Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Swarthmore campus received a bright touch of color this past Thursday as the Dance department hosted Rajasthani folk artists, known as Merasi, to perform traditional music and dance. The Hearts with Hope 2 tour is organized by a non-profit organization called Folk Arts Rajasthan. The nonprofit aims to empower this impoverished Indian community through initiatives such as this cultural exchange program. Seven people and many instruments interacted with the audience through music, dance, and conversation through translation to create a colorful cultural experience.
Merasi music has a rich history dating back 37 generations, tying in with religious and social politics of caste. Artists from this community originally were born into the music caste and served to entertain royalty in ancient tradition. However, as the community has evolved, the role of the music has narrowed to the brink of extinction, said the spokesperson of the organization. Similarly, the artists have not evolved their trade, which has perpetuated the impoverished state of the community.
The interaction between the audience and performers was mediated by hosts Karen Lukas and Caitie Whelan. Both introduced the instruments and the songs, speaking on behalf of the performers. The setup is common among performances where there is a language barriers, said Professor Pallabi Chakravorty, who teaches Kathak dance in the Dance department. “The fact of the matter is that these traditional artists, none of them speak English very well…I think the only way they could communicate to a western audience. The model was not unusual with having a spokesperson and explain things so the audience understands,” she said.
Each of the seven artists had several instruments laid in front of them. The organizers introduced each of the instruments, revealing the resourcefulness of the artists to create music from scarce resources. One such instrument was made from an ordinary can and a wire that one audience member was eager to create. More sophisticated instruments included the harmonium, a Dutch invention, cartels which were made from four pieces of wood, a wind instrument made from a gourd, and vocal rhythming.
Equally important to the performance was the artists’ attire, which Whaley called “visual language.” Each of the male artists wore blue and yellow turbans that were tied specifically to show that they were married. Pinku, the only female artist, wore a black dress with elaborate designs that she made herself. Whaley noted that the clothing styles revealed the origin of their individual community.
The performance was slightly unusual because each song had a purpose was intended to be sung at various events. For example, Whelan asked the artists to types of songs like a birth song or a wedding song. The artists threw themselves into their passions in dancing with their upper bodies in enjoyment of the songs. For the last song, which was a request by Chakravorty, Pinku and Chakravorty pulled audience members into a circle to collectively dance and collective merriment.
The cultural enrichment was two-way. Sarwar Khan, who is the leader of the group and the only English-speaking performer, said “In America, I learned equality, humanity and respect.” In learning those values, Khan said he “wanted to help my own community.” Audience members were asked to help is community to giving donations. Khan said “by the donations, our family get food and education.” His daughter is currently in 7th grade in the first school that the non-profit helped bring to the community; she is the first in 37 generations of the family to be educated.
The Merasi group will be on tour until May 24th; the next location is Maryland. More information can be found at www.merasi.org.