Khairani Barokka, an Indonesian artiste and disability activist, who is in the city to establish a cultural and social connect
Khairani Barokka, who performed her poetry at Spoonbill in Chennai recently, described her visit to the city as a mission in which she sought to find out ‘whose version of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana is better: Javanese or Tamil’ on her Facebook events page. “To be honest, that was a joke I wrote for the blurb!” she says, “But it’s true that as a woman of Javanese ancestry, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are big cultural influences for me. My dad and brother both grew up with comic books of these legends. And the Javanese versions of them permeate a lot of Javanese art, including the famous wayang (shadow puppetry). We’ve taken a very Indian lore and made it our own over time, and it’s fascinating to see the differences and similarities; I look forward to learning more.”
Khairani grew up in Indonesia, the U.S., and Australia, with parents “who were and are very socially-aware and social justice-oriented.” She is a performer, artist, writer, disability activist, TEDx alum, and NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad. “I’ve always wanted to come to India, and the opportunity presented itself to do projects here in writing, performance, and lecturing, and freelance consulting out of my laptop, so I’m travelling around for the next two months or so. A friend from my university lived in Chennai for years, and connected me with great people here at IIT Madras, where I was happy to give a guest lecture last week called Messing with ‘Normal’: Art, Activism, and Disability Culture’. I’ve met incredible new friends here, and find the city a lovely discovery,” she adds.
Talking about her brush with disability activism, Khairani says, “It’s been a tremendously fortunate thing to connect with disability communities around the world. And these ties would never have been forged had I not embraced the fact that I am myself an artist with disability. I have a chronic neurological/neuromuscular condition that causes pain, spasticity, muscle rigidity, and fatigue, among other things, and though it’s not always apparent, especially not when I’m well enough to perform and do social activities, my dearest and closest see it on a daily basis. There was a long period of about eight months of resting in bed from 2011 to 2012. Now it still happens, but I’m getting better at pacing myself!” That’s when she realised that all she really wanted to do was to be an artist and writer. Khairani writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and touch on themes of liminality, fluid boundaries, the body, gender, culture, social issues, love, laughter, “and anything else that feeds the flame. I think my first poem was written when I was about five years old,” she says.
She attributes her ability to engage with the arts so freely to her growing up years. “The best things I felt I received from my growing-up years were a strong sense of security in family. There was always love in the house and endless encouragement to pursue my passionsand being a silly, imaginative goose. I also count among real blessings the principle of community and the importance of giving back,” she signs off.