Rap beats and Kanye West’s voice replace veena, cymbals and flute notes. Jahnavi Shriram and a dozen of her teammates move across the floor, practicing a traditional Indian dance, Bharatanatyam.
“My story is similar to a lot of other people’s on the team in that there’s a moment when you realize Bharatanatyam is something that’s going to be in your life forever,” Shriram said.
Plan II and biology junior Shriram, who’s done Bharatanatyam since the age of four, is co-president of Nritya Sangam, a dance troupe which focuses on Indian classical dance, specifically Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Both dances incorporate a myriad of hand gestures, complicated footwork and facial expressions that typically convey spiritual ideas from Hindu texts. Nritya Sangam is one of many Southeast Asian dance teams on UT’s campus and will be an exhibition act on Nov. 12 at the Jhalak Dance Competition hosted by the Indian Cultural Association in Hogg Auditorium.
Starting out as a small talent show on campus, Jhalak has grown to become a national competition, welcoming skilled Bollywood fusion performers from across the nation.
Marketing sophomore Paayal Jagada, Jhalak’s hospitality director, said the main goal of the competition is to allow participants to fuse Indian and western cultures through dance.
“It’s a huge expression and sharing of Indian culture,” Jagada said. “What I love about it is that it’s not just the Indian culture — [it’s] how we express it in our generation, so in terms of the dancers and the ways that they develop the routines over the year, it’s all coming from their personal experience.”
Finance senior Sonya Raghunandhan, an organizer of Jhalak and captain of UT Jazba, said if you ask someone who isn’t involved with Indian culture what they know about it, a lot of the time their answer will be “Bollywood” because it’s the only thing they typically associate with Southeast Asian or Indian culture.
“I think that after going to Jhalak a lot of them understand how actually integrated music and dance is into our culture,” Raghunandhan said. “They learn more about how Bollywood isn’t just meaningless dancing, it’s more about performing and expressing our culture in a variety of ways.”
Although classical Indian dances typically reflect traditional cultural elements, Nritya Sangam incorporates current stories and issues into its dances. Last year, the group choreographed a dance to depict the refugee crisis.
“I was really proud of that one because it touched a lot of people and it was very topical at the time,” Shriram said.
Although she won’t compete at Jhalak for the $3,000 grand prize, Shriram still enjoys performing in front of the UT community as part of Nritya Sangam at the event.
“The greatest thing about doing it at UT, besides performing for those you know and love, is when people that you don’t know come up and say ‘I really liked that, that was inspiring,’” Shriram said. “It’s really nice to know that you’re reaching audiences that you didn’t think you would just because the UT community is so diverse and supportive.”
Above all, Jagada said the teams competing at this level are the best in the country.
“We do pure dance and that’s why we have such a high standard,” Jagada said. “I think it’s really imporant to be able to share the Indian culture and spread what the South Asian community stands for at UT.”