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SAMECAO bring a taste of South Asian tradition to Mills

Photo by Halie Johnson

The student union exuded a South Asian motif in preparation for the evening's festivities. Curtains of pale lilac and blue hung over a tiny stage, littered with pillows. A large Persian rug extended from beneath the stage, providing audience members with an alternative to traditional seating.

Roshni means light in Hindi. Junior Sheela Bringi, and co-president of SAMECAO, the South Asian Middle Eastern Cultural Awareness Org., said the title reflected the goal of the event, which was to raise funds for earthquake victims while bringing forth "the light of cultural understanding."

The event celebrated two South Asian holidays: Eid, a Muslim holiday concluding the holy month of Ramadan and Diwali, a Hindu festival observing the end of the new year.

Brinda Mehta, a French professor and the faculty advisor for SAMECAO, said the club chose Eid and Diwali as the theme for the event as the two holidays fall on similar dates this year; Diwali on Nov. 1 and Eid on Nov. 3. Planning for the celebration escalated when a powerful earthquake devestated the border of Pakistan and India on Oct.8.

The event Roshni, hosted by SAMECAO, featured student performances, traditional music and delicious food. The celebration took place on Nov.11 and was followed by a two-hour after-party. All proceeds were donated to The Citizens Foundation relief fund for victims of the South Asian earthquake.

"The driving force behind it was the earthquake in South Asia," Mehta said. "We thought 'Why not have a celebration of life when there has already been so much suffering?'" She added that they also hoped the event would "create cultural understanding through music and art."

Senior Fiza Asar, and co-president of SAMECAO, said demonstrating religious tolerance and the bond between South Asian peoples was also a priority. She said the club found it symbolic that the dire situation of the earthquake has brought together Hindu and Muslim peoples.

"The two groups are traditionally, not very friendly towards each other," she said. "This event is dedicated to rekindling hope through solidarity."

Junior, Sheela Bringi, Deana Suarez-Vargas, a music student, and Brijillio Guevara played traditional Colombian music while audience members took their seats. Bringi played the bamboo flute while Suarez and Guevara accompanied her on Colombian drums.

The vibrant music and rich scent of South Asian dishes provided a sensory pleasing experience. Students and public safety officers alike helped themselves to samosas, chicken curry and naan as Bringi concluded the music session.

The festivities of the evening showcased South Asian culture through dance performances, poetry readings and traditional music. Shulpa Arora, a graduate student, read three of her poems; Krystle Ahmadyar, a sophomore, performed a traditional Afghan dance. Ahmadyar said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to perform at Mills. "Within Afghan culture, women are not supposed to dance for people, yet I do because it's so beautiful," she said.

Other highlights of the event included musical performances by Ali Hakimi and Ferhan Qureshi on the tabla, a pair of Indian drums. Hakimi and Qureshi are members of Dhamaal SF, a South Asian music group well known in the Bay Area. Hakimi explained the musical style while he and Qureshi belted out Pakistani and Indian rhythms. Wallace Harvey, a violinist from the Ali Akbar school of music, provided additional accompaniment for some of the pieces while Bringi played her flute with the group towards the end of the event.

The festivities concluded with Sonia Mann, a Bay Area professional dancer, performing improvised Indian dance to the accompaniment of Qureshi and Harvey. Mann also performed earlier in the program, showcasing Kathak, a classical dance style from Northern India. Her presence could be felt even when she wasn't performing as she often tapped her feet in rhythm to the tabla, the bands of bells attached to her legs providing a delicate tempo.

Arora was grateful to all of the performers for volunteering their time. "The performances were great and there was a lot of talent," she said. Asar agreed and was particularly thankful to Dhamaal, who waived their usual performance fee in favor of supporting SAMECAO's relief efforts. Qureshi said it was the least they could do. "It's our honor to be here," he said.

More than 70 people packed the student union. Mills students, faculty and Bay Area residents filled every chair available as well as the Persian rug.

Sonia Fazli, a sophomore from UC Berkeley, said she learned about the event from a Muslim networking site. "I'm part Afghan and when I heard there would be an Afghan dance I was particularly excited [because] it's not very common." In addition, Fazli said she enjoyed the tabla performances, which is one of her favorite types of music.

Sophomore Jessica Jackson also appreciated the music and dance performances. "I came because I wanted to experience their presentation of their culture," she said. "The violin was just amazing."

Several SAMECAO members said they felt the event was a success and hoped audience members gained a greater sense of South Asian culture. Mehta said she would like students to advocate for a greater South Asian presence at Mills in the form of additional faculty and curriculum. "I hope we created more understanding on our campus since South Asia is so invisible." She said the club plans to host a major event each semester and that  may return next year.

Bringi said she was simply grateful that everything turned out well. "I think there were unexpected twists and turns yet in the end the spirit of the event was able to overcome the obstacles," she said. Asar couldn't agree more. "Our hard work paid off!"