Creating Rites of Passage for a New Generation
by Gail M. Burns
How do you create a movement to reclaim and celebrate the journey to and through womanhood? Is such a thing even possible in an evermore pluralistic society? Pooja Prema’s ‘Rites of Passage’ project has been working on creating these concepts over the last decade.
Rites Of Passage, according to the project website, “reclaims and expands the concept of a “rite of passage” to recognize that every significant experience in a woman's life from birth to death - the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and profane - can be a liberatory initiation.”
Prema, an award-winning, multi-hyphenated artist from the state of Kerala, India grew up in New York City and first came to the Berkshires to study at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in 1999. After graduation in 2003 she spent some time on the west coast and traveling in India, before returning to Western MA.
After a decade of hard work on various iterations of the Rites of Passage Project, she is taking a sabbatical. ArtsHub caught up with Prema to find out where she is artistically a year after mounting Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision and what she has planned for this year of rest and reflection.
“I came back to the Berkshires quite by accident and have been here for 13 years. I love the Berkshires, I love the Northeast, but now is a very hard time to find housing here,” Prema lamented. Post-sabbatical one of her goals is finding a permanent work and performance space for Ritual Theatre, the company she founded in 2012, but the current real estate market makes that search a challenge.
"We don’t talk about it - we don’t have a language with which to understand these experiences in our lives, and we don’t have cultural containers to recognize them..."
“I first created the 2013 Rites of Passage production with 60 people (mostly women) from the Berkshires ages 3 to 89. It was a large-scale installation-performance with the intention to use art and theater to bring awareness to and celebrate all the rites of passage women experience from birth to death,” Prema explained. “We don’t talk about it - we don’t have a language with which to understand these experiences in our lives, and we don’t have cultural containers to recognize them. So, I envisioned a literal house with many, many rooms, to express these life changes in a visceral way so the viewer would see and hear and experience each rite of passage.”
“The community that was created was so extraordinary, like nothing any of us had experienced before. I started to create a book about that experience, but I realized it wasn’t complete because there weren’t very many Women of Color involved and there aren’t many Women of Color in the Berkshires - being a 92% majority white region.
So I moved forward and created Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision, where the participants' ethnicities included African-American, Asian-American (Japanese, Taiwanese), Indigenous from North, Central and South America (Mestizo, Colombian, and more), European (French, German), and mixed heritage. It was a rite of passage for the Project itself.”
True to her vision of a house with many rooms, Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision literally took over the 1866 Colt House in downtown Pittsfield, which had been owned by the Women’s Club of Pittsfield from 1937 until acquired by the Whitney Center for the Arts, in the summer of 2021.
The building had been vandalized the previous year, and Prema and her team helped clean and restore the space in order to use it for their project.
“To have the 20/20 Vision happen there, with women from all those different lineages, felt like a reinvention of the Women’s Club,” Prema said.
1 House. 25 Rooms. 65+ BIPOC Female Identifying Artists. 5 Days. 10 Live Performances.
“The most powerful thing was the communities we created each time. It changed who we were on a fundamental level - changed the way we live our lives. And audience feedback showed that people were very deeply touched and profoundly changed. They found that attending the show was a rite of passage in itself.
It wasn’t a normal ‘museum’ or a theater performance in the way people think of it; you were entering a very intimate space where real people were exposing themselves in a very vulnerable way, expressing what it means to them to be a woman - and in 20/20 Vision - a Woman of Color.”
For the past decade Prema has been very focused on her work through The Ritual Theatre and has created more than a dozen site-specific ensemble & solo works, but theater is just one of her passions. “I am a ‘weaver’ in that I weave many art forms - dance, ritual, music, writing, playwriting, the visual arts - together into each work. Separating these art forms is a very colonial concept, and I am deeply influenced by the traditions of South India in which all these aspects are synthesized to produce “a whole work of art”.
"...you were entering a very intimate space where real people were exposing themselves in a very vulnerable way, expressing what it means to them to be a woman..."
So far Prema has held “day jobs” as diverse as working on a flower farm and being a flower arranger and designer; being a caterer of Indian food and teaching cooking classes in Indian cuisine; and been a chocolate maker and running a small chocolate company. “I’m glad I've had all these diverse experiences to inform my artwork moving forward.
It took three years of intensive labor to produce Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision, prompting Prema to consider a sabbatical year. “It was like a childbirth experience with a long gestation, then the birth and postpartum period. Now my body, mind, and soul need time to recuperate and recharge for the next phase of my work. Just as it is good to rotate the crops and let the land lie fallow, artists/thinkers/writers need to allow that fallow time too, but we live in a society that makes it very difficult. The point of this sabbatical is not to make anything happen but to sit back and let the process reveal itself.”
“This is such a heartbreaking time to be alive on planet Earth. I need to recharge, dream, research, be inspired, and think about what I want to create next, and how best to serve. It’s a blessing to have this time. The creation of new work has been ongoing since 2012, and so this period of rest is not even optional, honestly. It is a privilege, an honor, and a necessity.”
Prema does want to write more. She is continuing her work on a book that will help others recreate the Rites of Passage experience: “Ultimately, I hope for women around the world to create their own Rites of Passage ‘living museums,’ because there are infinite versions of what a rite of passage is. We will also be making a short documentary film about Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision, and eventually we will create a virtual museum on our website.”
And seeking a home for her work, a field in which to plant her dreams, is on the horizon. “I have visions and dreams of what I want to create next, but I need the right conditions so the seeds can take root. I want to find a permanent home for my work, where I can create theater, offer workshops, build community and healing”.
“All of my work so far has been site-specific,” she added, “but we haven’t been based in any one location. I don’t want a theater building, but rather I need land, a nest for the work, a long term rooted connection. I’m not actively looking right now, but I’m open. Ideally the right place will come to me or be brought to my attention.”
To finance the post-sabbatical phase of her work Prema has started a non-profit called Living Culture that can receive tax-deductible donations. She encourages those interested in her work to visit RitesofPassageProject.org/2020Vision and watch the Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision film which is a 60-minute walk through of that live event.
“We had a screening of that film at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC in November 2021, and that was such an honor,” Prema said. “We welcome inquiries about screenings at festivals, at museums, universities, and other venues. People can also check out the last ten years of work of The Ritual Theatre online and read about our origins and mission. I’m excited to see what this next decade will bring!”
"I have visions and dreams of what I want to create next, but I need the right conditions so the seeds can take root. I want to find a permanent home for my work, where I can create theater, offer workshops, build community and healing."
Main photo: Pooja Prema by Janine Strong