Every August, the frenetic routine of the average New Yorker is relieved by Navatman’s Drive East festival, which offers high quality Indian music and dance. Curated by Bharatanatyam dancers Sridhar Shanmugham and Sahasra Sambamoorthi, co-presidents of the organisation, the festival was started five years ago with the purpose of creating an awareness of Indian culture in the greater New York area.
Sridhar used to perform with Chandralekha’s group for many years and fondly recalls that she was a perfectionist and sa ys she continues to inspire him in all his artistic endeavours. Speaking about the festival, he says, “We want to show the world what Indian dance and music can do, and in order to do that, it is important that the people know that whatever we are curating has a stamp of excellence.” Each year they present over 20 concerts by inviting artistes from all over the world to cover as many styles as possible. “We want to grow and revitalise audiences for the classical arts. The festival is not for only those who love it; we want to convince the uninitiated that they too can understand and appreciate this,” adds Sahasra.
This year’s Drive East festival was held at Dixon Place, New York, from August 21-27, featuring a galaxy of prominent artists. It opened with a scintillating sarod recital by the Grammy nominated maestro, Ustad Aashish Khan followed by an enchanting Odissi recital by Sujatha Mohapatra. Alastair Macaulay of New York Times said in his review: “Thanks to her, the week-long Drive East season has commenced on a peak. The classical dances of India, so laden with centuries-old traditions, keep revealing how the sociology of that intensely populous nation has been changing. I attended seven performances of Indian dance and music; each brought revelations. And I was often taken to places Indian dance had not taken me before.”
The other highlights of this year’s festival included Bharathanatyam by Apoorva Jayaraman, Janaki Rangarajan, Christopher Guruswamy, Renjit and Vijna and the Navatman team, Kuchipudi by Pranamya Suri and Avjit Das, Manipuri by Devdutta Sengupta Ghosh, Kathak and Korean drums set to the Seungmu tradition by Jin Won and Sue Yeon Parks, Leela Dance Collective dancers Rachna Nivas and Rina Mehta collaborating with Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards to bring out parallels of Kathak and Tap dance and The Durga Project by Jonathan Hollander’s Battery Dance Company.
On the music front there was Hidustani vocal by Indrani Khare, Sitar by Kinnar Seen, Carnatic vocal by Shankar Ramani, Ananya Ashok and Navatman’s Collective, Carnatic Guitar Power by Shankadip Chakraborthy traditional folk songs and dances by Rajasthani Caravan. The idea of including an eclectic group of performers is to reach out to wider audiences. Besides concerts, the festival offers interesting panel discussions. This year an Artist Hub was created exclusively for participating artistes to learn from each other and also from experts in the field.
Participants in the earlier editions include Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Rama Vaidyanathan, Rukmini Vijaykumar, Guitar Prasanna, Abhijeet Banerjee, Archana Joglekar, Kiran Ahluwalia, Kiran Kale and the Sattriya Dance Company.
During the festival, the entire space is transformed with rangoli, flowers, lamps and fabric to recreate a traditional Indian ambiance. The food stalls with Indian delicacies add flavour to the festival and are popular with the audience. Sridhar emphasises, “We want to create sustainability for the arts by challenging existing business models. We support all local businesses as much as possible and by coming together, we all win.”
The classical dances of India, so laden with centuries-old traditions, keep revealing how the sociology of that intensely populous nation has been changing