Drive East festival showcases the best of India’s classical performance traditions

Designs on the Diaspora A scene from “Roopa In Flux” at the Drive East festival   | Photo Credit: Leo Resplandor

The Indian diaspora in the U.S., as across the world, is famous for retaining its identity through its arts and food traditions. But while cuisine attracts a widespread clientèle, the Indian arts have consistently had more of a niche fan base, remaining below the radar of the mainstream media. The annual Drive East festival, now eight years old, is one effort to make a mark in this context by showcasing the best of India’s classical performance traditions. The recently concluded 2019 edition also drew attention to the journey of diaspora artists in the U.S.

Founded by Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Sridhar Shanmugam, Drive East began in New York City but added a San Francisco leg from 2018. The founders’ aim is to provide an experience of witnessing the arts at close proximity. While the San Francisco venue had a capacity of some 77 seats, the New York theatre was slightly larger at 110.



Sahasra, a second generation Indian American Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer, recalls that as a child she had seen some of India’s most renowned artists performing on big stages. It was only after she and Sridhar founded their dance company Navatman that one day, “He got some black curtains and some lights and transformed our studio, which looked smaller than this, into a theatre space.” They began hosting performances there, and when she first saw Bharatanatyam and Kathak and Carnatic music in such a setting she was “blown away,” says Sahasra. “In 20-something years I’d never seen dance and music like that. Every single performance was just magnified in a way that I couldn’t have imagined before.”

A scene from “Unfiltered” at the Drive East festival

A scene from “Unfiltered” at the Drive East festival  

It is like sitting near a lighted fire, says Sridhar, a medical doctor and a noted performer of Bharatanatyam and modern and post-modern dance. “The closer you go, the more you feel the glow. The dancers are sizzling and flaming, and when you sit there you get that warmth in you.”

Many of the Indian classical arts, being associated with temples, lend themselves to an intimate setting, he notes. The audience should feel privileged to attend such an event.

Conscious choice

Eminent Odissi dancer Bijayini Satpathy who gave meditative recitals in both cities, appreciates the small venues. Having danced with the Nrityagram Ensemble in virtually all the large theatres across the world, she says, “I’ve made a conscious choice that I want to do solos, and in smaller theatres. The idea is to journey together with the audience. Not become the outsider and present something.”

Kathak duo Nirupama-Rajendra from Bangalore, who gave the San Francisco finale and earlier performed with their group at New York, could just as well have swept a much larger audience off its feet with their dazzling tatkars and chakkars. But they also planned specially for the close interactions. “Indian classical dance essentially being a solo form and rasa-oriented, if presented in large auditoriums, requires a lot more pumping and padding and so many things — which we do,” laughs Nirupama. In small venues, she observes, the spectators and artists thrive on intensity and energy.

Maybe one day “for attending this privileged 100-seat concert,” tickets might sell at 500 dollars apiece, says Sridhar. “Because we are looking at offering the best. And the best can be offered to [one] who wants the best.”

Till then, however, budgeting is a challenge. Artists receive 50 percent of box office proceeds and manage their own travel and accommodation. Some of the India-based performers get support from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Here Sridhar, who before settling in the U.S., travelled the world as principal male dancer in Chandralekha’s company besides working with other leading choreographers, makes an impassioned complaint.

He disagrees with the ICCR’s policy of supporting only empanelled artists. This argument might not find many supporters, simply because there is such a backlog of empanelled professionals waiting wanly for a tour abroad that allowing exceptions by funding those not empanelled would likely lead to even greater dissatisfaction all round. But he echoes a protest of many in the classical community when he exclaims, “Bollywood stars are sent here by the Government of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, [yet] they won’t support a festival like this — high quality work, people who have given their life to it!”

Lack of support

Sahasra clarifies, “I think the point is, we do this without support from anybody – U.S. government, Indian government, private patronage. Nobody actually helps us create this work.”

This year for the first time, some of the California-based performers were supported by Local Impact grants from the California Arts Council. This enabled the Drive East team to boost, if marginally, the compensation given to those few, explains Nadhi Thekkek, founder of Nava Dance Theatre that co-presented Drive East in San Francisco.

As for local impact, Drive East is one of the few festivals, say participants, known for offering a platform to local practitioners of Indian classical arts. Artists in North America often complain that organisers prefer India-based practitioners, automatically assuming them to be of higher calibre.

Drive East breaks the stereotype, and this time, out of over 30 performances, at least 14 featured U.S.-based artists, many of them born and raised in the country. A heartening number of locally trained mridangists, violinists and nattuvanars also took the stage. The concerts bore testimony to the kind of engagement these artists bring to their chosen forms.

Roopa Mahadevan of New York performed “Roopa in Flux”

Roopa Mahadevan of New York performed “Roopa in Flux”   | Photo Credit: Ram Keshav

Roopa Mahadevan of New York performed “Roopa in Flux”, belting out a “Carnatic-inspired” concert with pizzazz. First crediting her guru Asha Ramesh, Roopa mentions other inspirations, from Whitney Houston to Ella Fitzgerald and Jazmine Sullivan. Her guru taught her “what it means to really embrace your classical training and learn to find yourself, find bhava and an emotional connection in a Carnatic repertoire,” says Roopa, who also took advanced training from Suguna Varadachari in India. At the end of her concert she thanked Guru Asha in the audience, for “never judging” her experimental forays.

A disciple of D.K. Jayaraman and Nanganallur V. Ramanathan, the San Jose-based Asha Ramesh, who left India three decades ago, also featured at Drive East, with a well appreciated, fairly conventional Carnatic concert that concluded with a rousing tillana in raga Rasikapriya dedicated to nature and drawing attention to climate change.

Notable among the U.S.-born artists was Rasika Kumar, a disciple and daughter of Guru Mythili Kumar. Her “Unfiltered” was a dramatic piece choreographed in Bharatanatyam around issues related to the Me Too movement and violence against women. American-born Sahasra and Nadhi were her co-dancers and Roopa the music composer.

From breathing with Bijayini in the intensity of her Ramayana portrayal to shuddering as Rasika and group tore the veil from what society prefers to cloak, the Drive East audiences were doubtless drawn into the artists’ world. For their part the artists, as Nirupama put it, could “feel the heart of the rasika.” What better gift to offer tired souls amid the everyday frictions of city life? No wonder Sahasra says it is the transformation on the faces of the people as they leave the hall that makes Drive East worth all the effort.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 11:26:30 AM |

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