Living away from India, leaves us starved for Indian cultural events so when well-known Indian artistes visit, desis generally make a bee-line to attend. I expected that to be the case at a recent performance in New Jersey by Mallika Sarabhai but was surprised to find the auditorium not filled to capacity. I guess it clashed with weekend Navratri celebrations. Interestingly, in my desire to get good seats, I had corresponded with the organizers only to find most of the main auditorium is reserved for sponsors and donors. While I was willing to pay good dollar to get seats up front, it was not to be. Thought the tickets were not cheap, I had to make do with front row in the mezzanine level rather than to lurk in the back rows craning my neck.
Mallika Sarabhai is a powerhouse of talent and it’s unfortunate the place was not full. The performance was held at the beautiful New Jersey Performing Arts Centre to aid a not for profit, Share and Care Foundation. The not for profit is doing amazing work but their organizational effort leaves much to be desired. There is nothing more frustrating for people than to go to a performance and fritter valuable time becoming unwilling participants in sycophancy and felicitations. There is a classy way of organizing a fund raiser and a crass way. Unfortunately, Share and Care chose the latter method. All their good work gets lost in the need to boast.
The evening started with the singing of both the US and Indian national anthems. I wondered if I was at a cultural event or a political rally. The girl who sang the anthems did a wonderful job though a two-page introduction with her credentials seemed unnecessary. The Star Spangled Banner was sung first and got a luke warm response. Everyone joined in as Jana Gana Mana was sung, followed by a loud, ‘Bharat mata ki jai’. The ambivalent attitude to the US and the overwhelming response to the Indian anthem speaks volumes. Why are they in the US?
The MC either had a poor speechwriter or was making it up as he went along. I grimaced each time he opened his mouth. He should have compered in Gujarati rather than English. There was a wonderful video presentation, which in my opinion was enough and there was no need for further talk. The President introduced two millennials saying they represented the next generation who would take the baton of the organization forward. Unfortunately, his comments were misleading. The first time he did that, the young person in question introduced Mallika Sarabhai. Her speech was basically like a google print-out. The next time a young person was invoked, she was not taking on the mantle of Share and Care but instead donated one of her paintings to a donor. They should have auctioned it and raised more funds rather than gift it away. Lost opportunity. But we did get the full Curriculum Vitae of the painter.
The felicitation of donors took place post interval. They were invited on stage and handed drooping flowers and large plaques in gratitude for their donations. Each donor’s bio-data was read out along with how much they had contributed and whether or not they were Padma Shri recipients! A complete case of self-aggrandizement and brown nosing. Only a couple of donors preferred to remain anonymous. What a colossal waste of time and money. Mallika Sarabhai and her son, Revanta, looked positively uncomfortable as the scenario played out. Full marks to them for maintaining dignity throughout. I was squirming in embarrassment.
Sometimes not saying anything says so much more but that’s one thing the organizers did not understand. In the process, their basic message of humanity was completely lost. Given our fractured world and the need to be humane, this needed to be highlighted and not buried. Revanta Sarabhai made a profound speech exhorting attendees to give a bit of their life to people who need it, saying there is a need for those with privilege to help those without. His mother made an emotional appeal too. She spoke about a world that hates everyone and the need to go inside ourselves to discover our purpose. She asked whether money is the end of the world and urged people to become humane again. She emphasized the need to introspect on how people can make a difference.
The performance itself was flawless. The first part, Love songs to Shiva, was pure classical. As a Bharat Natyam dancer, I was transported to my student days of Tillana, Varnam, Allaripu. Sarabhai and her students executed the dance steps to perfection with amazing choreography. Post interval Sarabhai’s ability to make a statement was highlighted in her evocative rendition of Urdu poetry where a woman is finding her voice and flowering free. Revanta and Pooja Purohit followed with an intriguing how, where, why deconstruction of Bharat Natyam steps. Watching them match each other, step by step, their contortions and mastery of footwork, body movement and mind games, was magical.
And talking about body movements, as the dance frenzy of Navratri ends, Indians in the US have started the Diwali festivities with celebrations at the Times Square Diwali and South Street seaport. Meanwhile back in India, it is heartening to see the number of people pledging to celebrate a Green Diwali. When a community consistently collaborates to celebrate responsibly, the world is a better place.