just started a White People Doing Yoga tumblr. And I had this stuff on the side, which was just collecting on its own. At that time I had no idea what I was going to do with it. But I have a lot of different collections that, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but there’s always a time that comes up that I think is appropriate to pull that out.

I caught wind that the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco was having a show called A History of Yoga, coming over from the Smithsonian. I knew a couple people at the museum, since I designed a room a year or two earlier. It was [animator and Pixar star] Sanjay Patel’s room. Sanjay’s a good friend of mine. I took all his illustrations and helped design his room with him. So I knew a couple people at the museum, so I reached out and caught wind they were having this exhibition. So I met up with them. They gave me a great wall that was 30 feet by 16 feet high.

Leaving the object as is. So plastering all the ephemera that I found, and creating this overwhelming feeling, and just writing a statement on my perspective on yoga as a South Asian American.

Was this sort of subversive compared to the rest of the exhibition?
They took you through three rooms, from I think 500 BC to the ‘50s or ‘60s. I think they had pictures of Indra Devi.

The last room was a more contemporary look at this now industry. My piece was in that room, and it took up half the room, and the other half was I think six people that were in the Bay Area that they interviewed, and they had a screen about what yoga meant. That was in 2014.

Why do you think White People Doing Yoga resonated so broadly? The very name brings a smile to a lot of people.
A lot of people see it and shut off right away or get defensive. But I wanted to create a piece that was showing yoga through my perspective as an Indian American. I just think that’s a statement I’ve used in the past, ‘That’s white people doing yoga.’ And then adding the hashtag [ie., #WhitePeopleDoingYoga], because of the marketing aspect of the practice and the industry, I thought it was fitting at the time.

In 2014 it was a $27 billion industry.

The project isn’t even about yoga, really. It’s about this pattern that you see, this dominant voice that keeps repeating that pattern with whatever industry or product. It was just using yoga as an example.

[reads from his statement] “In the end I feel compelled to draw parallels with the industrial colonization by the same dominant voice that is now adding another conquest to its collection.”

So it was using yoga as a vehicle. It was great to have it in San Francisco, where it’s the epicenter of Western yoga.

How do you feel about upper-income brown people selling Indian spirituality to the Western masses? 
(laughs) Oh man, that’s a tough one. I don’t know what to say about that.

It’s weird selling spirituality, period.

We’ve been talking about all these issues of representation and cultural ownership and authenticity. Do you think all those things are now taking a backseat to more fundamental issues, like how to deal with hate crimes? In other words, have those things become second-tier issues?
I feel like they’re all connected. A white person might say that because they’re now feeling this pressure, or being uncomfortable for the first time, they might categorize ‘This is important’ and ‘this is not.’ I feel there’s a lot of connections with subjects like this.

Meaning that it’s all a system ordered by a particular people with a particular kind of power, whether it’s the gaze, or appropriation or actual laws that set who’s allowed to be here.
Yeah. It’s hard to say what the priority is. Yeah, the priority is to unite and resist the guy we have in power right now. But there are so many issues that get set aside or so many voices that get pushed aside, and if you listen maybe you’ll connect the dots in a certain way.

What’s the last art exhibition or movie that left you inspired or unsettled?
The last concert I saw which I really enjoyed -- this is a complete departure from what we were just talking about -- was Dr. Octagon [a persona of rapper Kool Keith].

Wow, he’s still around.
I just like how absurd some of the stuff was. That album came out in ‘96 and I remember listening to it in ‘97 or ‘98, and the first show ever was last month in San Francisco. That was taking me 20 years back.

This is maybe a bit of a stretch, but when you talk about Dr. Octagon and the whole idea of alter-egos, I notice that you, as an artist, you don’t seem to put your face out there, you have kind of a handle that you go by…
(laughing) That’s a good transition, man. That’s great.

I did it!
I was always hiding from putting my voice out. It just felt a little bit easier to do. Especially in the beginning it felt comfortable

I thought it was fun as well, having this mysterious entity. So yeah, like Dr. Octagon, having this alter ego helps putting out the art. I’m not sure I feel comfortable in front of the camera all the time. That picture I have on the website, just me covering my face: my friend took that photo because the Asian Art Museum asked for a photo for an article they were writing and said “We need a picture from you.”

That was the first photo I took, actually. I think it works.

On the ‘About’ page of Pardon My Hindi it says that Chiraag Bhakta “was raised in an independent motel on a New Jersey freeway with his parents, sister and rotating extended family.” I’m trying to read into the tone, the very flat affect in which you’ve written that. What are your feelings about having grown up that way?
Growing up that way, it just moulded my voice in a lot of ways. That juxtaposed with going to Catholic school with only white people, which gave me that daily dialogue from both sides. Being in a motel, there’s a lot of Gujarati being spoken. And having the extended family around. A vegetarian household. I grew up in a Jain household. And going to school during the day. A lot of nuns, priests, going to mass once a week, and having this other, kind of foreign thing to me. I always felt like an outsider there. Outside of being the brown person, it was having these rituals that people knew and grew up with, but it was a roadblock to me.

So having those contrasting experiences was definitely the foundation of what I’ve been trying to do.

In terms of the art, and the process, give me a sense of what that means.
With my practice, I think I try to keep going back to those times, where it’s the purest times where you’re first experiencing things and really trying to capture my experience as the first layer of American culture, from my perspective. Either the growing pains of it, just the different perspectives that you have, growing up in a motel on a freeway in New Jersey. With my practice I’m trying to capture the South Asian American voice, and just like that first layer of American culture, and trying not to muddle it up with pure Indian experience -- the American experience, whatever that is. I’m trying to put that overlap through a microscope and trying to expand on that. Does that sound right? I’m just thinking out loud.

Let’s take an example. You went back to the motel, for the Arch Motel Project. So you go back to the scene of the crime, so to speak. Were you trying to evoke an experience? What was going through your head, in terms of interpreting your own childhood through this project?
It started off where I was actually out in California with a friend of mine, and we were taking a road trip, and we actually stayed at a motel and it ended up being a Gujarati motel and we actually ended up having dinner there. And I think being outside of the regular settings that I was in, either the motel I was in as well as being with a friend who wasn’t part of the community, made me really think what a unique experience that was and what an impact the community has made.

So I did some research and thought it was important to document it. It started in 2005. I slowly started taking road trips, started on the East Coast, and through Kansas, New Mexico, Texas. And documenting the community, and their environment. Either portraits of them, or their environment, and finding these interesting juxtapositions of Indian and American culture. Which becomes American culture.

Along the way, I started to collect hotel ephemera. Either keys or postcards. I’ve created a couple collages. I have a couple Arch Motel postcards, where I write memories on the back. So that becomes a piece on its own.

I just wrote a memory on one of the motel postcards, where I said ‘I remember getting quarters from the office and going outside to get Coke from our vending machine while mom made enchiladas.”

It’s just like, I don’t know, looking at it now, you see a lot of layers going on in there, where you see this Indian family in a motel setting, and them trying to assimilate in a way, and trying to make what they called enchiladas, which were probably nothing like what Mexicans call enchiladas.

Did the infamous Dotbusters attacks, which also happened in New Jersey, loom large in your childhood?
Yeah, it did. There’s a big Indian population, as you know, in Edison. We were probably fifteen to twenty minutes from there, in a town called Somerville. At that time, it was ‘88 I think, ‘87, at that time we had moved out of the motel. We still had the motel but we were living in a house.

I didn’t feel it in school, but we definitely felt it a couple times when we were driving around, where my mom was driving, and people shouted those phrases at us. And gave us the middle finger and all that stuff.

What did they shout?
I think they shouted ‘Get out of here, dotheads,’ along those lines. And I think they killed one or two people during that year. I’m not sure. But they referred to themselves as Dotbusters. It definitely affected me in a lot of ways, where I felt that tension. And especially going to school after that. I didn’t feel tension in school about that, but going through that experience and then going to an all-white classroom, it definitely affected me in a deep way, I think.

Have you ever been to the legendary AAHOA (Asian American Hotel Owners Association) Convention, aka the Patel convention?
Unfortunately, I have.

What was it like?
This was 2007, so it was ten years ago. And the reason I went was, I wrote a couple people that were part of AAHOA, to talk about the Arch Motel project, and wanted to see if I could get some funding, from them. They weren’t really helpful but they said to come down to the convention. I went to the convention for one day. I didn’t buy a ticket or anything but I stood at the convention entrance and started talking to people, and they started pointing me to the people I was talking to over email, and had different conversations.

The conversations that I had didn’t end well. I mean, they were fine but they really weren’t interested in being part of it or they didn’t find any value in what I was doing, so it got pushed aside.

So, there were a lot of times in the past 17 years where I was looking to the community for support, in cases like this. And did not find any. What was your experience?

Oh, it was crazy. As a journalist going there, it was just huge. It was in some barren, suburban park outside of Dallas. It just felt so empty, one of those convention hotel destination places. I just remember being overwhelmed. Everybody I was interviewing, “This is H.R. Patel. This is H.J. Patel. This is R.J. Patel. This is R.H. Patel.” I just could not keep my Patels straight.
Yeah, totally. Or you get the Bob, the Mike, the Bill Patel. Just like these American names. I have a hard time with that as well. I understand it to a point, especially with that generation. My dad had his American name as well. Sanmukh Patel, and then ‘Sam.’

I just get annoyed if people outside of that generation use it as well. It’s just whitewashing their own name. But I understand that first generation. They were really just trying to be part of something, and be accepted. They had enough challenges of their own.

We’re just kind of bombarded on a daily basis, with images, videos, memes and tweets, you name it. Is it harder to be an artist when you’re being washed over, constantly, by this stimuli?
The art world is a weird place. And there’s a lot of stuff that people put out there, which was purely just aesthetics, and that I couldn’t always relate to. And I feel like that climate in the art world is going to change, where things are going to be a lot more political or have a distinct voice to it.

From what I’ve read in Art Forum and different publications, that is a thing. Which is great. But it’s a trend in that way.

Meaning, even political art is a trend?
I think so. It becomes commodified just like the rest of America, right? That’s the weird thing about living in a capitalistic society. Even that voice becomes captured.

But it’s great if it’s going in that direction, especially at times like this.

You’ve done artwork for a residency by musician Vijay Iyer at SF Jazz in San Francisco. What was the discussion that led to the final work? Was there a conversation that the two of you had?
I’ve known Vijay for a long time now. I first met up with him in New York in 2004, I think. He reached out because him and Rudresh Mahanthappa were putting out an album together called Raw Materials, and they pulled me out to do the packaging for it. And those two have been a big inspiration for me as well, and a big pillar in the South Asian art community, I feel.

Vijay and I were talking last year and he told me about the residency he had at SFJazz and if I wanted to do something for it. And I was fully on board.

We didn’t actually talk until six days before the first show.

That’s classic.
Vijay called me up and he was so apologetic. He said ‘Would you still be up for doing something? I know it’s tight.” I said yeah and ‘What’s your vision?’

He wanted a banner in the back that said Resist.

The next night I went to see the new Baldwin film.

By Raoul Peck.
Yeah, “I’m not Your Negro.” And I just drew a lot of inspiration from that, and came up with a couple concepts. The two pieces that have typography is one that said White Supremacy.

The whole palette was trying to get the mood out as well, of where we’re at. And here Vijay’s saying “I just want Resist.” I knew he wanted to go a political route.

He was into all of them. So I took that and ran with it. So we created some postcards that were at each show, and then I made a set of different visuals each night, using the same elements that we had. So the ‘White Supremacy,’ upside-down flag, or the quote that was inspired by the Baldwin film was, he said something along the lines of ‘This isn’t the land of the free, it’s only the home of the brave.’ [The full quote is: “This is not the land of the free, it is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave."] I thought that was pretty bold and impactful.

With a lot of my work, I collect ephemera and repurpose it. But in this case, it was an old ad that I pulled in 2005 or something, when I was out in India. It’s actually pulled from an old aspirin ad. And I thought it really captured what I was going for. So I kind of ran with it. And having that juxtaposed with the typography or on its own, it just felt like another layer to the whole show, that felt impactful.

One night, Rudresh and Vijay were playing. And I took this one photo of them. It has a form of that piece that I made, that says “White Supremacy,” and an upside-down [American] flag. And having that in the background, while they were playing, it just really hit. It just really hit. And it’s not like you could ignore it. Because it was right above them, and it was huge.

And the crowd, when Vijay gave a shout-out to you -- people really loved it. Clearly it was very much part of the experience for the entire audience. 
Yeah, I got that a lot, talking to people after the show. And just hearing it from Vijay as well.

So you’re an artist, and you’re playing this role, when the word “Resistance” has a very particular meaning in this country. What is the role of art in resistance?
I think it’s a big part of it. Figuring out how to get these frustrated voices out, in various ways. Various aesthetics. Just a smart way or an interesting way. I think art is pretty important in that way.

Tell me about what you did for SAADA.
In 2006, I read this story of Kumar Pallana and I knew him as the Indian uncle in all the Wes Anderson films. I forget what movie came out in 2006. So I read a little piece about him, and I was really fascinated by it, and I reached out to his agent, and never heard back. And the next year I moved to San Francisco and I decided to write him again. And I thought I was writing his agent, and it was actually Kumar Uncle himself. And he was living in Oakland at the time, so he invited me out there. Initially I was just going to go out there for an hour or two and interview and that would be it.

But it grew into something a bit more, where to this day, I’m still great friends with his son. His story inspired me.

He was South Asian, one of the first people to come over in the ‘20s, one of the initial wave that came over. And he had a really fascinating story that didn’t get light. A lot of people knew him from the Wes Anderson films but I thought there was so much more.

My parents came out for a visit and we all hung out as well. And he just became really good friends with my parents as well. Every time he went out to the East Coast, he’d stay with my parents for a week.

He stayed in my old room, in New Jersey (laughs).

It was great to be inspired by it, as well as share his story with my parents. It inspired them in ways too. They never heard of a story like that. They’ve never met a person from their community that has done that before.

And there’s a lot of light that his story didn’t get. From him coming over in the 20s, to him just wanting to be an entertainer, to him being on the Mickey Mouse club, or Captain Kangaroo, or eventually going to Vegas and having a long stint there, opening up for the Rat Pack. having out with all those guys.

Yeah, it’s crazy. And just hearing what his drive was the whole time, or just his experience, back in the ‘20s, being a South Asian man in America.

I just found a lot of his story to be inspiring.

There’s definitely stuff out there on him, but like I said, I’m good friends with Deepak, his son. And he let me go through all the boxes, which are great. So I’ve just been trying to hand-pick some stuff, which I want to hand over to SAADA.

From pictures, to marketing ephemera.

It got me thinking, that I just want to contribute to the archive, and what am I going to contribute. I feel like a big part of it is just meeting people and hearing their stories, and having a community, from Kumar Uncle, to Himanshu to Vijay to Rekha, to even going over to the UK, I’ve done work with Talvin Singh.

That’s a big part of my process as well. Hearing these different from the South Asian voice, from the diaspora. And getting inspiration from that as well, to add to the voice.
Arun Venugopal is a reporter at WNYC and host of Micropolis, which explores race & identity issues. He also serves on SAADA's Board of Directors.