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  • Angela Allyn

Mandala South Asian Performing Arts lights up the Night

As we move into the darkness of winter, most cultures have some kind of celebration that is about bringing light into the darkness which is also a metaphor for bringing hope into desolation.

Mandala South Asian Performing Arts annually celebrates Diwali, the five day holiday celebrated by Hindus,Buddhist, Jains and Sikhs. This year’s event, entitled DIWALI:ILLUMINATION for two nights only at the Harris Theatre in Millenium Park. is a truly special gathering of dancers trained in international forms of dance including East Asian, South Asian, Euro-Caucasian and Black American genres, choreographed by Nejla Yatkin and Mandala Artistic Director Pranita Nayar, all moving to a score by jazz guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque. With this collaboration, Mandala breaks new ground and explores a vast new territory of contemplation and reflection.

Haque began the evening with an inspiring set with John Christensen on bass, Subrata Bhattacharya on tablas, and Chethan Anant on bansuri (bamboo flute). These fellows can hit a groove and play. Bhattacharya uses Konnakol like scat singing, and the musical conversations between the solos take us on a journey. This alone is worth heading out in the gray rain to see. Then Haque said a few words about the process of developing the score for the work we are about to see, where conversations led to musical sketches on I phones and then a fully fleshed musical work that is intriguing and lovely.

The holiday’s name derives from the Sanskrit deepavali which literally means rows of lighted lamps which is how the dance portion of the evening begins and ends. The Mandala ensemble is a veritable United Nations of styles and bodies that take on the challenge of this work and triumph. The movement vocabulary is full of sweeps and spirals, with gorgeous extensions not usually seen in Bharata Natyam, but suddenly there is a classical Indian pose, or a flash of mudras rising up from the tumbling tide of dancers rolling and swooping across the floor. A multi armed god appears several times and Irene Hsaio is a Sita like character trailing her sadness in a silken veil. There is love, there is loss, there is redemption and most of all there are tiny flickering lights, like each of us and our good intentions, in the darkness. This evening does not tell the story of Diwali because how could it: for some it is the tragic and beautiful tale of Sita and Ram, for others it is about a preacher achieving Nirvana, for others it is about a guru being freed from bondage, and for still others it is about an Emperor embracing a faith. The unifying story is finding a higher way to be in this human life and that is about finding the pinpoint of light in the vast darkness and carrying it forward, and this impulse is completely explored in this gorgeous work of movement and music. It is abstract and meaningful and it meets the viewer where they are.

We need the uplifting work of Mandala South Asian Performing Arts in these darkening times. If you can’t get to tonight’s show, put their annual Diwali celebration on your calendar for next year, and check out their Mandala Makers festival in the summer.

DIWALI:ILLUMINATION plays only October 12 and 13th at the Harris Theater at 205 East Randolph Street in downtown Chicago. For tickets and information go to

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