The University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of the Arts and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (presenters) are excited to welcome Sri Vamsi Matta as the inaugural academic year-long Interdisciplinary Artist-in-Residence for 2023–24. Vamsi is a Dalit theatre practitioner (writer, actor, director), educator, and visual artist from Bengaluru, India.
The word Dalit is a rebellious outcast-identifying label. For centuries, caste has remained the organizing principle of society across South Asia. Determined by birth, caste draws distinctions between communities, determining one’s profession, level of education and potential marriage partners. The lowest in this pecking order, and cast outside the hierarchy altogether (and therefore dehumanized) are the Dalits, once termed “untouchable.” Though the Indian government legally abolished untouchability in 1950 with the adoption of India’s Constitution, the practice is still rampant in the subcontinent, translates into a myriad forms of microaggression and gatekeeping, and has been carried along wherever Savarnas (people higher up on the pyramid of caste) migrate globally.
“I want my presence to be felt and interacted with through my performances, teaching, workshops and public interventions during my time in Madison,” says Vamsi. “Through my presence, I want to be able to engage with America’s imagination of performing arts and what constitutes aesthetics, and to find crossroads where our notions of the other intersect on questions of caste, race, sexuality, ethnicity or gender.”
During the fall 2023 semester, Vamsi will teach a three-credit course, “Whose Art Is It Anyway? Exploring Folk Performance from South Asia.” Throughout the semester, students will examine various folk performance traditions from across South Asia, their roots, and the appropriation, weaponization, or dilution of practices by dominant groups. The course will juxtapose the history of these performance styles with practices of performance-based activism in the United States, and how the performing arts can be and have been catalyzed for community building and challenging socio-political inequities.
“This is the first time this content will be taught by a Dalit artist and scholar themselves, thus inviting others from similar backgrounds of identity-based oppression into the classroom,” says Zara Chowdhary, lecturer in Hindi in the Department Asian Languages and Cultures and residency lead. “Madison, the university student and staff community, and the state have so much to offer in the fields of storytelling, music and culture. This residency is structured as a bridge between these diverse and vibrant communities to spark conversation and to invite questions, collaboration and contribution.”
Vamsi’s residency and presence throughout the academic year will unify campus and Madison communities through public programming, including an October 5 workshop at the YWCA Racial Justice Summit (October 3–5, 2023, register by September 11) and an October 21 performance the annual Conference on South Asia (October 18–21, 2023), among others. A residency-long engagement with playwrights and songwriters at UW–Madison will lead up to a final production debuting at the end of the spring 2024 semester. Additional event details will be announced.
The residency is presented in partnership with the Division of the Arts and the Department Asian Languages and Cultures, with Jamal Jones, Assistant Professor, as lead faculty and Zara Chowdhary, Lecturer in Hindi, as residency lead. Co-sponsors for the residency are the Department of History, Human Rights Program, Center for the Humanities, International Learning Community, Center for Research on Gender and Women, Center for South Asia, Department of Theatre and Drama, and the Center for Visual Cultures.
About the Artist
Sri Vamsi Matta, (Vamsi, he/him), is a Bangalore-based theatre actor, writer, and director. His practice is influenced by his Dalit identity, experience, and social location. The histories of his family and community inform the questions, topics, and mediums that Vamsi engages with through his work. His most recent traveling solo show performance, Come Eat With Me, – an invitation to folks from all caste, faith and race locations – has received a tremendous response in the national and regional media across India. His play, Star in the Sky about the institutional murder of a Dalit PhD scholar in 2016, often seen as a moment of reckoning for Indian academia’s inherent caste biases, won second place at the prestigious Tata Literature Live! Sultan Padamsee Award For Playwriting Sultan Padamsee Playwriting Awards. While in Madison, Vamsi is excited to engage with UW–Madison’s own reckoning with historic inequities and contributing to its present campus culture and goals of fostering a greater sense of inclusion and belonging through the arts.
About the Presenters
The Division of the Arts’ Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program brings innovative, world-class artists to the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, providing students with extended learning experiences with a working artist, increasing diversity of teaching staff on campus and strengthening programmatic ties among individual departments, programs and other campus and community arts entities. Since 1999, the program has hosted 51 residencies involving 55 artists-in-residence and more than 140 guest artists from 20 different countries, engaging over 50 university units and more than 40 community organizations. All residencies center interdisciplinary arts, recognizing that interdisciplinarity can break down barriers and silos, advance intellectual artistic diversity and give opportunities to people who do not fit into the traditional modes of inquiry and practice (see the Division of the Arts’ guiding principle of The Arts for Everyone, Everywhere). The program often brings together artists, faculty, staff and students from various disciplines across the arts, sciences and humanities, sustaining the Division of the Arts’ mission to unify and catalyze the arts at UW–Madison.
Asian Languages and Cultures is home to nearly 20 faculty whose research and teaching specialties include the following: traditional medicine in India; the history of yoga; diversifying contemporary mindfulness practice with insights from Tibetan Buddhism; Hindi-Urdu poetry of protest, human rights in Thailand; Chinese ghost stories; traditional poetics and philology; sociolinguistics and discourse analysis of the Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian languages; analysis of classical Japanese tale fiction, early modern comedic narratives, manga, anime and Japanese counterculture.