Bindu Poroori Finds Power In Being Tender
Written by Vocalo Radio on August 10, 2023
Chicago’s Bindu Poroori channels honesty and vulnerability in all facets of her work, whether it be writing, playing music or community organizing. The former curator of weekly performance series Salonathon, Poroori feels at home sharing the art and stories of the community — both her own and others’.
Bindu Poroori grew up in Chennai, India, a gigantic metropolis home to the second largest beach in the world. She grew up in a house occupied by her immediate family, her uncle’s family and grandmother.
“It was a crowded house but it was so important to me and the way I came to understand family and personal space,” she recalled.
Attending college in the US, at the University of Chicago, Poroori quickly became politically aware and connected with the city. Around the same time, she began involving herself in the Chicago art scene through the performance series Salonathon, a Monday late-night event at Beauty Bar beginning in 2011 she helped curate. The series celebrated its final installment in February 2018, and has left its lasting impact on all aspects of Poroori’s work today.
“That’s kind of where I developed my really deep love for facilitating other people’s work, which spilled over into the rest of my sort of personal and professional life,” Poroori said. “It allowed for me to start kind of developing a voice of my own as a writer … [Salonathon] cultivated this really incredible environment, where people would get really tender. A real tendency for vulnerability and honesty, which is something that you saw a lot in that room.”
One of Poroori’s primary focuses as a writer is her family — both out of love, and because they are a prominent source of stress. Through her personal reflections on social justice, community and the caste dynamic amongst her family in India, Pororri hopes her story as an immigrant may be helpful to others who have undergone similar experiences.
“Every time a new immigrant tells that story, it’s new, it hasn’t been heard before and is worth putting out in the world,” she said.
Day-to-day, Poroori works as an administrator for nonprofit Arts Alliance Illinois, where she explores her practices as a political educator and organizer through an arts lens. She’s currently in the process of developing a reading group across the state to analyze the nonprofit industrial complex, or the way nonprofit organizations interact with the for-profit world to uphold a capitalist system.
“It involves maintaining a sort of soft social control over communities, over society, through the provision of essential social services that should actually just be made available for free,” she explained. “It only offers enough to keep itself as the provider of those services and of those resources, and never enough to make itself obsolete and actually empower the communities that it serves.”
In this installment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Bindu Poroori provides insight into how her experiences in India and the Chicago arts scene affect her work today, while reflecting on social justice, community and her role in community programming and curating.
Introduce yourself and what you do!
My name is Bindu Poroori. I am a writer, musician, political educator, organizer, curator and nonprofit worker.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Chennai, which is a Tamil speaking city in the state directly south of the state that my family’s kind of historically from. Chennai is a gigantic metropolis, it’s on the coast. It’s home to the second longest beach in the world. It’s a really important part of my identity and of my childhood. I grew up in what we call a “joint family,” so my dad and my mom, and me and my sibling, grew up in the same house as my dad’s brother and his wife and kids, and our grandma. We all lived in the same house. It was a crowded house, but it was also so important to me and the way I came to understand family. And personal space, my concept of personal space! Then had the chance to come to the U.S. for college because my dad found work here.
Tell us about your work, and the journey of getting into what you do now.
I got politicized in college in a way that made me feel already, as a 20 year old, really deeply connected to the rest of the city. And at the same time, I was also getting into the art world, discovering this incredible community of artists, DIY artists, performance artists, through a beloved performance series that I helped curate for a while called Salonathon at Beauty Bar. And so that also just created this community that I really did not want to leave behind.
What is Salonathon?
Salonathon is, was, an incubator and a home for underground, emerging and genre-defying art. That was the tagline. And its main form was in a Monday night performance series at Beauty Bar in West Town, more or less for about eight years or so. Me and three other phenomenal, amazing humans curated and ran that show. We shut it down in 2018. I miss it a lot. But yeah, that kind of got me into the game. And that’s kind of where I developed my really deep love for facilitating other people’s work, which spilled over into the rest of my sort of personal and professional life, too, in terms of what I like doing. It allowed for me to start kind of developing a voice of my own as a writer, because at Salonathon, that just kind of cultivated this really incredible environment, where people would get really tender. A real tendency for vulnerability and honesty, which is something that you saw a lot in that room. And so I learned the power of being tender.
What do you focus on in your writing?
I write about my family a lot because I love them, and they are also the source of a lot of the turmoil and stress that I think I’ve experienced over the last few years in my adult life. Every time a new immigrant tells that story, it’s new and it hasn’t been heard before, and it’s worth putting out into the world. Because I know that people exist, who haven’t heard exactly my trajectory and might identify with it more than they have with other kinds of immigrant stories in the past. It’s a reflection on immigration, on community and social justice, on caste, what it means to personally live through the enforcement of that caste dynamic by my community and what it means to be in resistance to it, what it means to build community that is interested in kind of radically defying those kinds of power structures. And being in solidarity with other oppressed peoples here in the U.S. And for the last couple years, I’ve been in this really cute dad band called Do the Needful. Yeah, it’s like me and some dads, and a couple of other South Asian people. And actually, we play surf punk covers of Golden Age Bollywood songs, ’60s and ’70s Bollywood music. It’s very, very goofy and very fun.
What is your day job?
My day job is as an administrator and programs manager for Arts Alliance Illinois. I’ve been in the arts nonprofit world, arts and humanities nonprofit world, on and off for basically my whole career. Mostly as a freelancer, mostly as a contractor. What’s cool is that, through my program manager work at Arts Alliance, I get to explore what my political education practice looks like and what my organizing practice looks like. Right now, I’m working on, basically, a reading group for arts administrators across the state of Illinois to develop a shared analysis of the nonprofit industrial complex: where it comes from, and its history and its roots and the roots of philanthropy, and how they both tie into racial capitalism and the prison industrial complex, and what those interlocking forces look like, and what it means for us to live in and work in and resist.
What is the nonprofit industrial complex?
The nonprofit industrial complex refers to the system of nonprofit organizations that interact intentionally with the corporate and for-profit world, with government systems and with society in order to uphold the continuation of a racial capitalist system. That is through controlling and deciding the flow of government resources into the community, and acting as a gatekeeper for those resources. It involves maintaining a sort of soft social control over communities, over society, through the provision of essential social services that should actually just be made available for free. And through the perpetuation of its own existence, by ensuring the nonprofit system does not ever lose the need or the population that it claims to serve. So it keeps, it only offers enough to keep itself as the provider of those services and of those resources, and never enough to make itself obsolete and actually empower the communities that it serves to utilize those resources and directly gain access to those resources themselves. And the nonprofit world is powered by philanthropy. And philanthropy is controlled by and created by the ultra-wealthy of this country, who are never not going to have the interest of maintaining their wealth status. And so they are also never going to reform philanthropy to the extent that they actually start losing their resources.
The system itself is worth examining, because it’s not a neutral structure. And so we need to understand the politics of us working within that structure, the politics of us relying on that structure, the politics of us inviting that structure into the fabric of our communities. And it’s not to say that nonprofits shouldn’t exist or don’t do good work, but a critical understanding of what the work is that nonprofits do and a more radical understanding of the kinds of lives we deserve to lead as people, and the kinds of care and support that we deserve to receive and give each other as communities, outside of the imagination of nonprofits, is really vital to ensuring an exciting and abundant future for ourselves.
What do you love about Chicago?
The city has made me who I am. I feel a lot of kinship with artists who are wrapping their neighborhoods and their city, also from across the city, and get to have access to other people’s stories through the art that they make, which has also been incredibly influential for me.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Photos by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca
Introduction written by Imani Warren and Morgan Ciocca
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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