10 March 2018, Municipal Theatre, Napier By Rosheen FitzGerald
One of the challenges of being an immigrant (apart from red tape and casual racism) is to integrate into the host culture while preserving one’s culture of origin. Failure can lead to either demonisation, ghettoisation and distrust; or cultural erasure and assimilation. But when done right there is a gradual shift, a shuffling in the pews of society to adapt and accommodate to new arrivals and new surroundings, and to step forward together into a future that is neither one nor the other but a little of both.
The minds behind the Hawke’s Bay Indian Cultural Centre are a savvy bunch who know that the route to the hearts of a nation is through their stomachs. The promise of a three- course Indian meal is the hook that no doubt lures many. It’s an immediate immersive experience – an exercise in Indian queuing for veg and non veg fare, continually refilled by impressively moustachioed kai-wallahs from seemingly bottomless pots. The food is catered as a kindness to the Kiwi palate – no Indian hot here, and I remember with fondness the wisdom of an eccentric uncle who travelled nowhere in the western world without twin vials of chilli and lime pickle. But it’s plentiful, filling and tasty, and finished with a kulfi that didn’t skimp on the mango.
Thus sated, it’s a diverse patronage that is herded into the auditorium – the 4.30pm start time brings out the very young and the very old. Women and girls parade in their traditional finery, all kinds of bling on display, while their male counterparts are neatly turned out in western garb. A gaggle of prepubescent boys knock about together, with Indian faces and thick Kiwi accents.
Our hostesses for the evening, community stalwarts Rizwaana Latiff and Lara Shah, greet us first in Māori, then English and Hindi. With lineages of serial immigration – coming from India via South Africa and Hawaii respectively – they are experts in code switching, and bridge the cultural canyon that is the audience. Their easy humour smooths some clunky transitions, and they graciously pay homage to the many, many sponsors and supporters of the event – seemingly every Indian-owned business in the Bay, among others – as well as facilitating the presentation of the profits – a hefty $2,000 – to Kidney Kids NZ.
The stage is empty save for an intricately wrought golden object with a peacock at its prow. In the drawn out pause (the first of many) we speculate as to its function – a lectern? a microphone stand? a talismanic spittoon? No, it’s a ceremonial lamp, lit by various pillars of community to grant auspice to the occasion. Formalities concluded, we get to the meat of the performance.
It can be no accident that the programme commences with the Odissi dance that traces its origins to a thousand years before human feet trod New Zealand soil. Veteran performer, Sharada Naidu, gives us a glimpse of the depth of history and culture on which the rest is built.
Foundations thus established, we are introduced (via a teasing glimpse of Nikes at the foot of a curtain that appears to have a mind of its own) to the man in charge of the music, Jithin Thomas, who sings a traditional bhajan while Lijin Abraham (all the way from Hamilton) drops a sick hip-hop beat on the keyboard. He’s a strong singer who trips up and down the scales with confidence, displaying a willingness to adapt his culture in order to ensure its survival that is mirrored in his attire – a short kurta that is only an eye squint away from being the checkered shirt of everyman. In all, it’s the more successful of their two musical numbers, the second of which is a rendition of Bollywood crooner, Arijit Singh’s wildly famous Tum Hi Ho. Though the lyrics are displayed karaoke style, and we are entreated to sing and dance it’s just too sedate for spontaneity, the words too complex for clumsy western tongues.
Under the expert choreographical eye of Deepthi Sreejith come the dancers, each number carefully curated to illustrate an aspect of Indian culture. The tiny tots’ Lotus Dance display a cherubic sweetness, all pink and sparkle, innocence and light. Not so with the middle school maidens who channel some Kali energy into their Cobra Dance. Their white rimmed eyes and red painted palms create a formidable spectacle and enhance their exuberant performance. After a folk dance – a dandiya, which echoes shades of a tītī tōreae – comes the jewel in the crown: the five elements.
Deepthi herself depicts earth, with bold movements and mudras, and an impressive tharangam that mark her as a professional. Tableaux are used to raise awareness of water scarcity to a hindified version of Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You. Wind is a pair of butterflies whose billowing skirts are as much a part of the dance as they are costume, and which feature a breathtaking back bend. Fire is given the Bollywood treatment with a fun, dynamic performance. Space, the fifth element, particular to the vedic mahabhuta, is a vibrant contemporary dance fusing Indian gesture with seventies futurism. In all of this pageantry, the hidden MVP is Sreedevi Sunil Pai, creator of the opulent and innovative costumes and props that are worthy of the Municipal Theatre. If this isn’t her day job then it should be, and I fully expect to see her sights set on the World of Wearable Art in years to come.
Fittingly, the finale sees the performers assembled beneath New Zealand and Indian flags share National Anthems. Jithin is joined in Jai Hind by a majority of the older performers, while the younger chime in with Aotearoa, led by the wonderfully talented Jeriel Sajan, from whom I wish we’d heard more. The evening ends with the stage thrown open to the floor and an invitation extended for all and any who desire to join the performers for a final dance. It’s loosely choreographed and closes on a sweet scene of mothers, brothers, toddlers, the elderly being swept along in the mass movement. For tonight they have brought a little of India to the Bay, and shown that with such richness of culture there is plenty to share.
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