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MELA displays South Asian heritage

By Hayley DeBerry
On November 21, 2011

This Saturday the Brandeis South Asian Student Association hosted its annual show, MELA—Hindi for "fair"—which celebrated the stunning diversity of South Asian music, dance and poetry for an enthusiastic audience in Levin Ballroom.

The theme of this year's MELA was the "pehchaan," or "identity," of South Asia, which is always changing as the region grows culturally and socially. The performances showcased unity as well as diversity, explaining through artistic performance how young South Asians have adapted to a different lifestyle while still honoring their roots. MELA was organized by SASA's dedicated co-presidents Jasnam Sachathep '12 and Sriya Srikrishnan '12, who worked with Empower Dalit Women of Nepal, an organization which supports literacy training and empowerment of Dalit women. Proceeds from the evening went toward this cause, providing funds to educate young girls and so they can impart necessary social change in their region.

The evening opened with "Bharatanatyam and Step," a piece whose title suggests its marriage of contemporary Western and more traditional Indian dance styles. Classical Bharatanatyam dancers lit up the stage with expressive eye movements and hand gestures distinctly characteristic of Indian dance, while the Brandeis step team So Unique took turns in the spotlight with a more direct, commanding style heavily influenced by hip-hop.

The subsequent fashion show exhibited breathtaking South Asian men and women's fashions. The rich jewel-toned clothing embellished with sparkling detail was both elegant and wearable. The clothes showcased in this segment weren't the only notable ones, however; performers throughout MELA bolstered their song and dance with brilliantly opulent costumes that added further dimension to their movements.

Associate Dean of Student Life Jamele Adams and Usman Hameedi '12 performed a collaborative slam poetry piece illustrating a hypothetical meeting between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. Hameedi took on the perspective of Gandhi, while Adams portrayed King. Their performance included a series of thought-provoking lines; says Gandhi to King, "Just before approaching death, I was one with my people." The poem implored the future leaders of the world to "look to each other for the answers they search for in the heavens," at which point they would truly be ready to lead with the same greatness. The pair ended their performance with a salute to peaceful defiance as a means of protest: "You can have our dead bodies but not our obedience."

The memorable piece also carried significance for Hameedi, who will be graduating this May. "It's [Adams] passing on the torch for me," he explained in an interview with JustArts after the event. "Jamele's a big deal. In the slam poetry world, he's a huge deal, and for me as someone not at his level, per se, in terms of experience, to be able to go on stage with him and do a group piece like that speaks a lot about how he trusts me."

MELA's second act included "Pehchana?", a piece combining song, dance, and spoken word that elaborated on the struggle of an Americanized Indian girl (Ashni Dave '12) who spoke little Hindi and was asked by her teacher to connect with her only other Indian classmate (Wajida Syed '12) despite the linguistic gap between them. The piece explored how a simple "How are you?" can, as a result of dialectic idiosyncrasies in India, answer the question "Who are you?"

In stride with the formation of a multicultural identity, Brandeis' Belly Dance Ensemble fused Eastern and Western influences with its sensual choreography to Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie," surprising the audience with veils and adding its own percussive touch to the song through costumes adorned with jingling coins.

The highlight of the second act was an electrifying performance by dance group Brandeis Bhangra. Dancers wore red and blue costumes that amplified their grand movement across the Levin stage to a mixture of Indian and American music. "Bhangra … doesn't emphasize precision and grace as much as it does energy and going all out. There's a certain amount of swag required to do Bhangra on stage. The beats lend themselves very well to doing fusion with hip-hop. It's a great intro dance, but there's a lot of subtlety and hand movements that just add so much. It's very energetic; it's tons of fun and always gets an audience excited," explained Hyder Kazmi '12, who choreographed the piece.

Kazmi also performed in the fantastic Senior Dance, the seniors' final celebration of their commitment to SASA. They delighted the audience with a lively piece influenced by Bhangra and hip-hop to a mix of traditional and contemporary South Asian music, as well as American pop.

MELA performers left viewers energized and ready for the subsequent Indian dinner and after-party in the Shapiro Campus Center. The evening was hugely successful, and attendees as well as SASA members look forward to an equally great event next year.

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