Mandala Makers Festival takes a contemporary approach to classical traditions, bringing awareness to new and emerging South Asian artists

If you’re looking to tap into the flavors of South Asian dance and music, Mandala South Asian Performing Arts delivers, and then some, by pushing beyond tradition to explore fusion forms of folk, contemporary and popular dance and music.

The Mandala Makers Festival was originally conceived as a way to promote the live interaction of South Asian arts practitioners through interdisciplinary collaboration. Forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to re-invent itself digitally, the festival adapted to a live-streaming format, called “Streamyard,” which will air June 13 and 14.

Grouping a variety of multidisciplinary artists together for the new festival provides opportunities for audiences to experience a multiplicity of contemporary interpretations on classical South Asian art forms. Viewers will have an opportunity to tune in to performances and interactive talk-backs with festival artists.

The vibrancy of Indian classical dance, tabla drumming, bansuri (Hindustani classical flute), traditional South Asian vocal and instrumental music, storytelling, spoken word, poetry and visual art combine with western forms to provide the palette for the festival.

Mandala Makers is yet another example of the resilience and adaptability of the arts in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Originally scheduled to present two full days of live performances at the Green Line Performing Arts Center, the festival quickly transitioned to live streaming once sheltering-in-place became necessary.

In lieu of an in-person performance, dance artists Ameya Performing Arts—a company that blends bharatanatyam, bollywood dance, bhangra and other forms—will offer documentation of virtual rehearsals and share stories about creating Indian dance as several of their ensemble members have had simultaneous responsibilities as doctors and caretakers during the pandemic. And Tuli Bera, a captivating performer who facilitates a wide-ranging performance series called Jello at Links Hall, will share excerpts of a solo combining dance, projection design and textiles to explore her Bengali heritage.

Storytellers Jitesh Jaggi, Nah Natalia Khosla, Geeta Rao, Shalaka Kulkarni and Grishma Shah employ mixed medias including spoken word, poetry, dance, painting and video as modes of expression and communication, with works that respond to the immediate moment—Khosla has created movement and poetry pieces in response to COVID-19, for example—as well as broader questions about identity, culture, diversity and disability.

Flautist Chethan Anant will offer mini performances of bansuri, vocal music, and tabla, and SolAR creates hand-drawn animation side-by-side with original music and live dance, now scheduled to take place online.

Part of the original impetus for the live festival was to increase the visibility of South Asian artists and to see how interdisciplinary artists would create and interact together. “It’s not going to happen the way we had planned,” says Ashwaty Chennat, who is the program manager of Mandala South Asian Performing Arts in addition to her role as a performer and teaching artist. Mandala is the festival’s sponsoring company.

In a phone conversation last month, Chennat discussed what the shift to virtual space has meant to the festival and its artists.

“We don’t have the technical and financial resources (we would like),” she said, lamenting the limitations the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed. Most of the artists were scheduled to be part of planned live programming. “Some artists feel they can’t continue to work in their art form. Everyone has had to adapt.”

One of the first things Mandala did to adapt to the pandemic was to schedule a pre-festival weekly series of live streamed concerts throughout the month of May. That included the recent collaboration of Indian bansuri flautist, Chethan Anant, with a contemporary dance artist. “Chethan puts his heart and soul into his work,” Chennat said. He was able to invite his family and friends both here and in India to share the virtual performance, which was scheduled for 8 p.m. in Chicago and 7 a.m. in India. The experiment was a huge success, with up to 50 people coming in and out to interact and respond through social media.

While virtual space couldn’t offer the full spectrum of a live performance, Chennat said artists have been encouraged to explore “the multiple tools we have within us” through virtual collaboration.

“As artists, challenges and barriers push us to be creative,” she said. “What’s most important is providing space at a time when the arts have been diminished… encouraging artists to do what they are meant to do, to reimagine what we love.”

Being accustomed to live performances, with the palpable presence of the audience, Chennat said many artists were feeling intimidated by the idea of working digitally. In addition, she observed that “there is a divide between digital and live artists’ content.”

Using digital tools to explore how artists can connect to each other and to their audiences has brought about some unexpected discoveries. Chennat said she was surprised to see artists who initially questioned possibilities in virtual performance taking risks and finding things they can do through unique virtual collaborations.

Chennat describes Mandala South Asian Performing Arts as “more experimental,” than most companies presenting South Asian art forms. In her own work, Chennat likes to work with dancers outside traditional bharatanatyam to create a fusion of western and classical Indian dance. “I speak in ballet terms,” said Chennat, whose early training was more focused on European dance forms. She said learning classical Indian music, folklore and dance was liberating and helped her to identify with her ancestry.

As a part of the company’s larger mission, Mandala Makers looks to expand the range, impact and accessibility of South Asian folk and classical traditions as they are interpreted in contemporary American society. “We want to support the artists and invest in developing new, emerging South Asian artists,” said Chennat.


The Mandala Makers Festival runs June 13 and 14 on the company’s website. All programming is free, but donations are welcome. For more information, click on the event page below.

Lauren Warnecke contributed