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April 3, 2017

That’s So South Asian: 30 Years of Channeling Diversity

“Give us 110 percent of your energy, and we will give it back to you on stage.” This was the challenge that launched this year’s South Asian Students Association (SASA) cultural show, “The SASA Channel,” on Saturday night. After a dinner spread of South Asian dishes from samosas to paneer, the bubbly and satiated audience spilled into Mandel Hall. The performers delivered consistent energy throughout the show’s eight acts, their own movement and expression mingling with claps and shouts that resounded from even the back rows of the balcony. As a first-time SASA attendee with minimal exposure to South Asian culture, I never would have anticipated the explosion of student artistry and enthusiasm I experienced.

SASA takes fun seriously. The event, now in its 30th year, demonstrates that there is “a lot more to South Asian culture than meets the eye,” according to fourth-year show coordinators Sumit Banerjee and Elora Basu. “Given the prevalence of Bollywood, it is easy to think of South Asia as a monolith,” they added. “We took great care to represent various regions and cultures in our show.” In addition to this goal, SASA used the proceeds from this year’s sold-out production to support RefugeeOne, an organization that helps about 2,500 refugees per year resettle in the Chicagoland area.

While portraying a wide range of dancing, singing, costumes, and cultural values, the SASA crew kept their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. Acts were punctuated by short video skits in which three TV executives for the SASA Channel receive a new assignment: finding a South Asian performer or group set to be the next reality sensation. Narrowing such diverse cultures into a single cast proves more difficult than anyone expected, and the team discovers it must embark on its own project to celebrate a variety of talents and traditions.

The acts themselves can best be described as an adrenaline rush. Dancers entered in bright teals and greens, rich purples, and brilliant reds all adorned with glitter, sparkling trim, or sequins. Most wore dramatic headpieces that perched improbably on their heads or swept out around them as they moved. As I followed their precise choreography, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much more aerobic activity these performers got through excitement and quick-stepping bare feet than I ever manage in my weekly jaunts to the gym. My heart beat along to a mixture of traditional South Asian sounds and 2017 pop hits as if receiving a jolt of energy by proximity, and I knew from the noises of my fellow audience members around me that they felt the same.

The show proceeded with increasingly rowdy contributions from the crowd. Audience members enjoyed calling out to familiar faces among the combined 200 performers in the Classical, Tamil, Maya, Raas, Bhangra, Senior, and Fusion dances and Aag a cappella. It’s great to see that a cultural event has the power to quite literally turn up the heat in Mandel Hall, which was loud and warm by the time the performers took their final bows.

“The SASA Channel” reached out to its audience and declared that everyone, regardless of background, will always have much to learn about South Asian culture. It connected students seeing the show for the first time, like myself, with those participating for their fourth year in a row. “This event is an amazing opportunity to showcase our culture to the greater University of Chicago community,” Banerjee and Basu said. “While we can’t hope to provide an exhaustive picture of such an expansive and diverse region, our aim is that the audience leaves the show with a newfound appreciation for South Asian culture.” The picture may not be exhaustive, but the performers certainly exhausted themselves in its painting.

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