I am standing onstage at Symphony Space. I am watching in awe as people applaud the experience that we have just given them. I am in disbelief as the packed auditorium stands for the musicians and dancers of Navatman’s Mahabharata taking our bows. I once had a dream to be in this very moment. Only this time, it wasn’t a dream.
Oh my god...
How did we do this? We transformed artforms and epics from India into live stage shows in the heart of New York City. How is it that an immigrant artist performed an immigrant artform in the United States of America to a packed and cheering crowd?
And for one moment, I belonged. I was home. I felt solid ground under my feet.
For an immigrant, these moments are rare. While going about our daily lives like anyone else, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. We spend our days weeks months years keeping our heads down, hoping against hope, that someday somehow our “temporary” status turns into a permanent one. We wish to no longer walk the cliff’s edge of uncertainty - whether we will still be allowed to stay in the place that we’ve chosen to call home. We are hit with news nearly everyday regarding potential orders that may upset thousands of immigrant lives at the drop of a hat. We listen to xenophobic rhetoric nearly everyday, telling us to go back to where we came from. Despite all this, we try to maintain a sense of positivity and purpose. “If you just focus and do your job and not ruffle any feathers, you’ll make it,” we tell ourselves. Without repeating this mantra, the complex emotions and ambiguity that cripple us every second of everyday will leave us paralyzed. We hear stories of people uprooted by bureaucratic technicalities, and we secretly feel guilty for being glad that we’re not them – followed by a tightness in our chest that we might be next.
Where do we go for solace? When we can’t always advocate for ourselves, we are forced to endure in silence for fear of being torn out a life that we painstakingly built. We are excruciatingly aware that it was all built on a single piece of paper called a visa and in these times, our foundations feel as flimsy as that piece of paper.
Slowly but surely, we begin to internalize a toxic narrative. For 20 years, I’ve paid my taxes, not violated my status, studied, worked, volunteered, nurtured friendships and community, and yet... Each time I have to apply for a visa I sense that I’m unwanted, unwelcome. Am I the problem? Am I the overly clingy, needy partner in this relationship dynamic with the United States of America? Is it even worth trying to make this work? Is it too late to cut and run? Will I ever belong, or will I always feel like an alien?
Then I found Navatman. It broke that toxic narrative that I don’t belong and made me thrive. It empowers me that my culturally unique craft is not only important but belongs in the diverse fabric of New York City. Navatman gives voice and speaks for people who cannot advocate for themselves, let alone others. Everyday at Navatman I believe a little more that moments like the standing ovation at Symphony Space should not be few and far between for an immigrant artform; rather they should be many and normal. And when the ground beneath me shifts again, threatening unbalance, Navatman gives me a place to anchor myself and be home.