Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi: Preserving tradition on a college campus
As global citizens in this day, interdisciplinary thinking has become more important than ever, and places that bring together multiple disciplines are crucial. At the University of Michigan, the Michigan Sahānā has combined culture and performance art of classical Indian origin to create a unique collaborative space.
Michigan Sahānā is a student organization founded in 2003. Originally formed as the Indian Classical Music and Dance group on campus, the focal point has been on classical art forms of India. The members work throughout the school year to showcase student talent, educate members of their own culture and spread awareness on the diversity of classical Indian music and dance forms. Styles presented by Michigan Sahānā include Hindustāni and Carnātic music, as well as dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kuchipudi.
Michigan Sahānā has three pillars that drive its mission of cultural and community enrichment: cultivating talent, mounting performance concerts and creating a safe space for people to come together.
LSA senior Shalini Rao is the current president of Michigan Sahānā. She said the organization has a breadth of resources available to its members, which is a strong point of the group.
“It really does allow you to cater to your own interests and prioritize whatever aspects of Sahānā you want to prioritize — whether it’s bonding, performance or a little bit of everything,” Rao said. “It does fulfill a cultural role for me and it also fulfills an arts role. … One of the ways I can stay in touch with my culture is through practicing and learning more about this art that I’ve been doing since I was 4 years old.”
As the president of Michigan Sahānā, Rao emphasized her goal to provide these resources and networks for other members. Since January, she has worked to maintain and broaden the scope of this support system.
“Whether that means giving them particular performance opportunities or connecting them with local teachers, if they’re here for that purpose of improving their performance and their art form, we want to be able to fulfill that,” she said. “There are people that are really passionate about spreading awareness — I want to make sure that Michigan Sahānā can grow its campus presence.”
Along with the wealth of resources, the organization is unique in its approach to the performing arts.
Business junior Manasvini Rao is the treasurer for Michigan Sahānā, and a longtime Carnātic violin player. She spoke about the group’s commitment to the traditional performance form, something that sets Michigan Sahānā apart from other cultural groups on campus.
“I think we’re one of the few organizations that stays really pure in terms of the arts — we don’t do any Bollyfusion, we don’t combine with any modern interpretations, we try to stay true to our roots,” she said.
Manasvini’s years of experience in and appreciation for classical Indian performance art is not uncommon for members of Michigan Sahānā. In fact, many members carry more than a decade of training before even starting college, such as LSA senior Naveena Thota..
“I’d always liked dancing along to music. When I was little, my parents noticed that I really enjoyed dancing on my own,” Thota said. Subsequently, Thota’s parents put her in classical dance classes to learn a popular style among the diaspora.
“I feel like a lot of parents feel like it’ll bring their kids closer to their roots,” she said.
Thota spoke about her lifelong commitment to classical Indian dance until college. Her story aligned with other members who also traveled far and dedicated extensive hours to rigorous training. However, Thota mentioned her dedication faltered in college with the busy lifestyle.
“It’s been a struggle trying to keep it up, but again, because I’m passionate about it, I’ve kept it up as much as possible,” she said. “I think what’s more important to me is being associated with arts and the art form in general — understanding that even if I can’t be dancing all the time, I’m understanding other things about classical dances and classical music and I’m learning about the history and significance.”
Manasvini also finds ease in maintaining her Carnātic violin practice with Michigan Sahānā. She explained her family’s rich history with classical arts, ranging from singing and dancing to visual arts.
“I wasn’t sure about my skills and if it would be up to par with what Michigan Sahānā produces in concerts, but I found such a supportive group of people who were willing to put me in,” Rao said. “I think because I kept playing, I had my one artistic outlet in college. Honestly, I would probably go insane without it.”
As a student in the Business School, Manasvini spoke about her everyday life being immersed in quantitative or qualitative work, rather than the humanities or arts. For her, Michigan Sahānā is a break from the regular obligations of school, but she is not alone in finding freedom in Sahānā.
Engineering senior Raghav Muralidharan was also exposed to Indian classical music at a young age and joined Michigan Sahānā, following his older brother. Even before college, he knew he too wanted to be a part of the community of friends the organization provides. Now in his final year, he finds in joy in mentoring newer members and helping them find their roots in the Sahānā family.
“Arts in general, musical expression, is a rest from school,” Muralidharan said. “They complement each other in a way. In music, there’s a lot creativity and improvisation, a lot of working with other people. While the feelings and actual expression is different, a lot of what I do in engineering is similar in those themes. I feel like it has made me think better as an engineer.”
The interdisciplinary nature of Michigan Sahānā doesn’t end there. The organization is an active collaborator with other cultural groups on campus, performing in at least one large colloaborative production every year.
“Even though this title as being an Indian classical organization, we do welcome and accommodate a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. I think that’s something we can all take away as a lesson from Sahānā, that being inclusive is always a good thing,” Thota said. “You can only learn from being inclusive and getting to know other people.”
Given the current political climate and recent racist incidents on campus, this inclusivity is perhaps more important than ever. Michigan Sahānā’s president, Shalini Rao, reiterated this openness and acceptance as a start to dissolving tensions on campus and healing the afflicted.
“Personally, it is very important because we are a student organization primarily composed of minority students,” Rao said. “We want to make sure that not only our students, but every student who may be experiencing similar challenges on this campus, know that Sahānā is at least one place they can find that solidarity with fellow community members — whether or not they look like us, dance like us, sing like us. We are that space.”
Krithika Balakrishnan, Shalini’s collaborator and vice president of Michigan Sahānā, echoed these sentiments on the group’s unique campus presence. She said Michigan Sahānā’s dual role as an arts and culture group allows it to facilitate dialogue on campus through music and dance.
“Even though different types of performance arts from different countries or cultures are vastly different in how they appear on stage, there’s still commonalities within the music or movements,” Balakrishnan said. “It’s this common medium where people don’t necessarily need language to relate to each other. Because it conveys emotions and feelings, something that’s universal across so many cultures and so many people, it’s a unique way to bring people together.”
Balakrishnan also spoke about her own goals as vice president. Although Michigan Sahānā already emphasizes diversity, she is constantly working to bridge the gap between different cultural groups on campus.
“I want to do a lot more collage with other organizations and bring about more discussions about diversity on campus,” she said.
Even though the organization’s work on expanding its campus identity is ongoing, the unwavering bonds within Michigan Sahānā are apparent from the continued emphasis on a sense of family.
“As a person of color, the social climate and campus climate has been disconcerting. I’m glad that I have a community and I’m glad for others to express what they need to express,” Muralidharan said.
However, the profoundly deep effects of Michigan Sahānā go beyond the University campus and local community.
Michigan Sahānā members share an interest in classical Indian performance art, but their exposure and experiences with it vary significantly. There are Indian-American members who have been raised exclusively in America, international students from India itself, those who don’t have any prior exposure to Indian culture and everything in between.
“With globalization and having immigrated and assimilated into new cultures, I think it’s really important that cultures don’t get lost somewhere in the mix,” Thota said. “Just because everything is globalizing and everyone’s getting to know other cultures doesn’t mean that we need to become one big mainstream culture.”
Despite this diversity within its members, a common theme in their stories is a deep appreciation for their roots.
“Growing up, it was really important to my parents and to me that I didn’t lose any aspect of our culture, because it really is who I am,” Manasvini Rao said.
She described her life speaking her mother tongue while growing up, eating Indian food, dressing in traditional clothing and celebrating national holidays. However, Rao said music was the easiest medium for her to talk about with relatives, especially her grandparents in India.
“For me the reason why roots are so important to stay connected with through Indian classical music and Michigan Sahānā is because it’s the best way for me to keep a part of myself intact and not lose it in the business and craziness of school,” Rao said.
Balakrishnan echoed these sentiments of finding deeper connections with distant relatives through performance art. Balakrishnan’s grandparents played classical Indian instruments and sang as well.
“That is something I remember a lot from my childhood. Every weekend I would call up my grandma and sing a song for her,” she said.
“I’m Indian and we talk and have friends who are Indian, but at the same time, looking back at my culture, Indian classical music helped me do that because I don’t live in India and I don’t see the rest of my family,” she said.
There is something unifying and special about the medium of performance that allows for deeper connections to form — even with those who are not physically present to watch, like many of the members’ relatives still residing India. There is something in practicing an art form to achieve a perfection that doesn’t exist, and passing down this work ethic that seems to strengthen the bond within families.
“When talking about today’s climate, when so many people aren’t open to diversity and are saying things about illegal immigrants, I think a lot of that fostered by a lack of understanding of culture and people. By using the arts or poetry, I think we foster an emotional connection that’s deeper,” Manasvini Rao said. “There’s more of an emotional connection, which is why I think organizations like ours can get such a multicultural audience to come to our shows because so many people can enjoy it, whether they understand it or not.”
And beyond the pure joy that is elicited from live performance, it becomes clear that Michigan Sahānā cultivates profound empathy — from encouraging its artists to look back to their own heritage and simultaneously looking to their present and future community. LSA sophomore Sunanda Adibhatla, a Sahana member, said connecting to her culture is important because it helps her stand out.
“Staying with your roots helps you explore other people’s roots and understand other cultures as well. It’s important to me because it’s something that makes me different,” she said. “Learning about my culture and my roots is a way for me to know more and also be able to teach more to other people if they’re interested and spread the beauty of Indian music.”