Interview with Rochelle Potkar

Smita Sahay: Dear Rochelle, many congratulations on the successful conclusion of the very first edition of the residency in December 2017. How did the idea of the multidisciplinary residency, Arcs-of-a-Circle on women’s empowerment come about?

Rochelle Potkar: Thank you, Smita. It sprung from two half-thoughts. One-half was an artist’s ardent need for a getaway into quietude. I had just returned from Iowa and wondered why India has such few residencies. The other half-thought was a subtext: of seeing art in ekphrasis. Like alchemy where the potencies of all elements in a crucible change from their individual properties, gifting varying shapes to shapeless ideas.
Personally, I was also turned off by the claustrophobic scramble in the art form I was practicing in, wondering if healthy collaboration was the way out to more productivity, than vile competition. I wanted to innately break out of restrictive silos of one art form, informed less by inspiration more by insecurity, less by fulcrum more by fear. And this idea of a multidisciplinary seed took root.
My partners and co-founders the U.S. Consulate General Mumbai had on its priority list: women’s empowerment; and activist Nandita Shah from Akshara Centre - a women’s rights organization wanted to break silos between art and activism.
So, this project came together.
You will soon see video films of this residency. The good news is the participants from last year’s residency are still collaborating over newer projects though the program has long ended. That is the magic of collaboration – very symbiotic, it does away with inhibitors.

SS: You are an award-winning poet and writer yourself, and an alumna of very prestigious writing residencies and fellowships, yet you brought together the participation of dancers, musicians, comic artists among others, towards the cause of gender equality. How do you envisage various art forms coming together?

RP: Arcs-of-a-circle is (like) the title of a poem. It takes so many arcs to complete a circle. Every arc completes the narrative necessary to carry forward the crusade on women empowerment. When one art form witnesses how the other art form interprets suppression, oppression, patriarchy, it not only fortifies your own beliefs but widens inquiry. When a standup comedian combats prejudice with blatant humor, it juxtaposes a poet’s deep and serious thought. Two-toned. In Iowa, I had seen black poets express around slavery. One used rage in meter and it worked, the other gleaming pathos under layers of metaphor. That worked too.
On a side note, do view my poetry film Skirt made by Philippa Collie Cousins for the Visible Poetry Project. It featured on Shonda Rhimes media blog too.

SS: The word, and the ideology, feminism, means different things to different people. What is feminism to you?

RP: The world is still male-dominated, and we can only navigate through patriarchy, not circumnavigate it.
I owe this to my mother’s faith in cherishing daughters. Throughout my growing up, I never once felt disadvantaged in being a Catholic or a girl from a small-town, only deluded enough to dream unlimited. I had no brother to compare and contrast my levels of freedoms with, and boyfriends were treated as equals. We stood up to domestic violence. Even today, (though I have many adorable male friends), I can hardly curate men who prowl around with readymade superiority.
I find women around me doing a wise thing. Using patriarchy to their advantage and also spitting on its face when they have better bargaining power. However, the women’s club was supposed to be an answer to the men’s club, but might become just as susceptible in not helping lesser women.
I have come across an equal number of a. feminist males and b. misogynistic females. There are inherent dichotomies when executing an ideology from theory to practice. Human ambition is what’s under practiced misogyny and layers of feminist theory. And ambition is a genderless being. It unifies a cross-section, still under male dominance.
In such a schizophrenic society, it might be the best time to be a fence-sitter, enjoying fruit from both gardens.

SS:As you imagine an equitable world, devoid of violence and discrimination, what does it look like?

RP: It’s a powerful but near-to-impossible dream, connected by a long road. It’s going to cover multiple lifetimes to reach there. Because the Constitution of India is such a dream document, but 70 years later we are yet not there. So dreams take conscious effort to redeem. Also, the reality changes and shows another picture every single day, enforcing multiple re-orientations to chase the same dream. It will take the effort of every person in India or the world to come together. Women’s march, then a LQBTQI march, Dalit March, Aboriginal march, Adivasi march, Subaltern march, Refugee march, the march of the dispossessed that becomes a Human’s March.
It reminds me of the way the Japanese built their nation after WWII. They worked so hard, karoshi is a concept from there. But they rebuilt into a superpower. It will take a lot to build worlds.

SS: We have seen many movements and projects towards gender equality in the past months. Which ones moved you the most?

RP: The Women’s March in USA, parts of the #me/wetoomovement, especially the young taking centerstage and voicing about rape cultures in universities, then the farmers march in Mumbai, the Dalit non-violent stoic march, the way women walked barefooted on red carpets at Oscars, and recently when women in films stalled the shoot so their co-actress could breastfeed (There is lot to say about trickle down from the apex points of glamour. It gets quickly emulated.), Indian women who are speaking out in spite of being heavily twitter-trolled.
We have to wear similar shoes from every spectra of society, to know where in pinches. That’s why have many pairs: a footwear wardrobe. Wear them one by one, also walk barefoot on sand and red carpets, when needed.
Look what we are doing to our children in an adult world. And children can’t march alone. We will have to march for them – so yes, a future Children’s March.

SS: Would you like to share some books, music, cinema, artwork on the theme of gender or sexuality?

RP: I just discovered Nivedita Menon’s book Seeing like a Feminist and The Indian Constitution by Madhav Khosla. It’s time to watch movies on LGBTQI and caste. We know so little about them.
Watch Dawn.com’s haunting list of short films. (https://www.dawn.com/contestwinners.)

SS: Your latest book, ‘Paper Asylum’ is out. Many congratulations! Tell us about the very intriguing title of the collection.

RP: This is a book of haibun (prose poetry). Words are my recourse. I am a chronic word-clinger and while expressing thoughts in poetry, prose, that refuge is still as fragile. It can burn down, tear, soak, or drown. Hence, Paper Asylum.

Rochelle Potkar : An alumna of Iowa’s International Writing Program, and Charles Wallace Writer’s fellowship, Rochelle Potkar was the winner of the 2016 Open Road Review contest for The leaves of the deodar. Her poem The girl from Lal Bazaar was shortlisted for the Gregory O' Donoghue International Poetry Prize, 2018. Her poem Place won an honorable mention at Asian Cha’s Auditory Cortex. Her poem Skirt was made into a poetry film by Philippa Collie Cousins for the Visible Poetry Project. Her latest book is Paper Asylum (Copper Coin). (https://rochellepotkar.com)