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Showcasing Modern India

The annual Eye on India Festival in Chicago strives to present contemporary Indian art while building cultural ties between India and the United States.

In 2011, the Eye on India Festival was started in Chicago by Anuradha Behari as a one-week festival highlighting Indian theater, fashion, poetry, music and art. Now, six years later, the festival spans three weeks and hosts approximately 3,500 visitors from India and Chicago. Eye on India Festival is an early stage not-for-profit organization which has established itself as one of the leading platforms for Indian programming in Chicago.

To make the festival a success, organizers have partnered with 50 key cultural, academic, government and community organizations, including the City of Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago and Columbia College. With a strong organizational mission to pay tribute to the eclectic diversity of Chicago and the rich, colorful culture of India, the festival allows participants to better understand both Chicago and modern India while fostering bilateral dialogue and building lasting cultural ties.

But how did it all begin? Behari, the founder and president of the festival, arrived in Chicago nearly 15 years ago and immediately noticed the diversity of the city, with over 250,000 people of South Asian origin, but felt a need for a “little India spice in the mix.”

“You don’t see the contemporary India you left. You miss the conversations you had with people. You also miss being a part of the dialogue and conversations that are current in India,” says Behari. Most people relate India with only Bollywood or classical Indian dance and music. But, Eye on India illustrates there is so much more to India than this. 

After meeting Sanjoy Roy, the managing director of Delhi-based Teamwork Arts, Behari invited him to Chicago to collaborate on creating the Eye on India Festival. Teamwork Arts produces over 25 festivals, including the annual ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, in 40 cities across the world. According to Behari, “Despite the rich variety of one-off events or even specialized film, music and other festivals, there was a growing general curiosity about contemporary Indian culture that was not being fulfilled.” Thus began the adventure of building the festival to what it is today.

The festival will showcase a variety of different types of artistes, including but not limited to dancers, filmmakers, actors, musicians, authors and poets. While the Eye on India Festival spans three weeks, most of the public events take place on the weekends. During the weekdays, artistes travel to different locations around Chicago facilitating workshops and doing outreach.

One of the key goals of Eye on India is to engage people and allow them to feel intimately connected to Indian culture. Artistes do this in underserved neighborhoods, middle and high schools, and colleges. “For several years, we conducted Bollywood dance workshops through Chicago City’s initiative of Night Out in the Parks. The music and theater groups visiting from India regularly conduct workshops with the students from Columbia College, Chicago and the Chicago High School for the Arts,” says Behari. It becomes increasingly obvious this festival that manages to sum up India in a relatively short period of time also does an excellent job of integrating the culture and the artistic, historical landscape of Chicago. Interestingly, Behari says, “The festival is a very Chicago festival with a focus on India, rather than an Indian festival in Chicago.”

A few highlights of this year’s event include an evening with Indian authors featured at the Chicago Council of Cultural Affairs and the music program at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Each year, there is an event with fashion students on their interpretation of the sari and how to wear it.

The schedule for the 2017 festival is yet to be finalized, but will be uploaded to its website www.eyeonindia.org. Archives of the past events and details on the festivals in other cities are also available here. So far, Eye on India has traveled to Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, but on a smaller scale than the Chicago festival.

Behari hopes to host the festival in more cities. Additionally, the festival continues to create partnerships with many organizations and businesses in Chicago that would allow for more cutting-edge programming as well as year-round events.

Megan McDrew is a professor of sociology at Hartnell College. She is based in Monterey, California.