It's one of the first evenings of November that actually feels like winter. But it's warm inside the German-American Klub on S. Meridian Street, and laughter leaks out from behind the closed doors of the banquet hall. Inside, young students of the Mistry Dance Academy are preparing for their performance at the Indy International Festival on Saturday. The children spin around the ballroom, tapping their wooden sticks together to the notes of an Indian folk song.
The Mistry dancers are one of many local international groups that will perform at the annual festival, which takes place Nov. 17-20 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Their performance is a rendition of Rass Gharba, a traditional folk dance from India's Gujarat region, and just one of a variety of styles that Mistry students learn.
Looking on with a watchful eye is the Academy's director and founder, Alpa Mistry. As a seven-year student at the Kala Kendra Institute in her hometown of Mumbai, Mistry was trained in Bharatnatyam, India's classical dance form. Today, her choreography is a blend of classical movements and Bollywood (a catch-all term for the more contemporary style featured in Indian film musicals). Since moving to Indianapolis from New Jersey in 2008, Mistry has been building a client base on the city's south side, but it isn't always easy.
"Southside is more challenging than north side," Mistry says. "Northside still has a bigger Indian community. Now, I feel the concentration of Indian people is increasing, but where do I go and find them? That is another challenge."
Mistry, 36, directs a women's dance troupe on Fridays; but tonight, her students range from ages 5 to 11. Dance holds a special significance for this particular group.
"My young students are born here, but their parents are all from India. Parents always feel that they want their children to learn something that is a little bond to India," Mistry says. "I tell my students to listen to Hindi songs, see Hindi television. You are born here, but you are an Indian, because your roots are Indian."
“I'm through and through Indian, my husband and I were born and brought up in India. But even though our culture is so strong, instilling our values in our own daughter is so hard."
Purvi Desai — whose 7-year-old son, Rahul, dances with Mistry — understands the challenges of raising a child with dual cultural identities: "I want my son to learn our culture — we are so far away, this way at least he gets to know where his ancestors are from. I want him to know what we grew up with."
Desai is pleased with life in Indy, noting the growth of the Indian community in recent years.
"When I came here 21 years ago, there were very few Indian families,” she says. “Now there is a lot of awareness. Now we see [Indians] everywhere."
Mistry's company is one of several Indian dance troupes in the Indianapolis area. Sudha Goradia, whose Mayuri School of Dance will perform at the International Festival on Sunday, has been teaching dance in Indy since 1997.
"[The] Indian community is welcomed and embraced in the city of Indianapolis," Goradia says. "I don’t feel uncomfortable. Events like the International Festival help bring us all together."
But the future of the local Indian community lies with the new generation of Indian-Americans, according to Goradia.
"I think the second generation will actively participate in government," Goradia says, adding that there's still room for change in Indianapolis.
"When it comes to the media, they are quick to grab on to negative things… but take their own time when something nice is going on in the community. Media should get more involved with International Festival, spread the word around and educate the people about the big world out there [outside] the U.S.A."
Teaching through music
On the other side of the city, pianist Pavel Polanco-Safadit and his band, Direct Contact Latin Jazz, are carving out their own tradition. Alongside bassist Steve Dokken and percussionist Raul Padro, Polanco-Safadit has created a repertoire of original tunes mixed with complex arrangements of Latin jazz classics. Drawing from the work of greats like Chucho Valdes, Direct Contact has a sound that's high-energy and technically difficult. But the band has an educational mission.
"For me and for my band, it’s a teaching thing," Polanco-Safadit says. "[If] we play just merengue or duranguense or any Latino music, we are excluding a lot of people. I want everybody from everywhere to come and watch us — internationally — so I wanted to make something that would reflect that."
Among the Latino community, Polanco-Safadit often finds himself correcting the misconceptions surrounding his style of music.
"I don't play jazz, I play Latin jazz - Latin rhythms combined with jazz harmonies," he explains. "[Latinos] didn't understand until they came and saw Direct Contact and saw the energy in everything, and they loved it. They now know what Latin jazz means."
Direct Contact is just one of Polanco-Safadit's educational endeavors. A professor at Earlham College, he directs the jazz ensemble, teaches private lessons and leads a Latin jazz combo. As the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Latin music specialist, he helps direct a Latin band for area kids.
"I like to see lives changing," Polanco-Safadit says. "When I see a student changing, I like that. Teaching is one of the beautiful ways that you can show them the door, so that they can go and conquer the world."
Born in the Dominican Republic, Polanco-Safadit was classically trained in piano by a local missionary before receiving a music scholarship to attend the University of Arkansas. After earning his master's in composition and theory from Eastern Kentucky University in 2003, he traveled the country playing jazz with players like saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and bassist Richard Davis. In addition to the piano, Polanco-Safadit sings and plays several other instruments.
"You learn on the street," he says. "I am very fortunate — I got street teaching, and I have the formal academics as well."
Since moving to Indianapolis four years ago, Polanco-Safadit has served in IPS schools as an educational music coordinator and currently works as a student mentor with the La Plaza outreach program for Latino youth. Many of his students were born in Latin America.
"When they come here, some of them get disconnected from their roots," he says. "But I think it's very important to know your roots — it's important to know where you are coming from."
Direct Contact will headline the International Festival with a performance on Saturday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.
About the Festival:
This weekend's festivities include dance, music and cultural presentations from over 30 area international groups. Highlights include Bloomington-based Afro-Cuban music and dance troupe Sancocho (Friday and Sunday), a Parade of Nations (Saturday) and the Caledonia Scottish Pipe Band (Sunday). The event will feature over 20 ethnic food vendors, and Kahn's Fine Wines will provide a selection of international beer and wine.
The Indy International Festival began in 1976 as a celebration of cultural diversity in Indiana. The festival is run by volunteers from the Nationalities Council of Indiana, a non-profit coalition of Indiana's ethic and cultural organizations.