Heating up the Aatma-sphere

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By John J. Hanan

Put 1,500 South Asians in the room and you’re bound to stir a little tension and confusion.

But if you were at Aatma – the South Asian cultural competition held last Saturday – you would’ve also seen some outstanding performances. In blending the western world with the traditional, a few young entertainers were hoping to inject energy and spirit into both of their cultures at once.

“I like the multiculturalism here, and I like Jazzy-B,” said 11-year old break dancer Raminder Singh Kler. Jazzy-B is a hugely successful Indo-Canadian musician whose mix of Bhangra pop and reggae with Punjabi folk and western jazz has helped blaze a new path in alternative music.

Singh Kler and the rest of his crew from La Bhangra dance studio were supposed to be at the Toronto Center for the Arts by 9 a.m. for rehearsal. Arriving in North York from Brampton just as the show was starting at 3 p.m., the kids were told by organizers they had missed their time to shine.

Undaunted and determined to perform, the kids hung around long enough to get onstage and wow the crowd. “It was awesome,” said Singh Kler as he left the stage to a roaring applause. “But I want to be a doctor, this is just my hobby.”

The event didn’t go as well for the four Ryerson students who were supposed to close the show. Rehearsing backstage, the group was told a technical problem and lack of time would keep them from participating in front of friends and family.

“It was the last thing we wanted. We wanted to end the show on a high note. It was very unfortunate,” said event organizer Mihir Shah afterward. He hopes to have them back next year for the fourth annual Aatma competition.

Aatma is a Hindi word meaning soul. Although some performers would’ve given theirs to win, Shah said the event has bigger significance for the South Asian community.

“The even is critical to not only allow the second and third generation South Asians a chance to see their culture from back home, but it also allows the first generation – like my parents – a chance to keep their roots while seeing how North America’s influences have changed people’s perspectives,” said Shah. “It shows our love for both cultures.”

April Kalloo, Renu Jain and three other members from the Ryerson Indo-Canadian Student Association opened the competition. Dressed all in black, with the four girls in glittering sequins, the group competed in the Hollywood/Bollywood category, mixing Indian film songs and theatrics with hip hop music and dance moves.

“Our motivation was to go out there and have a good time and to represent Ryerson really well. We just love to dance,” said Kalloo. “We’d rather dance than study,” added Jain, who along with Kalloo is a radio and television student.

Aatma is one of the few places you will hear Eminem and Missy Elliot mixed with Bollywood beats and performed in traditional a cappella style. Asked what western musician has had the biggest impact on eastern culture, the RTA students both quickly agreed: “Everyone wants to be Michael Jackson in India.”

The event, which nearly filled the 1,800 seats Arts Centre, was a tune up for a much larger competition to be held at Western University in March. Kalloo and Jain hope to be there to bring home the trophy, but feel they might be dancing at a disadvantage.

“All the different schools have different styles. But our expectations have to be higher because Ryerson doesn’t always get the same respect as the bigger schools. A lot of them still look at us as a college,” said Kalloo.

Schools from all over the province and the U.S. started showing up on Friday for the one-shot, one-day competition. Loyola University of Chicago brought a 20-member ensemble cast and a message about abusing women called ‘Energy through Unity’. The performance included several costume changes and several non-South Asian faces.

“It totally shocked me, it was a total eye opener,” said Shah about the growing diversity brought by the Americans. “We’re getting better here in Canada. We’re becoming more mainstream, but it’s very iconic.”

The crowds for cultural shows in Canada tend to be 90 to 95 per cent South Asian, a much higher number than south of the border. Shah would like to bring the event to a more mainstream audience, but doesn’t want to lose the focus of showcasing South Asian talent.

Kareem Devji and his three bandmates were supposed to be Ryerson’s third act in the traditional South Asian music category. Although listed in the program as part of Ryerson University, nobody in the group is currently taking classes at Ryerson. Devji went to York University and dropped out after two weeks to pursue music full time.

“Our group was a little bit dead on stage – we didn’t move around as much as the others did,” said Devji. He played keyboard behind a pair of dhols – large drums slapped on each end with large wooden sticks – and a cheemta, which is a small instrument that resembles a pair of salad tongs and sounds sort of like water dripping.

Devji admits to not having much time to practice as the group had just reformed after the breakup of Counter Kulture, his former band. They didn’t realize that going over the allotted time slot would cost them point with the judges.

The seven panel members all came from the various corporate sponsors and marked based on coordination, choreography, costumes and innovation.

The alumni team ended up losing in the traditional music category to a 10-member, all women team from the University of Pennsylvania. The women survived an intrepid reporter stepping on a few of their bare toes in the green room before their a cappella performance. The University of Pennsylvania also won in the fusion category – which mixes eastern rhythms and sounds with western influences at an almost 50/50 split.

“You saw the best of both worlds – East meets West,” exclaimed Atif Mahmood during the intermission. The Ryerson IT student came to cheer on his friends.

“We have all religions here. Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. This event is for unity. There are so many different groups out there and we need everyone to come together,” said Mahmood. “It’s also a platform to show what our culture is all about.”

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