South Asians show and tell
The South Asian Students Association imbued their annual Mizaaj performance on Saturday November 15 with striking political awareness, staging a play protesting India’s alleged participation in killing raids that have claimed 2,000 Muslim lives during the last two years.
The eclectic show consisted of ten acts ranging from a solemn yet engaging performance on the sitar to an exuberant portrayal of a Mumbai nightclub. Recognizing its limitations, Mizaaj gave the audience a small taste of the rich and varied cultures of Oberlin’s Asian students. Rather than holding auditions, members of SASA discussed what they personally could contribute to the program and went from there. What greets the audience in November varies from year to year, largely depending on the particular strengths of current members.
“In past events there were more classical dances, this year I think it was more towards classical singing, more music. We try to strike a balance,” College senior Cindy Lee, who publicized Mizaaj, said. Exemplifying this focus on traditional forms of music was an act titled “Raag Bhag: Jugalbandi,” exploring the interaction between the Baansuri, a wooden flute, and improvisational vocals. The song, which delicately combined the talents of Jai Gandhi and Manasi Bhate, both of whom had performed in earlier acts, celebrated Holi, the Indian festival of color.
As SASA’s annual cultural showcase, Mizaaj consistently informs and entertains. What made this year’s event stand out was the brief but powerful dramatic play, “Voices from Gujarat,” a poignant reaction to the state endorsed violence and persecution existing in India today.
College senior and SASA co-chair Vivek Bharathan coordinated as well as narrated the dramatic reading. Bharathan drew from his experiences as part of “a network of progressive South Asians” and conducted research on the Gujarat situation while in India last year. In his jarring introduction, he details the incomprehensible actions of planned assaults and police-condoned mob violence committed by thousands of Hindu extremists against Muslim homes and families in the state of Gujarat. The attacks were in retaliation to a Muslim mob attack on a train filled with Hindu nationalist activists passing through Godhra, which resulted in 58 Hindu deaths. The Human Right’s Watch, as well much of the Indian press, asserted that, while the government classifies the subsequent violence as a “spontaneous reaction,” to the Godhra incident, it has in fact been deliberate and condoned by the police. Survivors of the riots reveal cruel and disturbing atrocities: women were raped, men were beaten, children set on fire.
“I felt like at Oberlin, we didn’t really do anything while the events were going on,” Bharathan explained. “We decided to do something about it this year,”
Bharathan arranged and collected five personal testimonies of survivors. The accounts were lifted directly out of Human Right’s Watch report, and were embellished or modified only in places where grammatical revision was necessary.
“We didn’t know what approach to take at first, but we decided upon a Vagina Monologues structure. Only two of the five [actors] had ever acted before.”
Each narrative was delivered in a fashion as powerful and moving as its content. The accounts were intense, emotive and chilling.
The decision to include the monologues generated much debate within the association. Some contended that “Mizaaj” should not be political. In the end, “using the medium was really good,” Lee said. “We wanted to continue the talks and general debates, encourage students to talk more openly about South Asia, because of the Kashmir issue.”
“In a time when fear and hatred of Muslims is spreading across many parts of the world, we need to smash misconceptions that breed such thoughts,” Bharathan said of the play. “There’s also what in my mind is a questionable relationship between the Indian government, dominated by the Hindu right, and the government of Israel. The foundation of this new love for the other is the perceived threat from Islam. This is an illusion that has no basis in fact or reality, and it is a myth that must be dispelled.”
When asked what he liked best about being involved with the show, Bharathan commented, “The dancing. Definitely the dancing.” In contrast to the tranquil instrumental performances and passionate vocal ballads, the dances were light-hearted and contemporary. Though space had to be booked far in advance, and “Mizaaj’s” planning began in September, dances were choreographed only a few weeks prior to show time.
“We practiced pretty regularly the last couple of weeks before the show,” Bharathan said.
Considering the length and complexity of authentic South Asian dances, last Saturday’s performances served more as representations than renditions. Still carrying the essential spirit, energy and celebration of culture, the choreography demanded a more realistic amount of precision and expertise from its enthusiastic, but amateur, performers.
The first dance, “Tamange Selo,” represented a type of Nepali folk dance often performed at wedding festivals and feasts, and designed to convey feelings of passion, love and sorrow. Choreographed by Nikesh Prajapati, “Tamange Selo” was the first Nepali performance ever integrated into SASA’s annual event. The hybrid Indian and Nepali dance steps had were festive and playful, and the dynamic between the male and female dancers interacting on stage was enchanting and enjoyable.
“Bangra was supposed to show working class people,” Cindy Lee explained. It represented a “day to day basis sort of bonding. It’s a mode of communication; it’s what keeps them going.”
The dancers were agile and eager, silly and suggestive, giddy and gloating. At the sight of their scantily clad peers flex and flaunt across the stage to such lively music, many of female audience members erupted in catcalls and cheers.
The show concluded by inviting the audience into the Mumbai club atmosphere, literally dragging individuals on stage to join in the carefree celebration, set to Koi Kahe, a song from last year’s Hindi film, “Dil Chanta Hai.”
There was an exceptionally large crowd on hand at this year’s show. Lee was encouraged by the turnout, stating that “Its been a legacy that seniors have left to us over the years and we try to keep it going and come up with new things to make it more exciting,” she said.