Not so ordinary: Desh Balasubramaniam

Artistic director. Community idealist. Ambitious.

Desh Balasubramaniam was born in Sri Lanka, and now lives in Australia, by way of New Zealand. He founded Ondru in his Melbourne backyard.

Desh B (Photo: Amy Feldtmann)
Desh Balasubramaniam (Photo: Amy Feldtmann)

Tell us a little bit about your arts organisation, Ondru:

Ondru is an arts organisation committed to provoking thought and evoking change through art. Ondru is a Tamil word meaning ‘one, equality or become one with’. For Ondru it means the place where people and ideas come together, and where diversity unites. Ondru was founded with an intention to make people feel and think, as a voice to express many of our human conditions in a unique manner through art and literature, and with the desire to make positive change.

What made you interested in starting Ondru?

I have always had questions over my identity throughout my life. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in the war-torn northern and eastern provinces and at the age of thirteen, fled to New Zealand with my family on humanitarian asylum and later raised there. All these led to many questions over who I was and where I belonged.

Over many years, I had asked myself Am I a Tamil? Or Am I A Sri Lankan? Or Am I a Kiwi? Or Am I something else altogether? I had felt that if I was one of these titles alone, I would betray the others.

I wanted to create a place where we could express and discuss these questions of identity and the conditions of humanity – tell stories of people from all walks of life through art. My continuous journeys had further evoked my passion for expressive art and embarked me on the endless quest in search of identity. This is really what led me to founding Ondru.

What is the focus of Ondru at the moment, and what is planned for the coming year?

We are hoping to further build our financial and organisational capacity over the next 15-months. We are currently working towards opening an office in Melbourne that will support a hub for us to conduct our work. In terms of creativity, we are focused on taking the Ondru Voiceless Journeys photography projectwhich highlights some of the experiences of people from diverse backgrounds have had leaving their homeland, across Victoria and across Australia. We also want to turn Voiceless Journeys into a documentary film, book and digital projection. As well as Voiceless Journeys, Ondru is developing a multi-art performance that expresses the beauty and challenges of autism, and setting up a theatre of empowerment in Sri Lanka. There is much to do but it is an exciting time for both Ondru, and myself.

Voiceless Journeys ACU Exhibition, Brunswick Street, August 2013 (Photo: Sebastian Avila for Ondru)
Voiceless Journeys ACU Exhibition, Brunswick Street, August 2013 (Photo: Sebastian Avila for Ondru)

What was your hope or intention when you started? Have you met that, or has it grown into something different?

Ondru was founded in a backyard in Melbourne with an intention to make people feel and think, as a voice to express many of our human conditions in a unique manner through art and literature, and with the desire to make positive change. I don’t think we can ever move away from these intentions. This is what defines our purpose and existence. We have achieved this in a sense that we are present today and continue to exist.

The first Ondru event held in a backyard
The first Ondru event held in a backyard (Photo: Ondru)

Is there anything you have done a bit differently to others that has lead to a great success? 

We have tried to build Ondru in an organic manner and learning from its trials and tribulations. This has been a slow process and continues to be, but I have always believed it’s important to build an organisation in a collective manner with a strong identity, culture and values. This is not about drafting this information on a piece of paper but developing them in a collective manner through our experience of doing over considerable time. This has enabled the strong foundation of Ondru that we hope will help us work with resilience towards our ambitious vision.

What has been the biggest challenge with Ondru?

The biggest challenge with Ondru has been the common challenge one has with creating anything, and that is the challenge of making it last forever. Perhaps this is idealistic! What I mean by this in a strategic sense is that the biggest challenge has been about how to make Ondru sustainable. This relates both to financial sustainability as well as organisational sustainability which relates to building organisational capacity and capability. I think this challenge will continue to exist and evolve as we grow and take shape.

Desh speaking at an arts event Gishiki 25, in February 2012 (Photo: Ondru Arts)
Desh speaking at an arts event Gishiki 25, in February 2012 (Photo: Ondru)

What are you most proud of about Ondru?

That Ondru is slowly becoming what it is defined by, and that is that Ondru means one, a place where people and ideas come together; where diversity unites. We have created a place of belonging, a sense of community that is creating art to provoke thought and evoke change. At this present moment, this may be done in a small-scale, but I’m proud that we have built this; this sense of community. When community comes together like the way the five fingers comes together in a hand, anything is possible, absolutely anything!

If there is one person you could sit down and talk with about what you do, who would it be and why?

I would like to sit down and talk to my grandfather who passed away when I was very young. He was a man who always believed in ideas and how they were possible with sheer hard work and resilience. This has always resonated with me.

What place do you feel most creative in, and is there a time of day that you feel most creative?

I don’t have a specific space or time where I feel most creative. To me, inspiration comes in midst of living, where my five senses are amplified to evoke thought. This can happen in any space at any time and you will often see me carrying a notebook to write these thoughts down.

I think creating a space to have some balance and reflect on things is important. To me this can come from the four-way Skype conversation with my mum, dad and my siblings, or lazing around with friends and family, cooking with fresh herbs from my garden, traveling off the beaten path, escaping into the hills and valleys to hike, my Thursday night drives to Brunswick with my soccer teammates. Or just lying down at a lookout reading or watching the world go by.

In five words, how does Ondru make you feel?

Ondru makes me feel that a “world we imagine is possible”.

Desh B (Photo: Amy Feldtmann)
Desh Balasubramaniam (Photo: Amy Feldtmann)

You get can more information about Ondru at the Ondru website, Facebook, Vimeo or Twitter account . Desh is also on Twitter @_deshB.

:: ‘Not so ordinary’ is a project that shines a light on regular people doing amazing things, making a difference, or just living a passionate and interesting life. Please share this story using the social media buttons below and the hashtag #NSOpeople — thank you! ::

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