The urgent and beautiful work of healing
Artist-scholar Karishma Bhagani’s graduate repertory play about grief and loss is informed by her research on African and South Asian diaspora storytelling.
By the time it came to life on stage, Karishma Bhagani’s winter quarter workshop production Haldi and Honey, the story of a South Asian Ismaili Kenyan woman, had been generations in the making.
The Mombasa-born Bhagani is a Knight-Hennessy scholar with deep professional roots in the East African theater community. She and fellow countrywoman Aleya Kassam, a writer and performer, set out to collaborate on a play about the experience of being a South Asian woman in their home country. The result was an intergenerational conversation for the stage, inspired by their grandmothers and informed by Bhagani’s scholarly interest in the migration of Indians to Kenya.
“Aside from this being a moment for us to connect over our grandmothers who passed away around the same time, we wanted the play to be a story about grief and, more importantly, about healing,” said Bhagani about her collaboration with Kassam. “While the story is extremely specific to the Kenyan context, we believe that the messages in the text are universal.”
It was so humbling to have audiences come up to us after the show and tell us that they wept because this story felt like their own.
African and South Asian diaspora storytelling and generating sustainable creative economies in East Africa are two areas of research focus for Bhagani, who is involved with several international theater production companies including the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative, the Kampala International Theatre Festival, and Octopus Theatricals in New York. The development of the two-actor play Haldi and Honey was an application of her arts-driven research and creative skills. Three performances were presented in the Nitery Theater in the Old Union earlier this month as part of the Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) Graduate Repertory 2023.
The intimate black box theater was an ideal environment for cast and crew to connect during the performance and for the audience to feel part of the drama unfolding just feet away. Observing that many people put aside opportunities to grieve fully and heal in a world rife with challenges, Bhagani and Kassam hope their play allowed those on, off, and behind the stage to do both. “We wanted audience members to process and contend with their grief from loss, generational trauma, or otherwise in the space with us. It was so humbling to have audiences come up to us after the show and tell us that they wept because this story felt like their own,” said Bhagani.
Haldi and Honey traces the journey of Jugni, a South Asian Ismaili Kenyan woman, played by Veenaa Agrawal, ’25, on the morning of her grandmother’s burial ceremony. In the pre-dawn hours, she performs a series of rituals to allow her grandmother’s soul to rest in peace, deepening her relationship with her ancestors in the process. Agrawal is joined on stage by Avantika Alok Shah, ’25, playing the role of Jugni’s grief.
For Agrawal, the role of Jugni was a chance to explore the intersection of her cultural identity as a woman born in Mumbai, India, and raised in Accra, Ghana. “Despite being an Indian-Ghanaian actress, many of the productions that I have been a part of in the past have been centered around the white person’s experience,” she said. “For the first time ever, I played and interacted with characters that looked like myself, that had similar upbringings to myself, that feel like me, my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother.” Agrawal points out that Haldi and Honey is about generations of Indian-African women, and it was written, directed, and performed by Indian-African women of different ages. “In the process of bringing Haldi and Honey to life, I have never felt closer to my own mother and grandmother.”
The making of artist-scholars
The winter graduate repertory performances are an opportunity for second-year PhD students in TAPS to demonstrate their theater-making skills by staging original work that speaks to their research and interests. The productions engage graduate students in developing their skills early in the program, and expose undergraduates to mentorship opportunities and career pathways as designers and performers.
“Karishma’s Bhagani production of Haldi and Honey is a fantastic example of the work that our TAPS PhD students do in our department, by combining an artistic project with a scholarly investigation,” said Michael Rau, assistant professor and artistic director with TAPS. “Our program prides itself on training artist-scholars who integrate theory and practice, and these graduate repertory productions are an example of our commitment to that idea.”
The play’s small cast and creative team will allow the play to travel sustainably to festivals and theaters worldwide, and Bhagani and Kassam want to take the next iteration of Haldi and Honey to Europe and East Africa. But first, they are excited to return to the rehearsal room and workshop changes based on what they learned from the staging premiere at Stanford.
“Haldi mixed with honey is what my grandmother always prescribed for anything that needed healing, and now more than ever before, for so many of us, the work of healing feels necessary, urgent, and most of all, beautiful,” said Kassam.
Listen to Bhagani in conversation with Marina Bergenstock about the play as part of the TAPS Tablework Podcast here.