Changing Focus with Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri and Organizing Stories

April 28, 2021
A scene from "Legend of Lady White Snake" (2015) directed by Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri. The film was discussed as an example of reinventing mythology to "counter-colonize the gaze."

By Michael Harrington

Organizing Stories is a student-focused project founded and directed by Monica Huerta (English; American Studies) and Autumn Womack (English; African American Studies) and supported by an Exploratory Grant in Collaborative Humanities from the Humanities Council, as well as the Dean of the Faculty, the University Center for Human Values, the Department of African American Studies, and the Princeton African Humanities Colloquium.

In the final Organizing Stories workshop of the academic year, multidisciplinary mythopoeic artist, anthropologist, and social justice advocate Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri led a spirited workshop on the “heteropatriarchal gaze.” Pal-Chaudhuri first explained how this normative gaze, despite its intangibility, shapes the world and its stories. Pal-Chaudhuri described, “Having colonized the globe, the settler-colonial straight male gaze dominates film and art, distorting humanity’s representation and self-reflection through a narrow lens.” As Pal-Chaudhuri noted, this gaze can shape and be deployed by anyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, people are impacted by and have the capacity to ascribe to heteropatriarchal norms, often without realizing it.        

As an artist, Pal-Chaudhuri uses film and digital storytelling to counteract this totalizing gaze. For her, storytelling is a political act. Referencing neuroeconomist Paul Zak, she noted some of the neurological effects storytelling has on the brain, such as an increase in cortisol and oxytocin, actually make individuals more likely to take action. Pal-Chaudhuri specifically re-employs mythology. She offered the example of her film, “Legend of Lady White Snake,” a project based on an ancient Chinese mythological figure. Whereas Lady White Snake has historically been seen as an evil demoness, Pal-Chaudhuri’s film modernizes the figure, using the myth to explore heteronormative power dynamics as well as transgender and trans-species metamorphosis. Returning to and reinventing mythology affords one the opportunity to, “counter-colonize the gaze… allowing one to engage with popular ideas by subverting, inverting, and otherwise messing with them.”

Digital storytelling is another way in which modes of seeing the world can be altered. Pal-Chaudhuri’s Organizing Stories workshop powerfully modeled how these shifts can occur every day and how we can inspire each other to make such shifts. Pal-Chaudhuri invited workshop participants to speculate on a series of startling statistics. After sharing their initial notions, Pal-Chaudhri revealed while only 13% of art works in major U.S. museums are by woman––and only 1% by woman of color––85% of nude portraits in major U.S. museums are of women. Pal-Chaudhuri used these statistics to preface her project “BE THE SUBJECT NOT THE OBJECT,” an initiative in which she collaborates with diverse female and non-binary subjects in order to reframe the narrative on woman. The project rewrites these statistics in featuring individuals for their talent rather than how their nudity conforms to the male gaze.

Pal-Chaudhuri used the workshop setting to ask participants who they thought ought to be a part of the project. Suddenly, the Zoom workshop format came alive, as a series of names began rushing through the event’s chat: Zanele Muholi, ORLAN, Margaret Mead, Greta Thunberg, Grace Roselli, Avery Williamson, Paula Kahumbu, Kara Walker, Maysa Daw, Juana Colon, Malalai Joya, Wangaari Mathai, Amanda Gorman, Zainab Salbi, Lady Gaga. This series of names, some perhaps more well-known than others, but all brilliant in their own right, showed how Pal-Chaudhuri’s project became accessible to the entire workshop community. The workshop not only encouraged individuals to consider the forces that shape the art they consume but also invited them to rely on those around them to encounter new artists, new perspectives, and new stories.

Pal-Chaudhuri’s workshop displayed the power of communal crowdsourcing, a tool through which individuals can reveal and upturn their own biases as well as counter-colonize the lens through which they see the world. As Organizing Stories co-director and co-founder Autumn Womack explained at the conclusion of the workshop, “In this past year, we’ve all been mobilizing forms of visual media… and I think you invited us all to think about how we see every day, and how that’s impacted and filtered and also how we can reorientate ourselves.” While the heteropatriarchal gaze may certainly feel totalizing, Pal-Chaudhuri’s workshop helped reveal some ways in which the material for reorienting reflection is available to us all.

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