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Grains of Rice

A Celebration of Asian Culture

By Devdoot Majumdar

In its third year running, “Grains of Rice: A Celebration of Asian Culture” brought to MIT precious glimpses of various cultures that seldom find themselves presented back-to-back. The explosion of creativity behind the name “Grains of Rice” only betrays the great accomplishment made by the organizers of the event, comprised of members from 13 of MIT’s Asian clubs.

Sponsored by a whole gamut of organizations ranging from the Undergraduate Association to the Department of Architecture, and made up of virtually all Asian cultural groups on campus, Grains of Rice entertained a packed Walker Memorial late into Sunday night.

For an $8 seat, the MIT community (Asians and non-Asians alike) was treated to a dozen different entrees (mainly Chinese) and 11 cultural acts. As the goal of the evening was to edify and enlighten the audience, this writer found himself very much awakened and appreciative of the Grains of Rice presentation as a whole, not so much for its technical and artistic precision, but for its greater purpose.

The evening opened with robust excitement, as members of Oori burst on stage with Oh-Buk-Choom, a Korean five-drum-dance. Laden with dramatic pauses and keenly choreographed motions to match the tribal rhythms, Oori fit the drama and heightened anticipation reminiscent of a Roman coliseum.

Repeating the hypnotic rhythm over and over, this eight-woman troupe demonstrated incredible synchronization -- the hybrid of an Asian marching band with free-form martial arts and interpretational dancing. Ending with an artful reverberation of the gong, the members of Oori left the audience with the same pure excitement that they embarked with.

Next came the only Indian performance of the evening, a Bharata Natyam dance performance. Traditionally known as a devotional and religious art form, three members of the Bharata Natyam club performed a religious piece, Madhuban.

Here, as in many other points throughout the evening, the “art” stems from the beauty of the performance more than the motion and activity of the performance, as this writer was accustomed to. Adorned in elegant silk costumes and anklets with bells, the three dancers were accompanied by the powerful and carefully worked voice of Sheetal Karhade ’01. The dancing, when slow, was a mix of evocative religious gestures, and when fast, a true unity between the frenetic tabla and the bells on the dancers’ anklets.

Following that act was another display of Asian beauty, put on by the Thai Students at MIT. Performing two dances and one ensemble piece, the Thai group put an incredible amount of work into the evening. The dancers, in both dances, performed almost as beautiful dolls -- marionettes -- swaying almost as to mimic the ebb and flow of the tide to xylophone-like music.

Their costuming, satiny green with a red sash (or vice versa), complemented a blinding, gold crown upon each of their heads -- mimicking the radiance adorning a Thai temple, and just as enchanting. The final Thai performance was an ensemble of all sorts of Thai instruments, ranging from woodwind to string, each bearing a distant Western counterpart. Though mildly atonal by Western standards, it had an elegance of its own at very high octaves, very separate from the traditional koto-esque Asian music purveyed by the media. All in all, the Thai Students at MIT enriched the evening with displays of glamour and a sampling of celebrated music (with a Thai twist, of course), making for a very didactic experience.

From the Japanese Society of Undergraduates came two songs -- one a traditional folk song (“Furusato” or “Hometown”) and another, an example of the delightful genre entitled J-Pop. “Furusato,” sounding operatic in the most Western of ways, was pristinely delivered by the versatile voices of Megumi Ando ’04 and Nozomi Ando ’01. The duet was outstanding, flirting with octaves far beyond the normal reach, and rivaling familiar operatic renditions. The J-pop tune “Sionara Daisuki Na Hito” was a John Tesh-meets-LeAnn Rimes kind of tune, with the former two Andos joined by two more singers. Though it was a less ambitious piece, it earned points with the audience by virtue of the charisma of all four singers.

The Chinese Students Club presented an Umbrella Dance, presented earlier this year at their New Years’ banquet. Three girls adorned in black with flowery vests and with violet, red, and light green umbrellas glided across the stage, spinning their umbrellas in artistic patterns. Embodying the dainty and lithe, they served to further the common theme of beauty itself as a performing art. Another group, the Lion Dance, did its electrifying Chinese lion dance, filling Walker Memorial with the sound of a gigantic drum, and two monstrously large Chinese dragons moving about with the help of several Lion Dance members. Spewing chopped lettuce all over the audience and drinking wine, the Lion Dancers enlivened the “puppets” with skill, all the while engaging the audience.

The Filipino Students Association presented what is called Tinikling, dignified as the “Phillipine national dance.” Essentially it was a game, the dancers dodging poles at their feet that were crashing into one another, making for the rhythm. Entertaining sheerly by virtue of such dynamics, it was done to Spanish-sounding music, the men costumed in white shirts and handkerchiefs tied around their necks. The women, found in sequins in butterfly patterns, danced with the men, both as if to hop about like birds.

The evening closed with a non-MIT event, entitled “A Slice of Rice.” The organizers commissioned this act by three Los Angeles actors relating Asian issues without sounding indoctrinating and being frank. Each described a facet of life growing up as an Asian-American, sometimes losing coherence and sometimes making remarkably poignant impressions on the audience. Despite its creativity, the last act couldn’t escape a pedagogical tone (however charismatic) that really didn’t suit the audience (250 MIT students, on a Sunday night, at 10 p.m.).

All in all, the evening was a success, leaving the audience with a priceless sampling of a half-dozen different Asian cultures. Delivering far more than was expected or was promised, Grains of Rice brings new meaning to the once-cliche “multi-cultural experience.”