Mandala Review - Strong Start for New Arts Organization

Roll of Dice dancers Chika Kertayudha, Akanksha Mishra, Erica Ochoa, Kinnari Vora, with drummer, Ngurrah Kertayudha

Mandala, an up and coming South Asian arts organization, hosted a strong and innovative launch party-performance last last Wednesday, June 24. Pranita Jain, the founder of Mandala, collaborated with venue Pagoda Red’s owner Betsy Nathan to create an immersive evening of culture from Persia to Indonesia. The Pagoda Red gallery, specializes in 18th and 19th Century furniture and art, and its West Loop location features a garden trailing up to the gallery space. I walked through the Chinese garden to get to the showroom, and was immediately greeted by musicians playing the Balinese Gamelan along the path, a hauntingly beautiful introduction to the evening.

Mandala dancers play an interactive game with guests, Roll of Dice (directed by John Musial).


The way Jain curated the evening is what made it so special - first engaged sonically, then to olfactory and gustatory. Mantra Indian Restaurant provided the food, and the kale samosas with mango chutney were standouts. In a manner, the food was a perfect crossover to the event itself: classic form with modern twists. This appears to be what Mandala is all about. After speaking to several guests and company members, plus researching the organization itself, you completely get the multi-color, hybrid effect they are going for, the artistic relevance, historical communication, and cultural preservation all in one.


Snakes & Ladders

The night was structured as a game, a sort of snakes and ladders with four dance representatives of four different dance cultures: Balinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian and Sri Lankan. These dancers engaged in a friendly, possibly choreographed / possibly improvised battle, depending on the roll of the dice. The game board was taped out on the floor, surrounded by an (at first, fairly sheepish) audience. Accompanied by a live drummer, each dancer traveled with a great, joyous energy across the board. It was one of the most engaging and creative methods of communicating an “exotic” technique, usually lost behind a curtain of its own alienating “exoticness.” But with this method of the performance, the audience had energy in the players, which dancer they wanted to win, the competition drew out the audience in the group, further than the responsibilities of the voyeur. The most exciting moments occurred when a dancer would land in the same square of another. A quasi-dance battle would break out of dueling techniques, until the intruder was kicked off the board and required to start from the beginning. Their specificity was mesmerizing, and made unfortunate by how quickly the first game finished. The crowd dispersed, with a satisfying new energy, for more food and music from the sarod (sister instrument of the sitar). The developed energy of community throughout the night was the Mandala’s greatest success, I found. As a community, we grew to appreciate not only the history of these South Asian disciplines, but were wowed by the contemporary adaptations made by the company.

Vikas Deo plays the Persian sarod.

The second round of the game was even more exciting, and this lead into some speeches from the organization. Normally, any event with multiple speeches asks faith from its audience to breeze through the formalities, but each speaker’s diction was so full of gratitude and respect that it wasn’t a chore or something to wait through. The final performances of the evening were all works in progress, and, despite them definitely feeling a little rough, the precision and care given to each technique was riveting. In the classic performances, the articulation of the face, eyes, brows, and hands demands the hyper-focus of audience members despite cultural backgrounds. After they drew us in with classical pieces, they successfully changed the flavor to jazz-fusion. I have a particular love of the classic bharata natyam and kathakali dance principles, and all of the design elements that go into it, so when I see jazz pants + bindhis, or bhangra beats + techno, I don’t love it, but I do respect it. The evening concluded with a raffle prize trip to India - I didn’t win, but I’m happy we have Mandala now in Chicago to bring samples of these cultures to Western audiences.

Balinese dancer and gamelan player, Chika Kertayudha.

REAL TALK: At times, the performances felt unrehearsed, but the positive energy and training of each performer overwhelmed that. Mandala fulfilled their mission in bringing the flavors, fervors, and fantasy of South Asian dance and music to Chicago, and I look forward to the next rich plate of art they serve next.

To learn more about Mandala, please visit the Mandala website

Photo credit: Sergio Mantilla and Olimpia Rodriguez

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