Rasa Festival shifts online but still offers a full month of arts and culture from India


It looked bleak in March and April for the fourth edition of Ann Arbor's Rasa Festival. Everything was being canceled, and the annual September celebration of arts and culture from India looked like it was not going to happen either.

"We canceled all our venue bookings at that time, although with a heavy heart," wrote Sreyashi Dey, the president and artistic director of Rasa, in an email to Pulp. "We had some fabulous concerts planned this year, with world-renowned touring artists from India, but had to cancel that as well. It was very depressing."

But as the months dragged on, Dey, who is also a dancer, couldn't contain her desire to create new works, and that spurred her on to reconsidering Rasa.

"As an artist/dancer myself, I was beginning to feel disheartened about my own creative impulses and motivation to create new work," Dey wrote. "So I started thinking about making some new dance works while still in lockdown, but with no real plan for what to do with it. Then I started thinking of doing a video recording to share. And that's how the idea of the festival going virtual was born, and once I started talking to the other artists, everyone was very eager and enthusiastic."

The performance part of the month-long virtual Rasa Festival runs October 3-25, with streams starting at 11 am each Saturday and Sunday throughout the month. The Mandali: India and the World art exhibition, presented in partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library, runs October1-November 12.

Rasa will present its usual assortment of dance, music, written word, film, fashion, travel, social change, and visual art, but there will be no culinary component this year, for obvious reasons—but we got you covered. I talked with Dey over email about the challenges—and opportunities—of presenting the Rasa Festival online and what she food she'd recommend for us to make or buy at home to accompany the 2020 virtual edition of the Rasa Festival.

Sreyashi Dey

Sreyashi Dey photo courtesy of Rasa Festival.

Q: Did any other festivals inspire you to continue?
A: There are many festivals and events happening online now. There were fewer festivals going virtual a few months ago when we started thinking about our plan. Still, I am not seeing too many that are asking for new works by artists and that is unique. Many larger arts presenters are going into their archives and presenting older concerts and performances. I feel that we are providing an opportunity and platform for the artists to create and show new works, and that is very important for creativity to remain alive.

Q: You mentioned in the press release that "we invited the artists to create shorter experimental works." Shorter makes sense; what made you encourage the artists to be more experimental? Is there something about the online format, or even the ability to edit a piece in post-production before posting it online, that lends itself to being more experimental?
A: Yes, exactly. All the things you mentioned. Firstly, we were all forced to think differently about making and presenting our art. I started conversations with my artist colleagues (dance, music, writers, visual artists) to compare notes and brainstorm, and then I started pushing them to think differently. Secondly, the video/online format and all of us being under lockdown, with no access to a stage, lights, videographers, etc., meant that we ourselves now have to do all of it. We would have to think differently about the performance space, choreography/music, video recording, sound recording, etc. This lends itself nicely to doing more experimental work. Finally, the post-production abilities definitely also create new opportunities to combine diverse elements such as visuals, music, movement, etc. to create a new work. It opened up many dimensions.  

Q: Are there any presentations that you think will thrive by being presented online versus in person? And which events will be the most difficult to convey via online versus a more visceral, in-person experience?
A: I feel performing arts will do well since there is a human interaction component that will still be there on video. I mean dance, music, theater, spoken word, poetry reading, etc. Visual art is a little harder, such as an art exhibition. People take their time to view art when possible in person, and also interact in their own way, yet on a video, we can only show it for a certain period of time, and in two dimensions only. 

The graphic for Rasa's Mandali exhibit.

Q: From where are you broadcasting / recording the dance and music events? What are some of the challenges you've faced in trying to get these performances practiced in our current social-distancing environment?
A: We will broadcast from our YouTube channel as well as Facebook and Instagram. All these channels share a common social media handle: @rasafestival. 

The challenge has been to get the artists to record the videos and send them over. There is a range of tech capabilities among the artists and now they have all had to learn how to be more tech-savvy. On our part, we have had to do more with some of them—more handholding to get over the technical challenges. The video file sizes are huge and getting them over from overseas (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) and also work with one of our video editors in India has posed some technical challenges. 

Some of the artists have had space constraints to create and record their work during the pandemic/lockdown period. Others have suffered from a lack of recording studios. But all have done a marvelous job to rise to the challenge and produce outstanding, heartfelt art that we are very excited to share! 

Q: In the past, Rasa has had culinary events, which obviously can't happen this year. But what would you recommend people make at home (or order out) as a foodie experience to go with the online version of Rasa?
A: This year our audiences will be all over the world! Fortunately, there are Indian restaurants in most parts of the world, and definitely so in the Ann Arbor area. How about some favorites such as onion pakoras for appetizers, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, dal makhani, palak paneer, alu gobi, lamb saag and naan for entrees, and kulfi for dessert?


All broadcasts begin at 11 am.

Thursday 10/1
Mandali: India and the World
- Group art exhibition curated by Mia Risberg featuring Dhruvi Acharya, Charuka Arora, Chandrima Bhattacharyya, Caitlin Cartwright, Amelia Currier, Madhurima Ganguly, Soumya Netrabile, Nirmal Raja, Pallavi Singh, and Sajeev Visweswaran. 

Saturday 10/3
Dance: Sreyashi Dey
Music: Amie Maciszewski
Dance: Kohal Das: Dance
Poetry & Music: Zilka Joseph and Veena Kulkarni-Rankin
Illustrated Talk on Travel, Photography & Art: Nina Hauser

Sunday 10/4
Dance: Anu Naimapally
Stories From Cocoons
- Group art exhibition featuring Chandrima Bhattacharyya (curator), Dilara Begum Jolly, Sutanuka Giri, Piyali Sadhukhan, Ruma Choudhury, and Promiti Hossain.

Saturday 10/10
Dance: Pallabi Chakraborty
Photography, Dance & Poetry: Charlee Brodsky, Sreyashi Dey, and Zilka Joseph
Music: Somdatta Chakraborty
Illustrated Art History Talk: Pika Ghosh 
Music: Rakae/Mughal-e-Funk

Sunday 10/11 
Dance: Kasi Aysola
Photography: Uday Hajra
Dance: Sreyashi Dey
Fashion Design & Craft Traditions: Sunita Shanker
Art & Social Change: Bono Sen

Saturday 10/17
Dance: Priyadarshini Ghosh
Fashion Design & Craft Traditions: Sunita Shanker
Dance: Sreyashi Dey
Rabindrasangeet & Spoken Word: Sudeshna Basu and Manjula Kumar

Sunday 10/18
Dance: Anurekha Ghosh
Illustrated Art History Talk: Paroma Chatterjee
Mohan Veena Music & Poetry: Poly Varghese
Music: Manasi Joshi-Singh
Poetry: Sumita Chakraborty

Saturday 10/24
Movement, Music & Spoken Word: Dheeman Bhattacharyya
Music: Monit Pal
Dance: Sreyashi Dey
Fashion Design & Craft Traditions: Sunita Shanker
Poetry: Zilka Joseph

Sunday 10/25
Music: Ravi Naimpally 
Film & Music: Aniruddha Sanyal
Dance: Kohal Das
Photography, Dance & Poetry: Charlee Brodsky, Sreyashi Dey, and Zilka Joseph
Music: Deepak Paramashivan

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.