The Indian Mardi Gras Enters Its Fifth Decade of Dance and Celebration
By: Chhaya Kurani
March 30, 2011
While dance fans in the United States annually experience a plethora of exciting Bollywood, Fusion, Bhangra, and Raas/Garba collegiate teams battling with vigor and passion for the coveted trophies, taking a trip to the south Indian metropolis of Madras during the final week of January to experience Saarang is likely to surprise and leave speechless even the most hard-core desi dance organizer from the United States.
Saarang, IIT Madras’ Annual Cultural Festival, attracts about 50,000 people over the span of five days and four nights, with a jam-packed schedule of more than15 hours of events per day, and large-scale concerts in an amphitheatre seating an audience of over 8,000. The energy is mind-blowing, the level of dance stellar, and the honor of winning is a thing to write home about.
Originally titled Mardi Gras before its renaming in 1996, Saarang’s roots go back to 1974-1975--its purpose to promote interest in cultural and literary events. It has since grown in the past 30 years, being recognized as an integral part of the city’s must-see events and attracting participants and audiences from all across south India. A true festival of literature and arts, Saarang includes events in dance, music, media, theatre, spoken word, literature, arts and crafts, Mr. & Ms. Saarang, Antakshari, playwriting, graphic design, and more.
However, do not for a second think that dance is subdued and fallen by the wayside in all this shuffle! Saarang presents four live dance competitions, each highlighting a specific genre or approach to dance; a plethora of guest lectures and demonstrations from top-notch international artists; and workshops for both the dancer and non-dancer alike.
Saarang 2011 took place from January 25th to 29th and featured dance artists including classical danseuse Allarmel Valli in a lecture demonstration, a breakdancing workshop by Houston-based Hip Hop crew Havikoro
, Salsa and Samba workshops by John Britto Dance Company, and a mainstage show – Saarang’s illustrious Classical Night – featuring Mallika Sarabhai (daughter of celebrated dancer Padma Shri Mrinalini Sarabhai) and Darpana dance troupe.
However, the buzz and excitement amongst students and audiences alike was for Choreo Night – the most awaited dance competition featuring teams from Chennai to Kerela and gracing the outdoor mainstage amphitheatre. Choreo Night featured 18 dance teams competing in both theme and non-theme categories, and displaying virtuosity in styles from Bollywood, Fusion, Street Jazz, Lyrical, Hip Hop, and Breaking!
The performers were fierce, the energy pulsating, the dance moves explosive, and the creative choreography a true treat for the eyes. The event was graced by Judges John Britto (celebrated international choreographer and Artistic Director of the leading Western dance institute in South India – John Britto Dance Company), Raghu (choreographer/teacher/performer), and Shivani Thakkar (Los Angeles-based international choreographer and performer). The judges all expressed that watching the choreographic creativity, passion, and experimental risks that these teams were bold enough to display was refreshing, inspiring, and an affirmation of the continuous and everlasting presence of dance expression.
Ms. Thakkar, impressed with the performances she witnessed, stated on stage that “the high level of performance deserved platforms such as Carnival: Choreographer’s Ball (a premiere dance showcase in LA, NY, UK, etc.).” She also expressed that, with the excellent performance and presence of Hip Hop and Breaking, television producers should seriously consider creating India’s Best Dance Crew, a spin-off the hit American dance competition show.
The stakes are high in Choreo Night, and the winning team, New College’s Supercrew, got disqualified a few weeks later upon the discovery that their performance included dancers who were not college students, transferring the title and prize to their neck-and-neck competitor and runner-up, Loyola College Dream Team, the 2010 returning champions. To be crowned champion at Saarang’s Choreo Night is a coveted honor, with the only thing of higher prestige being appointed judge.
“When we were students in college, we would dream of the day when we would be regarded established enough in the world of dance to be invited to judge. To be asked to judge this competition is an honor and pleasure. This competition is one of the largest events and displays--the crème de la crème of dance teams,” Mr. Britto said.
“It was an amazing experience, being in India and judging Saarang. Having judged Jhoomti Shaam and West Coast Crown in the US, I was blown away by seeing the variety of dance styles and vigor and virtuosity in performance. In the US, our competitions feature styles that reflect the love students have for Indian music and culture, a step outside of their North American surroundings. The same is true for India, where a majority of teams chose Hip Hop and Breaking as their preferred genre, and excelled in mastering a style that is not in their day-to-day local environment,” Ms. Thakkar stated.
She added that the intensity shared amongst performers at Saarang are on par with anyone who artistically competes in dance events halfway around the world in the United States and Canada.
“The amount of research, passion, observation, and thought that goes into preparing for this competition parallels and mirrors that which South Asian Americans put into our Bollywood and Bhangra competitions!” Ms. Thakkar added. “An absolute joy to watch. I was indeed surprised. I totally did not expect this preference for Hip Hop, and that too performed at such a high standard.”
Attending Saarang is a true treat – a five-day feast for the eyes, mind, and soul. In addition to the vibrant dance events, Saarang sports live music, including workshops by sought-after artists, such as the drummer of Pain of Salvation, performances by Sonu Nigam and Bombay Jayashree, thespian events including lectures by prized film directors and actors, Model UN, Charity/fund-raising activities, a 24-hour film-making competition, and more.
Our Desi events in the United States are filled with the same spirit as Saarang and are comparatively young competitions. As we see these popular events taking a spotlight presence in the host city’s cultural events, it can only lead us to aspire to and imagine the potential of our conventions in 30 years!
This is the time to be watching Philly Fest, Bollywood America, Best of the Best, Bhangra Blowout, Jhoomti Shaam, and more, as they are on their way, with the proper leadership, to grow into the Mardi Gras that IIT Madras’ Saarang currently is!