The South Asia Institute is hosting the 1st Freedom Festival this weekend, celebrating the region’s independence through art


SOUTH LOOP — Chicago’s South Asia Institute, a nonprofit that amplifies the voices of South Asia and its diaspora through art, is hosting its first outdoor festival this weekend.

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

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

The exhibition – called Unbearable memories, untold stories: anti-memory score project – features the art of Indian-American artist Pritika Chowdry, whose work catalogs the violence of colonialism and imperialism.

Tickets for the exhibition from $5, but the institute offers free admission during the Freedom Festival. The festival is free, 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 1960s and early 1970s. They previously worked as doctors and Shireen Ahmad was previously a professor at Northwestern University.

South Asia’s independence is something to celebrate as the region was ruled by the British before partition, said Shireen Ahmad.

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

The festival and the exhibition count with the joy of independence and the pain of partition.

The physical location of the institute opened in 2019.

It grew out of the artwork the Ahmads have hung in their homes, having been collecting South Asian art for more than 50 years, Shireen Ahmad said. Initially, the two only shared their art collection with friends and acquaintances, but as the collection grew, they wanted to share it with a wider audience, said Shireen Ahmad.

“It’s a very personal collection,” said Shireen Ahmad. “We are accidental collectors. We never expected it to be a large collection. It started when we arrived in this country, without 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 says includes more than 900 pieces – as well as rotating exhibitions, and it showcases and promotes South Asian artists.

“There are a lot of contemporary works that are really exciting,” said Shireen Ahmad. “We wanted to share some of that and educate people about it. … 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 steeped in Indian tradition but bringing together artists from all walks of life, will perform a four-part dance routine on Sunday to celebrate South Asian independence and acknowledge the pain caused by partition.

The director of the dance group’s board, Chitra Nair, said she had visited the institute several times and really wanted to partner with him.

“They happen to have contacted us,” said Nair, who is also a dancer.

Zeshan B. will perform music from his repertoire on Sunday, including a song merging the Indian and Pakistani national anthems and Urdu songs written by poets and writers affected by the score.

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

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