Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) reviews EKTA, a banquet of South Asian music and dance in Klarman.
On Thursday, March 5, students filled Klarman Hall for EKTA, a cultural performance presented by the South Asian Business Association (SABA). They did not know that this would turn out to be the last performance on the Klarman stage for a long time. (Just a few days later, the School would have to shift the HBS Show, originally scheduled for April 6–8, to a digital production due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Thanks to this heartwarming and energizing performance, Klarman went out with a bang. Over the course of two hours, our classmates treated us to a showcase of the vibrancy of South Asia, which comprises eight countries, almost 2 billion people, and countless cultural and religious traditions. Although it would not be possible for one performance to cover the entire breadth of such a diverse region, the directors managed to fit in 21 acts and feature 10 sections (eight RC and two EC) in dance-offs. With so much to take in, the crowd’s enthusiasm never waned.
A year of impressive growth
EKTA is an HBS tradition that goes back at least a dozen years. (See “Introducing ‘Ekta,’” Harbus, November 2007.) This year, organizers Puja Verma and Saumya Singh (MBAs ’20) took the production to new heights, increasing the audience from 200 last year to 650 this year, as well as growing the number of performers from 50 to 240.
Verma and Singh had to achieve all this growth without any external sponsorships or club funding, so running the show required coordinating complex logistics and marketing it through word of mouth. Singh described their approach to me as “go big or go home,” and Verma added, “I feel as though I have applied every business concept I studied in school in running this show.”
The show opened with a medley of three Indian classical dance forms presented skillfully by Sonakshi Bose, Saumya Singh, and Ayna Agarwal (MBAs ’20): Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and Odissi, which originate in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and Odisha, respectively. Beginning with just three performers allowed the audience to focus up close on some of the roots of the region’s dance forms, before the show moved on to emphasize large-group numbers and more modern styles in subsequent acts.
MCs Ratnika Prasad and Sandeep Singh (MBAs ’20) then introduced the theme of the evening, “Student of the Year: HBS Style,” a plotline loosely threaded throughout the show in a series of hilarious video skits starring students, shown on Klarman’s massive screen. Singh was born for radio, with a dulcet bass voice that made him the perfect man for the job. He responded gracefully to the peppery humor of Prasad, our own Satire Editor here at the Harbus (more on that below).
Dance the night away
We were then off to the races with RC section dance-offs. From the perspective of ECs, is there any group of humans with enthusiasm more endearing than a group of RCs? Every section maintained a high level of energy that brought the audience along with it.
New Section J kicked off the show with a fiery performance, paying homage to a popular Bollywood song about takeovers. New A fused ’90s Bollywood favorites with Western tunes like “Lean On” by Major Lazer in their high-energy number. New C’s dance featured some impressive cartwheels and body rolls. New E’s number delighted with a surprising close in which some dancers pulled audience members onto the stage to ask them to be their dates to their section’s traditional Tackeee Prom. And New F rolled out some stunning moves to iconic Bollywood hits from the early 2000s.
For me, there were several moments when RC sections painted some especially striking pictures as they moved together onstage. At one point in their dance, New Section D gathered into a cluster and moved together as seamlessly as a school of fish engaged in what looked like synchronized swimming to my non-dancer eyes. New B’s vibrant costumes in red and gold made their impressive footwork and hand motions shimmer all the more. And New H brought down the house with a huge company: a full 49 section members flooded the stage in a coordinated flash mob performance. (Getting that many people in a room is a feat of which EC section social teams can only dream until Commencement or Reunion arrives. We should all take lessons from this section.)
New H’s costuming was, like New B’s, striking: the women wore fairly simple black dresses, while the men wore very long, voluminous scarves in bright pastel colors over white shirts. Choreographer Rashmitha Vasa (MBA ’21) took full advantage of the costuming. The men strutted up to the women on stage with evocative confidence; while HBS men are known to engage frequently in peacocking, this dance may have been the first time that a large number of them did it simultaneously on the Klarman stage.
Love was in the air in several other dances, including the number literally titled “Love in the Air,” as well as “The Ultimate Bollywood Meet-Cute,” which delivered a substantial and delightful dose of cuteness in a dance that fused ’80s Bollywood classics and elements from swing dancing. (No doubt those in the audience who are members of the #single Slack channel found their hearts warmed.) And was it just by coincidence that the two EC sections (B and H) both portrayed romance in their dances? Perhaps not, since Old B’s track literally included someone saying “EC fire sale.” However, the evening was not all about eros, as evidenced by a group of EC women who performed “Future Is Female … Even in Bollywood,” which was a strong portrayal of an inspiring “girl power!” message.
Vocals and instruments
In addition to dance, EKTA also featured three singing acts. The first two of these, by students, were acoustic, providing a pleasant contrast to the heart-thumping beats of the dances and showcasing some beautiful voices.
Vaibhav Agarwala (MBA ’20) was outstanding with his rendition of “Khamaj,” a Hindustani classical/soft rock fusion song originally produced by the Pakistani band Fuzon. (I later found out that Khamaj is also the name of one of the ten thaats, or parent scales, of Hindustani music, as well as of a “late evening raaga” that is often used in film music in the region.) With impeccable intonation, Agarwala produced a beautiful sound that was easy and free even as he moved through complicated melismas requiring finely etched articulation. And when Ashwin Wadekar (MBA ’20) joined in with the lyrics of the Tom Petty classic “Free Fallin’,” the duo created one of the loveliest examples of fusion among many in the show. Dean Nohria stood up from his front-row seat to give them a well-deserved standing ovation.
Singers Chida Balaji (MBA ’20) and Sakshi Kapoor (MBA ’20) performed a melodious fusion of well-known Western classics by Ed Sheeran and Adele and old Bollywood favorites. Rahul Chawla (MBA ’21) and Faiz Ahmed (MBA ’21) supported the singers on the djembe and guitar respectively. When the crowd reacted to the popular classics by swaying their hands and their phone flashlights, it was clear that they shared the performers’ emotions.
From pop to folk
EKTA showcased the diversity in folk dance forms in South Asia. Jotthe Kannappan (MBA ’21) choreographed a Dandiya Raas performance that included eight women skillfully operating in pairs, hitting “dandiya” sticks as they created unique formations. Ayna Agarwal (MBA ’20) followed this graceful folk rendition by choreographing over 30 RCs and ECs in a high-energy “Bhangra Bruaaahh!” performance. This number had ample high knees and active movement; I am sure that the performers got quite the workout during rehearsals.
The opening of “Bhangra Bruaaahh!” was, like the vocal numbers, a highlight for me in that it was another acoustic moment in the show. Rahul Chawla (MBA ’21) struck a dhol (double-headed drum) skillfully to create a pulsing beat under the dancers. The recorded tracks elsewhere in the show were well-chosen, but music performed live by students injects a unique kind of energy onto the stage, so as a lover of Western classical music, I hope to see even more Indian classical instruments if I return for EKTA in a future year.
Bring on the experts
Most of the performers in EKTA were amateurs, and it was heartening to see them embrace the performing arts as a celebration of their time at HBS. (After all, the original sense of the word “amateur” is simply “one who loves or is fond of something,” and these students’ fondness for the art forms that they demonstrated for us was contagious.) But the program turned to the “experts” towards the end.
New York-based professional singer-songwriter Amsi (@thisisamsi) performed her defiant new single “Catch Me at the Top” before HBS’s own dance ensemble, Beyond Dance, wrapped up the show, featuring fusion choreography by Abhay Divakaruni (MBA ’21) and Harshini Jayaram (MBA ’21)—and, of course, the eye-popping breakdancing by Daichi Ban (MBA ’20) that HBS audiences have come to expect in every BD performance.
But in fact, that was not the end of the show. We had a chance to hear directly from Dean Nohria, who took to the stage to share a personal reflection on how the performing arts played a role in the early stages of his relationship with his wife. (Nohria also mentioned that his wife once responded to a @dearharby post about him on Instagram. Since he was introduced on stage by Prasad, one of the masterminds behind Dear Harby, it was as though Nohria was responding in person to Harby, whose decanal satire he channeled in a delightfully self-deprecating way.)
Brilliance in unity
Ekta (एकता) means “unity” in Sanskrit, and in its finest moments the performers showed us how much splendor a group of people can create when they coordinate their movements to knit a tapestry whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Unity does not, however, mean the dissolution of individual identities; indeed, my favorite moments in the dances were when front men or women commanded the attention of the audience with their excellence even as their work harmonized with that of the classmates behind them. Isha Chowdhary (MBA ’21), Abhay Divakaruni (MBA ’21), Vinit Parikh (MBA ’20), Mehek Punatar (MBA ’21), Vaibhav Chauhan (MBA ’20), Nishi Anand (MBA ’20), and Rishika Garg (MBA ’21) were outstanding as leads. It is a real shame that COVID-19 will prevent us from seeing their moves on the dance floors at the RC and EC Galas originally scheduled for this month, but I hope that they will continue to share their art with the world next year and beyond.
I just made my first-ever trip to South Asia in January, when I visited Sri Lanka as part of IFC: Asia. (See “Walking along the Belt and Road,” Harbus, February 2020.) Thanks to the audiovisual feast that was EKTA 2020, I am now eager to return to the region as soon as I can.
* * *
EKTA was directed by Puja Verma and Saumya Singh (MBAs ’20). To view the complete program, click here.
Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) came to HBS from HBS, where he worked for five years as a research associate, most recently as a casewriter with a faculty member in the Strategy Unit. Last summer, he interned as a consultant with the Boston office of Bain & Company. He read English literature as an undergraduate at Yale, where he also studied Japanese and French, and currently he is studying Chinese at Harvard College. Gabriel was the 2019 editor-in-chief of the Harbus and is a proud HBS Show Koala. As a young boy, he fantasized about becoming a novelist, but he quickly realized that he did not actually have any ideas for novels.