Michigan Sahānā, an Indian classical performing arts organization at the University of Michigan, will be virtually hosting its first-ever intercollegiate Indian classical arts conference, “Kalā Sāgara,” this upcoming weekend on April 10 and 11.
Indian classical performing arts organizations from eight different universities — The Ohio State University; Duke University; The University of Texas-Dallas; University of Pittsburgh; University of California, Berkeley; Georgia Institute of Technology and Princeton University — will be included. The conference will be livestreamed from Sahānā’s Youtube page and consist of classical dances, musical performances and interactive talks.
Sahānā has invited renowned performers to end each day of the conference. Leela Samson and Indisha Fine Arts will dance on the 11th. On the 10th, Carnatic vocalist Sri. Ramakrishnan Murthy will be accompanied by Shrimathi Charumathi Raghuraman on the violin, Sri. Anantha R. Krishnan on the mridangam and Sri. N. Guruprasad on the ghatam. These performances will be tailored to topics discussed during the conference.
This time of year, Sahānā typically hosts That Brown Show, a concert uniting all of the South Asian performing arts groups on campus. Because they couldn’t have an in-person event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanjeev Raja, Engineering junior and Sahānā president, said Sahānā wanted to use the virtual platform as an opportunity to pursue intercollegiate discussion and engagement surrounding the Indian classical arts, something that he had not seen before. Along with the performative aspect, Raja said the group wanted to include the many important and educational discussions that can be had surrounding the arts.
“We wanted to figure out a way that we could pivot and still have that mission of broader community engagement, and that’s how the idea of Kalā Sāgara came to be,” Raja said.
Vinay Yarlagadda, LSA junior and vice president of Sahānā, said planning for That Brown Show is essentially a team-building exercise that results in strong friendships. The challenging part of planning for Kalā Sāgara, Yarlagadda said, has been not being able to meet in-person for the planning. Another challenge, Yarlagadda said, was getting in contact with organizations at other universities that Sahānā members did not already have connections with.
“The ease of having things (within our campus) is we all know people in the other (South Asian performing arts) organizations, so it’s very easy to communicate, whereas here everything is one step removed,” Yarlagadda said. “We have to email and we have to text much more than we would.”
Kalā Sāgara translates to “ocean of arts” in Sanskrit. Raja and Yarlagadda both said they believe the name of the virtual event encompasses how the numerous art forms presented at the conference are connected, even if they possess different characteristics and techniques.
“In this conference, we have many different art forms of India, and all of those themselves are so vast and expansive like oceans in and of themselves, but all oceans are actually connected,” Raja said. “We wanted to express that these art forms are not discrete and form a continuum that represents Indian culture.”
Raja, who is a drummer, is most looking forward to UC Berkeley’s presentation about polyrhythmic and complex rhythms and how they are paralleled across Western music and both North and South Indian classical music. Yarlagadda will be presenting a talk about poetry in Carnatic music.
Sandhya Ramachandran, Georgia Tech senior and vice president of Georgia Tech Aarohi, one of the organizations taking part in the event, has been in charge of oversight and planning within Aarohi while also now having a role in communicating with Sahānā to participate in the Kalā Sāgara conference.
“I personally have enjoyed getting to know all the other people across the country who have a similar passion for the cultural arts as I do,” Ramachandran said. “Music for me has been such a reliever in the midst of school and all these other things going on — especially during COVID — and it’s just truly amazing that Michigan Sahānā is able to put this conference on.”
Aarohi had their own concert planned that took place a few weeks ago, after which the members voted on the performance they thought should be incorporated into Kalā Sāgara. The theme of their last concert was “Panchabhutam,” which are the five main elements of nature in Hindu. Each group within Aarohi had to express an assigned element through their performance.
“The group that got selected was ‘akasha’, which means ‘space’ in English,” Ramachandran said. “They will be performing two songs and also have an extemporaneous aspect to the performance.”
Ramachandran said she hopes attendees feel a sense of unity in tuning into the different performances and workshops in the lineup. She hopes learning still takes place even through a virtual format.
“I hope (attendees feel) that this is a good alternative to (being in-person) and we’re still able to get the learning value of being at this conference alongside the networking aspect, which is being able to meet all of these different people at different institutions and connect with them,” Ramachandran said.
Princeton junior Hari Ramakrishnan will be performing several Carnatic music group pieces for the conference. Each member recorded their part separately, and the clips have been edited together to create the full performance. Ramakrishnan said he is striving to create a strong interplay between artists that would exist during a live performance.
“One of the notable aspects of Indian classical music is the improvisatory aspect of it, and whether it’s three vocalists constantly building off of each other or the vocalists and percussionists creating more intricate patterns than you would even think of on your own, (it) has been really neat to see,” Ramakrishnan said.
Ramakrishnan said he believes the widespread network of Indian classical musicians at higher-level institutions gives people who have not been exposed to the arts during childhood the chance to learn.
“The community of Indian classical musicians on college campuses is really robust and deserves attention and resources drawn to it,” Ramakrishnan said. “On our end, we’re working with the administration here to set up a class, and we’re doing that in recognition of the fact that there is a large community of Indian classical musicians that we aren’t aware of or aren’t able to connect with this as much as they would be able to.”
The peer community of Indian classical musicians on college campuses has encouraged many to continue practicing the art and make friends along the way, Ramakrishnan said.
“I had been learning classical music for a while, but it was variable in how committed I was and how much I enjoyed it throughout the years,” Ramakrishnan said. “I found myself enjoying it a lot more at the tail end of high school, so coming into (college) where there is a strong community of people who are really excited about the art makes it a lot easier about wanting to feel good about doing it, and having the space and the encouragement makes it that much more exciting.”
Yarlagadda said Sahānā has been like a home away from home.
“The people here feel like my family, and it has been a huge part of my college experience,” Yarlagadda said.
Daily Staff Reporter Celene Philip can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the University of Toledo will participate in the Indian classical arts conference. The University of Texas-Dallas will participate. This article has also been corrected with the dates of the professional performers: the vocal concert will be held on April 10 and the dance conference will be on April 11. A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Kalā Sāgara translates to “ocean of arts” in Hindi. Its translation is in Sanskrit. A previous version also incorrectly spelled violinist Shrimathi Charumathi Raghuraman‘s name. It has been corrected.