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Utah festival celebrates classical music and dance from India

With Nitya Nritya Festival, dancer aims to introduce India’s styles to Utah audiences, and cross cultures, too.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jyothsna Sainath dances as Wachira Waigwa-Stone plays the drums, and Gary Hansen plays a flute, as they rehearse on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022, for the Nitya Nritya Festival, a celebration of Indian dance and music, set for Sept. 10-11, 2022, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.

Jyothsna Sainath, rehearsing on the black floor of her vinyl-padded studio in her Salt Lake City home, is a picture of grace.

Through a window in the studio space, one gets a view of the green trees in her yard. As a rare summer breeze flutters by, the branches billow, mirroring her fluidity. Accompanied by Gary Hansen, playing a melodic tune on a Native American flute, and percussionist Wachira Waigwa-Stone playing a steady, delicate beat on a West African djembe drum, Sainath is at complete ease.

The routine Sainath is practicing features Bharatanatyam, India’s oldest classical dance form. And though it may look easy, it requires years of training. Sainath started when she was 6 years old, studying under renowned gurus — and also earned a Masters of Arts in the performing arts from Bangalore University.

Her movements — the way her feet pick up the beat where the drums taper off, the preciseness of her facial expressions and hand gestures — are all well practiced and nearly art forms in themselves.

“When I’m listening to Carnatic music, I can anticipate what the next part is going to be,” Sainath said.

Sainath performed this routine a day later, during The Rose Wagner’s 25th anniversary celebration — bringing together influences from three different cultures: Native American and West African music and Indian classical dance.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jyothsna Sainath dances as Wachira Waigwa-Stone plays the drums, and Gary Hansen plays the flute, as they rehearse for the Nitya Nritya Indian festival, on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022.

That blending of cultures is also a main goal of Sainath’s nonprofit, the Nitya Nritya Foundation, and the festival of the same name — which means “eternal dance.” The Nitya Nritya Festival, in its sixth year, is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10 and 11, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

“Through our festival, we want to present art that can go across cultural barriers,” Sainath said.

Waigwa-Stone has played percussion with West African ensembles and samba groups — and said he grew up watching the multicultural shows his mother staged, shows similar to Sainath’s festival.

“It’s fun to try and do another version of that as an actual participant, because I was always watching other people,” Waigwa-Stone said

Hansen grew up in a musical family, and said he started playing the Native American flute 20 years ago, learning mostly from online tutorials. He said he enjoys how the festival brings together different cultures — particularly the connection between Native American music and classical Indian dance.

“When I was approached, I didn’t feel comfortable to play in this project because they were looking for Native American flute-style players, and I’m not Native American,” Hansen said. Hansen introduced Sainath to Nino Reyos, a musician who is a member of the Northern Ute and Laguna Pueblo Indian Nations, who is set to perform in the festival.

Saturday’s show — starting at 7 p.m. in the Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre — will feature a “Navarasa” performance of Carnatic music from southern India, described as “a musical portrait of human emotions.” It will be performed by singer Krithika Natarajan, accompanied by Vignesh Thyagarajan on violin and Vignesh Venkataraman on mridangam (a type of drum). Also on Saturday’s program is a preview of “Sangam,” a work-in-progress by Sainath, in collaboration with Waigwa-Stone, Hansen and Hindustani vocalist Suchinth Murthy.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jyothsna Sainath dances as Wachira Waigwa-Stone plays the drums, and Gary Hansen plays the flute, as they rehearse for the Nitya Nritya Indian festival, on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022.

Sunday’s program starts at 2 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre, and features three works:

  • “Bhakti,” selected content from a recent workshop by Vidwan Sikkil Gurucharan, presented by a Salt Lake City ensemble led by Satheeth Iyer, who will also present a talk to put the theme into context.

  • “Through Fish Eyes,” a performance from Prakriti Dance that depicts “the changing relationship between humanity and the oceans.

  • “Divine Moments,” performed by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a legendary, Grammy-winning Hindustani classical instrumentalist; Subhen Chatterjee will accompany on tabla.

The festival will go beyond the stages at The Rose, with Utah-based Indian artist Durga Ekambaram displaying her artwork in the lobby.

Sainath is scheduled to deliver a talk about how labeling affects people in the arts industry. She will make the argument that the way Western culture lumps together different art forms from India can be harmful.

“A lot of times, many things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other get lumped into one term, [like] world music, there’s no way to distinguish them,” Sainath said.

Such labeling can change how works from different cultures are perceived, both internally and externally, she said. “If you call Bharatanatyam ‘world music,’ it gives you no clue as to what we do,” she said.

Sainath, who also works as a statistician at the University of Utah, said she has seen “ramifications in terms of funding” of art from National Endowment for the Arts data — particularly in whether groups are categorized as being in or out of the mainstream.

She said that Indian dance groups that have been in the United States for decades “tend to self-select into categories that don’t describe them very well, to increase the chances of funding.” Such groups have only a few categories to choose from when they apply for grant money — such as “folk arts” or “traditional arts” — which she called “a very diffuse descriptor for anything.”

Salt Lake City has an environment that encourages ballet and classical Western music, Sainath said, adding that she hopes her festival can do the same for classical Indian arts — and, ultimately, bring people together to see art in its purest form, regardless of ethnicity.

“There are so many arts in India,” she said. “We’ve been around for so many thousands of years.”

The Nitya Nritya Festival will take place Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10-11, at The Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are available for purchase at arttix.org — adults are $20 for Saturday, $30 for Sunday, and $40 for a two-day pass; students and children 12 and under can get in for $12 on Saturday, $18 on Sunday, and $24 for the two-day festival. Go to nityanritya.com for more details.