The many faces of Indian dance at Northwestern

    McCormick graduate student Saloni Behl and Communication freshman Nikkitasha Marwaha of Mirch Masala perform a dance choreographed by Behl, shown on the left in this video. Video by Nick Castele.

    Correction appended.

    A crowd has gathered in Blomquist Recreation Center on a Wednesday night to watch a dress rehearsal performance by Northwestern Hindi Film Dance Team, or NU Filmi for short. As basketballs bounce and elliptical machines whir in the background, the spectators sit on tables or huddle together on floor mats to watch the eight-minute performance, which is complete with a story line and dialogue involving a nerdy girl at a school who falls for one of the jocks.

    Amid loud, energetic music is short and simple dialogue that moves the story along. After the smitten girl’s best friend tells her it would be impossible, she vows to prove her naysayer wrong. She and her friends undergo makeovers, making the male lead finally notice her, and the two live happily ever after. The crowd enthusiastically breaks out into applause.

    The performance embodies elements of the modern and the traditional, the Indian and the American, the old and the new. NU Filmi, along with three other campus dance groups, are helping bring traditional Indian dance to the mainstream. Besides Filmi, which focuses on Bollywood dance, there is Northwestern University Bhangra, a traditional dance from the Indian region of Punjab, as well as two fusion groups, Deeva Dance Troupe and Mirch Masala. Each group will be performing at the South Asian Students Alliance Show on Saturday. Embodying the popularity of Indian dance culture, both through the genesis of dance groups and classes throughout the country, as well as recently through Slumdog Millionaire, each group represents a different element of the nation’s heritage and identity.

    Northwestern Hindi Film Dance Team

    NU Filmi at a performance at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Hetal Patel.

    A new dance group found this year on campus, NU Filmi puts together Bollywood-style routines for its 18-person co-ed ensemble. Co-captain Vineet Bhagwat, a Ph.D. student in finance who danced in a Bollywood group at Stanford, said he wanted to bring the popular dance to Northwestern.

    “I thought it would be cool to start one here,” Bhagwat said. “We talked about it last year and decided it would be fun.”

    NU Filmi’s style comes from the popular Bollywood films of India. The dance draws on traditional Indian folk dance, although it has evolved to incorporate other influences, including hip-hop and jazz.

    Many of NU Filmi’s dancers came from the disbanded NU Raas, said Weinberg senior and NU Filmi President Hetal Patel. Raas, which danced a traditional style from the Indian state of Gujarat, folded last year after the more experienced members graduated.

    This year, to get to Bollywood dance competitions, such as the fusion dance show in Philadelphia Jan. 24, NU Filmi members raised money through donations from family and friends and selling magazine subscriptions. At competitions, they can earn prizes, usually between $1,000 and $1,500, but as much as $3,500.

    Beyond coming up with dance routines, the Filmi group is also judged in competitions based on criteria such as costumes, sets and lighting.

    “It’s more of a production,” Patel said. “A lot more emphasis is placed on not only the dance, but all the production elements that go on.”

    Their dance number includes two set changes: a school hallway with lockers on either side, as a scene outside the school with a lake and trees. In the first half of the performance, the protagonists are shown in their own element, each singing and dancing with a same-sex ensemble. Later, after the girls undergo their transformation and the two fall in love, the former nerds and the jocks couple up, resulting in an energetic, happy finale.

    Northwestern University Bhangra

    While Filmi draws its inspiration from contemporary Indian pop culture, the Northwestern Bhangra team focuses on the past. Founded four years ago by a group of then-freshmen, Northwestern Bhangra comprises a team of six men and six women who perform regional dances from the state of Punjab in northern India, according to Neil Dhawan, co-captain of the team.

    Bhangra dance, which originated with eight men on stage, evolved as the music arrived to America. Students, primarily of South Asian descent, began forming university teams and mixing Bhangra with other types of music, such as hip-hop. The dance, which dates back as far as the 1400s, is very active and usually involves all members doing the same moves, often jumping or stomping with the heavy beats of the music.

    “It started evolving to something that’s more co-ed, maybe more people, more creativity, and it really has changed a lot as time has gone on from the initial Bhangra dance,” said Dhawan. “It’s a traditional folk dance that really has grown over the years to have a modern flavor about it.”

    Dhawan, a Weinberg junior, grew up with Bhangra music and dancing because his parents are from Punjab. Although he participated in cultural events as a child, he said he didn’t really become too interested in it until he came to college and began working on it on his own.

    “It gives us all a chance to get together and focus on really putting a dance routine together,” he said.

    This year the Bhangra team has been performing both on- and off-campus, receiving invitations for competitions from all over the nation, including Detroit, Washington, D.C and potentially Iowa.

    Despite Bhangra’s traditional focus, Dhawan said, it is a medium that allows for ample personal expression.

    “It’s a traditional cultural dance. It doesn’t come from movies or combine different types of dancing. It’s a specific type of dance, there are specific moves that you do, there’s specific beats that you have to have in your dance,” he said. “It seems like that would prevent you from being very flexible in your dance, but using those moves in different arrangements really gives you a lot of flexibility and creativity.”

    Deeva Dance Troupe

    On the other end of the Indian cultural spectrum is Deeva Dance Troupe, an all-girls group founded in 2001, which performs dances that draw upon a number of musical styles to create its own modern twists. Deeva member Godhuli Chatterjee said the group strives to be diverse in their styles.

    “Our mission is to incorporate different styles of dancing,” said Chatterjee, a Medill junior. “We do classical Indian dance. We do Bollywood dance, which is more filmi dancing. We do hip-hop and jazz as well. Our mission is basically to express our culture and to make different cultures create a kind of dialogue in our community.”

    Deeva Dance Troupe performs. Photo courtesy of Deeva Dance Troupe.

    Chatterjee, who was trained in Bharat Natyam — a type of classical Indian dance — before performing at Northwestern, says this is a building year for the group. After losing many of its older members, they have focused on performing on campus. In the past, Deeva has performed at events such as Dance Marathon, Taste of nuAsia and Afropollo. Two years ago, they danced in a competition called Chicago Agni as well.

    While dancing in a variety of performances on campus, McCormick junior and dance major Pallavi Sriram, the artistic director of the group, who also danced Bharat Natyam before coming to Northwestern, said that they’re more well-known and have a stronger relationship with campus dance groups such as Graffiti Dancers and Fusion.

    “What really sets us apart is our focus on fusion,” Chatterjee said. “As strong as we are in Indian classical dancing and Bollywood dancing, we’re just as strong in jazz and hip-hop.”

    The members of Deeva incorporate musical and dance styles from all over the world, including Baby Bash’s “Cyclone” and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” in this year’s performance, along with Bollywood songs and percussion music from South India. As the members of the team choreograph their dances together, Sriram said, their routines will often converge classical Indian dance moves with jazz and hip-hop in quick succession.

    Mirch Masala

    Mirch Masala rehearses in the lobby of Bobb-McCulloch Hall. Photo by Katie Tang / North by Northwestern.

    Another fusion group on campus, Mirch Masala is currently in its first year as an official group on campus after starting out as an act in the South Asian Student Alliance’s 2005 show.

    Mirch Masala means “spice” in Hindi. McCormick graduate student Saloni Behl, who is the group’s choreographer, says the name mirrors their intense, high-energy movements.

    “What we do is Bollywood fusion, so it’s Bollywood dancing combined with some hip-hop, combined with some belly dancing, some Bhangra, a little bit of Raas, so it’s a little bit of everything,” Behl said.

    Behl, who moved to Minnesota from India when she was 12, loved watching Bollywood movies growing up. As a result she formed a dance group back home before founding Mirch Masala at Northwestern.

    “It’s a new aspect of fusion,” Behl said. “What Mirch Masala does is it fuses everything, so when you’re dancing to a hip-hop song you might do some Bhangra to it.”

    This year, the team has been invited to several shows around the nation, and the group will be traveling to Washington, D.C and Cincinnati to various competitions in the coming months. The group will also perform at Kellogg’s annual Bollywood Bash in April, as well as at campus events such as Voice for Asia. Mirch Masala also regularly performs at Indian restaurants in downtown Chicago on a fairly regular basis.

    Based on her experiences, Behl said that because fusion dance draws upon many varied elements to create a unique style, it has universal appeal.

    “Everyone can relate to it. It’s an amalgam of different styles,” Behl said. “Everyone in some way connects to fusion.”

    Representing all parts of India

    Sriram said that the variety of Indian dance groups on campus embodies the diversity of Indian culture as a whole by demonstrating its different components — the traditional styles in Bhangra and the now-defunct Raas teams, the contemporary Indian pop culture in Bollywood films and the intersection of American and Indian influences among the fusion teams.

    “I’m actually very happy there are so many Indian dance teams on campus, because there are a lot of different styles of dance that come from India. It’s such a vast country and we have a lot of different things coming from it,” Sriram said. “It’s nice that all of them are represented here.”

    Correction, Feb. 6 at 2:30: The original version of this article stated that NU Filmi would not be performing at the SASA show. They, in fact, will be the finale act.


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