• South Asian culture takes center stage

    Annual show celebrates cultural heritage of students from the subcontinent

By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff

On the first Saturday night of Spring Quarter, the Mandel Hall curtain opens to a cheering, packed house. More than a hundred students wait in the wings, wearing enough colorful chiffon, silk, jewelry, and black eyeliner to light up a Bollywood soundstage. Music blasts through the auditorium as the cheering crescendos and the dancers rush onstage.

The SASA spring show has begun.

For 26 years, the South Asian Students Association has created a showcase of music, theatre, and dance to celebrate the cultural heritage of the subcontinent.

“The SASA show makes South Asian culture accessible to everyone,” says Ayushi Shrivastava, a second-year public policy student and this year’s show coordinator.

Of the many cultural shows throughout the year by student groups of various backgrounds—the Korean Student Organization, the Organization of Latin American Students, the Chinese Undergraduate Student Association—the SASA show is the biggest, in part because it draws a following that reaches beyond the sizable South Asian community on campus.

Shrivastava says that participating in SASA has helped her stay connected to her heritage, even though she hasn’t lived in India since childhood. “At the University of Chicago, friends celebrate the Hindu religious festivals with me and give me the opportunity to engage in social and political activism for India,” she says.

But perhaps the greatest benefit to Shrivastava of being in SASA and performing with her friends in the cultural show: “It’s a great break from academics.”

Ancient tradition, contemporary style

While some of the skits and performances are amusing—sketches about pulling an all-nighter, or a parody of Bollywood’s obsession with sexy “item girls”—choreographer Malini Kartha knows that Indian dance also can be quite serious. The fourth-year student in international studies from suburban Chicago started Indian dance classes when she was three years old, slowly learning the postures and movements that would help her tell the tales from sacred religious texts and Hindu mythology.

“It’s just like ballet, with a rigid technique and foundation,” Kartha explains. She is writing a thesis on classical Indian dance for her minor in Theater and Performing Studies, and she is creating and performing an original work.

Kartha’s thesis brings a story from the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic from ancient India, to life. “I wanted to represent Kunti in dance, and show her as a fierce woman who took care of five sons,” she says. Performing this dance in public is required for her minor.

Kartha also helped choreograph three of the dance numbers in the SASA show, with elements of hip-hop, Bollywood, and folk dancing styles.

In one act, musicians strum the sitar and drum on the tabla while women twist their wrists and ankles in a classic Indian dance, a love story featuring the Hindu god Krishna. They clear off stage to make room for a street dance, which is followed by belly dancers, and then the electrifying Raas and Bhangra teams, who shout and clap in exuberant folk dances.

The joy onstage is irresistible to the audience.

Despite the distinctly South Asian flavor of the dancing, music, and costumes, the SASA performers don’t necessarily have a connection to the region. “We have native Spanish-speakers, people who grew up in the States with immigrant parents, and people who have no connection to South Asia at all,” Kartha explains. Indeed, some students on the SASA stage also perform in the cultural show for the Organization of Latin American Students.

“Everyone comes with the same attitude: ‘That looks like fun; can we join too?’” Kartha says.