What does the colour brown mean to someone? In his book “Brown,” Author Komal Al-Solaylee writes that brown is the vanished race: “Brown is not white.
Brown is not black. Brown is an experience, a state of mind, a world hiding in plain sight.” Is it the case of being always the bridesmaid and never the bride? Toronto-based social researcher and community-facilitator Amrita Kumar-Ratta questions these notions and describes the colour brown as: A colour, an experience, a lifestyle, a journey, a tapestry, a canvas of story. “Brown is the most perfect way to describe me,” she says. “I am proud of my Indian heritage but being Indian, Punjabi, Hindu, doesn’t mean as much to me as being brown does. Wherever we might come from, being brown unifies us beyond national, religious, and caste affiliations. We are all brown and share so much with each other in our brown-ness.”
With the colour brown signifying not just colour but a state of being, Amrita’s upcoming theatrical solo Shades of Brown Girl followed by a workshop exclusively for women will explore themes of gender, culture and identity through artistic methods of reflection. “It’s all about storytelling at the end of the day,” she says, “and that’s what I’m intended to do with this workshop, to tell OUR stories - the stories of diverse South Asian women across geographies, the stories that are so often invisible.”
She wrote the theatrical piece after a 10-week solo playwriting course in Toronto in 2017. At the end of the course, she had to write a play for which her introspection led to Shades of Brown Girl. “It is a collection of monologues expressing varying aspects of South Asian femininity,” she notes. “The piece is a coming-of-age story which uses associations with colour to turn intimate details about growing up with brown skin in Canada into powerful messages of healing and inspiration. It is an artistic exploration of years of emotional trauma that I am only now able to fully understand and articulate.”
As a PhD student in human geography, Amrita believes that research has to be accessible and transformative and hence, her use of art and creative methodology to try and spark a different kind of conservation. “I have done a lot of work in the field of diversity and inclusion and continue to do so. Canada is running a great experiment; Toronto, the city where I live, is considered the most cosmopolitan, the most diverse city in the world. But diverse doesn’t mean inclusive or equitable. We Canadians (at least those of us who are critically minded and socially conscious) often say that unlike some countries today, our racism is polite. But that kind of insidious discrimination can be very dangerous!”
The play explores the layers of brown girl identity through the language of colour, embedding her own personal narrative with universal themes of belonging, being, and becoming. Amrita has employed the use of symbols and metaphors like the spicy aroma of a hot cup of chai, her unique name, the long braid she wore until age 14 and the diverse shades of the colour brown that she embodied at different times, in different spaces and with different people. She explores the shades of brown, from beige, tan to bronze and mahogany. “I realized quickly that this piece was destined to have a longer life and that it needed to be the catalyst for uncovering other brown women's stories - stories that often go untold, like mine did for so many years.”
After some initial experimenting, she has developed her own creative storytelling pedagogy. In the past one year, Amrita has conducted 10 Shades of Brown Girl workshops in various places in Canada - Brampton, Markham, Toronto, Vancouver, and Surrey - and received support to run some sessions in Chandigarh and now, in Bengaluru. In all the places, the stories which have come out are real and therefore, poignant.
Even as Amrita opines that the world is moving towards increased nationalism, protectionism, xenophobia, “India being no exception”, it is time to take a good hard look at what kind of society we are turning into globally. For a solution, it is time to use art to connect with each other, to relate to each other, to empathise and to be motivated to do something bigger than oneself. “That’s why I love theatre and dance, the two art forms I have grown up with. There is a kind of magic created on stage between those who are watching and those who are performing.”
And, if you are a woman above 18 years of age, it is time to know more about other women stories of their experience as a woman of colour, albeit brown. “Be prepared to do some writing,” she says, adding that the possibilities of self-expression are endless.
What: Shades of Brown Girl
When: Aug 17, 11am – 2pm
Where: Atta Galatta