Now in its 23rd year, the exorbitantly energetic, fiercely entertaining cultural show put on by the Indian American Student Association (IASA) ranks among the most iconic of University experiences. Like painting “The Rock” and attending a game at the Big House, watching the IASA show — the biggest student-run production in the country, according to its coordinators — should be an essential part of the University curriculum.
The performance, boasting 250 participants this year, is an annual showcase of Indian culture through song and dance. Tomorrow’s show, titled “Samasti,” is paired with the thematically significant tagline “Elements of Illusion.”
“We wanted to portray how the different styles and dances of India represent the many cultures in India and how they all come together as one to form the overall national identity,” said Engineering senior Rohan Agarwal, the show’s co-coordinator alongside LSA senior Nina Davuluri. “And we thought that using elements kind of as a metaphor would help describe that whole process.”
For the uninitiated, India is about as culturally diverse as some entire continents. The country has more than 20 distinct regional languages, several major religions and dozens upon dozens of unique ethnic groups. Native Hindi speakers from Delhi could take a trip to the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where the dominant language is Telugu, and find themselves unable to read signs or communicate with the locals.
States in southern India even have their own booming film industries with songs and styles very distinct from those of Bollywood, the Hindi film industry based in Bombay. Accordingly, the IASA show includes a South Indian dance, featuring songs from those industries. Other dances drawn from specific subcultures include Bhangra, a dance native to the northern region of Punjab, and Raas, a dance from the region of Gujrat that uses sticks called “dhandia” that the dancers twirl and bang together.
“(Raas relies) heavily on formation — it’s a very energetic dance that requires precision,” Agarwal said. “It all depends on the partner and the hitting of the dhandia. (The dancers) are never still in dancing, always moving from one formation to another, or around their partner and back and forth.”
More returning favorites to “Samasti” include the sultry, seductive Gypsy dance; the Bollywood dance, which uses popular songs and dances from the Bombay film industry; and Village, a traditional dance that represents the customs of rural India. The all-girl Classical dance, which is choreographed with ancient Indian dances styles, is also back. But this time, the dance has been tweaked to make it more accessible.
“In this year’s Classical they are blending more modern, mainstream songs than just the classical songs,” Davuluri said. “There’s a Bollywood song in there and American songs in there, so it makes it easier to interact with the audience.”
“Samasti” features the addition of two new dances, titled “Fusion” and “Elements.”
“The Elements dance was sparked by the theme. … People wanted to do a fire-themed dance, so we decided to turn it into to a dance that would incorporate all the elements, which worked out really well,” Davuluri said.
The dance features songs that make reference to the four classical elements: air, water, earth and fire. Earth, for instance, is represented by a thunderous bhangra dance and fire by a passionate, highly vivacious routine.
Each dance is performed to a medley of songs, and the choreographers of the brand-new Fusion dance decided to mix up their selection, choosing songs from bhangra, Bollywood and American hip hop. Fusion embodies the flattening of the world and the subsequent blending of American and Indian culture. The influence of the West’s cultural dominance has long left a mark on India, but the past few years have seen Indian culture pervade into mainstream American culture like never before — just look at “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Outsourced,” which regularly features Bollywood music in its episodes.
“Kids these days over (in India) don’t just listen to Indian music or American music, but kind of a mix now,” Davuluri said. “There are also a lot of Indian people doing hip hop, and there’s a lot of remixes between Indian and American songs.”
The Fusion dance was actually pitched to the show coordinators by its choreographers, Engineering junior Ankur Agrawal, Business junior Divya Toshniwal and LSA junior Sanjay Kataria.
“We like bhangra, Bollywood and hip hop, and IASA didn’t really have any hip hop, so we thought it would be cool to combine all three,” Agrawal said.
“(We) are big Bollywood people and we were on the Bhangra Team, so we know a lot of those songs,” Toshniwal said.
Agrawal, Toshniwal and Kataria have been choreographing their dance for months, song by song, through a combination of freestyling and planned moves. Their dance is a true fusion — not only do the song choices vary between the three genres, but audiences should plan to see unconventional pairings of song and dance style: for instance, a bhangra dance style performed to a hip-hop song and hip-hop dance moves set to a Bollywood song. As for the American selection, the choreographers promise the audience will hear “That Girl” by Frankie J and “A Milli” by Lil Wayne, along with other surprises.
That exhaustive list of dances has been in the works since the beginning of the calendar year, when Agarwal and Davuluri were chosen by the IASA executive board to be the coordinators for the cultural show. After holding interviews, the duo then chose seven IASA members to form the show’s core. These unsung heroes accomplish all the gritty work behind the scenes to make the show a monstrous success.
Collectively, the group then interviewed choreographers and assigned them dances in the spring. Then, in mid-September, dance participants entered a lottery that sorted them into their dances. This year, the show received an incredible 350 applications for the dances, which had to be pared down to just 250.
Then began the intensive two-month period during which the time commitment to IASA exponentially increases and anyone with friends in the show starts to think, “Why the hell are my IASA friends so busy all the time?”
Until the night of the performance, participants put in six to nine hours a week, practicing their dance moves into the wee hours of the morning, with sprinkled-in dress rehearsals and events building a tight community.
“We want there to be chemistry in the dances so that they become a better product on stage,” said show core member and Business sophomore Nikhil Kulkarni. “But also this year, we wanted to try to emphasize one dance getting to know another dance. So that would mean they would go show each other each other’s dances and critique them, or by going to different IASA events, they get to meet people outside and that just helps everybody all around.”
This two-month commitment is merely a supplement to the enormous workload already bestowed upon many University students. But all the time invested is absolutely crucial to the show’s prominence.
“It’s not just students and friends and family that go to the show,” Agarwal said. “It’s residents from Ann Arbor and southeast Michigan that actually come to see a professional show put on by students.”
“They don’t look at it like a student activity or anything, they look at it as a legitimate show,” he continued. “So we have to make sure we put on a professional show, which means our choreographers have to make really good dances, and our dancers have to put in a lot of practice so that they give off the appearance that they are professional dancers on stage — even though a majority of them have never danced before, or done any sort of training in any of the dances that we’re teaching. So that’s what takes hours and hours for the past two months to do.”
This dedication to maximizing the professionalism of the show is what carries “Samasti” into the upper echelon of great University productions. And on top of all the effort, the money earned from the performance is going to charity. All the proceeds from tickets are going to OneWorld Health, a nonprofit that develops inexpensive medicine for people in the third world.
As demanding as the process can be, the participants have an absolute blast throughout the show.
“You learn how to do this dance with a lot of other people, and it’s a good experience,” said LSA junior Akhil Kher, a first-time participant in the Village dance who has been waiting since he came to the University to have time to do the show. “You have to put in a lot to the practices but even though it takes a lot of your time it’s definitely a lot of fun.”