Building a Connected Community

By Priya Das

It was 2016 when Mosaic Silicon Valley invited Indian folkdance artist Srividya Eashwar and Mexcian folklorico artist Arturo Magaña to come up with two minutes of informed, performative collaboration between their cultures. The mission was to bring their audiences together to build a connected community – as diverse in the audience as on stage.

Srividya, artistic director of Xpressions Dance, first encountered Arturo’s team rehearsing in their studio, shouting out the “agrito” and stomping their feet to an infectious rhythm. She recollects, “I looked at my dancers and saw the concerned look on their faces as they feared about how are we ever going to dance barefoot next to a group that dances in shoes and boots with nails in them!?” But, “as soon as we started working together, we found that common thread,” says Arturo Magana, artistic director of Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí. It was fascinating to see how the two teased out a common rhythm: Srividya kept up the beat with her dandiya sticks to Arturo’s percussive feet. (See how Srividya later demonstrated this.)

Weeks later, I remember the thunder of dancing feet and the loud music as I approached the rehearsal space, feeling nervous about finding a stage that could accommodate this coming together of two large cultures. But Silicon Valley was already that stage, waiting for the curtain to be raised! I remember feeling humbled by the simple enormity of what was happening. Something real was taking shape from an idea born out of an instinct to stem the miasma of divisive forces spreading throughout the U.S. at that time. “RaasLorico” was part of Mosaic America, an event that drew an audience of hundreds of people in Marin and Santa Clara counties.

The idea behind bringing different arts together is simple: It is to build a sense of Belonging. While all of us appreciate the diversity in Silicon Valley, we all lead segregated lives – not everybody is included in the same way. Economic opportunity has made us impervious to history, the pursuit of building a better home has blinded us to historic struggles that literally handed us that opportunity on a platter. We see attractive buildings but don’t understand that they are built on Native Ground; we see the reticence of Japanese-origin Americans but may not understand that some have been marked by internment; we see successful brown farmers but do not realize that they are “Mexican Hindus.” Each of us belongs to our own tile but we need to now build a Mosaic from our tiles that affirms each identity while confirming each of us as Americans.

An effective way to pave the path is via the Arts, using a culture’s own way to organically commune with another, to build familiarity and friendship. Mosaic Silicon Valley (which Usha Srinivasan and I co-founded) purposefully and deliberately chooses cultures, representative artists, and venues. The audience and artists are hyperlocal, perhaps a specific city, if the venue is a library. The line-up for a museum might be influenced by the exhibits on display. A commissioned work is typically a deep-dive into local history, such as the internment of Japanese-origin Americans. Each event is a work in progress, a dialog in the ongoing conversation toward building Belonging for all of us.

So how did Srividya and Arturo converse through their dances? Here is a video that shows how!

Do you have any cultural experiences you would like to share? Please let us know by sending an email to info@sangamarts.org!

(An edited version of this blog was published in India Currents: Dandiya Raas meets Mexico’s Folklorico.)