The Utah Festival celebrates classical music and dance from India and also crosses cultures.

Jyothsna Sainath, rehearsing on the black floor of her vinyl-lined studio at her Salt Lake City home, is a picture of grace.

Through a window in the studio space one gets a glimpse of the green trees in their yard. When a rare summer breeze flutters by, the branches sway, reflecting their fluidity. Accompanied by Gary Hansen playing a melodious tune on a Native American flute and percussionist Wachira Waigwa-Stone playing a steady, delicate beat on a West African djembe drum, Sainath is completely at ease.

The routine that Sainath practices includes Bharatanatyam, India’s oldest classical dance form. And while it looks easy, it takes years of practice. Sainath began studying with renowned gurus at the age of 6 – and also earned a Master of Arts in Performing Arts from Bangalore University.

Her movements — the way her feet pick up the beat, where the drums end, the precision of her facial expressions and hand gestures — are all well practiced and almost art forms in their own right.

“When I listen to Carnatic music, I can anticipate what the next part will be,” Sainath said.

Sainath performed this routine a day later during The Rose Wagner’s 25th anniversary celebrations, bringing together influences from three different cultures: Native American and West African music, and Indian classical dance.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jyothsna Sainath dances while Wachira Waigwa-Stone plays drums and Gary Hansen plays flute as they rehearse for Indian festival Nitya Nritya on Friday 26 August 2022.

This blending of cultures is also a key goal of Sainath’s non-profit organization, the Nitya Nritya Foundation, and festival of the same name – meaning ‘eternal dance’. The sixth Nitya Nritya Festival is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, September 10th and 11th at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

“With our festival we want to present art that can overcome cultural barriers,” said Sainath.

Waigwa-Stone has played drums with West African ensembles and samba groups – and says he grew up watching the multicultural shows his mother put on, shows similar to the Sainath festival.

“It’s fun to try a different version of this as an actual participant because I’ve always been observing other people,” Waigwa-Stone said

Hansen grew up in a musical family and says he started playing the Native American flute 20 years ago, learning mostly from online tutorials. He said he enjoys how the festival brings different cultures together – particularly the connection between Native American music and Indian classical dance.

“When I was approached, I didn’t feel comfortable playing in this project because they were looking for Native American flute players and I’m not a Native American,” said Hansen. Hansen introduced Sainath to Nino Reyos, a musician who is a member of the Northern Ute and Laguna Pueblo Indian Nations and will be performing at the festival.

Saturday’s show – from 7pm at the Leona Wagner Black Box Theater – will feature a ‘Navarasa’ performance of Carnatic music from South India, described as ‘a musical portrait of human emotion’. It is performed by singer Krithika Natarajan, accompanied by Vignesh Thyagarajan on violin and Vignesh Venkataraman on mridangam (a type of drum). Also on the Saturday program is a preview of “Sangam”, a work in progress by Sainath in collaboration with Waigwa-Stone, Hansen and Hindustani singer Suchinth Murthy.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jyothsna Sainath dances while Wachira Waigwa-Stone plays drums and Gary Hansen plays flute as they rehearse for Indian festival Nitya Nritya on Friday 26 August 2022.

The Sunday program begins at 2 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theater and includes three works:

  • “Bhakti,” selected content from a recent workshop by Vidwan Sikkil Gurucharan, presented by a Salt Lake City ensemble led by Satheeth Iyer, who will also present a lecture to put the topic in context.

  • “Through Fish Eyes,” a performance by Prakriti Dance that “represents the changing relationship between humankind and the oceans.

  • Divine Moments, performed by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a legendary Grammy-winning Hindustani classical instrumentalist; Subhen Chatterjee will accompany on the tabla.

The festival extends beyond the stages at The Rose, with Utah-based Indian artist Durga Ekambaram exhibiting her artwork in the lobby.

Sainath is scheduled to give a talk on how labeling affects people in the arts industry. She will argue that the way Western culture lumps different art forms from India together can be damaging.

“Often many things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other are lumped together, [like] World music, there’s no way to tell them apart,” Sainath said.

Such labeling can change perceptions of works from different cultures, both internally and externally, she said. “When you call Bharatanatyam ‘world music,’ it gives you no indication of what we do,” she said.

Sainath, who is also a statistician at the University of Utah, said she’s seen “ramifications in terms of funding” of arts from data from the National Endowment for the Arts — specifically, in whether groups are categorized as in or out of the mainstream .

She said Indian dance groups that have been operating in the United States for decades “tend to self-select in categories that don’t describe them very well in order to increase the chances of funding.” Such groups have few categories to choose from when applying for grants—like “folk art” or “traditional art”—which she described as “a very vague description of everything.”

Salt Lake City has an environment that encourages ballet and Western classical music, Sainath said, adding that she hopes her festival can do the same for Indian classical arts – and ultimately bring people together to experience art in its purest form see, regardless of ethnicity.

“There are so many arts in India,” she said. “We’ve been around for so many thousands of years.”

The Nitya Nritya festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, 10.-11. September, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are available at arttix.org — Adults are $20 for Saturday, $30 for Sunday, and $40 for a two-day pass; Students and children under 12 can attend for $12 on Saturday, $18 on Sunday, and $24 for the two-day festival. Go to nityanritya.com for more details.

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