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Brown Girl Interview: Artist Reena Shah

by Priya Patel – University of Florida

Brown Girl recently did a Q&A with ambitious up-and-comer, Reena Shah. Along with dancing, acting and other artistic endeavors, she is currently one half of My Pet Dragon, along with her husband, Todd Michaelsen. Check out links to the band’s website at the end of the interview!

BG: What is your musical background?

RS: There has always been a constant duality of two worlds in my life, from the very beginning: my Indian world and my American world. I grew up with a mix of listening to my parent’s Indian devotional songs and pop music on American radio. At a young age, I was involved in an all-female Indian singing group in my hometown of Livingston, NJ and we would perform at various cultural events throughout New York City and New Jersey.  I was also singing in highly selective choral groups in school.  During this time, I was learning how to play the piano and taking jazz, ballet, and tap dance classes.  I was also learning the traditional, classical Indian dance style of Bharata Natyam and was performing in every school play and musical theater production.  I had my Bharata Natyam Arengatram (Dance Graduation) at the age of 13 and became a professional Indian dancer.

It was when I was in High School that my friends made me mix tapes on audio cassettes that opened my world to The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, No Doubt and Metallica.

And it was when I moved to New York City for my undergraduate education at NYU that I was introduced to the Asian Underground movement which featured artists such as Karsh Kale, DJ Zakhm, the Midival Punditz, DJ Rekha, Talvin Singh, and Nitin Sawhney.

Who knew that years later, my husband Todd would be working with Karsh Kale on Kale’s “Broken English” record and that Karsh would be remixing our latest My Pet Dragon single “Flow.”

BG: What is your role in My Pet Dragon?

RS: My Pet Dragon is an outlet for me to express live music through dance, percussion & vocals. Todd Michaelsen’s lyrics, melodies, and his incredible voice touch a place within me that evokes action and reaction. It’s a place for me to immerse my whole being into something that is alive and thriving.  Some of my dance movements are inspired by my Classical Indian Dance training.

BG: How would you describe the sound and do you have a targeted audience in mind?

RS: The sound of My Pet Dragon is ethereal, melodic, and uplifting. Fans of Radiohead and The Arcade Fire will enjoy our music. It’s really about playing our music and having the listener take their own journey whether they are rocking out to it at home or they come to a live show.   I love playing for new audiences as people that have never seen us before are truly moved by the music and vibe of the live show.

BG: What is it like creatively collaborating with your husband?

RS: Todd is one of the most passionate artists I have ever met. It’s fascinating to see his creative process on each of the different projects we have worked on.  He is focused and driven, and also open to new ideas. It can get very intense at times as we both are fire signs. Luckily we can always laugh with each other.

BG: Does being Indian affect you artistically?

Being Indian has always been a part of who I am. Being American has always been a part of who I am. As a multi-disciplinary artist, as an actress it is my responsibility to connect with the human experience.

I am able to bring my own experiences with both cultures to the projects I’ve worked on and continue to work on.  I’ve choreographed Bollywood dance sequences for the film, “The Guru” teaching Marisa Tomei and Heather Graham. I have played the role of a traditional Indian mother trying to find a life partner for her daughter in Nandita Shenoy’s play “Marrying Nandini.” I’ve also played real-life gang-rape victim turned courageous heroine, Mukthar Mai, in the play “Seven.”

Additionally, I’ve been cast in roles that used color-blind casting. I’ve played a wacky secretary in the comedic play “Travel” by Dan Shore and a Ticket Agent in the feature film, “Falling Up,” among other roles.  Color-blind casting is making its way into mainstream America.

BG: I was pleasantly surprised to read that you worked as the title voice character on Sita Sings the Blues (I absolutely adore that film). Can you tell us a little about that experience?

RS: My experience with Sita Sings The Blues has been a really beautiful journey that continues to grow. Filmmaker Nina Paley has created an empowering, animated interpretation of The Ramayana told from Sita’s point of view. It is set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw and is narrated by 3 shadow puppets as Nina’s own personal break-up story unfolds.  It was great working with Nina Paley and seeing her vision for the film come to life. For Nina, it was 3 years of work, spread over five years of time.  And she animated it all on her home computer!

I have traveled with the film to film festivals throughout the Unites States and around the world. One of the highlights was representing the film with the American Film Institute’s Project 20/20 Program.  Each year, they select 8 films from around the world to travel to various countries & US cities to create a cross-cultural exchange and dialogue with local communities.  I had the opportunity to travel to 4 different cities in Peru: Lima, Cusco, Puerto Maldonado, and Tarapoto in July 2010.  After each screening, there were Q+A sessions and then I taught interactive Indian Dance Workshops and Master Classes in Bharata Natyam, Garba, and Bhangra to the students at the Bi-National Centers.  It was an experience that will remain with me forever. The Project 20/20 Program has now transitioned to The Sundance Institute under the new name of “Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue.”

This is how I came to be a part of this extraordinary, award-winning film:

Nina Paley was looking for voice-talent for Sita Sings The Blues and started blogging about an upcoming audition for the project. I received the casting notice via a list-serve I participated in called – SAWCC (South Asian Women’s Creative Collective). I emailed Nina, got an audition time and went in and read a few scripted lines of dialogue… a week later she called me and said she liked my voice for the role of Sita.

Once we started working on recording the dialogue she had written, she asked me about musicians for the soundtrack. When Todd took a look at what I was working on for Nina’s movie, he was amazed at Nina’s talent as an animator and was fascinated by the story she was telling. I told Nina, Todd was interested in composing music for the project.  She then asked him to be the composer… to score it, and create original tracks/songs. The opening title track music was created after Nina described exactly what she wanted musically and Todd gave her various ideas. Once the title track was complete, Nina animated the opening sequence to the music. The result was stunning both musically and visually!

Then, Nina asked Todd to compose the Fire Song – “Agni Pariksha.” Todd came up with the melody and music, my mother- Laxmi Shah, wrote the lyrics in Hindi, and I sang the song and recorded it in our home studio, out of our Brooklyn, NY apartment in Williamsburg. It was a wonderful experience all around to work with Nina, my husband Todd, and my mom Laxmi.  I also danced in the “Agni Pariksha” sequence as Nina filmed me dancing in front of a green screen and traced my movements & expressions for that segment.

You can download “Agni Pariksha” and other songs from the SITA SINGS THE BLUES soundtrack directly from Reena’s website: http://www.DancingReena.com

BG: What are your aspirations for the future? Is there a set goal in mind?

RS: I want to keep telling stories through music, dance, theater, film, comedy, character voice-over work, narration, my drawings, and artwork. I am currently writing and would like to develop my ideas into short stories, poetry, plays, and screenplays. And of course, someday, I want to do a one-woman show. I also would love to record my own music and songs as well. There is need for me to react to the world around me at all times, and that is what drives me and inspires me to create.

I continue to seek out creative projects that will challenge me. In my artistic career thus far, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented and fearless artists, where we touch upon subjects that are taboo for the South Asian community to talk about openly. I am an artist and an activist and will continue to make art and support art.

Up Next for Reena: The Independent Feature Film ASHES
RS: I had the honor of working with actor Ajay Naidu (Office Space & HBO’s Bored to Death) on his directorial film debut, ASHES, in which he also stars and co-wrote. I play the supporting role of Chandini, his love interest, who is the voice of reason in the film. Ajay just won the Best Actor Award at the 10th Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival in NYC for his brilliant work in this touching and cautionary tale of mental illness, greed, and the definition of family both real and imagined. The film is about two brothers living in the inner city, as one descends into the grips of manic depressive schizoid disorder, the other, Ashes, absconds from his responsibility and tries to become a wealthy drug dealer. Fraught with contradiction, the story is a meditation on how easy it is to fall through the cracks of today’s health care system and how we ultimately find grace in the face of suicide.

Next Screening: Tongues on Fire 13th London Asian Film Festival’s Closing Night Film on March 27th, 2011.

If you’re interested in My Pet Dragon or learning more about fellow Brown Girl, Reena Shah, check out the following website: http://www.mypetdragon.net/

Feature Image Source: https://nadabrahman.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/dsc_0101sgcrop.jpg?w=240&h=300