Speaking with Rohit Chokhani, you can hear the passion in his voice for the cultivation of the arts, in particular the medium of theatre, and forging a path for future generations of South Asian talent.
Chokhani has had a rich, diverse career from completing his masters in computer science and producing video games for popular TV shows and movies to transitioning to the arts world as an award-winning producer and cultural leader.
For the last four years, Chokhani has been the Producer for Diwali Fest, the largest Diwali-themed festival in the Lower Mainland with events spanning over six weeks. He is also the Artistic Producer for South Asian Arts Society, which strives to create performance and educational opportunities for amateur to professional artists. This past summer, Chokhani was the Apprentice Director for Bard on the Beach and assisted Director Johnna Wright for the production of ‘Merry Wives of Windsor.’
Around the world and in Canada, there is a conversation taking place around inclusivity in regards to mainstream professional arts, says Chokhani, adding “How do we represent marginalized cultures on the main stages? There is nothing wrong with the Eurocentric practice of arts, but often times, projects that are funded or seen as high quality productions are coming from Eurocentric traditions of creating arts, and not so much as other traditions like the South Asian tradition.
For me, that whole balance needs to shift and equate. A lot of that is happening, the Canada Council for the Arts just made a groundbreaking announcement to completely change their funding model to make it more inclusive. This is a great stepping stone the council has taken, as it’s very important to represent artists of colour, especially women of colour, on our stages.”
As South Asian arts continue to evolve and emerge in Canada, Chokhani has often reflected upon South Asian artists in theatre and questions like “What about South Asian theatre artists? Why don’t we have representation in theatre? Why don’t we create that?” have arisen over the years.
As a result, Co-Producers Chokhani and Gurpreet Sian, along with the South Asian Arts Society, founded the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts. In its inaugural year, the Monsoon Festival ran from August 11-21, 2016 in both Vancouver and Surrey highlighting South Asian theatre.
According to Chokhani, the festival focused on local and international artists and its goal was to showcase a variety of performing arts from critically-acclaimed international plays like ‘Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan (New York)’ to comedy sketches like ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Chicken’ and the full-length play ‘Kehar Singh Di Maut (The Death of Kehar Singh).’
An initiative near and dear to Chokhani’s heart is Project SAT (South Asian Theatre). Supported during its first year by the Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council and the National Arts Centre – English Theatre, Project SAT is an ambitious development initiative that has multiple phases and will take several years to complete with the end goal to “create a network for developing, touring, producing and presenting national and international South Asian-themed theatre projects in Canada.”
“What I want to do is to create opportunities for South Asians, not just opportunities in the mainstream but to create a new mainstream for them,” says Chokhani. “We don’t have to come from Bollywood to be a successful South Asian artist, so how do we create an initiative where there is training, workshops and other things for artists in British Columbia, so they don’t have to go to India to learn the roots of their culture.”
Some phases of Project SAT are currently underway, and a great example is development programs such as workshops that provide an educational environment for artists to learn from professionals in the industry. “It’s a massive vision, but I have plans of what needs to happen every year between now and 2020,” says Chokhani, adding that there has been tremendous support from multiple arts organizations and societies and national/international partners that all want to assist Project SAT into becoming a reality.
As Artistic Producer of Diwali Fest, Chokhani strives to diversify the programming and one of his mandates has been expanding the theatre component. In 2015, Chokhani, in partnership with The Cultch (theatre), brought in the world-renowned play ‘Nirbhaya’ from India based on the Delhi gang rape. ‘Nirbhaya,’ winner of the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, was a successful hit with festival attendees. As a result, Diwali Fest was approached by multiple theatre companies and the 2016 lineup of events featured plays from different regions of India – North, South, East – showcasing the diversity of the nation and its people.
Throughout his career, Chokhani has worked on a wide array of projects. From his earlier management days at Foundation 9 Entertainment, he worked with clients like Fox, Pixar, Disney and Nickelodeon to produce video game products such as ‘Dora the Explorer,’ ‘SpongeBob Square Pants’ and ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks.’ In the theatre world, some of his nominated and award-winning projects as a general manager for Touchstone Theatre include ‘The Romeo Initiative’ (4 Jessie nominations), ‘The Concessions’ (3 Jessie nominations), ‘Mrs. Singh & Me’ (2015 Pick of the Fringe Award – South Asian Arts) and ‘Siddhartha: The Journey Home’ (2011 Talk of the Fringe Award – Akasha Arts).
As our conversation comes to an end, Chokhani has advice for parents with artistically ambitious children. “Your concerns are genuine. As an artist that has struggled, money is not the only motivation for what we do, hopefully the work that I do and the artists that will be represented at our festivals is proof enough that you can make a living out of being an artist. I am now honoured and privileged to survive completely out of my work in the arts, so it is possible.”