Wesleyan’s 46th Annual Navaratri Festival Celebrates the Diversity of Indian Music and Dance

Steve ScarpaOctober 4, 20227min

The Hindu religious festival Navaratri holds a special place in Indian arts and culture.

According to the popular mythology surrounding the festival, over the course of nine nights, the goddess Durga engaged in epic combat with a demon bent on destruction. As the celestial conflict raged around them, ordinary people comforted themselves with music and dance, sharing their talents with their neighbors. With the defeat of the demon, the time became known as a chance to ask for new blessings.

“The festival has always had a special connection to the arts,” said Hari Krishnan, Professor and Chair of Wesleyan’s Department of Dance.

Historically, Wesleyan’s Navaratri festival has focused on classical Indian music and dance, but in recent years we have aspired to widen more critical and alternate representations, expand what is considered the canon of Indian arts, and to rigorously engage with contemporary socio-political issues through creative lenses.

“We are showcasing multiple possibilities of how the arts from South Asia can be seen and how it can be current, relevant, available, accessible, and valuable at Wesleyan in 2022, while still respecting its historical origins,” Krishnan said.

This year’s festival took place took place September 29 through October 2. The Wesleyan festival is the oldest, continually running multidisciplinary Navaratri festival in the nation and serves the Indian-American and South Asian communities of Middlesex county and Connecticut, as well as the Wesleyan campus community.

“It has become a cherished example of how Wesleyan and community partners can build trust and fellowship to co-curate and produce a highly respected and celebratory event,” said Fiona Coffey, the Associate Director for Programming and Performing Arts at the Center for the Arts.

Film and visual arts have become part of the festival’s offerings, in addition to Indian music and dance. Careful attention is paid to representing art from all across India. Dance offerings now explore classical and contemporary aesthetic representations, the relationship of Indian Americans to India itself, and the complexities of a diasporic Indo-American existence. Coffey said that an evolving and lively festival represents the best of Wesleyan’s values of inclusivity and an embrace of global ideas.

“We are bringing together politically engaged artists who are thoughtful about the world and their place in it,” Coffey said.


Navaratri Festival
Ustad Shahid Parvez Kahn performs at the Navaratri Festival. Photo by Tom Dzimian.

The Navaratri Festival emerged decades ago from the strengths of Wesleyan’s ethnomusicology and world dance programs. “The artistic forms that Wesleyan students are learning are shown at the festival in their highest professional artistry, allowing students to connect curriculum with high-level practice,” Coffey said.

The festival holds a special place in Wesleyan culture as something that sets the university apart. Some faculty and staff make a point of attending every year. For the past two decades, vocalist and Adjunct Associate Professor of Music B. Balasubrahmaniyan joined Adjunct Associate Professor of Music David Nelson on mridangam. The roots of Navaratri run deep at Wesleyan.

Navaratri Festival. Photo by Sandy Aldieri.
Kinetic Visualities Art Exhibition. Photo by Sandy Aldieri.

The local Indian community has embraced the festival as an opportunity to revel in aspects of their culture that are not easily accessible in America. “We had a lot of families coming with younger children. Those parents want to pass the traditions on to the next generation.” Coffey said.
All of this talk makes the experience of watching these gifted performers sound academic. It most assuredly isn’t.
A slight gesture of the hands or eyes during a dance performance. The complex conversations about the creative process from the post-performance Q &A with the artists. The versatility and expressivity of the vocal music. Each moment transports you. “We hope you are blown away by the beauty and urgency of the moment created by these inspiring artists,” Krishnan said.

Navaratri Festival
Nrithya Pillai performs at the Navaratri Festival. Photo by Sandy Aldieri.

The festival is presented by the Center for the Arts, Music Department, Dance Department, and the Department of Film Studies, with leadership support from the Madhu Reddy Endowed Fund for Indian Music and Dance at Wesleyan University, and additional support from the Jon B. Higgins Memorial Fund.