On the evening of Wednesday 6th of December 2017, the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum hosted Serpent Dreaming Women – a poetic storytelling experience bringing together Indigenous Australian and Indian creative practice.
Under the artistic direction of academic, performer and choreographer Dr. Priya Srinivasan, Serpent Dream Women was developed in collaboration with esteemed Gundijtmara women, creative cultural artist Vicki Couzens, visual artist/storyteller Gina Bundle, and dancer/Aboriginal activist Yaraan Bundle, as well as Melbourne-based Indian Carnatic singer Uthra Vijay, and the internationally renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarshini Govind from India.
Drawing on historical research, personal stories and ancestral mythologies, the roving performance piece lead an audience of approximately 150 through the various spaces of the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum. The viewers, welcomed by Yaraan Bundle with a message to listen—not speak—were anointed with a spot of ochre on the chin to signify their role. A small but symbolic gesture in a work that held embodied decolonisation practice as a key consideration.
The Carnatic vocals of Vijay alongside traditional Gundijtmara chantings by Couzens—a haunting juxtaposition of styles—carried attendees through to smaller pieces performed throughout the various spaces of Bunjilaka. Unfolding in a theatrical storytelling style, the piece drew on both the Bharatanatyam dance form and traditional Aboriginal dance in depicting the Hindu epic of the Churning of the Ocean, Aboriginal stories of whale dreaming, the story of Nyankara the Eagle and that of the bird-like creature of Garuda from Hindu mythology. Personal accounts of the artists’ childhoods growing up in Australia were also included, providing little known insights about the relationship between the two cultures. At one point, the audience was audibly surprised as Gina Bundle recounted how Aboriginal children pretended to be Indian to avoid persecution at school.
Oscillating between different performance styles, cultural and personal reference points represented a level of experimentation and risk on the part of all the artists involved – a testament to the relationships built during the development period of the work at the Arts Centre, Playhouse. Such performative choices were also small tributes to greater connections that the artists found in working together on this piece.
In the Q&A following the performance, the artists relayed their surprise at finding similarities between the two cultures’ words, tonal structures of songs, and ancestral stories. Srinivasan suggested such occurrences coincide with increasing evidence of trade between Asia and Australia before colonial settlement, referencing the research and writings of Bruce Pascoe regarding Asian-Aboriginal relations, and also acknowledging the work of Dr Padma Subramanyam whose research identified a range of common words between the two cultures. Vicki Couzens and Yaaran Bundle spoke at length about the importance of women coming together across cultures to cultivate new connections and reinvigorate understandings of our relationship to the earth and to each other. When asked about how more intercultural collaboration between diasporic peoples could be facilitated, Gina Bundle replied simply and emphatically to “just ask”. Dr. Priya Srinivasan also echoed these comments, and acknowledged the important role of institutions in providing opportunities.
Notably, Serpent Dreaming Women was funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and co-commissioned by the Arts Centre and Multicultural Arts Victoria for the Mapping Melbourne Festival, representing a significant effort on the part of major Australian institutions. Melbourne Museum and the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre also co-sponsored the event.
With this history and support behind them, the work-in-progress performance of Serpent Dreaming Women reflects the potential for a contemporary recovery of historical relationships and knowledge through intercultural performance dialogue between Indigenous Australian, Indian and Indian-diasporic artists. It also brings into focus the potential for collaboration between artists of non-English speaking backgrounds as a means to enhance the diversity of creative and intellectual dialogue in Australian arts.