For a decade, Navatman’s Drive East festival has been showcasing Indian arts in America’s Tri-state area

The organisation has been promoting Indian arts through curated performances and special settings

Updated - August 29, 2023 02:34 pm IST

Published - August 28, 2023 07:11 pm IST

From Navatman’s Drive East Festival 2019 edition.

From Navatman’s Drive East Festival 2019 edition. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Walking into Navatman’s new, in-house theater space, an intimate 30-seater black box auditorium, is like heading home: pattu podavais build a colorful landscape, draped on the back wall, and the centre of the small lobby is occupied by the veena, tambura, tabla, mridangam, and ghatam. Electric kuthuvillakus create a perimeter, illuminating the space with memories of Margazhi as Navatman students hand out cooling tumblers of mor (buttermilk) and Rooh Afza in mini clay pots while strands of mallipoo pass from person to person, the scent, intoxicating. Am I in Chennai? No. I am just enjoying a slice of the city in the middle of Koreatown in Manhattan. Welcome to the Drive East festival, where Indian arts come alive far away from their home.

“Our students love this weeklong cultural outing. Every year, they look forward to it,” says co-founder Sahasra Sambamoorthi, a student of Ramya Ramnarayan. She met Navatman partner and co-founder Sridhar Shanmugham, who trained in Kalakshetra but later took to modern and post-modern dance and choreography. His talent eventually led him to tour around the world as part of the legendary Chandralekha’s productions. He has also worked with the likes of Pina Bausch, Suzanna Linke, and Philip Glass. Sahasra and Sridhar were introduced to each other by dancer Rajika Puri of the Tristate area.

From Navatman Drive East festival, 2021.

From Navatman Drive East festival, 2021. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The two hit it off instantly, and would often engage in lengthy discussions on art over mugs of coffee. That birthed Anamika-Navatman or, Navatman as it is now known. An arts collective, it offers dance classes and stages productions of different scales. Sridhar says, “it’s more than an organisation, it’s a movement.”

“Navatman is about peeling off the superficial layers to experience the arts in their most authentic form,” says Sahasra, explaining how the festival is a great way to connect people.

While there are many facets to the organisation’s presence in New York, its Drive East festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has long been known for creating a space where India-based artistes such as Rama Vaidyanathan and Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna perform with North America-based artistes like Roopa Mahadevan, Guhan and Vignesh Venkatraman, Nivedha Ramalingam, and Mythili Prakash.

From one of the earlier editions of Navatman’s Drive East festival.

From one of the earlier editions of Navatman’s Drive East festival. | Photo Credit: Navatman FB page

After the pandemic years, this year’s edition of the festival has an interesting line up that includes both instrumental music and dance performances. It began on August 17, and will wind up on September 10 (on weekends). Being dancers themselves, Sridhar and Sahasra have been using this platform to promote diverse dance styles — from Bharatanatyam and Kathak to flamenco and lavani.

Apart from the Drive East festival, there are several popular annual events held across the U.S. such as the Cleveland Tygaraja festival, South Asian Classical Dance festival, and the Erasing Borders festival, which have widened the reach of Indian performing arts. They have pushed artistes to go beyond the routine and look for novel ways to engage with new audiences. Apart from creating an awareness about Indian arts, these festivals have prompted young Indians and Americans to learn the arts. They have also been significant platforms for exciting collaborations.

“Both Sruti (Sarathy) and I have collaborated with Navatman before,” says mridangist Akshay Anantapadmanabhan. “They promote experimental ideas and are always eager to engage with artistes who like to go that extra mile.”

While Navatman’s new theatre provides a escape from the bright lights of midtown Manhattan, each show at the Drive East festival also finds a second home in a local heritage space: the Sarvamangala Sree Saneeswara Temple in Long Island, New York. Many make a beeline to the temple for an immersive musical experience.

“Temples are where our art comes from. So there cannot be a better place to present them,” says Sahasra.

Most art festivals today, whichever part of the globe they are held, are constantly looking for venues that can add to the experience. “The performance space and ambience matter a lot if you want the audience to engage closely,” adds Sahasra. “That’s how the temple courtyard emerged as the perfect place for this cultural celebration.”

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