Tara Iyer ’24 Explores South Asian Women’s Identity and Representation in Senior Thesis

6 min read

Hannah Lorenzo ’24

A&E Editor

As the spring 2024 semester starts winding down, some seniors are demonstrating their hard work during the course of the year with their thesis presentations. Tara Iyer ’24, a double major in political science and theater and dance, showcased her theater and dance thesis at the Trinity College Chapel fountain and Cloister Garden on April 8, 2024. In a cultivation of her studies in both arts and sociopolitical activism, Iyer’s thesis reimagines the public image of South Asian women, reflecting her own identity as a South Asian woman from Mumbai, India.

The foundation of Iyer’s thesis stems from her motivations to represent and explore the histories of her heritage. Iyer said, “One of the biggest issues in South Asian culture is that there is no avenue or space for South Asian women in conversation about pleasure, sex and intimacy.” Also inspired by her studies on postcolonial theory and Orientalism, Iyer challenges both the exotification and invisibility of South Asian women in these discussions by empowering their presence in her thesis.

As a devised piece, Iyer’s thesis centers on her collaboration with South Asian women at Trinity, and she explained that they “work together on a prompt, build on something together through workshops, and find different pieces of things that work.” Along with having no established script, Iyer relied on these workshops and the ethnographic interviews she conducted with other South Asian women. Some of the questions that Iyer asked include “what their thoughts on intimacy, sex and pleasure were. What kind of experiences they have had, and whether they think it is something that they felt good talking about in society.” These interviews make up the performance soundtrack of her thesis. Instead of the conventional-style music, Iyer incorporated her interview audio as a way to bring these women’s voices to the forefront.

Photo by Sabrina Codrington ’25

Iyer’s decision to locate her site-specific thesis at the Trinity College Chapel fountain relates to the important themes surrounding nature and her South Asian background that she emphasizes. “There is a very big relationship between intimacy and sex and nature in South Asian literature and South Asian culture, especially with water,” Iyer said. “The fluidity of water is thought very much to be in sync with the fluidity of sexuality and sex. In a lot of movies or songs, you will see the motif of water and flowers and nature being present. I wanted to bring that into the thesis.”

Her experience in the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program in fall 2022 contributed to how she wanted to approach this thesis. Her 7-minute piece for the program became a starting point for her ongoing search into her identity and representation through art. “My piece was about the immigrant experience of feeling alienated, coming into a new society or in a predominantly white society. That was also very similar, that it was a very devised piece. There was no text, no dialogue, and I think my thesis stems from similar experiences,” Iyer said. “It is like my LaMama performance 2.0, more well-thought-out, well-researched and a little more in-depth about identity. That one [LaMama performance] was scratching the surface.”

Iyer’s thesis further connects to her distinct perspective of political art. She noted that her political science background bonds the artistic expressions and sociopolitical messages that are significant to her. “I have always been super into experimental off-the-radar art, especially because I was always very much into the political art world,” Iyer said. “It was really amazing to go do that [Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts] program and see that there is an avenue for political art in this experimental underworld of theater that can live and thrive very much.”

This semester, Iyer is in the process of writing another thesis for her political science major that revolves around theater theory, in which she analyzes the role of social media in the development of right-wing Hindu nationalism as well as ties to Indian nationalism and identity. For this thesis, Iyer studies the performative nature of politics. “There is an element of fabrication. There is an element of putting on a facade. We literally call it political actors and audience. You are creating a stage for something to happen in politics. What is it that the right-wing government is doing on social media? What are their strategies? How are they putting on the spectacle, the show, for audiences to view?”

Centered on the concept of identity once more, Iyer’s political science thesis delves into another form of political art through the performative politics of social media and the impact on the audience’s perception of national unity. Iyer said, “What are they getting out of this performance, and how that is changing their very identity. That is changing the very fabric of Indian nationalism, of Indian democracy and how we understand ourselves to be Indian.”

In her senior year, Iyer looks back at the experiences she gained as an artist. At Trinity, she participated in shows like “The Pillowman” in 2021, held the position as production assistant for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut and directed a play during the 24-Hour Play Fest for the 2024 Spring Bicentennial Symposium. From these opportunities, she recalls the positive relationships that she gained from the arts community and fellow seniors with thesis projects.

“Other students have been a really big support in finding the strength to do things and make sure that I am feeling supported and reminding me of how much I can do,” Iyer said. “Their artistry has taught me so much that it feels like you know that you are not doing all of this in a vacuum. You are doing this with other people, you are doing this in collaboration, even if it is two different theses. Our theses are not similar, but I know I can rely on you, and you can rely on me. That has been a really important aspect to working.” 

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