Tag Archives: Dance

Fremont-Based Choreographer’s BollyHeels is Challenging Heteronormativity in Dance

South Asian Americans are redefining traditionally heteronormative notions of gender and sexuality. Although the culture is still well on its way towards acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities, Fremont choreographer Amit Patel is bringing Desis — and the dance community as a whole — in the direction of progress. 

Patel, who began learning Bollywood dance when was just 10 years old, is a professional choreographer for the Bliss Dance and Mona Khan companies. From performing at national events like the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C to bagging a spot among the top 48 of America’s Got Talent out of 70,000 acts, Patel has played a major role in the representation of Desi dance on global platforms. His Youtube channel, where he regularly uploads choreography videos for both English and Hindi songs, boasts a whopping 184,000 subscribers. He was a part of Lilly Singh’s historic A Little Late With Lilly Singh’s premiere and a pioneer of Eastern Contemporary, a genre of Patel’s own making where he fuses South Asian and Western styles of dance. He has been featured in KQED’s series If Cities Could Dance.

Patel has been opening doors and bridging barriers for what seems like his whole career, and his latest “Bollywood Heels” projects, where he dances in heels to challenge heteronormative stereotypes, are opening up the dance space for LGBTQ+ community. In an interview with India Currents, Patel chronicles both his journey as a dancer and as a gay Indian American man. 

Image from If Cities Could Dance (Courtesy of KQED)

“There are so many different ways to create social change, from working in politics to working in media,” Patel says. “So for me, when I finally decided to pursue [dance] full-time, what interested me the most was artwork..that helped push the conversation.”  

A Fremont native, he reflected on his upbringing in a ‘tech’ family — one of the many South Asians attempting to reach their version of the American Dream in the Silicon Valley. Bollywood gave Patel the freedom to both connect with his culture as well as a liberating, cathartic mode of self-expression. His love for dance began with the Mona Khan Dance Company, when he joined Khan’s classes held in Milpitas’s India Community Center at eleven years old. 

“Everyone has a different origin story,” says Patel. “There is a huge conversation about identity and what makes “you” you, and what Mona provided [in] her dance company was this opportunity to explore our roots without having to give up the daily things that made us American.” 

It was with Khan’s dance company that Patel learned to fuse Indian music with contemporary techniques, creating the medleys that lie at the heart of the Eastern Contemporary genre. With Eastern Contemporary, Patel helped create that ‘happy’, welcoming space for cultural diffusion in dance. With “Bollywood Heels”, his blend of Kathak and Jazz, he aspires to do the same — this time, for dancers of all genders and sexualities. Patel was inspired to initiate change after coming to terms with Bollywood’s internalized heteronormativity. 

“As a kid watching Bollywood, I didn’t necessarily question Bollywood,” Patel told KQED Arts, reflecting on his childhood experiences. “All those traditional gender roles and expectations of a male dancer, that I would also be placed in. I didn’t necessarily resonate with that.” 

Bollywood Heels seeks to remove these expectations in dance, allowing artists to unabashedly express who they are. 

“I just intended to create a space where any queer person that wants to come can explore this movement without judgement,” Patel mentions in the same interview with KQED Arts. “And, also tie that in with culture, because in our South Asian community, that never existed.”

To learn more about Amit Patel, follow his Instagram and subscribe to his Youtube channel


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar. Her work appears in the Apprentice Writer, Polyphony Lit, Brown Girl Magazine, Parallax Literary Magazine, among many others. 

Mosaic Silicon Valley’s ‘Femina’: Find the Divine in India, Cambodia, & China

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

Nine different (sub) cultural histories and traditions from around the world were co-presented by Mosaic Silicon Valley and Guru Shradha, in a program called Femina. It was a call for the world to step out of their cultural silos and experience the vibrancy of the Bay Area, the dynamism of the feminine, and the unifying power of the Arts to build a gender-balanced world.

As the program director, it was fascinating for me to delve into the compositions and choreographies and see the astounding common threads emerge, golden and self-evident. We’ll explore these findings through the first act of the program called Divine | Awaken featuring Indian, Cambodian, and Chinese art forms. Femina’s Divine | Awaken was an ode to the celestial and mythological – It was a call for all of us to find our divine and enlightened selves.

Guru Shradha’s Niharika Mohanty urged us to make room for, submit, and surrender to the divine feminine energies of Durga. Along with her Odissi students, Mohanty beautifully re-incarnated the superb sculptures from Indian temples, the forms manifesting god-like in the blue-light of the stage. One journeyed back in time – and saw the sculptors drawing upon their spiritual energies to carve the goddesses in stone. Art is a journey, one realizes, to an inner destination – familiar or invented, real, unreal, or fantastical. One cannot connect to the outside world without having connected within and art accelerates these connections.

Cambodian Classical Dancer, Charya Burt, emulates Cambodian Gods.

The Goddess was visited again by master choreographer and dancer, Charya Burt in the Cambodian Robam Chun Por or The Wishing Dance. It is typically in an opening ceremony, Devada Srey, that is used to convey blessings to the audience through flower petals. I was fascinated by the obvious Indian influences – Deva in Sanskrit is God, for starters. The Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat, is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu; indeed, there exists a version of Ramayana in Cambodia. Contrastingly though, while Indian classical dance uses movement, percussion, and melody to impress the divine upon us on Earth, Cambodian dance is designed to transport us to the heavens; the movements are soft and un-creature-like – Burt seemed to glide, buffeted by centuries of mysticism.

A dancer of the Hai Yan Jackson Compnay recreates art from the Dunhuang Caves.

The Chinese arts reclaimed history, thus solidifying the connection between the Divine and the Human. The Hai Yan Jackson Company presented “Flying Apsaras from Dunhuang.” This dance and its costumes were inspired by the discoveries at Dunhuang Caves which were believed to have been walled up in the 11th century and contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art. Dunhuang was established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty and became an important gateway to the West, a center of commerce along the Silk Road, as well as a meeting place of various people and religions such as Buddhism. My “Indian” radar picked up on the Silk Route and Buddhism. I could feel the palimpsest of time and geography reveal itself in layers. The age-old apsaras appeared before us and the choreography was faithful to the celestial aura.

In Femina, the Mosaic team was able to create a feminine continuum between realms, time, spaces, cultures, and generations, through beautiful art. Happy Women’s History Month to all of you, dear readers! 

The wonderful thing about programming for Mosaic is that it blurs the lines. The narrative may begin as Art imitating Life but then one quickly discovers that it is Life imitating Art. Stories of life – its past, current, and future – are presented on the canvas of culture of, by, for the people in a specific place. Join us and learn more about the Mosaic movement as we catalyze Inclusion and cultivate Belonging in America! 


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Preeti Vasudevan Dances Stories of Ethnic Folklore to Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello

New York-based award-winning choreographer and performer Preeti Vasudevan is known for creating provocative contemporary works from Indian tradition. Founder and artistic director of the Thresh Performing Arts Collaborative, her mission is to create experimental productions that foster a provocative dialogue with identity, and our relationship with heritage cultures and contemporary life. 

Preeti has been recognized by a number of prestigious institutions in the US for her outstanding contribution to dance. Cultural diplomacy is key to her work through education. As an artist alum of the US Department of State, she leads groundbreaking educational initiatives encouraging self-expression and artistic risk through cross-cultural creative exchange among artists and the community.

Preeti partners her educational and creative leadership with world-impacting organizations, such as Silkroad founded by legendary musician Yo-Yo Ma and the National Dance Institute founded by celebrated dancer Jacques D’Amboise. Recently, she started The Red Curtain Project (RCP), a new initiative from Thresh dedicated to sharing stories from around the world. Born during the NYC Covid lockdowns, RCP’s innovative digital stories highlight universal tenets, inspiring children to see connection and unity between cultures, while also encouraging them to live by the principles featured.

In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about her earliest influences, her new operatic musical theater production, and the process of presenting ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop.

How did you get interested in Bharatnatyam, and who were your earliest influences?

I was always interested in dancing, any dance would motivate me. My mother always says that she saw me dancing even before walking! I had this high energy that would make me want to move all the time. As we are from the south of India, I think my mother wanted me to learn the culture from where we are. At that time, I was growing up in New Delhi. So, it was all the more reason not to lose the connection to one’s roots. 

My earliest influences were dances I saw through the cultural exchange programs between India and China and India and the USSR. Living in the capital, we were exposed to some of the most incredible dances, something I had never seen before. The dynamism and costumes all were mesmerizing. I grew up watching some of the Indian greats as well from Kelucharan Mohapatra to Birju Maharaj to the Jhaveri sisters, teachers from the Kalamandalam. 

My first proper influence was my own teacher, the late Shri U.S. Krishna Rao who made me see dance for its own beauty and didn’t make it over precious. He loved cricket and was a chemistry professor, so he put it all in perspective as something all humans must do – dance! My own gurus, the Dhananjayans, were like my second parents. I owe a lot to them beyond dancing. They taught me how to look at life and where movement can come from. These further opened my eyes to the world of human expression through movement.

How did your dance evolve with the influence of a western and eastern range of dance and theater forms while you were teaching in Japan?

Japan made me grow up! I was used to traveling by then, touring and performing a lot. But these were mostly in India or the west. The Far East was still a mystery to us in the 90s. When I got a cultural scholarship to go there, I was partly nervous and excited – I love adventures! Japanese dance, Nihon Buyo made me experience my own body differently. The kimono, which first confined my body, taught me how to use my spine to liberate myself from the inside; the fans held during dance taught me how to channel the energy of emotions through my fingers onto them as an extension of my body. Thus, when I did perform the Bharatanatyam, I felt all these changes from the inside and made my dancing more three-dimensional and alive than before. 

Prior to Japan, I was a cultural delegate at the India International Dance Festival where the American dance festival came to New Delhi for three weeks to teach Indian dancers modern dance. Almost everything was new for me – falling, lying down, and moving, touching another dancer…between giggles and shocks, I learned to open my eyes to see movement as one of the most amazing energies there is! After these two crucial influences, I felt it seamless to collaborate and continue investigating my own approach to dance. Over the years, I have cross-trained in various forms of movement, theater, and voice to keep searching for the next meaning.

Preeti Vasudevan Choreographing at the Joyce Lab.

What is the idea behind your company Thresh, and tell us about some of the work that you do with it?

Thresh is like the threshold – it is about the present – the now. We come with a past and we go into an unknown future. What’s important is how we see and experience the present. It’s the liminal zone. That’s how Thresh came about in 2005 after I completed my Master’s from the Laban Centre in London. It’s an experimental platform to bring international artists together to create a provocative dialogue on identity and our relationship between our contemporary lives and heritage cultures. It’s about finding the universal experience and truth from the diverse voices as a collective.

Tell our readers about the Red Curtain Project, your recent initiative of sharing stories from around the world that was born during the NYC Covid lockdowns.

The Red Curtain Project (RCP) was born due to Covid. When all performances shut down, we had to find out what we stood for and what we could do for the larger society. Digital storytelling came out of this. My husband, Bruno Kavanagh, does online learning and therefore, he jumped in to help Thresh develop this amazing online platform. We have created 14 stories to date including one of our highlights with the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Through RCP, we have also done similar work for a Lebanese organization on stories from the war. Now, we are embarking on a new social impact venture called First Voices where we are working in partnership with the Indigenous people of Montana in the US to create a series on ancestral creation stories. This will lead into school workshops within the reservations to empower the youth with leadership skills through the arts.

Describe the process you use to present ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop?

Thresh has a great network of artists globally who share a common mission of sharing a story. For RCP, we work with children’s book publishers to select stories based on chosen themes and then license them. We then seek composer and visual artists to work alongside me as I do the choreography. This year, I have been the sole dancer due to distancing and restrictions. But from next year, I will be seeking other dancers who can be a part of this incredible sharing. The Red Curtain is a metaphor – in theater, we reveal everything once we open the curtain and the color red has multiple symbolisms the world over. In my apartment in New York, we have a red curtain. I simply used it, and it became the indicator for our project!

What are you working on next?

As mentioned, we have created our project First Voices. On December 10th, we launched the first performance online. We welcome everyone to come to see this and be part of our new adventure. Apart from this, we are also in residence creating a new operatic musical theater production called L’Orient: Search for the Real Lakme. This is a 21st-century take on the 19th-century French opera, Lakme. It looks at gender and Orientalism, and plays with Bharatanatyam, ballet, opera, and Carnatic music. It hopes to be a really fun production with a lively cast of unusual performers. We have received a residency commission from Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum, NY.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul and Bombay Memory Box.

Letters to the Editor: 2/15/2021

Dear India Currents,

I penned a thoughtful article on BLM to celebrate Feb as Black History Month. This is an honest attempt to contribute through Indian Classical dance to the movement. Many asked me to write about this for a long time. February is the ideal time.

We need to understand Black history, and learning more about systemic racism is essential as our country faces backlash to civil rights activists such as the George Floyd protests. We should know Black History Month and how to celebrate it appropriately. The second week of February coincides with Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, a famed abolitionist who escaped from slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln, who formally abolished slavery. Feb. 1 is National Freedom Day, the anniversary of the approval of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. Richard Wright, who was enslaved and became a civil rights advocate and author, lobbied for the day’s celebration.

Young African Americans and all young adults of all colors need to understand and be proud of the heritage and history. The outpouring of support, particularly from white Americans and brown Indians, and all colors, for the Black Lives Matter movement during the nationwide racial justice protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, was a positive step toward recognizing more enduring structural racism forms. Racism is baked into the American system in many ways.

As we know, the world changed after Derek Chauvin put his knees on George Floyd’s neck for 8 mins and 46 seconds. Our collective conscience about the injustice of policing was shaken to the core. But this was not the first in the struggle against police brutality. A century-long journey, through the days of slave patrols, segregation during Jim Crow’s south, civil rights movements, through the beatings of Rodney King, the killing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, the struggle and the protest goes on. Taking a critical look at South Asians in this movement, mostly Indians, we can do more to stand with the oppressed black communities and the racist American state.

Piyali is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher in Seattle foregrounds, collaborating with talented Jasmine Forrest, BFA (Contemporary Dance, Boston Conservatory @ Berklee). Jasmine has a long ongoing history of struggle as a Black ballerina and Contemporary Dancer in the professional world. The renaissance of Indian Classical Dance itself is an outcome of white colonial supremacy and upper-caste demand to be a custodian of “Indian Culture”. White supremacy in contemporary and ballet became standard in the western world.

This is an honest, collaborative attempt to support BLM through art. In this video mix of Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance and music collage, we wanted to portray the movement’s long history against police brutality. Dr. King said, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But we ask, how long would it be before justice prevails? When enough is enough?

Sincerely,

Piyali Biswas De

 

Sadhana is a 501-(c)(3) non-profit organization established in 2019 based in Seattle WA, USA. It aims to explore and highlight ways in which various art-forms can be used to create social campaigns and awareness, to explore and highlight issues that impact everyone, and explore a common thread across diverse cultural forms around the globe. Art is truly a global language; it speaks to our need to express, reveal, heal, and transform. Sadhana aims to nurture and promote arts such as Dance, Music, Theatre, Photography, Creative Writing, Painting, and Fashion to highlight and educate about issues relevant to all of us.


If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact editor@indiacurrents.com with a submission or note. 

Kecak: The Fire Dance of Bali

The barren arena has just a massive black lamp made of stone that dotted the center. No stage setup, no curtains, no extra lightings, no hint of any backstage music either. The arena of Pura Uluwatu in Bali, Indonesia is more like a mini open-air auditorium.

This is the stage for 50 dancers of the famed Kecak (pronounced as Kechak) Dance, a traditional art form of Bali in Indonesia. One is left wondering what kind of dance performance it would be!

A priest in a white garment walks into light of the solo lamp in the center of the circular place and you know the stage is set. The lighting of the lamp is a signal of commencement of the world-famous Kecak Dance of Bali. That stirs up all in their seats, craning their necks not wanting to miss any sight.

Chants of chak chak chak… faint at first grow stronger within seconds! Half clad men; more than 50 in number, dressed in black and white check patterned sarong, chanting chak chak chak, enter the stage. Slightly mind-boggling, it makes one curious – whatever does it mean?!

The men come in a disciplined rhythmic manner, take up their seats in concentric circles at the edge of this circular place chanting chak chak chak and swaying a bit. One by one the main artists make their entry dancing on their nimble feet. With expressive eyes and gestures with fingers, they convey their roles.

Pura Uluwatu arena in Bali, Indonesia.

Slowly the drama unfolds, the story takes shape and the characters evolve distinctly. The chant gets high-pitched whenever the scene climaxes and soon slows down to a murmur too and the men sway according to the same rhythm. 

If you are aware of the story of the Hindu epic Ramayana, you can name each character easily. No need for any lyrics, hymns, or dialogues. Just the mere rise and fall in pitch of the chant of chak chak gave us the overall effect of the drama including the climax and final closure.

The story, a small part of Ramayana: Rama goes hunting for a golden deer on Sita’s insistence. Lakshman stays back to protect Sita, but again on Sita’s insistence, Lakshman goes out to protect Rama. Meanwhile, Rahwana comes seeking alms in the disguise of a beggar. The moment Sita steps out to give alms, Rahwana carries her away to his kingdom.

Rama takes the help of Hanuman, the Monkey God. The drama is infused with humor with Hanuman’s entry. His tail is set on fire by Rahwana’s men and he keeps jumping around spreading terror; albeit with little humor. The dance takes the name Fire Dance from this scene.

While Kecak Dance can be seen in other parts of Bali too, it is at Uluwatu Temple the experience seems exceptional. With the sun setting in the background, the sun’s final rays created amazing silhouettes, and the torches borne by the artists reflecting their dramatic actions and gestures cast a magical spell! 

Chak chak chak… the sound haunts your mind long after the show is over. So, it meant the chatter of monkeys! A story told by the monkeys with no words or lyrics, just chak chak chak, hence sometimes known by the name Monkey Dance too.

Lord Ram in the Kecak Dance retelling of the Ramayana.

How Ramayana reached Bali

Hinduism reached Indonesia from India in the 1st century. The religion crossed seas from the Indian mainland through traders and Hindu scholars.

Ancient Chinese records of Fa Hien of 414 AD mention two schools of Hinduism in Java. Additionally, Chinese documents from the eighth century refer to the Hindu kingdom of King Sanjaya as Holing, describing it as exceedingly wealthy.

Another widely believed reason for the spread of Hinduism in Indonesia is that Indonesian royalty welcomed Indian religions and culture. The rulers first adopted the spiritual ideas of both Hinduism and Buddhism and soon the masses too adopted them. Hindu epics are part of the country’s culture. They believe Hindu epics promote values like loyalty, courage, and integrity of characters.

History of Kecak Dance

Kecak Dance was first developed in Bona, Gianyar during the 1930s. For the people of Bali, dance is a medium of expression of cultural values; they use it to convey their folk history and mythological stories. It is an important part of rituals associated with life, cremation, and death. They perform while praying for the prosperity and health of their community.

Kecak Dance is one of the nine popular forms of dances of Bali. The older version was more a kind of trance ritual. Male performers chanted chak-chak in chorus with different rhythms and pitches. Sanghyang Dance, another traditional dance of Bali, has chorus singers and girls dance in trance. It belongs to the broader classification of Wali Dance, a form of the sacred dance of Bali. The present-day Kecak dance version is a mix of Sanghyang dance and the original form of Kecak dance-themed on the mythological story of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

It was the joint effort of an artist named Wayan Limbak and a painter from Germany, Walter Spies, that put Kecak Dance on the world map of dances. Their goal was to put up a performance for the public. 

Interestingly, since the 1930s, Kecak Dance has been performed by only men. It was until 2006 that women too began to perform this dance. Today Kecak Dance is performed not only in temples but also in cultural parks and in international theatres. However, it is most mesmerizing to watch in Pura Uluwatu in the evenings with a dramatic sunset as background!


Indrani Ghose is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India, and is passionate about travel, culture, cuisines, life stories, and bird watching. She blogs at isharethese.com. 

Cambodian, Odissi, Jazz Artists

Ancient Contemporary: Odissi, Jazz, & Cambodian Classical

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

“Children are taught racism. Children are taught diversity. They don’t see it; they only see human. Two words: education and exposure. What are children educated about and what are they exposed to?” Coleen Lorenz, artistic director of New Ground Theater asked, and went on to affirm that she loves the Arts because they are the symbol of universal being-ness, of who we are at birth

This was part of the conversation when Coleen; Niharika Mohanty, artistic director of Guru Shradha Dance; Charya Burt, classical Cambodian dancer and teacher; and I met for the sixth episode, Ancient Contemporary, of Mosaic Connect, an online series designed to explore our common humanity through the performing arts. 

The episode aired when the country was in the grip of civil unrest. Shelter-in-Place had, on the one hand, unified us, on the other hand, protests against police brutality seemed to have uncovered a series of deep fractures among us…and within us. All of us, it seemed, were questioning our identity and purpose. More importantly, we all seemed to be looking at ourselves and each other with new eyes, asking ourselves the question – Where do I belong?

Some were looking to rediscover or reclaim their identity and some were challenging their neighbor’s very right to be included as Americans.

Programming at Mosaic Silicon Valley addresses this issue: how to move multicultural American communities from diversity and inclusion to belonging. We highlight the common roots or representations of any two artforms, such as in Ancient Contemporary, which mediated a course between Odissi and Modern Contemporary one the one side; Odissi and Classical Cambodian on the other. This was done deliberately, to create awareness about our common humanity and celebrate our beautifully rich traditions. Thus, the online episode showcased each style and artist, as well as their collaborations and was followed by discussion.

Mosaic Fellow, Charya emphasizes in Ancient Contemporary, “Arts can provide a model that is inclusive. For culture based artists like us, Arts can provide us with dignity, cultural identity, and pride to those in the community.” 

That pride is the basis of our collaborations. In contrast to the “Melting Pot” model, we welcome artists as they are, to build bridges organically, through discovery and connections.

Niharika was wondrous of the fluidity of vocabulary in the Jazz Contemporary style.

Coleen was impressed by the level of complexity incorporated in Odissi dance.

Charya was amazed at the similarities that her artform and Odissi had, to temple sculpture and mythology.

Clips from both explorations are included in Ancient ContemporaryLet us explore our identity and shared futures through the arts practiced in America today. Let diversity not be relegated to the label “ethnic” which by its very definition, excludes. Instead, let’s come together and include one another in this wonderful American mosaic. Let us be unafraid to express ourselves truly, in order that we may fully Belong. To sum up in Niharika’s words, “There is an ultimate truth. We are One. We stem from the same roots. Arts are more than ever, an expression of who we are.” 

Watch it all come together in the video below!

Follow the Mosaic movement here!


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Dandiya Raas Meets Mexico’s Folklorico

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

In 2016, Mosaic Silicon Valley commissioned their first two artists – Indian folk dance artist Srividya Eashwar and Mexican Folklorico artist Arturo Magana – to come up with two minutes of an informed, performative collaboration between their cultures. The mission was to bring their audiences together, to build a connected community – as diverse in the audience as on stage.

Srividya, artistic director of Xpressions Dance first encountered Arturo’s team rehearsing in their studio shouting out the “agrito” and stomping their feet to an infectious rhythm. She recollects, “I looked at my dancers and saw the concerned look on their faces as they feared about how they were ever going to dance barefoot next to a group that dances in shoes with nails in them?

But, “as soon as we started working together, we found that common thread,” says Arturo Magana, artistic director of Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí. It was fascinating to see how the two teased out a common rhythm – Srividya kept up the beat with her dandiya sticks to Arturo’s percussive feet.

Weeks later, I remember the thunder of dancing feet and the loud music as I approached the rehearsal space, feeling nervous about finding a stage that could accommodate these two large cultures. I was humbled by the enormity of the experience. Something real was taking shape from an idea born out of an instinct to stem the miasma of divisive forces spreading throughout the U.S. in 2016. “RaasLorico” was part of Mosaic America, an event that drew hundreds in Marin and Santa Clara counties. 

The idea behind bringing different arts together is simple: It is to build a sense of Belonging. While all of us appreciate the diversity in Silicon Valley, we all lead segregated lives, not everybody is included in the same way. Economic opportunity has made us impervious to history, the pursuit of building a better home has blinded us to historic struggles that literally handed us that opportunity on a platter.

We see attractive buildings but don’t understand that they are built on Native ground; we see the reticence of Japanese-origin Americans but may not understand that some have been marked by internment; we see successful brown farmers but do not realize that they are “Mexican Hindus.” Each of us belongs to our own tile but we need to now build a Mosaic from our tiles that affirms each identity while confirming each of us as Americans.

An effective way to pave the path is via the Arts, using culture as a way to organically commune with one another and build familiarity and friendship. Mosaic Silicon Valley, which I Co-Founded with the help of Usha Srinivasan, purposefully and deliberately chooses cultures, representative artists, and venues. The audience and artists are hyperlocal. The lineup for a museum might be influenced by the exhibits on display. A commissioned work is typically a deep-dive into local history. Each event is a work in progress, a dialogue in the ongoing conversation towards belonging.

So how did Srividya and Arturo converse through their dances? Watch below!

Have you any cultural experiences you would like to share? Please write in!


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Why I Dance: Over 300 Classical Dancers Speak

Why I Dance – A monthly column, in collaboration with IndianRaga, in which we uncover the variety of Indian Classical Dance forms and their lineage. 

“Why do you dance?” asked Anuradha Nehru, Founder and Artistic Director of Maryland based Kuchipudi company Kalanidhi Dance, “It was such a profound question that it made me introspect and look deeper into my source of inspiration for dance. Upon further reflection and discussion with my fellow dancers in Kalanidhi, we realized there were four motivations that drove us – connecting to our heritage; the sense of liberation that dance affords; the ability to tell stories; and the strong bonds of friendship and community that dance builds.”  This simple yet complex question prompted the creation of her 2016 production Why I Dance.

Six months ago, the world underwent an unforeseen change.  Everything came to a halt, and the world of dance had to overcome an obstacle. Dance classes, workshops, performances, and productions were all canceled. No one knew when they would be able to return to the stage. Hoping to re-energize her dance community, Kalanidhi dancer Sahiti Rachakonda suggested that they start an online campaign called Why I Dance. Kalanidhi Dance partnered with IndianRaga to take the campaign global. The campaign launched August 22nd, on the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, and the #whyidance gained traction.

Artists from all eight of the Sangeet Natak Akademi recognized Indian Classical Art forms participated in the campaign, along with artists from many of India’s folk and contemporary styles. The campaign featured 36 world-renowned maestros and teachers including Prateesha Suresh, Birju Maharaj, Leela Samson, Alarmel Valli, Sujatha Mohapatra, Bijayini Satpathy, Sonal Mansingh, and Kumudini Lakhia. Anuradha Nehru says, “We were pleasantly surprised by the amazing response from India’s most famous and legendary dancers. They responded enthusiastically to our request and obliged readily with their thoughts and words of wisdom and generously shared video excerpts of their dance.

Their participation inspired many dancers from over 65 countries to join this movement, turning the initial wave of dancers into a tsunami,” IndianRaga Founder and CEO Sriram Emani adds “I was amazed by the willingness of some of Indian dance’s senior-most maestros to learn how to shoot a video from home, in the midst of a pandemic, to help inspire dancers globally.” 

 

Pragnya Thamire, a Kalanidhi Dancer said, “It was absolutely phenomenal to have edited the ‘Why I Dance’ videos of some of the legends in Indian classical dance… I learned so much through their words!”  

The response to the campaign was indeed unprecedented.  Dancers from around the world were eager to post their own videos; from the youngest dancers having only been learning for a few years, to the seasoned professionals, everyone wanted a chance to share their story, why they dance.

 IndianRaga team member Isha Kulkarni felt, “The campaign was one of the most exciting and challenging things I have ever worked on and nothing less than a privilege. We got to talk to these legendary artists, hear their thoughts, their experiences and that was definitely one of the things that inspired me to keep pushing harder in spite of the limitations in the current scenario.

Although the campaign was started as a way for dancers around the world to reflect inwards in light of the global lockdown, it is far from the end. Sriram says, “We definitely intend to continue – There is no planned conclusion to this campaign. Dancers can continue to post as per the guidelines and tag us, and we will share as we go along. Many people who used to dance before and left it for multiple reasons are now picking up dance again and participating in the campaign, and we welcome everyone to join in!”

Tune in next month to learn more about the Indian Classical Artform, Sattriya, featuring Why I Dance participant and exponent Prateesha Suresh!


Tarini Kumar is an IndianRaga Bharatanatyam Fellow and Why I Dance team member. She is a disciple of Smt. Divyaa Unni, and currently studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Will My Culture Survive the Pandemic?

Trying to create a space in the United States, Indian Americans rely heavily on the Arts to remain connected to their roots. Instead of soccer practice and baseball lessons, the minivan drives kids to Kathak (Indian Classical Dance) class or Tabla (Indian percussion/drums) lessons. What our parents understood, that took me till my adult years to grasp, was that culture was identity. And we would only be comfortable in our skin, in alien territory, if we could see the beauty of who we inherently were. 

As a young brown girl, I found a sense of camaraderie and belonging with my peers through the Classical Arts. Some learned Bharatanatyam dance and some took Kathak. Some learned to play the Tabla and some, the Sitar. Some took Carnatic Classical Music and some took Hindustani Classical Music. But all of these Arts drove one point home – no matter the geographic location or style of the Art, we were deeply connected to our culture. At times when I was ostracized for that same thing – being too Indian – I took solace in what I knew to be true. I am who I am and there was no reason to resent something so pure- so unifying. I continue to cherish it. 

A lifelong Kathak dancer and student, I saw the strain the Arts went through when my classes at the Chitresh Das Institute went online due to the shelter in place orders. Many students dropped off, our teachers struggled to teach online, and our performances were canceled. I felt myself become uninspired. 

But Art cannot be stopped. Art keeps pushing along like the little engine that could, to give meaning to that which is inexplicable. One Bharatanatyam teacher found purpose in embracing the messiness of online teaching and musicians like Sunny Jain began putting their music on Youtube. IndianRaga and Kalanidhi Dance collaborated during the pandemic to rejuvenate classical arts through their Why I Dance campaign. However, an artist’s career comes to a halt when spaces to perform are limited and they are faced with the reality of a declining income.

The artistic community, many working as freelancers and independent contractors, requires life support. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 11, 2020, LA Based Actor, Kristina Wong told us of the moment that her livelihood came into question. Her one-woman satire, Kristina Wong for Public Office, that she had spent three years researching and running a real election in preparation for, was running on the college/university circuit when the pandemic hit. Colleges and university campuses made the decision to go fully online, as to mitigate the pandemic, and Wong was stuck scrambling to find alternatives to cancelation. 

I’m witnessing a lot of artists just leave Los Angeles. Some are working for the census. Some are just scrambling,
” she noted, emphasizing that her ability to adapt to the online format was a unique luxury and that she still wouldn’t be able to recoup the losses of canceled performances. 

Kristin Sakoda, Actor and Executive Director of the LA Arts Commission witnessed the impact of COVID on the Arts. It was one of the first sectors to close and will be one of the last to reopen. 2.7 million jobs have been lost resulting in a $150 billion impact on the creative industry. As a grant distributor, Sakoda mentioned $20 million in losses for the nonprofits sustaining local arts.

Appreciation of the arts is crucial in inconsistent, unclear times. Art gives context, an escape, a safe space to feel uncertain, and to empathize with others.

Minority arts are quickly disappearing. Jose Luis Valenzuela, a UCLA and community college theater professor, met with artistic directors who cater to communities of color and were worried about the survival of their companies. They are the few sources for access to the arts for minority populations. Representation matters and when that diminishes, so do the voices. Graphic designer and Muralist, Roberto Pozos of Imperial Valley resonates with this message. Living in a space that has been a hotspot for COVID related death, Pozos wants to commemorate the suffering and lift the spirits of those around him. None of this can happen without funding. 

We must push for federal grant funding! Email, call, snail mail your Congresspeople. The last time federal tax dollars were put towards the arts was during the Great Depression and the time has come again to make our mark on democracy and preserve culture. 

I think about what I would do without Kathak. Kathak is not just a form of Indian Classical Dance. Kathak is the best parts of me. Kathak accepts me and grounds me to the reality I am in. Kathak reminds me to forgive myself and others. Kathak is a guiding force, teaching morality and mythology. Kathak is music. Kathak is discipline and learned knowledge. Kathak is Indian history. Kathak is me. 


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

This post has been updated.

Purple Socks and Plums

Saturday mornings are such a thrill, as I resumed teaching my dance class on Zoom. It’s amazing what some music and movement can do for your soul. Treating yourself to the magic of it can catapult you from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Just that little “extra!”

As I was dancing, instructing and chatting, I stopped to share something with my class.

I was pushing through my sit-ups, I looked at my feet and saw my purple socks and it just…made me happy!  The color purple makes me happy. And there it was, on my feet, saying a hello, as I was doing what I cherish so deeply—dancing and sharing that passion with others.  It was a colorful flash of comfort and a reassurance that I’m not only capable of getting through this day but I’m capable of making this day awesome.

My 10-year-old son Indra and I have been running every other morning – waking at 6 am and then out the door at 6:30 am for our 5-mile adventure. I treasure that time with every bit of my soul. We talk, we share, we laugh, we wonder.  And then, right when we start the running portion, we diverge.

He needs to rest; I need to run. And we let it be. I started to think that I should be challenging him to keep it up with me, to be the drill sergeant I know I can be.  And then as I came around my third loop I saw him peacefully sitting there, waiting for me to do the next round. He was enjoying eating a plum off of a tree nearby. Plums off of a tree.

There it is. Notice your purple socks and find your plums. Relish them. Don’t diminish the significance they hold.

Life is so full of complexities from the chaos all around us. The peace is in the simplicities that will save us. The little things. If we search for them, connect with them, let them fill us with joy, then we will flourish in that day. And then each day will flourish into the next until we find ourselves on the other side of this mess, better and more cognizant than ever before. We are empowered with the most simple intricacies inside this great big complicated world. Purple socks and plums. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.


Sangini Majmudar Bedner is a former Miss India USA, Stanford University graduate and professional performer and choreographer.  She enjoys life in Portola Valley, CA with her husband, two sons, and a crazy farm of beloved animals. She also offers an ongoing Saturday morning Zoom aerobic dance class, which can be taken live at 9 am or with a recorded link. Email her for info!  

They Call Me “Manu Master”

Virtual Bharat’s most recent film is set in Koolimuttam, Kerala. A story of a man, a rebel, a master, known to his disciples and thus to the world, by one name; “Manu Master,” he says with pride as he looks at the nature around him. His eyes are kind and filled with strength and wisdom. His red shawl flutters in the wind. 

Manu Master was born in Koolimuttam, in the 1960s, as Abdul Manaf. Little Abdul loved the arts. He accompanied his uncle to Kathakali recitals, performances and katcheris alike. He jumped across the compound wall at school every day to simply watch and admire the dance lessons that were being taken by a teacher right next door. Spotting his interest in the arts, his uncle enrolled him to learn bharatanatyam when he was only 12 years of age, and that marked the beginning of Abdul Manaf’s journey in Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam was considered a temple art form. The postures and grace of the dance are a reflection of those of several Hindu gods and goddesses. Abdul Manaf was not a part of this culture, and was thus regarded an outsider. He trained in several other dance forms – Mohiniyattam, Kathakali…but his heart always lay with Bharatanatyam. At the age of 20, he decided to move to Tamil Nadu to train and master the traditional style of Bharatanatyam – one that had been banned by the British, in their move to stamp out Indian culture. Today, he is one of the leading exponents of this style of dance. 

Abdul believes that “the true God, is love, and art is the medium to reach love. “Mohabbat,” he says, is what his dance is an expression of. He refused to allow aspects like his name to get in the way of his love for dance. Abdul Manaf took the name ‘Manu’, a nickname given to him by his mother, and started to practice under this name. He admired the Tantric school of the dance and says it was his Guru Chitra Visweswaran who changed his life. She showed him how the body, was but a small replica of the entire universe, and thus how through certain postures one could unveil the Maha Mantras (sacred truths of the world). 

His movements echo the simplicity, grace, and freedom of postures of love and desire – characteristic of the Tantric school of Bharatanatyam. His audience is spellbound when he moves. The very air around him changes. There is a silence and magic to his performance and even the simplest of mudras can bring tears to the spectator’s eyes. Manu today, dedicates his life to not only keeping this Tantric tradition of Bharatanatyam alive, but to his disciples as well. He looks at them with a smile, and says “my teachers have always shown me the right path, but I want them to be able to choose their own paths.” 

As the team of Virtual Bharat shot with Manu Master, they were spellbound by not only his movements but the way these movements echoed the beauty of the nature around him. Watch the film capture his story through his dance below!

 

Virtual Bharat in collaboration with India Currents will release a monthly series highlighting the stories Virtual Bharat is capturing in India. Stay tuned for more!

Virtual Bharat is a 1000 film journey of untold stories of India spanning people, landscapes, literature, folklore, dance, music, traditions, architecture, and more in a repository of culture. The vision of director Bharatbala, creator of Maa Tujhe Salaam, we are a tale of India told person-by-person, story-by-story, and experience-by-experience. The films are under 10 minutes in length and are currently available on Virtual Bharat’s Youtube Channel

The Powerful Dancing Legacy of Saroj Khan

Sarojji, you were a legend and one of a kind. A heartfelt salute for countless moments of cinematic joy and moves; for making a mark as a female choreographer in Hindi cinema – despite the odds stacked against you.

Saroj Khan’s life and 60 plus years of career were defined by her natural talent and love for dance – she transformed into an ethereal being when she put her dancing shoes on. A classic rags to riches story, her professional and personal journey was filled with pure love, dedication, hard work, passion, and candor.

While her aptitude for dance gave her everything, it also took a lot away. Sexism, exploitation, struggles, barriers… she didn’t let any of that stop her. Over the years, she worked with a variety and generations of stars from Sridevi and Dharmendra to Shahid Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai.

Saroj was born in 1948. Her parents, affected by partition, had fled from a wealthy existence in Pakistan to poverty in India, hoping to build a new life. At three years of age, she entered the film industry as a child actor, fending for her family, when her mother discovered her love for dancing by accident. To avoid the stigma of working in films, her name was changed from Nirmala Nagpal to Saroj.

At 8-9 years, Saroj had outlived her career as a young actor and turned to background dancing for a living. She had no formal training but picked up dance movements easily and quickly. In those years, as a group dancer, she identified herself as Anglo-Indian, had short hair, and mainly did Western styles of dancing –  jive, rock and roll, and acrobatics.

Her transition to Indian dancing was difficult. Western dancers were looked down upon by the classical-bent dance veterans. Nevertheless, she turned a chance to work with B Sohanlal into an opportunity, when she was called to perform acrobatics (Spot Saroj in video below at 1:42-1:441:52-1:58 and 2:04-2:16)  as a group dancer in Vyjayantimala’s version of Eeena Meena Dika from Aasha.

Saroj changed her appearance from an Anglo-Indian to Indian to learn from Sohanlal, it marked her big break, and she became a part of his troupe, first as a group dancer and later as an assistant. At 13 years of age, she married her 38-year-old mentor, who had shaped her as a dancer. He was married with children but she was unaware and much in love. At 14, she gave birth to their first child. Her association with him lasted 5 odd years in which she learnt the finer aspects of dance and also discovered her knack for choreography. When he was away for a song shootingPL Santoshi (Rajkumar Santoshi’s father) inspired her to choreograph Nigahen Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai for Dil Hi To Hai.

When Sohanlal refused to give their child his name, she walked out. It was the start of a long struggle but also finding her own feet as a solo professional. “I wanted to live my life as I wanted to live, without him,” she had said at a Ted Talk event. Those were big words from a young teenage mother, who also had to break professional ties with her ex-husband. Despite what happened, she continued to respect him and remained grateful for the learnings and livelihood. Not a justification but it gives context to her controversial casting couch comments in 2018. After the break-up, she went back to working as a group dancer and assistant choreographer for other lead choreographers. She was a good talent to hire, she could be the proxy lead whenever needed, without the money or credit.

Accolades and fame were still elusive despite support from actress Sadhana who gave her a break as a choreographer in her directorial venture Geeta Mera Naam (1974)Her talent wasn’t enough, she was still stuck. “I worked very hard – day and night – but I was not popular. Nobody accepted me as a choreographer, as I was female. That time, the rule was that only men can be choreographers or dance masters, as they were called then,” she recalled.

The road to A-grade success began with the Hema Malini-Dharmendra starrer Pratigya (1975) but the journey to popularity was still slow. Around that time, she also remarried second husband Sardar Roshan Khan and took some years off to focus on her family. She returned with Raj Babbar’s debut movie Jazbaat (1980) and this time the path was smoother. She was accepted whole-heartedly as a choreographer in the industry. Top directors like Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mani Ratnam lined up.

Saroj was also known for her penchant for perfection and had a temper to unleash on anyone who didn’t meet her high levels. Though she loved actors who knew their dance, she also enjoyed guiding non-dancers like Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, and Sunny Deol. Actors had to rehearse before they arrived on set. Madhuri rehearsed Ek Do Teen for over two weeks. Saroj demanded that Sanjay must rehearse Tamma Tamma (Thanedaar) as a signing condition. He did. She added a touch of femininity to Hrithik’s steps in Bumbro (Mission Kashmir).

Kareena fondly remembers Saroj telling her, “Perrr nahin chala saktiii to kam se kam face to chalaa!” (if you can’t work your feet, at least work your face!).

Saroj was hired to train Madhuri, who had done a few movies but hadn’t succeeded as a lead heroine yet. It won’t be an exaggeration to say Madhuri owes her success to Saroj Khan.  Ek Do Teen handed her stardom and a career on the platter. Ek Do Teen was out there and fun compared to the classic and subtle beauty of Oh RamjiMadhuri aced both.

There was a marked difference in Madhuri’s persona on screen post the Saroj influence. The oomph, confidence, and attitude that Madhuri imbibed in both her acting and dance performances were unmistakable learnings from Sarojji.

Saroj had a long association with Sridevi as well, whom she considered her daughter. There is no doubt that her partnership with Madhuri was more fruitful commercially but some of her most refined and creative pieces were with Sridevi.

They created wonders in the cult classic Mr. India with Hawa Hawai. I remember watching it in a seedy Mumbai theatre and being blown away. It was one of those surreal cinematic experiences where your senses are shot and the only way to get over it was to watch the movie many times over.

Ek Do Teen brought other achievements for Saroj. She bumped up her price, benefiting her assistants, and made sure choreography was valued for its true worth. She was proud of the students she gave the industry. Her unavailability propelled two of her assistants into success. She requested prodigy Ahmed Khan to choreograph Ramgopal Verma’s Rangeela (1995) which won him a Filmfare award for Rangeela Re. Farah Khan stepped in to do Pehla Nasha when she couldn’t adjust her dates for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992).

Sarojji‘s style was a stamp, she dominated the 90s and left her impact well into the 2000s.

Not that Saroj Khan needed awards to prove her worth but hopefully they were sweet revenge for having to stay under the radar for decades despite her formidable talent. Portrayed with dignity and grace, her women could still be sensual and defiant within the traditional mold. As Kareena said aptly in her tribute to Sarojji: dance and expression will never be the same for us actors. I would add Hindi cinema to that. It’s an end of an era. Or perhaps, many eras.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.