Practitioner Voices: Aparna Sharna

Interviewed July 2004 by Becca Gill as part of the Total Theatre Explores research project.

Aparna Sharna is a filmmaker from New Delhi who graduated with a degree in journalism from the Lady Shriram College for Women in 1999.

In January 2002, Aparna moved to Wales to attend the MA Film at the International Film School Wales, University of Wales College, Newport. Here she wrote, produced and directed her first experimental short, Exhale... In the autumn
of 2003, she was granted a bursary to attend a PhD at the Film Academy, University of Glamorgan, Wales.

Her research extends inquiry into the representation of ethnicity through film, and her work over the last year has stoked interest in modes and aesthetics stemming from intercultural contact. Besides filmmaking, Aparna writes and reviews for journals and publications in the UK, US and India.

How do you describe your artform practice?

I graduated from a journalism school in New Delhi in 1999. This is a women's college, a very prominent learning institution in South Asia.

I worked as a journalist for one year in television. Soon I started to find the production side more interesting, so I moved into television programming and from there I started to work in documentary films. I worked on a couple of documentaries that were being shot in India for Channel Four. I wanted to study this area further and found a film school in England to do a Masters. There, I made a piece of experimental work that was about the British Indian community. I was specifically looking at rising religious consciousness amongst the British Indian Community. Then I moved back to India for a short while and made a documentary on migrant refugees from Kashmir living in refugee camps in Delhi. From there I've been looking at my practice. I don't have a pure arts background but I'm very interested in experimental work and wanted to carry on researching into my subject.

I got a scholarship to do a PHD at the University of Glamorgan; it has a film academy and I was invited there. There I'm doing my PHD research that examines the representation of ethnicity. I'm trying to look at how you complicate views about migrant Diasporas, not just talking about them in terms of belonging to the homeland, or being assimilated to the country they are in. I am examining formal aspects of film construction in this project. That is my area of research, but I am very interested in experimenting with the camera and the body.

I've just been working on a short film for the experimental arts festival in Cardiff in which I'm looking at migration, but I am depicting it through imagery I shot in India, juxtaposing that with a landscape shot here. Important in that, besides the body, is fabric; I am working in a sense with movement on fabric and the body (that is thematically what I intended).

I'm interested in experimenting with specific elements, fabric, fire, water, the body, abstracting the body, looking at producing films where there is a sense of inconclusivity, a sense of open endings. Getting away from dominant narrative forms. I'm also inclined towards the spiritual discourse.

What are your main areas of inspiration and do they change with each project?

I'm sure they do, however the contacts are rather latent. I think my inspiration goes in phases; the phase when I was working in journalism was very much into talking about marginalized groups.

Now, my approach has evolved from just talking about marginalized groups towards engaging with film apparatus and the subject. I'm also talking about how there are differences in terms of reason. Reason is not just something that came out of European enlightenment; traditions and beliefs from outside the West have a mode of reason that stand in competing relations. What happens when different cultures come into contact? Is it about domination or is it about opening up a space where there can be dialogue? And of course my interest is now more towards experimenting with form.

I'm also interested in working with traditional Indian dance, because it's such an intricate form, the relationship between the camera and the dancer.

Does gender matter in performance?

Absolutely. I have had the occasion to be in contexts of very strict industrial production where programmes are produced in a certain way and there is a specific way or code in which you are supposed to perform, all of that has been a very valuable experience.But at the same time, it made me want to interrogate existing and established practices of representation - as also, how defined roles in the process of production and performance can turn too dogmatic and limiting.

What made me, in a sense, rebel, and want to make experimental work was probably that I needed to have the breathing space to be more creative, seek a voice and vocabulary that articulated my position. The industry I worked in was very male dominated: absolutely, my gender had an influence on me moving away from that part of the industry. The physical aspect of the industry being dominated by men was not so much the issue as the approach or linear way of thinking and working that I felt was dominant within that industry.

When I worked in India there was a real emphasis on working towards enhancing financial assets; this comes from a very business-orientated space. I'm not saying that's a completely male attitude, but that is an attitude that I think is contrary to female attitude. I am in no way negating the importance of financial viability and neither am I saying this attitude is gender-specific. But I found it very frustrating not to be able to explore and develop forms of financial sustenance and growth, where there was compensation, equity in distribution and the ability to plough back funds for collectively available research, interaction and dialogue.

There is a feminine space from where one works. I explore that space and work from there really interests me. Then, from that space, talking about things like beauty and aesthetics I think cannot be bypassed.

Would you consider your artistic priorities to be different to those of men?


How would you define feminism?

I fully support the feminist struggle and there is a strategic reason why I appreciate feminism as I'm in a kind of privileged position of being able to speak and access an occasion to articulate my voice. I am not saying I can speak in my voice, a distinct voice that is independent and not determined by any reality, but just the consciousness towards the context of my location and all that comes with it and the sensitivity towards what impedes my voice, is in a sense empowering. My mother did not occasion such an encounter. Women of her background and status may have lived all their lives but will never even be aware that they cannot speak. So feminism is important to me, beyond that I think there is something feminine and that is the natural form.

Often, if you are talking about feminism you are talking about equality, and if you are talking about equality in a sense you are negating the difference. What I am interested in is the fact that men and women are essentially different and how you work with that difference. What new dialogues and possibilities emerge from that difference? I do support feminism, but I think it is important to recognise the difference between feminism and the feminine space.

Do you think that theatre can effect social change?

Absolutely! For me personally, art and politics are very closely linked. Now I am not saying that art can steer revolutions or art alone can herald change. But that's a different debate altogether. If you are talking of gender politics, my artistic practice is linked to that political approach. When I come to the West, where people are talking about post-feminism, post-modernism, about 1968 being over, that is not a universal fact.

I come from a space where I have been protesting against nuclear arms, so whose post-feminism are we talking about? To that extent the feminist struggle is so important to me. I think art changes, extends vision, allows for contradiction, the lack of closure, and the space to dream; to be more than who we are taught to think we are. It opens up the opportunity to see things differently, hear voices that have never been heard and probably will never get articulated and get away from domination. Open the idea and the space where you can accept the other as not something that is different, antithetical or antagonist to you but as someone with her own subjectivity, contact with whom opens up a new canvas whose stretch is unknown to even those who will paint on it. 

What do you see as the biggest problem facing women in performance today?

Being in an environment dominated by men, it's as simple as that. I particularly have difficulty with structures, talking very specifically about administration and bureaucracy; institutional structures do not have the possibility for spontaneity or positive discrimination.

Philosophically or in a wider sense, I think there is a difficulty with how patriarchy dictates thinking, that I encounter on the level of family, on the level of social engagement, on the level of work, something I find problematic but also an inspiration for me to say: OK, I'm trying to say this, the person I am communicating with probably doesn't have the privilege of thinking in this way, so how do I get the information across?

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