The Brandeis South Asian Student Association (SASA) recently held their annual cultural show MELA, featuring student dance, vocal, instrumental and comedic performances as well as speeches from SASA representatives and faculty members. The event was held during Brandeis’ I Am Global Week, which is a week-long campus celebration of diverse ethnic customs that promotes cross-cultural experiences for Brandeis community members. In an interview with The Hoot, two MELA participants, Nandini Mandaloju ’24 and Ashna Kelkar ’24, detailed their experiences preparing for and participating in this year’s show.
Each year, MELA organizers choose a South Asian word to serve as a theme for the show. In 2021, the theme was Saktiya, a Sinhalese word to describe strength in unity. In 2022, the theme was Yatra, a Malayalam word capturing one’s journey through shared histories. This year, the theme was Bhalobasha, a Bengali word for heartfelt love and affection. “Bhalobasha is often used to express the strong emotional bond between individuals, whether it be romantic love, love for family or love for a passion or hobby,” Mandaloju explained.
Another important MELA tradition is the construction and design of the stage backdrop. SASA design coordinators Ananya Dalal ’26, Uma Kanzaria ’25 and Kyra Bhagat ’26 led this year’s efforts, and the project involved collaborations with many other SASA and Brandeis participants. The backdrop depicts the national flags for South Asian countries and shows symbols of love through flowers and doves. At the top, students hand wrote different South Asian words for love in a number of different scripts.
Professor of English and Director of the Mandel Center for Humanities Ulka Anjaria gave a speech as this year’s SASA faculty representative. She drew the connection between themes of love and their prevalence in famous Bollywood media.
The first dance performances were performed by students trained in specific classical dance forms, such as Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathak. Additionally, there were class dance performances throughout the evening, where graduation year cohorts performed group dances together. Chak De, Brandeis’ Bollywood fusion dance team, also performed choreography to a mixtape of several South Asian songs.
The executive board for SASA starts preparing for MELA in July, Mandaloju shared. “They spent countless hours and meetings and worked very hard to put on this show!” Kelkar performed in the Classical Dance and the Senior Class Dance, where she practiced one to two times a week for about an hour. She and Mandaloju collaborated on the choreography of the Senior Class Dance. Mandaloju shared that for the class dance preparations, “We started practices in the beginning of October and met once or twice a week for at least a couple of hours to choreograph and learn the dance.”
In addition to dance performances, there were also vocal and instrumental performances. UMass Amherst’s Indian Classical Arts Society (ICAS) served as guest performers and performed traditional Indian classical songs accompanied by South Asian instruments such as the harmonium, the tabla and the sitar. A Brandeis musical group led by Dalal also performed several pieces with vocals, keyboard and percussion.
Furthermore, guest speaker Usman Hameedi delivered poetry and SASA presidents Mandaloju, Aman Qutab ’24 and Aaryuj Trehan ’24 reflected on their time at SASA through several speeches.
During the intermission, several student vendors displayed their art for sale. Some mediums of art included sticker-making, jewelry making, paintings and more.
After the intermission, groups of students dressed in traditional South Asian attire participated in MELA’s Fashion Show, where they walked through the audience and ultimately struck a pose onstage.
Each year, the proceeds from MELA are distributed to a charitable organization. This year, the charity was Saheli Boston, a Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to providing non-judgmental and culturally-sensitive support to South Asian survivors of domestic and sexual violence. They also provide services such as a confidential helpline on their website. A member of Saheli spoke to the Brandeis community about the importance of empowering South Asian women and combating stigma associated with abuse and receiving support.
Kelkar shared that her key takeaways from the evening were the beautiful ways in which dance can bring communities together. Mandaloju added, “My key takeaway was that love can be found in many things, from a passion or hobby to different bonds with people. Every single performance, such as the classical dance, class dances, Usman Hameedi’s poetry, Chak De’s musical performance, [and] ICAS’s musical act…showed the multifaceted definitions of love through different mediums. MELA 2023 allowed us to love and take pride in our South Asian identity!”