Since first grade, I’ve been pursuing Carnatic music, a form of classical Indian music. To be frank, this sometimes feels like my only personality trait. I have vivid memories of me declining invitations to birthday parties and sleepovers in elementary and middle school because I had a music lesson that same evening or the next morning. I have no regrets, though. The realm of South Asian fine arts is so vast and has always remained an integral part of who I am as a person. In fact, it even helped me decide to pick my major, sound engineering.
Given that I had such a strong passion for this art form growing up, I knew I wanted to continue it in college. The University of Michigan was the perfect place for me to do so since it had Michigan Sahana, a student organization aimed to promote and preserve classical Indian music and dance. Michigan Sahana is just one example of a student organization that has harnessed students’ passions. One of the beautiful parts about the University of Michigan is how diverse the student organizations are, especially in the realm of South Asian fine arts. Aside from Michigan Sahana, I was fortunate enough to gain insight into five South Asian fine arts teams — Michigan Bhangra Team, Michigan Manzil, Michigan Izzat, Michigan Taal and Michigan Wolveraas — and hear personal accounts from being on each of these teams, comparing and contrasting each experience to my own. Through the help of these interviewees and my own personal experiences, I write this piece in hopes to persuade you to join a South Asian fine arts organization, or at least keep them on your radar.
Michigan Sahana – Akshay Gopinathan, Sreeram Panicker and myself
Michigan Sahana aims to promote and preserve classical Indian music and dance.
Both Gopinathan and Panicker heard of Michigan Sahana through their families; Gopinathan through his cousin, and Panicker through his older brother. In my case, I found out about Michigan Sahana through my own personal research when first applying to colleges, and seeing what extracurriculars each school had to offer. I vividly remember scrolling profusely through MaizePages over the summer, jotting down what student organizations I should keep an eye out for at club fairs like Festifall and Winterfest.
Gopinathan, Panicker and I have been practicing classical Indian music since we were kids. Panicker has been pursuing classical Indian percussion, having played tabla for five years and currently training in mridangam for over 10. Gopinathan has been singing Carnatic music for over 13 years. Though also growing up liking different styles of music, the three of us knew classical Indian music was something we refused to give up in college.
“Music has always been a big part of my life, I couldn’t imagine a life without it. Even a small hiatus feels like something is missing. There’s always something musical going on inside my head — like I’ll constantly be walking around the house singing songs that I learned, stuff like that. So, doing music in college was never a question, it was something I was gonna do,” Gopinathan expressed.
Panicker expressed that he believes “pushing yourself artistically is important for your mind,” and Michigan Sahana gives him the perfect way to do so.
Along with the fact that we’ve been practicing this art form for over a decade, other factors encouraged us to continue pursuing classical Indian music in college. Panicker saw how many close friends his brother made from being a part of Michigan Sahana and was inspired to form his own circle after arriving on campus. “The Carnatic music world is so diverse and you get to meet people from different parts of the world and country,” Panicker explained.
I’ve never been surrounded by a community like Michigan Sahana before coming to the University of Michigan. Growing up, I didn’t have much of a community focused on classical Indian music. I would find myself lingering around my gurus’ house hours after my lesson had ended, sparking conversation about Carnatic music theory, since I really didn’t have anyone else to talk to about this subject with. Gopinathan had also never been a part of an organization like Michigan Sahana either, and says that being a part of an organization this large has helped him strengthen his collaboration skills, such as patience and open mindedness. For me as well, being part of such a large community has helped me grow as not only a musician, but as a leader, a person, and as a friend. In contrast, Panicker has always found himself intertwined with a classical Indian music community; the majority of his family pursues classical Indian music, so he always found himself surrounded by performers and shows, so Michigan Sahana wasn’t anything vastly different.
As students, we all learn to master the art of time management. Fortunately, the three of us haven’t had issues balancing Michigan Sahana with our daily schedules. Michigan Sahana is not a competitive travel team, so members aren’t required to be as active throughout the year. We are able to pick and choose what events we want to participate in based on how packed our schedules are during that time of year. I’m fortunate enough to serve as the current Concert Chair of Michigan Sahana, and even holding this position on the Michigan Sahana Board has not been difficult to manage with my schedule. Everyone on the Michigan Sahana Board is extremely understanding and patient, and meeting times are incredibly flexible and do not take up too much time. Moreover, we all make time for Michigan Sahana because of how much this organization matters to us.
The time and effort we put into this organization has provided us with memories to last us a lifetime. For me, though difficult to choose, the most memorable experiences have been every time I’ve performed live. Being on a stage alongside my best friends and mentors, showcasing the skills I’ve been putting hours of work into perfecting, with my friends and family in the audience will always be a humbling experience. For Gopinathan, it was putting together our most recent spring conference, Kala Sagara. This was the first time we were assembling a global conference, involving eight schools from across the country, in a completely virtual format. Seeing how the weeks of work finally pulled together in the end made us feel like we were on cloud nine, and it was a truly unique experience. For Panicker, it’s been about connecting with his roots as a South Asian student.
The idea of culture always lingers in my mind as a South Asian woman. I’ve been fortunate enough to have always been immersed in Indian culture since I was a kid. From food, to language, to clothing, to holidays, to entertainment and to art, I’ve always been able to keep up and connect with my culture in that way, so joining Michigan Sahana felt easy; there were no big culture shocks. Panicker mentioned that classical Indian music is just one way we have been able to stay connected with our culture and even our relatives. “It’s something my grandparents and my family in India and I can talk about together, and that reason alone gives me a reason to keep up with the art form.” Michigan Sahana pushes us to keep up with the culture and stay connected. Gopinathan brought up the point that our ancestors grew up with this art form, and they would not want us to give up something that’s been a part of our heritage for generations.
“Michigan Sahana was the first sense of community I got on campus. We all have this unique connection. You’ll find your place here. You’ll learn from others and others will learn from you. (Michigan Sahana) embraces you with open arms,” Gopinathan explained.
Michigan Bhangra Team – Anamika Kannan
The Michigan Bhangra Team is the University of Michigan’s premier bhangra team.
Though Kannan is trained in bharatanatyam and was on a competitive raas team before, she sought out to find something new to try. After searching through social media and talking to friends, she decided to try out for the Michigan Bhangra Team. Kannan has been dancing for 17 years, but has never trained in bhangra. The only exposure she had before trying out for the team were student-run workshops she would attend here and there.
“In college I wanted to stay involved in music and dance whether that was the same style or not,” Kannan explained. “I thought it would be interesting to try something new. I felt strongly about music and dance. I felt like I vibed and I shined in a lot of ways. I felt like I had my footing and felt a strong draw towards those things. No matter what, I was gonna stay connected somehow.” Kannan also explained that being on a competitive dance team like the Michigan Bhangra team is something you uniquely get to try in college.
Though Kannan was on a competitive dance team before, she mentioned that “it was very different.” Making the switch from her previous raas team to the Michigan Bhangra team “was more challenging. It was less intuitive. Over years of competing, the team has established themselves in the circuit, (so) the quality is high. There’s an expectation of you as a team member to uphold the team.” However, Kannan mentioned that every member of the team does a great job in looking out for each other, and the transition is quickly made a lot easier.
The Michigan Bhangra Team is a competitive travel team, requiring members to travel to competitions across the country for the chance to compete and win awards. Kannan described how hectic her schedule gets, especially during competition season, since academics take a back seat. However, she was able to share her secrets on how to stay organized, especially when she’s traveling and competing.
“It’s a constant struggle, (but) I put things in my calendar (and) I try to schedule out everything I’m doing in the day. Staying ahead in your classes, be(ing) ahead of everything, making sure you prioritize certain things and communicat(ing) have helped me.”
All the time and effort put in has been worth it. For Kannan, the most satisfying experience she has is being on stage.
Kannan recalls from her most recent competition, “It’s very rewarding. Throughout the year and before, you make a lot of choices that’ll be conducive to you doing well and helping the team, (like) taking a backseat on other things, (and) do(ing) your part. But when you’re on stage, everybody’s doing their part. We’re all able to give back to one another. You get to make eye contact with everyone on your team and just have fun with each other. Most importantly, we’re all there because we want to be. Bhangra is just so much fun and (it’s) such a wonderful time to be on stage. The music is so lively and meant to be that way. It’s so fun to just be in the moment and really enjoy yourself.”
Aside from performing on stage, Kannan mentioned that she loves seeing “the mix between all of these different styles of dance. Each (style) gives you something different.”
Though bhangra is not a part of the culture Kannan grew up with, she finds a sense of pride and responsibility in upholding the traditions of this art form. “The art form is still alive and thriving and keeping it that way is really important for me to uphold these folk traditions. Tradition, native language and native art are really important to me, wherever they may come from,” Kannan explained.
“If you have a love for dance and dancing with other people that love dance, this is the place to be. Even if you just want to learn a new art form,” the Michigan Bhangra Team is the perfect place to do so, Kannan explained.
Michigan Taal – Sonali Narayan
Michigan Taal is the University of Michigan’s premier all-girls South Asian fusion dance team.
Narayan heard about Michigan Taal through a family friend, who was captain at the time. Narayan has been dancing for over 12 years, and has trained in multiple different styles, such as bharatanatyam and ballet, and has done a lot of choreography on her own. Narayan explained, “From a young age I learned how to appreciate all the different dance styles. I wanted to continue my dance journey and wanted to try something different. Dance is such a huge part of my life, it’d be weird to stop all of a sudden. I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t dancing. I love choreography, (and) I felt the need to keep on doing that in college. I loved the vibe of Taal and knew this is the team I wanted to be on.”
Michigan Taal is also a competitive travel team, so Narayan learned to master the art of time management early on in her college career. She explained, “It helped to be super busy so I was forced to manage my time. I was terrible at managing my time, (but Michigan Taal) made it so easy. We would have evening practices, so I would do all of my school work during the day. That way, we were just able to dance and not think about anything else.” Though jam packed, competition season is Narayan’s favorite time of the year, since everyone on the team is able to get super close.
Aside from competing, Narayan also mentioned how refreshing it is to stay in touch with her roots. She mentioned how she’s “never been disconnected from (her) roots,” so the cultural aspect wasn’t a difficult transition for her.
Narayan never had experience being on a competitive team like Michigan Taal. “You get pushed right into it, but not in a bad way,” Narayan explained. “Our captains and team did a really good job of letting us know what we’re getting into.”
As part of a Bollywood fusion dance team, you’re exposed to different styles of dance such as bhangra, south-Indian, classical, contemporary, etc. So although Narayan has trained in many different styles growing up, she explained that “our team does a good job keeping them separate. It’s not an issue.”
Evidently, Michigan Taal is a welcoming community. “It’s just so fun. It’s just such a fun experience and it’s a good way to meet people. It’s something we can all come together and be close about,” Narayan explained.
Michigan Manzil – Sejal Buch
Michigan Manzil is the co-ed Bollywood fusion dance team at the University of Michigan.
Buch had exposure to competitive fusion dance teams when she was in high school. She was able to attend shows at Michigan State University and watch their teams perform. Curious as to what the University of Michigan’s equivalent was, she found Michigan Manzil.
Buch has been dancing for over 11 years and knew dance was something she wanted to continue in college, and ultimately decided on pursuing Michigan Manzil. “I just had so much fun at Manzil tryouts and the people are so fun,” Buch recalled.
Michigan Manzil is another competitive travel team, so when asked how she manages her time, Buch responded with “we don’t,” which I thought was funny, but genuine. However, she continued, “you get good at getting stuff done in the pockets of time you have.”
The time and effort put into this team is worth it. Buch explained that members “put in almost the equivalent of a part time job, and so to see all the work come together at the end” is truly a rewarding experience. She gave examples of how she’s been in practices that ranged from 7 p.m. to 10 pm, from 6 p.m. to 3 am, from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. and — the longest practice session of her career — 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Buch explained that even the experience of traveling and meeting other teams has been rewarding.
Aside from traveling and competing, Buch mentioned that another rewarding aspect of Michigan Manzil was seeing and learning about so much of the pop culture of India.
This isn’t Buch’s first exposure to being on a team like this, though. Though she’s never been on a competitive team before Michigan Manzil, she took part in community level teams and says that the exposure she had from those community level teams was helpful in transitioning to being on a competitive team like Michigan Manzil.
Michigan Manzil “makes the campus feel smaller in a good way,” Buch explained. “It’s a great way to make friends, especially coming in as a freshman.”
Michigan Izzat – Ashwin Surapaneni, Sushanth Sunil
Michigan Izzat is the University of Michigan’s all-male fusion dance team.
Both Sunil and Surapaneni have been involved in performing arts for over a decade. Sunil has been dancing since he was in seventh grade, and Surapaneni has been dancing since he was in first grade.
Surapaneni grew up watching Michigan Izzat perform, and instantly knew it was a community he wanted to be a part of. Sunil, however, had different thoughts after performing in the Indian-American Student Association show his freshman year: “I did IASA my freshman year and after that I told myself I would never dance on a competitive team. (But) everyone (said) it was a good time and had good things to say (about Michigan Izzat).”
Michigan Izzat was the first competitive team Sunil had been a part of. He explained that the transition at first “hit (him) like a train,” and that “it was intimidating at first.” However, it quickly got easier for him and the team was extremely supportive and guiding. For Surapaneni, he’s taken part in various groups growing up, so Michigan Izzat didn’t feel as different to him. Similar to other fusion teams, Michigan Izzat infuses techniques of multiple styles of dance, and both Sunil and Surapaneni mention how the team helps you adapt automatically to each style, even if not every style is your strong suit.
Being on a competitive travel team, both Sunil and Surapaneni learned the art of time management. When asked how he balances his time, Sunil replied, “There’s no balance. In the beginning, we had no schedule. One of us would text ‘yo we have practice, be here by 7.’ Everyone would get there by 8. And we’d be out at 4 a.m.” However, he continued to reassure the fact that “it gets easier, and it’s worth it. Being on a team like Michigan Izzat teaches you how to prioritize things.”
Ultimately, as Surapaneni put it, “if you’re passionate about it, you’ll make the time for it.”
The time and effort put in has paid off in tremendous ways. Sunil and Surapaneni both recalled their most recent competition, in which Michigan Izzat placed first.
Surapaneni explained, “Our first competition we went to was ass. We were consistently placing seventh and eighth, so to hear them call out our name for first place was insane. They announced third place, and then second place, and we remember thinking to ourselves that there was no way that we would get first. And then they called out the first place winner, Michigan Izzat, and — I’m sure there’s a video somewhere — all of our jaws dropped for a second before we all started cheering and screaming and jumping. We just couldn’t believe it. We were putting in so much work, (so) having your hard work pay off was a great feeling.”
Sunil said, “Everyone walked off stage and thought they killed it. Results aside, that’s the feeling you want, and that’s the best feeling.”
Sunil mentioned how being a part of Michigan Izzat was an opening door to South Asian culture that he hadn’t been exposed to before. Surapaneni mentions how Michigan Izzat is a great reminder of his South Asain roots.
For Sunil, the fact that “you’re able to learn so much about South Asian culture” is a reason he encourages others to join Michigan Izzat. Surapaneni mentioned that joining Michigan Izzat “is just a great way to find great people.”
Michigan Wolveraas – Vyom Iyer
Michigan Wolveraas is the University of Michigan’s garba-raas team.
Iyer has always had a passion for dance. She’s been dancing since she was two years old, training in styles like bharatanatyam. She explained, “I wanted to keep dancing. It was a survival thing. I don’t know what I would’ve done if it weren’t dancing. I don’t know how I would’ve functioned if I weren’t dancing. Garba-raas was something I’ve always wanted to do, (so) for me it was kind of a no-brainer (to try out for Michigan Wolveraas).”
Given that Michigan Wolveraas is also a competitive travel team, I had to ask Iyer how she managed her time. She gave the tip of “don’t take Friday classes,” but also gave an analogy: “Just like any other organization, you have meetings to attend to. It’s no different, except for Michigan Wolveraas, we have to get on a plane to get to our meetings. So, you learn to make time for said meetings, and learn to ration your time accordingly.”
Guessing that her favorite part about being a part of Michigan Wolveraas was being on stage, Iyer actually had a different opinion: “I was not good when I started, just because I was new. It was scary and I was very bad but I was learning. I had to practice like hell. You never stop thinking about it. You do it in your sleep. So, the overall feeling of knowing I can do it and I can get better is the most satisfying part about being on the team.”
Iyer also mentioned, “It’s just as satisfying to watch your friends. Everyone (on the team) is so nice, it’s simple to be friends with them in the best way possible. I look up to everyone on the team.”
Aside from the actual dancing, Iyer also said that “you’re able to learn so many more little things even about your own culture” by being a part of Michigan Wolveraas.
When asking Iyer why others should join Michigan Wolveraas, she questioned, “Why should you NOT?” She continued, “Raas is so different. It’s a workout. You’re literally bouncing off the walls. Most importantly, though, what makes us different is that the entire sentiment is that we want to have fun.”
Each of these teams have been affected by COVID-19. Competition seasons were cut short, spring shows were canceled, and we lost time to spend with each other. However, these teams are ready to return to a hopefully normal fall semester. All of the competitive dance teams are optimistic that they will be able to travel and compete for a live audience again. Michigan Taal even has the theme for their upcoming set picked out, but unfortunately, Narayan was unable to disclose what it was. Michigan Manzil and Michigan Izzat are merging to form one team, Michigan Manzat, and are excited to compete in the circuit as one new team. Michigan Sahana is optimistic to host live concerts again and host our annual spring show, That Brown Show, a friendly competition between all of the teams mentioned and more.
Interviewing this group of people has been so humbling, and hearing their stories and experiences have put the realm of South Asian fine arts on campus into a whole new perspective for me. There were moments in every interview where I laughed at each interviewee’s sense of humor and the stories they shared, and there were moments in every interview where I was inspired by the experiences shared by each interviewee. Hopefully, reading about these experiences inspires you to join one too, whether it’s because you love performing arts, want to learn more about global art forms, or even just to join a welcoming community. When it comes down to it, being part of organizations like these boils down to the stories we tell each other, and how we can learn from and inspire each other. Surapaneni mentioned while recalling various stories and experiences, “One of my favorite parts about all of this is just the stories you get to tell people. I mean look, I get to tell you a bunch of stories right now, and that’s kind of one of the best parts.”