Category Archives: News

True Philanthropy: Govind Pillai’s journey of social change through art

Govind Pillai is an accomplished classical Indian dancer living in Melbourne. One of only few male performers of Bharathanatyam in Australia, Govind is noted by reviewers as keenly adept at his chosen style and is well regarded by his peers and students. His presence in the arts is growing fast. He performs at various local and international festivals and events, recently worked with internationally acclaimed contemporary dancer/choreographer Annalousie Paul, and currently sits on the board of The National Theatre (St Kilda).

Yet Govind’s reputation reaches beyond dancer and teacher to one who uses art for cultural integration, social wellbeing, and philanthropy. He has built a not-for-profit dance company, called Karma Dance Inc., which promotes social harmony to a wide audience and donates performance profits to charity. Now, he is also developing an affiliated teaching academy and in-school program so he can share these philosophies with the next generation.

“When I started [dancing] I didn’t really have ambitions and hopes. It was just something I loved doing and wanted to keep doing.”

Govind began dancing when he was about seven years old. Curiosity had sprung from watching his older sister learning in class as he waited with his mother for her to finish. Though Govind was drawn to “quite masculine qualities” in the dance, being a boy meant he was overlooked for dance study. He would remedy this by asking his sister to secretly ‘play’ at teaching him, until eventually their game, and Govind’s joy in dancing, were discovered. Only then was he accompanied to his own classes.

Learning as an adolescent became more difficult. The family had moved from Papua New Guinea, a place rich with differing cultures, to Dunedin in New Zealand, where suddenly Govind’s dancing was far less accepted by his peers. Lacking in self-confidence, he stopped for a while.

It wasn’t until he was at university in Sydney, Australia that he became more confident and self-aware – and realised his life was missing something he described as fundamental. He returned to his beloved art form, training at the Samskriti School of Dance. From then on Govind would give dance his complete and wholehearted commitment.

The dedication demonstrated in perfecting his craft is illustrated well by the story of his Arangetram, a solo debut or ‘graduation’ he presented in 2009. Within months of committing to perform this most demanding event, Govind had to move to Melbourne for the corporate work he continues full-time today. He managed, however, to maintain regular weekly practice with his guru in Sydney.

“I would catch a train from Melbourne to Sydney every Friday night after work, an overnight one, and I’d rehearse Saturdays and Sundays full time. Then on Sunday night I’d catch a train, overnight. Then I’d quickly have a shower and go straight to work,” he recalled.

“I never at the time thought of the burden, I just thought, ‘oh well, got to keep training.’ ”

Such determination and exertion has secured Govind opportunities to perform at festivals and events as varied and as distant as the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, choreographer Annalouise Paul’s contemporary production Mother Tongue at Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, and the Melaka Art and Performance Festival in Malaysia.

Coming to the close of an almost endlessly busy year, Govind is finally able to sit down and have a chat with us. He is polite and gentle, a real contrast to his commanding presence and strength on stage. He has an eagerness that, though restrained, is infectious, and after a while in conversation he relaxes and reveals an intelligence and passion that is deep and serious.

“I always felt there were two things I wanted from dancing: I always wanted to dance for myself, but I wanted more to bring it into the mainstream so people are able to absorb it’s wisdom and antiquity and drive social change.”

For Govind, forging social change is as simple as nurturing an appreciation through education. Karma Dance productions offer a unique perspective of ancient Indian dance and culture via the integration of video narration and performance. Explaining the stories and traditions behind the dance routines seen, the presentation takes audiences on an immersive and informative journey.

Further to this educative component is Karma Dance’s more direct action of beneficence in which net proceeds raised are donated to charity. So far, the group have consistently helped migrant and refugee women’s support group, Shakti.

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To date, Karma Dance have acquired local and international attention in events where multiculturalism is the focus, but Govind wants to see them included in a wider public discourse.

“We want to take things to more mainstream venues. We’re still performing in schools, university venues, in community halls. We cannot access the best performance spaces because of the nature [of our art], because we’re not doing ballet, doing popular arts, and we’re not-for-profit so we’re not considered professional.”

“If we can get into the mainstream and to some regular venues we can start being recognised as able to comment on policy.”

Integration with the mainstream is a regular theme in our conversation. Reflecting on why this would be, Govind makes a connection between this preoccupation and his youth.

“I think that came from the experience of moving from a very multicultural childhood to a fairly mono-cultural place like Dunedin,” he said.

“There was a very communal culture in the streets [of PNG] so we grew up with neighbours and friends as siblings. It was like a big extended family. We went to a school which had children from 90 different countries…It was ok to be an Indian dancer ‘cause that was kind of normal to have your own culture.”

“Moving to New Zealand was a big contrast. I was the first brown person in the school and it was all very different. Their culture was very different. People were far more individualistic.”

It was for this individualist ideology that Govind and sister Sandhya decided, just one year after his debut, to create a show that introduced the beauty of classical Indian culture and its dance to a wider New Zealand audience. Enlisting their parents as administrative organisers, the dancers plunged into putting together an event that would ultimately set Govind on his current trajectory.

The pair decided they would use the opportunity of this performance to raise community awareness and much needed funds for a cause close to their hearts: Shakti Community Council’s Second Chance Program, helping migrant and refugee women overcome disadvantage and domestic violence and gain independence.

“It wasn’t a grand plan or anything. We said, ‘let’s do a fundraiser for them,’ and from there, that was the inspiring moment…People just came [to volunteer]. People who we didn’t know, who had skills, suddenly turned up, and before you knew it we had ambitiously hired a hall with about 800 seats thinking we’d sell about a quarter – it sold out.”

With that performance, they raised over $8000 for Shakti. Such success made them realise there really was a need for events that connected and empowered communities, and Govind was moved to “establish something whose purpose was to do that”. He flew back home to Melbourne, founded Karma Dance Inc. and, continuing to work with Sandhya and their family, took Shakti to Sydney, Hobart, and Melbourne.

“Karma Dance was entirely inspired by those ambitions [of] wanting the art to give something back, integration into mainstream Australia, and allowing Australians broadly, wherever they come from, to draw from each others culture.”

To achieve these ambitions, Govind has evolved Karma Dance beyond a performance company. He established a dance education program that takes his teachings straight into Australian schools, solidifying infiltration into mainstream Australia. The group offer workshops of varying lengths and provide education and immersion into Indian culture in a way that may otherwise not be encountered by the wider student population.

Since their commencement two years ago, more than 20 schools across New South Wales and Victoria have adopted the programs for increasingly longer visits. What began as half hour demonstrations has progressed in some locations to day-long training sessions where, at the end of the day, the children perform what they have learnt.

Additionally, Govind now shares his philosophies with an ever-growing sum of future performers through the Karma Dance teaching academy. These students attend weekly night-time Bharathanatyam lessons in an ordinary classroom in Epping in Melbourne’s north. Last October, the students had their first opportunity to partake in a presentation of their skills.

MAATHAA-5 little ones
With both the school kids and his regular students, Govind finds a different approach from the traditional is needed in passing on the folklore, and a developing empathy, to children of a multicultural country.

“The way we teach is not the way our teachers were taught in India. We’ve had to think about how to teach classical Indian dance to kids growing up in Australia because we can’t do it the same way.”

So far, the girls that have joined the regular dance classes are girls and women of Indian nationality, ranging from 3 years to adulthood. Most are at school age, which Govind takes as a framework for his teachings, aware of their particular struggles and concerns.

“The girls that come at that age are often Indian girls who are trying to integrate into Western schools and what not, and have a family culture that’s very different to the prevailing culture. I want a lot of that reconciliation that comes through the dance education to rub off on them.”

“I definitely want the girls to come out of this process feeling embedded, feeling proud of who they are, how they look, what that means to other people when they see them, and that’s all part of dance.”

Looking back, with invitations to perform at more and more events, a fast uptake of the school education program, and increasing numbers of students, Govind feels Karma Dance is beginning to achieve “broader recognition”.

“I think that recognition is permission to do more,” he said.

“Most people I talk to say we really need more diverse art forms out there. We really need art to bring social change and audiences together.”

Govind’s way of using art to unite and enrich lives seems to come very easily to him. Acting on gut feeling and with pure passion, his approach is to keep a ‘play it by ear’ attitude, remaining flexible and open to opportunities rather than plotting out a rigid plan.

“I still don’t have a big vision or anything. One step at a time.”

“I think it’s ok not to have a plan when you’re starting out. If you’ve got an idea you’re really passionate about, and you can make (shows short distance between thumb and forefinger) that much difference, that would be amazing. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, it’s just got to do its thing for a period.”

Photo credits:
Cover photo by Adrian van Raay
Govind performing by Fotoholics
Govind’s students in Maathaa by Sanjeev Singh

Coffee calendar hits stores to help homeless

Congratulations to Melbourne photographer Sanjeev Singh and the team behind the beautifully crafted Coffee Capital 2015 calendar, in stores now, raising funds to bring Australian youths out of homelessness.

Earlier this year, we met with Sanjeev to talk about his collaboration with social enterprise STREAT. From a desire to make a difference through his art, Sanjeev approached STREAT CEO Rebecca Scott with the concept of donating his time and photographic skills for the creation of a calendar the group could fundraise with.

The result is an exquisite product: a desktop “coaster” calendar that features Sanjeev’s astonishing photography, excellent design by Ed Coghlan of Third Cache, and comes beautifully packaged in a coffee bag with a personalised letter from Sanjeev and Rebecca.

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The Coffee Capital 2015 calendar, named so for its celebration of the rich coffee culture in Melbourne, is available from 13 locations across Melbourne, including boutique local goods and souvenir store Melbournalia on Bourke St, Coffee Head coffee shop in Camberwell, the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville, and even a cafe in Inverloch!

The central idea and inspiration for the Coffee Capital calendar and brand is to fundraise for STREAT’s growing programs and physical space. $5 from every calendar sale ($19.95) is assisting the development of STREAT’s new training facility in Collingwood.

The team are also in the final production phase for a children’s alphabet book featuring the street art of Melbourne, so watch this space for more news!

To find more Coffee Capital calendar locations, visit www.facebook.com/coffeecapital.

Putting it simply: ‘We Are World Change’

One of the most rewarding aspects of our work at Liberation Arts Network is learning about the fantastic people making a difference in the world and seeing the varying ways in which they do this. When we heard about the prize-winning animation ‘We Are World Change’ this week, we discovered a very young change maker making very strong waves.

Last Sunday, the Joy House Film Festival, proud advocate of diversity and platform for emerging filmmakers, announced Josh Lorschy the winner of their Bendigo Bank Youth Award for his animation ‘We Are World Change’. The short film talks directly to those “privileged enough to have shoes on our feet, clothes on our back, food to eat, and a roof over our head” and asks what they will do for those not so lucky. It is powerful in its simplicity and matter-of-factness. And most compelling is the film’s arrowhead message: within each individual is the ability to create change.

‘We Are World Change’ is not the first animation with which 14-year-old Josh has delivered the public a sharp message. In September last year, Josh posted a short animation on You Tube detailing sad facts and statistics relating to a lack of rights for girls around the world. In the descriptor for ‘International Day of the Girl’, Josh wrote:

“I put this animation together to raise awareness for the issue, and provide viewers with ways to help the cause.”

“The best thing you can do is spread the word. Use your social media connections to share these links, so everyone knows about the problem…”

The following month, Josh posted a second animation also supporting girls’ rights to education and promoting the Girl Rising campaign, titled ‘Be The Voice’.

As a young Australian, Josh was in a unique position. He had been asked to be a Girl Rising Ambassador after attending the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York, 12 July 2013. There, Josh had listened to Malala Yousafzai give her first speech after being shot in the head for advocating girls’ rights to education less than a year earlier. The assembly gathered on that day in honour of her 16th birthday.

Of this experience, Josh wrote:

“[W]hen Malala stood up to make her speech, the entire room fell silent. The world’s attention was captured when she began to speak…”

Showing a keen emotional intelligence, Josh explained that:

“At the heart of her message to the world was this: ‘One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world’.”

With the help of his family, including twin brother Ben and young cousins, Georgie, Jessica and Sophie, Josh has been creating change in just this way. The Lorschy and Conn families have raised thousands of dollars for charity Room To Read, who implement programs, build libraries, and publish books in local languages to improve children’s literacy and gender equality in education in developing countries. It was Josh’s instrumentality in raising these funds and speaking at schools that earned him an invitation to the 2013 UN Assembly as Youth Ambassador.

Josh has a mature understanding of the complexities involved in providing aid to developing communities. In an interview with children’s author and Room To Read Writer Ambassador Tristan Bancks, Josh praised Room To Read’s ethical and pragmatic approach for creating change.

“Room to Read has a depth to their programs that goes beyond just donating books or building schools,” he said.

“They recognise that world change requires more than just dumping resources on the less fortunate. This extends into their teacher training programs, girls scholarships, social outreach workers and publishing books in local languages.”

Currently, Josh and his family are working towards Room to Read’s World Change Challenge which aims to raise $20 000 by 31 October. Students, schools and businesses nationwide are invited to create their own fundraising challenges or to donate. For the class or group that raises the most money, Random House Australia will fly Tristan Bancks to their school to give a free author talk or writing workshop. Second prize is $250 worth of books from Random House.

Josh’s message is simple: “YOU can make a difference. It doesn’t matter how big or small of a difference you make, because every step counts.”

Anything is Pozible

Crowdfunding platform Pozible will once again enable a valuable project get off the ground. Snap a Difference, by Sanjeev Singh, has raised funds well above his $6500 target a full three days before the funding portal closes. Singh needs this money to purchase photographic equipment for pro-bono work he will commence next month creating two publications for social enterprise STREAT. It’s this project that Pozible and the many who donated to Snap a Difference have made possible.

STREAT provide homeless youths with training and work experience for careers in the hospitality industry. They have grown over their four years of existence and now have cafes, catering and roasting businesses operating around the city. Singh, a self-taught photographer, will be creating a calendar and a children’s book for the group aimed at boosting funds for their training programs as well as raising their profile as a force for social change.

Singh’s work on the publications will commence July 2014. Liberation Arts Network wishes him all the best in this heartfelt endeavour and will be following his progress eagerly.

Oi Enuf! follow up

Congratulations to the team behind Oi Enuf! and the fantastic Melbourne talent that entertained for a great cause on Sunday 8 June. The event raised $1635 for the Fiona Joy Trust, a fund established for Fiona Warzywoda’s four children left behind after her murder on April 16th this year.

Sunday’s event attracted a modest but revved up crowd and some top quality musicians and performers including 4Tress, Joelistics, Bulk of Man, K-Mart Warriors, Marilyn Rose & the Thorns, Ruby Soho, & Liquor Snatch.

The event also got us talking about how much we need to respect each other and say ‘ENOUGH’ to violence!

Welcome to the Liberation Arts Network!

Hi. Welcome to the Liberation Arts Network, a community for creatives of all types who give their time and talent to creating positive change, the volunteers who help make it all happen, and the fans who support this fantastic work by participating in activities and going along to events.

In this virtual space you will discover some inspiring and exciting projects, opportunities, and events as well as meet, read about, chat with, and even one day collaborate with the incredible people behind those feats.

New members, after you’ve registered (you WILL NOT BE SPAMMED), fill in your profile under My Account to let us know more about you. In particular, tell us about the projects you are, or have been, involved with. You’ll see that you can also add videos and photos, creating your own portfolio of work, your skills, or just your inspirations. Go for it! The more you use your space, the more others can connect with you and you with them. We only ask that you keep it relevant (and clean, of course).

Creatives, you’ll have the additional benefit of posting your own events, jobs and opportunities, or contributing a story (subject to approval).

All visitors to the network will be able to search for members through the Members Directory. If you don’t find someone there that you know would love to be included, share with them our vision of creating a network of people who fight for change with their art, creativity and passion.