On Monday, July 2, the National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted a conversation with Shabana Azmi, an actress and activist who discussed the power of art and social change. Guests were welcomed by NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling and the Ambassador of India to the United States, Mrs. Nirupama Rao. Sterling began by thanking Azmi, who has appeared in over 140 films in India and internationally, for her contribution to the art world. Ambassador Rao praised Azmi’s activist work benefitting the “faceless millions” of India, for which she has won awards including the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India, the Martin Luther King Professorship Award, and the Gandhi International Peace Award.
The conversation was moderated by writer Aseem Chhabra, who began by asking Azmi questions about her film experience. Trained in the Stanislavski method at the Film and Television Institute of India, Azmi studies extensively to understand her characters. At one point, she “shadowed” a sweeper woman who living in the slums, which forced her to confront societal problems in India. Azmi began using her acting career as an instrument of change: she has participated in televised hunger strikes, marches, and demonstrations for poverty, AIDS, and child survival.
In her acting career, Azmi rejects roles that place woman as subservient, second-class citizens. In one film, which became a huge hit, Azmi played a controversial character who rejects her husband. When posed with the question of how art makes an impact, Azmi explained, “I believe all art—film, painting, literature, dancing, music—has the ability to create a climate of sensitivity that can harbor change.” She stressed her belief that art has the ability to transform mindsets. (Azmi has roles in the upcoming films Midnight’s Children and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.)
Throughout the conversation, the articulate and elegant Azmi gave insightful advice to the audience, especially to students. In India, she described, “Fifty percent of the population is under the age of 25. The young have the power, especially with today’s social media, to make change.” She asked that women continue to seek empowerment, and after attaining it take the opportunity to “change the very notion of power,” lest society remain the same.
For information on upcoming conversations and events at NMWA, please visit www.nmwa.org.
—Kristie Landing is the publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.