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South Asia Institute Hosting 1st Freedom Festival This Weekend, Celebrating Region’s Independence Through Art

The two-day festival will feature music, dance performances and more. It celebrates South Asian independence while reckoning with the pain of Partition.

The South Asia Institute is holding its inaugural Freedom Festival this weekend, celebrating 75 years of the region's independence through the arts.
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SOUTH LOOP — Chicago’s South Asia Institute, a nonprofit amplifying voices from South Asia and its diaspora through art, is hosting its first outdoor festival this weekend.

The Freedom Festival is 1-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday at the institute, 1925 S. Michigan Ave. The event celebrates 75 years of South Asian independence and will include performances from local and international artists, including Chicago-based musician Zeshan B. and dance companies Ishti Collective and Soham Dance Space.

The festival is in conjunction with an art exhibition on Partition, the splitting of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The exhibit — called Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories: Partition Anti-Memorial Project — showcases art by Indian-born American artist Pritika Chowdry, whose work catalogs the violence of colonialism and imperialism.

Tickets for the exhibit start at $5, but the institute is offering free admission during the Freedom Festival. The festival is free to attend, but online registration is recommended. You can register for Saturday and Sunday performances here.

This is the institute’s first outdoor festival since it was founded in 2015 by Shireen and Afzal Ahmad, Pakistani immigrants who moved to Chicago in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They previously worked as physicians, and Shireen Ahmad previously was a professor at Northwestern University.

South Asian independence is something to celebrate because the region was ruled by the British before Partition, Shireen Ahmad said.

“So there was something to celebrate,” she said. “But then some of the communal violence and riots that happened afterwards were quite significant. It has been referred to as the holocaust of South Asia.”

The festival and exhibit reckon with the joy of independence and the pain of Partition.

The institute’s physical location opened in 2019.

It was born out of the artwork the Ahmads hung in their home, as they have collected South Asian art for more than 50 years, Shireen Ahmad said. The two initially only shared their art collection with friends and acquaintances, but, as the collection grew, they wanted to share it with a wider audience, Shireen Ahmad said.

“It’s a very personal collection,” Shireen Ahmad said. “We’re accidental collectors. We never planned on this being a major collection. It started when we first came into this country, not identifying with American art. That’s not what we were going to have on our walls.”

The institute features the couple’s collection — which Shireen Ahmad said includes more than 900 pieces — as well as rotating exhibits, and it showcases and promotes South Asian artists.

“There’s a lot of contemporary work that is really exciting,” Shireen Ahmad said. “We wanted to share some of that and educate people about that. … South Asians have been in this country for over 100 years, and we haven’t really communicated much about our culture and our heritage.”

Ishti Collective, a local dance company rooted in Indian tradition but bringing together artists from all backgrounds, will perform a four-part dance routine Sunday to celebrate South Asian independence and acknowledges the pain caused by Partition.

The dance group’s board director, Chitra Nair, said she’s visited the institute many times and really wanted to partner with it.

“It just so happened they reached out to us,” said Nair, who is also a dancer.

Zeshan B. will perform music from his repertoire Sunday, including a fusion song of the Indian and Pakistani national anthems and Urdu songs written by poets and writers impacted by Partition.

“My music is very socially conscious in nature,” he said. “So, I’m going to choose songs that I feel bring people together.”

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