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Celebrating Indian Dance and Music

An annual festival by the Indian Fine Arts Academy of San Diego showcases a variety of Indian performing arts.

Cultural programs celebrating Indian arts are not new in the United States. What sets the Indian Fine Arts Academy of San Diego’s annual festival apart is not just its promotion of pan-Indian music and dance but also its educative component. The festival, which turned 10 this year, “is the largest festival celebrating Indian art on the West Coast,” says Shekar Viswanathan, president of the academy. 

The objective of the academy is to establish San Diego as the cultural center for Indian classical arts. It was set up with the advice of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar who was the Regents’ Professor at the University of California, San Diego, to “propagate Indian, not just South Indian or North Indian, classical arts to the local population which includes people from many different nationalities,” says Viswanathan. “We also target children from local schools, colleges and universities, who have a passion for learning Indian classical art forms.” Over 100 local students, trained by well-known artists like C.M. Venkatachalam and Revathi Subramaniam, perform regularly at the festival. Academic sessions are conducted to help general public learn about different aspects of the art forms. Ravi Shankar’s birthday as well as the centenaries of well-known artistes and composers are celebrated each year.

Sherya Gopal, now in 10th grade, has been performing at the festival for the last eight years. “Today, dance is an important part of the program,” she says. “Earlier, it would just be a two-hour performance of the various kritis, or compositions, we learn from our teachers. The performances have enhanced my stage presence and improved my musical abilities.”


Art and academics

Lectures on the technical and historical aspects of music and dance are an important part of the program. “That’s why we use the term ‘academy’ as part of the name of the organization,” says Viswanathan. “Well-known musicologists like Pappu Venugopala Rao and artists like Chitravina Ravikiran, Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi and Neyveli Santhanagopalan have given different academic lectures as part of the proceedings.”

The academic lecture demonstrations and performances by over 100 young local students are a unique feature of the program. “This was incorporated in the first year of the festival,” says Viswanathan. “The two local student events are attended not only by parents and local patrons, but also by visiting artistes.” 

Sankalp Srinivas Kaushik, who has just completed his ninth grade at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, participated in the event for the first time in 2016. He is currently learning Carnatic vocal music from Revathi Subramanian and flute recital from Amshu Murthy. “Apart from my music teachers, another big motivation for me to participate in this festival is the fact that this is an excellent platform for budding artistes like me because of the exposure it provides to watch legendary artistes perform and to learn,” he says.


Festival features

Typically, each festival has 14 events and two academic sessions. The events showcase Carnatic and Hindustani vocal and instrumental music as well as dance forms like bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, kathak and odissi. Special regional programs like kathakali and yakshagana, and dance dramas are also integral to the festival. It generally features over 75 professional artistes from India, selected by a committee consisting of 18 members. 

“Our programs have become theme-based and, hence, people can relate to a story or to an epic such as the ‘Ramayana’ or the ‘Mahabharata,’ ” says Viswanathan. Over the years, renowned artistes like N. Ramani, M. Balamuralikrishna, Ajoy Chakrabarty, L. Subramaniam, Kavita Krishnamurthy, and dancers like Birju Maharaj, Sonal Mansingh, Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar, Radha and Raja Reddy, and Sujata Mohapatra have performed at the festival. Artistes from San Diego are also featured. Most participate in the children and adult programs staged over two evenings, he says. 

The festival has strong support from the community. Besides corporates, the City and County of San Diego and Cal Arts sponsor the program. “We have a patron subscription for anyone wanting to attend and support our work,” says Viswanathan. “Through this process, we collect 60 percent of the funds required to stage the festival.”


Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.