Drive East has become one of Navatman’s well-loved traditions. It centers around art, community, joy, and intimacy by showcasing myriad forms of music and dance. Drive East has garnered enthusiastic reviews from journalists and critics, patrons and pupils – it conjures a sense of familiarity and warmth. This week-long festival, which was born in New York City and expanded to San Francisco, is ignited by the core team at Navatman and fueled further by the multitudes of artists who perform, patrons who attend, admirers who tell their friends and family. Drive East creates a platform for the Indian Classical arts because it has always been about the people.
I’ll never forget volunteering for my first Drive East at Dixon Place in 2018. Artists from all over the world gathered at the artist hub to engage and create. The hallways were abuzz with conversation. I was in awe of the energy in this place – lively and warm like an outdoor festival yet tingling with mystery and excitement like when the curtain goes up. It shattered my impression of professional art events. No posh airs? No standoffishness? Just a fresh, inviting space for artists, curators, you, and me to come together in celebration for our love of the performing arts.
All the tumult in the world right now has upended normalcy in the performing arts. A performer’s “office” is now a recording booth, sabha, or dance studio. Navatman has adapted too, with our online platform for school semesters, private lessons, masterclasses, Nuance classes, and live stream performances. Given this existential transformation, we wondered, “What is the fate of Drive East?”
We realized that although the world has transformed, some things haven’t: Musicians, dancers, patrons, children need to manifest their love for art. We need a shared respite with our community. We need an oasis of intimacy between artist and audience.
We need sanctuary.
I am standing onstage at Symphony Space. I am watching in awe as people applaud the experience that we have just given them. I am in disbelief as the packed auditorium stands for the musicians and dancers of Navatman’s Mahabharata taking our bows. I once had a dream to be in this very moment. Only this time, it wasn’t a dream.
Oh my god...
How did we do this? We transformed artforms and epics from India into live stage shows in the heart of New York City. How is it that an immigrant artist performed an immigrant artform in the United States of America to a packed and cheering crowd?
And for one moment, I belonged. I was home. I felt solid ground under my feet.
For an immigrant, these moments are rare. While going about our daily lives like anyone else, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. We spend our days weeks months years keeping our heads down, hoping against hope, that someday somehow our “temporary” status turns into a permanent one. We wish to no longer walk the cliff’s edge of uncertainty - whether we will still be allowed to stay in the place that we’ve chosen to call home. We are hit with news nearly everyday regarding potential orders that may upset thousands of immigrant lives at the drop of a hat. We listen to xenophobic rhetoric nearly everyday, telling us to go back to where we came from. Despite all this, we try to maintain a sense of positivity and purpose. “If you just focus and do your job and not ruffle any feathers, you’ll make it,” we tell ourselves. Without repeating this mantra, the complex emotions and ambiguity that cripple us every second of everyday will leave us paralyzed. We hear stories of people uprooted by bureaucratic technicalities, and we secretly feel guilty for being glad that we’re not them – followed by a tightness in our chest that we might be next.
Where do we go for solace? When we can’t always advocate for ourselves, we are forced to endure in silence for fear of being torn out a life that we painstakingly built. We are excruciatingly aware that it was all built on a single piece of paper called a visa and in these times, our foundations feel as flimsy as that piece of paper.
Slowly but surely, we begin to internalize a toxic narrative. For 20 years, I’ve paid my taxes, not violated my status, studied, worked, volunteered, nurtured friendships and community, and yet... Each time I have to apply for a visa I sense that I’m unwanted, unwelcome. Am I the problem? Am I the overly clingy, needy partner in this relationship dynamic with the United States of America? Is it even worth trying to make this work? Is it too late to cut and run? Will I ever belong, or will I always feel like an alien?
Then I found Navatman. It broke that toxic narrative that I don’t belong and made me thrive. It empowers me that my culturally unique craft is not only important but belongs in the diverse fabric of New York City. Navatman gives voice and speaks for people who cannot advocate for themselves, let alone others. Everyday at Navatman I believe a little more that moments like the standing ovation at Symphony Space should not be few and far between for an immigrant artform; rather they should be many and normal. And when the ground beneath me shifts again, threatening unbalance, Navatman gives me a place to anchor myself and be home.
As Indian classical artists, we often turn to mythology for inspiration. At Navatman, we’ve been diving deep into the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to seek truths about life and art. Today, the world is under siege – from coronavirus, from systemic inequity and persecution, from climate change – and we, the human species, are undergoing the broadest test of our existence. As we look at what is going on around us, we find solace in the ancient tales that have been passed down from generation to generation.
For instance, when creating content, teaching our students, and sharing our culture with others, characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata illuminate great lessons. Even deeply flawed characters show glimpses of kindness, empathy, selflessness, and righteousness despite their flaws. In our recent conversations, we observed that many of the issues at hand today are exacerbated by the “glamorization of me,” a conditioned sense of entitlement and self-aggrandizement.
Excerpt From The Mahabharata
After losing a game of dice, Draupadi and the Pandavas are exiled to the forest for 12 years. They had accepted the original invitation as well as their eventual loss knowing full well that the system is rigged, that their hardship is inevitable.
During their exile, Draupadi laments to Yudhishthira, “Our persecutor feels no sorrow for us. No regret for our distress. No remorse for his cruel misdeeds. Why must he enjoy luxury with his friends, while we lead destitute lives in the woods? Why do we deserve this woe if we never strayed from the rules? Why do the wicked gain all the pleasures, but the righteous only grief? My heart knows no peace.
Why are you not angry? Why are you not indignant? Why are you not outraged? Your silence is ripping the hearts out of our friends to gratify our foes – foes who mistake your tolerance for incompetence.”
Our epics teach us to focus on we. As a society, we are collectively responsible for how the world will continue to function, thrive, and find its greater good. Our epics remind us that no matter our possessions, accolades, or intentions, all changes when ego drives our path.
Today, as we grapple with the pain of seeing entire groups of people being denied basic human rights, we look to the Ramayana and Mahabharata to rejuvenate us and our audiences with reminders of triumphs and tragedies.
Heroes and villains, angels and demons, provide ideals that we still live by. Artists introspect and bare their own soul against the backdrop of these characters. Each time we explore an epic, there is something new to learn. As we move forward in these unprecedented times of trauma and revolution, artists find stories in the epics that shed light on how to keep going, how to handle pain and suffering, how to be compassionate humans. And so we stay loyal to our role as storytellers and cultural vanguards.
This year has been one backbreaking struggle.
As dancers and musicians, when loss happens, many of us turn to the arts to cocoon in relief or speak our pain through movement.
What respite does that bring others? We did not have the answer, but our patrons definitely did. Every recent online event has quickly filled with purpose as artists, students, and viewers came back asking us for more music, more dance, more art.
During this time may of us were questioning, “Why turn to arts?” especially when other pressing issues are taking precedence around the world.
As the comments kept coming, we felt heartened. They crystallized for us that bringing dance and music to patrons can create impact and aid change in a way that perhaps we all know internally but struggle to articulate to others.
So this year, we as American and Indian arts workers are owning our power. Drive East will manifest our voice like never before. Every conversation we have with an artist is an opportunity to dive deep, implore each other, create new understandings. Opening town halls during Drive East and listening to what patrons and artists need and want creates a space for new perspectives and considerations. Switching Drive East to an online platform brings us together in a way we never even imagined would be possible.
So let’s transform collectively. Support an artist. Support each other’s voices. Tune in to change. Be part of it with us. Join Drive East and let’s do more together.
Reflections on Dance: A Companion in Crisis by Aparna Shankar and Meghana Murthy
It is a strange time in our lives. Time feels weird, simultaneously zipping by and inching by, every day seemingly the same. My brain feels fuzzy. I binge-watch, I read, I cook, I put on outlandish eye shadow and play dress-up at home. The days start to blend together. Work days start turning into work nights and work weekends. And yet, despite my time being filled endlessly with so much “stuff”, I feel a void. I am a sieve, empty and bare, life seeping through.
While the pandemic has done ample damage, it has also given me time to reflect on the value of the arts in my life. Every minute that I spent stressed or indifferent, was a minute taken away from doing something that I loved. During a dance company rehearsal, Sahi asked us to portray what losing hope would look like. This struck a chord with me. I realized that the stress of my days was taking away something that brought me solace. Dance was the one thing that allowed me to remove myself – even momentarily – from my stressors, and brought me pure joy.
When I moved to a new state at the age of ten, I struggled to make friends. Everyone in school already knew each other and cliques had been set. I felt awkward looking to fit in. But my trusty companion, Bharatanatyam, stayed with me – reminiscing about good times through nattadavus and alarippus. Even through intimidating situations like a *gulp* varnam trikala jathi, this friend showed me that we are more capable than we think.
Then came college. Ivy rejections in spite of stellar GPAs and SAT scores. Heartbreaks. Organic chemistry. Again, dance came to the rescue. I rejoiced learning how to construct movements, crafting stories through adavus, creating my own narrative. I learnt to deal with life’s inevitable curveballs by drawing from deep within and aspiring for something greater.
The pandemic saw me go from a healthy work-dance balance to work-work-work. It left me wanting (to eat and sleep better), exhausted (from overwork), drained (by constant pressure), hollow (from not dancing as much). When I recommitted to dance, every rehearsal restored me piece by piece. It returned me to a place of solace, onto a path for my own health and happiness. My one silver lining to the pandemic is the realization that dance is not something I will compromise on, ever.
Through most of my adult life, I had been uncomfortable in my skin. Too Indian for America, too American for India. A diaspora cliché. But dance always centered me back; consistently empowering me to change, grow, heal myself. Dance is my sacred space, my refuge.