Jyothsna Sainath, rehearsing on the black floor of her vinyl-covered studio in her Salt Lake City home, is a picture of grace.
Through a window in the studio space, one has a view of the green trees in her yard. As a rare summer breeze passes, the branches swell, reflecting its fluidity. Accompanied by Gary Hansen, playing a melodic tune on a Native American flute, and percussionist Wachira Waigwa-Stone playing a steady, delicate rhythm on a West African djembe, Sainath is at ease.
The routine that Sainath practices includes Bharatanatyam, India’s oldest classical dance form. And while it may sound easy, it takes years of training. Sainath started at the age of 6, studying under renowned gurus – and also earned a Master of Arts in Performing Arts from Bangalore University.
His movements – the way his feet pick up the beat where the drums fade, the precision of his facial expressions and hand gestures – are all well practiced and almost art forms in themselves.
“When I listen to Carnatic music, I can anticipate what the next part will be,” Sainath said.
Sainath performed this routine a day later at The Rose Wagner’s 25th anniversary celebration – bringing together influences from three different cultures: Native American and West African music and classical Indian dance.
This mixture of cultures is also one of the main objectives of Sainath’s non-profit association, the Nitya Nritya Foundation, and the festival of the same name, which means “eternal dance”. The Nitya Nritya Festival, in its sixth year, is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, September 10 and 11 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, in downtown Salt Lake City.
“Through our festival, we want to showcase art that can cross cultural barriers,” Sainath said.
Waigwa-Stone has played drums with West African ensembles and samba groups – and said he grew up watching the multicultural shows his mother put on, shows similar to the Sainath festival.
“It’s fun trying to do another version of it as an actual participant, because I was always watching the others,” Waigwa-Stone said.
Hansen grew up in a musical family and said he started playing the Native American flute 20 years ago, learning mostly from online tutorials. He said he appreciates how the festival brings together different cultures, especially the connection between Native American music and classical Indian dance.
“When I was approached, I didn’t feel comfortable playing in this project because they were looking for Native American flute players, and I’m not Native American,” Hansen said. Hansen introduced Sainath to Nino Reyos, a musician from the Northern Ute and Laguna Pueblo Indian Nations, who is scheduled to perform at the festival.
Saturday’s show – starting at 7 p.m. at the Leona Wagner Black Box Theater – will feature a “Navarasa” performance of South Indian Carnatic music, described as “a musical portrait of human emotions”. It will be performed by singer Krithika Natarajan, accompanied by Vignesh Thyagarajan on violin and Vignesh Venkataraman on mridangam (a type of drum). Also on Saturday’s program is a preview of “Sangam,” a work in progress by Sainath, in collaboration with Waigwa-Stone, Hansen and Hindustani singer Suchinth Murthy.
The Sunday program begins at 2 p.m. at the Jeanné Wagner Theater and offers three works:
“Bhakti”, selected content from a recent workshop by Vidwan Sikkil Gurucharan, presented by a Salt Lake City ensemble led by Satheeth Iyer, who will also present a talk to put the theme in context.
“Through Fish Eyes”, a performance by Prakriti Dance that depicts “the changing relationship between humanity and the oceans.
“Divine Moments,” performed by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a legendary Hindustani classical instrumentalist and Grammy winner; Subhen Chatterjee will accompany on the tabla.
The festival will go beyond the stages of The Rose, with Utah-based Indian artist Durga Ekambaram displaying her works in the lobby.
Sainath is to give a talk on how labeling affects people in the arts industry. She will argue that the way Western culture lumps together different art forms from India can be harmful.
“Often many things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other are lumped together in one term, [like] world music, there’s no way to tell them apart,” Sainath said.
Such labeling can change how works from different cultures are perceived, both internally and externally, she said. “If you call Bharatanatyam ‘world music’, that gives you no idea what we’re doing,” she said.
Sainath, who also works as a statistician at the University of Utah, said she’s seen ‘funding ramifications’ for art from data from the National Endowment for the Arts – particularly to find out whether groups are classified as being in or out of the mainstream.
She said Indian dance groups that have been in the United States for decades “tend to self-select into categories that don’t describe them very well, to increase the chances of funding.” These groups only have a few categories to choose from when applying for a grant — such as “folk arts” or “traditional arts” — which she called a “very diffuse descriptor for everything.”
Salt Lake City has an environment that encourages ballet and classical Western music, Sainath said, adding that she hopes her festival can do the same for classical Indian arts – and ultimately bring people together to see art in its purest form, regardless of ethnicity. .
“There are so many arts in India,” she said. “We have been around for so many thousands of years.”
The Nitya Nritya Festival will take place on Saturday and Sunday, September 10 and 11 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are available for purchase at arttix.org – adults cost $20 for Saturday, $30 for Sunday and $40 for a two-day pass; students and children 12 and under can enter for $12 on Saturday, $18 on Sunday, and $24 for the two-day festival. Go to nityanritya.com for more details.