SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – “We had no choice, it’s our bread and butter,” says Sahasra Sambamoorthi, co-director of the annual “Drive East” festival of arts while speaking of the impetus to go digital in the wake of the deep impact the coronavirus is having on artists, performances and financial sustenance.

Instead of canceling the acclaimed event, the New York-based organizers Navatman adapted to the conditions which precluded a live audience. From Aug. 9-15 online audiences were treated to spectacular talent in America and from across India, featuring rare art forms and the familiar with newcomers and legends.

Organizers brought 16 concerts from performing spaces in San Francisco, New York, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and a thrilling recital from Assam, of the rarely seen in the U.S. Satrriya dance form.

Artists from California included Indian American Aditya Prakash, known for his lovely experimentation within different musical spaces. Vijayalakshmi, the daughter of the renowned Bharati Shivaji, displayed her pedigree performing Mohiniyattam pieces that sought to extol the inclusive power of feminine grace. Another musician comfortable in different genres of music, Prasant Radhakrishnan, showed how the Carnatic saxophone can quiet the mind.

From New York there was Hidayat Khan, son of Vilayat Khan but also a sitarist who has crossed boundaries performing among others, with Usher and jazz great Wynston Marsalis. In his concert, “Global Influences,” he explored the universal connection music can create. Dancer Mesma Belsaré created a new work with choreographer Maya Kulkarni exploring Plato’s philosophical idea from the “Allegory of the Cave” that humans live in a world of half-truths, believing it to be reality. There were also performances by Navatman’s own dance company and music collective.

So much emphasis in the classical arts has been placed on live in-person viewing it was natural for organizers to face resistance to the digital experience. Post-event, Sambamoorthi told India-West she is “super satisfied” by the very positive and encouraging response of online audiences. Sridhar Shanmugam, the other co-director, said, “The whole situation became a blessing in disguise. We have had people complain that they can’t travel to New York or San Francisco to see a particular artist. This time people from around the world watched allthe artists perform.”

Another factor that they faced was the perception of tickets being high priced. Drive East’s goal, the duo said, has been to engender pride and dignity in the Indian arts. An extension of that has been to empower artists in difficult times and have “their participation in the box office,” Shanmugam told India-West.

Other than performances, Drive East held topical discussions including the effect lockdowns were having on creativity. Meaningfully, panels also openly discussed the role of an artist in tumultuous political climes. There were passionate differences on whether there should or not be involvement but Sambamoorthi avers, “only from disagreement can we grow.”

The festival concluded with a performance by Rama Vaidyanathan and her daughter Dakshina. Specially choreographed for the event, the duo made an aesthetic presentation. There were also other masters like musicians Ustad Kamal Sabri, Sandip Bhattacharjee, VV Subrahmanyam, TV Gopalakrishnan and VVS Murari, dancers Jayeeta Dutta and Ramya Ramnarayan. 

The one who stole attention was the award winning Anwesa Mahanta from a stage in Assam. Sattriya dance flowered as part of the Vaishnava bhakti movement in Hindu monasteries called “Sattra.” At first practiced by monks, it is as much theater as it is dance drawing heavily from texts like the “Bhagavata Purana.”  Mahanta was at once powerful and feminine: flitting one moment and in another showing extraordinary suppleness of body that reminded one of yoga asanas.

Billed as a story of “Energy and Peace,” it somehow seemed to embody everyone’s wish in a challenging 2020.

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