Dawinder Bansal: Immersive Storytelling

Sunetra Senior Wednesday 04th March 2020 08:15 EST

Dawinder is an award-winning producer, artist and creative director known for her intimate yet fun-loving contemporary focus on underrepresented South Asian stories. As well as creating a myriad of her own spirited projects over the years, she has been responsible for developing and producing Southbank Centre's largest South Asian festival: Alchemy for the Black Country region. Her recent short film, Asian Women & Cars: Road to Independence, was screened at the prestigious V&A Museum in South Kensington as part of their wider exhibition: Cars: Accelerating the Modern World. Asian Women & Cars also won the Creative Media Award at the Asian Media Awards 2019.

The playful film lovingly explores the impact of first-generation Indian women on the thriving of the South Asian community in the UK through their often-overlooked role as the personal driver of the family unit. Dawinder commented on her research: “When looking back through my family photographs, I noticed that there were hardly any pictures of women in cars. It was always men standing proudly next to their automobiles. Any pictures I did find showed women looking bashful. They had more than every right to feel celebratory too.”

A vibrant documentary, Dawinder’s Asian Women & Cars, interviews different passionate women, each talking on their unique relationship with driving while examining the motif of the everyday vehicle as a symbol of autonomy and of financial independence particularly. “Having a car meant women could complete essential chores efficiently as well as take on more work to create extra income for the home, all the while ensuring their safety in the public domain too.” Once a symbol of white upper-class privilege, Dawinder shows ownership of a driving licence being reclaimed as a vivid marker of individual freedom. As opposed to a stiff catalogue of imperial motor cars, Asian women & Cars delights in the detail and bright Mini Coopers where one woman even recounts the purchase of her first vehicle being a commemoration of a sizeable independent salary.

Dawinder elaborated: “It’s common to hear about South Asian men supporting everyone and educating their children which is great. However, women have contributed so much too. Their small incremental actions have created a bigger positive platform for mobility, not only for their livelihoods, but also for the functioning of the wider household.”

The notion of a culturally interwoven, powerfully quiet or even rumbling revolution runs through Dawinder’s work. “I enjoy shining the light on stories people wouldn’t normally consider, presenting them in an exciting, sometimes poignant way.” The multidimensional creative has also produced the stage show, Mother Tongues from Farther Lands, for London's Southbank Centre which was a finalist for Best Stage Production 2017 in ITV’s Asian Media Awards. Again, this openly investigated the strong cultural legacy of a diversity of South Asian women, this time exploring the challenging experience of settling in a foreign country more generally:

“I spoke to women from a multiplicity of faiths and backgrounds and from different parts of the diaspora too. It was a grass-roots look at community. Interviewees ranged from Hindus and Sikhs to Kenyan-Indians and Pakistani women who were proud of their South Asian heritage. It also included Asylum Seekers and focussed on the stories of the Black Country in the UK.” Dawinder added: “we actually began by asking these women questions on the basic necessities one must acquire to lay down roots, such as food, housing and clothing. However, this soon turned into the revelation of just how much they’d had to overcome to find their place in Britain. This included the very controlling dictate of patriarchal structure from within the South Asian community too. The interviews cut across generations, and included group discussions where the women shared stories with each other. The younger women were shocked at the hardships the older generation had to negotiate. They are incredible people: champions of their minds and leaders in their own communities, but still so incredibly supportive.”

Here, Dawinder also emphasised: “we are essentially the same, but with subtle differences, and it’s this nuance that enables us all to learn.” In fact, the Women & Cars project went viral when it launched, not only eliciting responses from South Asian women across the world wanting to offer their stories about learning to drive “from countries such as Germany and France to as far-flung as Canada and Bangladesh,” but also from different men who felt solidarity with the emotive movement against marginalisation. “There was a Polish man who was moved to tears upon seeing the film, and another middle-aged British man commented that the story importantly reminded him of his mother and grandmother based in the North of England. Even up until the 1950s British women had to get permission from a man to open a bank account, and while the UK saw the Feminist movement explode in the Eighties with women entering into the professional world and power-dressing etc, many still had to marry at a certain age and have children which constituted their life. Their identity was formed secondarily according to those dependent on them, and when the kids left, they had very little of themselves.”


In short, Dawinder poses a significant universal question: “who are you to yourself?”, especially in inevitable relation to others? Do you truly understand your subjectivity and its interactive role in feeling whole? In this sense, the artist’s sociological portfolio at once reflects the nature of a multicultural state: not simply a community of different ethnicities physically existing side by side but also groups that are affirmatively emotionally connected, shaping each other in a dynamic, altogether fuller, way. “True closeness can change people,” Dawinder stated. As well as consolidating the South Asian narrative, this is why she believes “it’s important to use creativity to invite people into our world to see who we really are.” Indeed, her immersive spatial style as much distinguishes the work as the penetrative subject matter.

This is epitomised through current stirring installation, Jambo Cinema, which is running at the New Art Exchange until 15th March, 2020. Inspired herself by the colourful context of her parents’ Electrical shop, Bansal Electrical, which also doubled up as a corner shop and rented out Bollywood VHS tapes, as Dawinder grew up, Jambo Cinema “draws upon memories of watching Bollywood films with Sikh extended family, pays homage to Kenyan roots, and explores the social history of South Asian home entertainment in 1980s Britain.” Jambo Cinema is then an interactive exhibit which replicates Dawinder’s childhood living room, materialising an accessible nostalgia

“I love converting public or ordinary spaces into a personal creative world,” she further commented. “It builds a bridge between people which also highlights an underlying similarity.” Indeed, that of shared overarching humanity. Dawinder aptly concluded by expressing her admiration for the older pioneering generation, particularly of course, the infinitely brave immigrant women: “there’s a saying that when an Asian elder pass away, it’s as if a whole library has burnt down. It’s crucial to preserve their stories. Theirs is a profound sense of purpose and belonging, rooted in spirituality; the complete opposite of the shallow celebrity culture we see today. I’m humbled by their dignity.”

Especially important in a divisive socio-political climate then, Dawinder’s sensitive portrayal of individual cultural tales finally demonstrates that coming together need not be an overly technical mission. It is not a political ‘experiment’ as referred to through the Nineties, nor a sterile show of international partnerships. Rather, a phenomenon inherent within us, organically waiting to be seen.

W: www.dawinderbansal.com

T: @DawinderBansal

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