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The SAAS Pop Culture Show

Show Entertaining, But Lacking Authentic Culture

By Devdoot Majumdar

South Asian American Students Culture Show

Friday, April 16, 7 p.m.

Kresge Auditorium


Rap has never failed to bore me. But it’s the inescapably roaring response to “When I say, ‘hey’” that makes hip-hop concerts fun. It’s the crowds, doused with enthusiasm and ripping out the lighters at the very mention of Left Eye, that never cease to entertain. By that metric, the South Asian American Students (SAAS) culture show in Kresge last Saturday was not too shabby at all.

The South Asians at MIT and, among others, their supportive crew at Phi Beta Epsilon, really brought life to an otherwise derivative program of the culture formerly known as South Asian. Though it might be more aptly described as a pop culture show, the SAAS show was consistently engaging, even at its most uninspired moments. That’s not saying there weren’t high points, only that the ebb and flow of low points was politely overlooked by the high spirits of the audience, which filled Kresge as usual.

The show’s two solid hours of dance after dance after dance, with the occasional musical interlude, was an experience, but that’s culture for you. In contrast to SAAS culture shows past, the running theme of the show was surprisingly humorous, in large part owing to a self-deprecating Eric C. Makhni ’05. The storyline ran that he and a friend upped their game as Indian dancers. This progressed throughout the show as comical skits between acts until the duo finally made it into the dance, “Men In Heat,” toward the end of the show.

The absolute pinnacle of the show was MIT Chamak, a troupe that skillfully managed to intertwine traditional Indian and modern dancing. The dance somehow took the traditional Indian dance form, Bharat Natyam, and brought to it a drum and bass beat, slinky black tops, and a little bit of hand-flapping that coordinated well with lighting effects. For those both familiar and unfamiliar with Indian dance, there was something ripe and electrifying about their well-choreographed dance that made it the best performance of the evening, technically and aesthetically.

The other performance of note was “Men In Heat,” an all-male, mostly PBE group, which entered the stage pretending to be women. Itself a mockery of several aspects of Indian dance, “Men In Heat” solidly mastered some key elements on Indian dance, and in doing so managed to bring light to the utter campiness of Indian film dancing.

At the outset of the evening, Sonali Mukherjee G delivered abbreviated national anthems from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. Yes, Bhutan. Unfortunately, she did not sing it, because, who, after all, knows the anthem of Bhutan? Instead, an Encarta-esque midi version of the music from the anthem was played for all to hear. I mention this only to draw an analogy to other parts of the evening. You see, when most of a “culture show” is devoted to pop culture, the few authentic remnants of real South Asian culture kind of stick out at you, like the Bhutanese anthem. In that vein, when two girls sat down onstage to sing a raga (Indian classical singing), it just baffled me. Both sang quite well, considering the vocal training for the genre is quite rigorous and quite incompatible with Western singing.

Aside from the raga, the Bharat Natyam performance, a devotional form of Indian dancing performed by MIT Natya, also added a bit of an authentic flair to the evening. If you know an Indian girl in America, there’s probably a 30 percent chance that her parents had her study Bharat Natyam throughout her youth. As a result, the 20-dancer strong troupe at MIT (which does have its fair share of Indian girls) performed an easy-to-follow story from Indian mythology. Choreographed flawlessly, the dance brought an early laugh to the audience as it orchestrated the demise of the “wicked ten headed demon Ravana” because of the “help of Hanuman and his army of monkeys.” A cheap laugh? Sure, but it’s authentic.

Aside from these acts, the rest of the SAAS culture show was a relatively homogeneous mix of decent dances. The organizers of the show picked acts based on tryouts, a process no doubt rife with politics. Though I don’t really understand it, all of the remaining acts of the evening were fairly superimposable, and thus, the notion that things were getting stale quickly clouded the latter half of the evening.

There were two “light” dances, where the focus of the dance is on small lights in the dancer’s hands (tradition dictates that it be small flames burning, but the Kresge translation was small lightbulbs incandescing). Then, there were class dances and random group dances, all of which basically took the form of a bunch of guys and girls dancing to Indian film music. It was enjoyable the first time around, and even the fifth time around, but by the end of the show, the glove just stopped fitting.

Most enjoyable were the 2004 and 2005 class dances, which were large and complex enough to induce seizure, distracting the audience from any defective moments. However, a very noticeable shortcoming of several of the other dances was a basic lack of coordination and synchronization, made even more obvious when one girl would look intensely at another girl in hopes of following along. What was lacking, perhaps because there were so many acts with a number of people participating in multiple dances, is that “well-oiled machine” quality of Chamak or Dancetroupe performances. One dance, “Kiss Kiss,” was like watching the copulation of a fifty-year old couple (because of its tired and dismal nature), alongside a teenage couple (because of its similarly uncoordinated and confusing nature) at the same time.

As always, the evening ended up with the one renowned group expected to deliver an amazing performance: the MIT Bhangra team. However, with poorly-chosen costumes that revealed the the guys’ Nike shorts and fell off of one of the girls, along with a general lack of coordination and high energy dance moves, it was less of a big finish and more of a “now you can go home.” Even so, as Indians tend to do, the afterparty for the culture show was announced and advertised.

Packed with over 16 acts, the culture show is the South Asian community’s hip response to the many international culture shows on campus. What sets the SAAS show apart, and indeed what allows the SAAS show to eclipse all other cultural shows in one respect, is the tepid disregard for authentic South Asian culture in the show. The show was perhaps as reminiscent of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi (and so on) cultures as Goosebeary’s is to Chinese food -- that is, the aura of South Asia is there, it’s just the essence that’s missing. No doubt, this isn’t the fault of SAAS. If you want to fill Kresge, after all, could you do it with the sitar? Could you do it with Kathak or Odissi dancing (other regional forms of Indian dance that lack the visceral pump of Bhangra)? Not so much. But you can fill Kresge with men in ties making fools of themselves, as both the guys in “Men in Heat” and the Logs have shown. And you can definitely do it with Bhangra, the tandoori chicken of Indian dance.