A specific nationality is not required to pursue a certain style of dance. At least that is what Jin Won believes about the liberty of dance forms.
“It’s basic human emotions,” she said. “Every culture has different customs and traditions, but every human being feels the same thing.”
The idea of communication beyond language triggered Won’s interest in pursuing dance in India. Kathak, in particular, appealed to her because of the natural and suggestive nature of the music and dance, which provided more space for imagination.
Won, originally from South Korea where she studied theater and worked to save money, is a professional kathak dancer, choreographer and teacher. She studied kathak and tabla in India for 15 years, and her journey led her to become an ambassador for Indian classical arts. Although it is not uncommon to see a non-South Asian practitioner of various Indian art forms, Won, no stranger to breaking barriers within the beats of Indian classical music and dance, has a unique story.
[Jin Won practicing before a show/Photo Courtesy: Nidhi Singh]
As any newcomer in a foreign society, Won met good people, bad people and supportive people, among many other types of individuals, and she gradually assimilated into a community that embraced her and her interests.
“Many people ask me ‘How do you like India?’ she said. Old people understand me when I say that it’s a relationship like an old married couple.”
With a strong language barrier and a routine of eating only Korean food, the move to India was a cultural shock.
“In that time, we didn’t have that much information about India regarding Indian arts,” she said.
Names like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi were the extent of her knowledge on India. Upon arriving in Bombay, she was surprised to see a metropolis, instead of the green and laid-back environment she expected.
Aside from being South Korean, she also refused to let her gender and age inhibit her pursuit of Indian performing arts.
“Back then, everyone told me that no woman plays tabla and that you have to start at a young age,” she said.
Won began her studies in both kathak and tabla in her 20s, a feat that requires strong dedication and long practice hours in order to perfect one’s technique. Apart from learning the technicalities, she said discipline is most relevant to the Kathak dance form.
Currently, Won is a performer and faculty member at the Taalim School of Indian Music. The school is home to diverse performers within Indian classical arts, many of whom are roommates residing in New Jersey. Won calls the school a kind of music ashram where Indian dance, music and philosophy can all be taught together.
Heena Patel, founder of MELA Arts Connect and a manager of business development for Taalim, first met Won in India when both were students at Rhythm Riders Music Productions, the sister organization of Taalim. Patel was struck by her dedication to learn two art forms, despite challenges impeding her way as a foreigner within Indian society.
“The big thing she conveys is that it doesn’t matter what your background is, art is art,” said Patel. “These are things that don’t have language. They can cut across and connect.”
[Jin Won practicing before a show/Photo Courtesy: Nidhi Singh]
Won’s mother and sister saw her perform for the first time last year when they visited the U.S. Won’s mother, one of her biggest financial and emotional supporters throughout her 15 years in India, jokes that her daughter is half-Indian because of her attachment and comfort with the Indian culture.
Patel, who also learned tabla from the same guru, Pandit Devyang Vakil, said when Indians see Won perform, they first notice she is Korean. But once they’ve experienced her artistry, there is a level of appreciation that someone has taken a deep interest in their culture. Patel said Won conveys the universality of bringing people together.
“I try to find a way of communicating with people,” said Won. “I try to find common ground where everyone can understand and feel it.”
In Taalim’s current traveling exhibition “Pradhanica,” Won and fellow musicians with the school pieced together a set that lets audience members understand her emotions through the movement and rhythm sans lyrics.
In a purely rhythmic section of the piece, Won fuses two cultures as she wears a costume inspired by a traditional Korean dress called a hanbok.
Won takes costume as a part of language and expression but treads carefully because she isn’t Indian.
“I don’t want to be disrespectful to the culture. I’m just trying to be relevant to the modern world,” she said.
As an educator, Won not only teaches but also interacts with her students by relaying stories that highlight the philosophical aspects of music and dance.
According to her, she tries to teach her students what first attracted her to kathak. Won used dance and music to help her understand life to become a better human being and continues to do so.
“As an individual artist and human, it’s a way of living for me.”
Nidhi Singh is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism and is taking this time to explore the world through photography, film, and words. She enjoys dancing, traveling, eating Nutella, and watching reruns of old “Friends” episodes (as should anyone!). Follow Nidhi on Twitter and Instagram to see where she takes her next selfeet.
January 1, 2023January 1, 2023 7min readBy Brown boy
Wyatt Feegrado is a comedian and content creator from Walnut Creek, San Francisco, California. Feegrado moved to New York City to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Feegrado always wanted to be a comedian and grew up watching “The Last Comic Standing” with his mom — his favorites being Alingon Mitra and Sammy Obeid. In 2020, Feegrado starred in the TV show “Bettor Days,” on Hulu and ESPN+, as the character Vinnie bets on the baseball team The Astros and wins big. Feegrado also has a podcast called “First World Problematic,” along with Vishal Kal and Surbhi, where they talk about a range of topics such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, and will be dropping an “Indian Matchmaking” Reunion show. Currently, in Bangalore, Feegrado is performing his first show in India, at the Courtyard in Bangalore. He was previously on tour in the United States. He recently dropped the Amazon comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate.” Continue reading to learn more about Wyatt Feegrado.
Do you feel that your upbringing in Walnut Creek and your personal experiences are what molded your comedic style?
Walnut Creek, for people who have never been there, is frankly a very white place. I must’ve been one of four or five Indian kids in my high school of 2000. I think growing up like that, you begin to believe that it’s a bit ‘odd’ that you’re brown. Part of finding my comedic voice was changing that perspective to say; it’s not weird that I’m brown, it’s weird that you’re not. That’s the paradigm shift — I don’t move through the world trying to impress people, why should I? Who are they? They should be trying to impress me.
What was it like attending the Tisch School Of The Arts and what classes helped shape you as a person?
I hope I don’t get too much flack for this…but I don’t really think that NYU helped my career very much. Being in New York helped me immensely, it raised the ceiling on what I could achieve. I really appreciate NYU’s approach, they teach art as a fundamentally collaborative discipline, which I do believe it is. However, that’s just not how I learn. I’m a competitive person, I want to be pitted against my fellow students and prove I’m the best. That motivates me. I would say, if you want to use NYU or any art school to your advantage, understand that classes are only half of what you’re supposed to be doing. That was a pet peeve of mine, I used to see my fellow students finish class and simply go home. That’s not the way to do it in this industry. Every day, after school, I used to go to two or three open mics, send in self-taped auditions, and make opportunities of my own. You’re betting on yourself — so go all in.
What was the process of creating the comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate?”
In terms of writing the jokes, it’s the culmination of studying joke writing for 10 years. But I was approached with the opportunity in March or so, and I had my reservations to even tape a special — I’m a perfectionist so I wanted all my jokes to be some of the best ever written. But that’s just a bad strategy in terms of trying to make it in life. When an opportunity falls in your lap, you have to take it no matter what. Worry about whether you’re ready later. One time I was cast in a commercial for Facebook that required me to do skateboard tricks. I lied and said I knew how to do skateboard tricks at the casting call. I landed the commercial and then started practicing how to skateboard. I think the most important lesson in comedy you can learn is how to believe in yourself when nobody else does. I always have the confidence that I will rise to the occasion.
What was it like getting your special on Amazon Prime?
So Four by Three, the amazing production company that produced my special, has a very good relationship with Amazon, as they’ve produced a lot of content for their platform. They handled distribution for me, and together we made the strategic decision to also release De-Assimilate on YouTube. I think because of the over-saturation of streaming services you have to pay for, combined with the renaissance YouTube is having, where a lot of the content will have TV-level production value, more and more young people are turning to YouTube as their primary source of content. People are always asking who is going to win the “streaming wars.” My dark horse candidate is YouTube.
As a comedian how do you deal with hecklers?
So many comedians are mean to hecklers. I hate that. There’s no reason for that. They’re a person too and it’s not right to berate them unless they truly insulted you first. In my opinion, there are three types of hecklers — the heckler who is just too drunk, the heckler who thinks they’re helping the show, and the heckler who actually hates you or thinks you’re unfunny. I think only the latter deserves to be berated. The rest of them I try to work around, and tell them they’re interrupting the show in a way that doesn’t interrupt the show in itself.
What was the first joke you ever wrote and your favorite joke you have ever written?
Oh god this is going to be horrible. The first joke I every wrote was:
“Shawn White is a professional snowboarder, but a lot of people don’t know he is also very skilled in Curling, his hair”
That is so bad. I’m embarrassed. At least it disproves the BS some people say that “funny isn’t learnable.” That is NOT TRUE. What they mean is the infrastructure for funny scant exists. There’s no Standup Comedy Major in Art Schools or Textbooks that teach joke writing. There will be one day, but for now there isn’t.
My favorite jokes I write are jokes that I really think encapsulates the zeitgeist. My favorites on the special are the joke about how Jesus’ Disciples are Brown, and how the Vaccine is the first time anyone in the US has gotten healthcare for free.
Are there any jokes that you regret telling in front of an audience?
Of course. Referring back to my answer to the first question, any joke that has the underlying presumption that it is ‘odd’ to be brown — which is a genre of jokes that many Indian-American comedians in history have been pigeonholed into — I regret saying those type of jokes when I first started. Now I do the opposite. Sometimes I’ll do a joke about how Jesus was brown in Texas just to piss them off.
What has been your favorite project to work on?
Flying to Nashville to shoot Bettor Days for ESPN+ was great. I was just out of school at the time so it felt amazing to make money, travel, and work. Also the sets were fun and I’m still friends with the cast. And then getting to see myself on TV for the first time — thrilling.
Can you tell us more about your podcast First World Problematic?
Yes! First World Problematic is the comedy podcast I host with Vishal Kal — yes the same one that broke Nadia’s heart on Indian Matchmaking — and Surbhi, another close comedian friend of mine. We’re all Indian-Americans, and we discuss a wide variety of topics, such as dating, pop culture, and just in general make a lot of jokes. ALSO! We just released an Indian Matchmaking Season 2 reunion special — we brought back all the cast members of season 2 for a tell all! In Jan we plan to do a Season 1 reunion.
Who do you look up to in the world of comedy?
Man. I’m a student of a looooooooot of comedians. So so so many people I look up to. Steven Wright and Dave Chappelle are my first loves. When I was a kid, I used to think standup was just time pass, until one day I stumbled upon Dave Chappelle: Killin Em’ Softly on YouTube. That is what made me realize that standup can be high art. That is when I knew I wanted to be a comedian. Steven Wright is the comedian who first inspired me to write jokes, many of my first jokes emulated him. I have learned so much about modern Joke Structure from Dave Attell, Emo Phillips, Dan Mintz, and Anthony Jeselnik. Bit structure I take directly from Louie CK and Bill Burr. As for my comedic voice, I learned so much from Paul Mooney. Listening to him is what I feel really unlocked my approach to comedy, the way how he is so mean, so aggressive. He talks about white people the way the media talks about black people. I always thought us Asian people needed that, an Asian comedian that talks about Asian-American issues, but not with the friendliness you typically see Asian comedians portray. He taught me to be in your face. And Chappelle taught me how to be nice about it.
Do you feel that South Asian comedians can be easily pigeonholed?
Historically — unequivocally yes. In the modern times, much less so. I very much think South Asian comedians in some sense pigeonhole themselves, by trying to emulate past South Asian comedians, who were pigeonholed by the market. I do think now, and it is completely because of social media, there is a market for every kind of comedy. Like I said in my previous answer, I’d like to be a South Asian comedian with the confrontationality that we have historically only seen from Black comedians.
But you know who is really pigeonholed nowadays? Female comedians. This may be a tangent, but if there was a Female comedian that talked about Female issues, with the hostility towards men that Bill Burr will occasionally have towards women, in my opinion she would likely be the GOAT.
How do you feel social media such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Snapchat have changed comedy?
Social media has been a truly beautiful thing for comedy. It has completely decentralized the power structure of our business. Back in the day, if you wanted to get famous, you had to do comedy that appealed to the white men who held the power at the networks, at the talk shows, in the writers rooms. They still do control all those things, but now because of social media the people watching our stuff are representative of the population, and we can grow our followings because the market is wider. Now if you have a social media following, you have all the leverage, and therefore you see a multitude more styles of standup comedy out there. Also social media in my opinion is the third great comedy boom. Seinfeld made standup a household art form, Netflix made it possible for people to binge watch standup, and now Tiktok and Instagram have proliferated standup to the point where it is EVERYWHERE. There are more comedians than ever and there’s a bigger market for standup than ever.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Us Indian-Americans are at a very interesting financial and cultural intersection. Indians are the richest ethnicity in America, and culturally Indian parents will generally pay for their children’s college, unlike other ethnicities. If Indian parents were to hypothetically support their child to go into the arts, just like they may support them in getting their Masters degree, I believe Indians would have an astronomically higher chance of making it in the arts than anyone else. The greatest gift you can give your artist child is financial support in the early stages, since we all know the early stages of the arts make next to nothing. We just have to get rid of the Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer only BS that I would argue is a remnant of the Caste System in India.
Also, remember to call white people Euro-Americans. It helps the movement!
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
Bharatanatyam is a traditional Indian dance form and the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Bharatanatyam, originally a dance performed by women in temples of Tamil Nadu, is often used to convey Hindu religious tales and devotions. It is taught by a teacher known as a guru. The dance costume resembles that of a South Indian bride and the dancer wears anklets, called ghungroos, to keep the rhythm while dancing to the music. While Bharatanatyam is still taught all over the world in the traditional way, the styles of teaching have changed over the years. For the last six years, my sister and I have been taught modernized styles of Bharatnatyam in the USA.
An Arangetram lasts approximately three hours and has nine, or in our case 10, dances in total. It begins with an introduction dance called a Mallari or Pushpanjali following the guru’s nattuvangam (rhythm kept using symbols). In the middle of the program is a Varnam — a centerpiece dance that lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. This dance tests the dancer’s endurance as well as their storytelling ability. The performance is concluded with a Thillana which is seen as the last glimpse into the dancer’s full capacity. The Thillana is followed by a Mangalam, the closing dance of the Arangetram.
My sister and I began learning Bharatanatyam in 2016 when we were nine years old. Despite our instant attachment to the art form, we were always daunted by the idea of having an Arangetram of our own. It would be challenging, mainly because we are twins, and our performance would have to be suitable for two people to perform side by side. We began preparing for this event in the summer of 2021. Our guru would make us run for the first half hour of class to build our stamina — much-needed for a three-hour repertoire. We would spend the next two and a half hours learning our repertoire. The first dance we learned together during this time was our Varnam. Learning this dance took a month and we spent a lot of time memorizing it. Our Varnam was dedicated to Lord Krishna, one of the many Hindu gods, known for his charm, wit, and being a master Guru whose philosophies were immortalized through the Gita — the Hindu Holy scripture.
An Arangetram is the on-stage debut of a traditional Bharatanatyam dancer following years of training and discipline under the able guidance of a guru. This is a milestone for young artists as it opens up the opportunity for solo performances, choreographing individual pieces, and instructing other dancers.
By January, we had learned our entire repertoire and were starting to memorize it while adding expressions, poses, and building up our stamina, making them look effortless. Some dances were more difficult to memorize than others, particularly dances that were story-based. Because most Bharatanatyam dance music is in either Sanskrit or Tamil so we couldn’t understand the lyrics right away. Our guru helped us interpret the stories before teaching us the choreography making them easier to commit to memory. We also had help from our mother who listened to all our songs and gave us keywords that corresponded with our dance moves. Listening to dance music on the way to school, dance, or while getting ready for bed, became a part of our daily routine as it helped us internalize the rhythms.
Although a year seems like a long time to prepare for an event, the day of the Arangetram came before we knew it. The morning started off with family and friends coming to our house to help us transport decorations and essentials we would need backstage. We arrived at our venue — the Balaji temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey — and made our way to the green rooms. Our makeup artists assisted us with hair and makeup, which lasted four hours. During this time we were going through the dances in our heads and mentally preparing for the performance to come. Once we were dressed in costume, we headed for the stage pooja, a prayer session on the Arangetram stage with close friends and family, to invoke a successful performance. This was also the time when jitters started kicking in. It had just occurred to us that the performance we’d been preparing for our entire dance careers was about to happen and this was the only chance we had to show the audience our very best.
A person can only have one Arangetram in their lifetime, and this huge milestone comes with pressure given how special the performance is.
As the masters of ceremony were introducing our first number all I could do was stare at my sister standing in the other wing, and I knew we had the same thoughts going through our minds.
As we began dancing I felt almost a sense of relief because of how well we knew the dance. Every single dance was so ingrained in our muscle memory that it felt like second nature even in front of such a large audience. During the repertoire, we had two costume changes, with three costumes in total. Each costume change took 15 minutes while the audience was learning about SAMHAJ or listening to speeches from our friends and family. Backstage, our makeup artists and backstage moms were busy helping us change our costumes and jewelry, adjusting them to make sure nothing would move while dancing. We also had some of our fellow dance girls backstage giving us water and fruit as well as tightening our ghungroos so they wouldn’t fall off on stage.
Our Varnam was a huge success, resulting in a standing ovation from the audience. After the Varnam, we performed a slower dance called Ramabajanam, telling all the stories about Lord Ram, another Hindu god known for his chivalry and virtue. We decided to dedicate this dance to our parents since it was always their favorite to watch and listen to. My mom was heavily involved in helping us memorize this dance by telling us the stories so we wouldn’t forget the choreography. Right before the last dance, we acknowledged all of the people who helped us backstage and were presented with our graduation certificates. In order to give the audience a peek at the effort that went into the performance they were watching, we shared our experience with the audience as well as our guru’s message during this time. Our last dance surprised the audience, as our mother joined us on stage and danced with us. She always dreamt of being a dancer as a child but was never able to learn. Sharing one dance meant a lot to us, and watching it was very entertaining for the audience as well. After all the dances were over, all our guests proceeded to the banquet hall for dinner where we were able to greet all our guests and thank them for coming. When the night ended we were exhausted but still full of adrenaline.
Even though the tension that had built-up in my head over the last few months had now subsided, I was somewhat disappointed that the process had come to an end. I wouldn’t exactly call my Arangetram journey perfect or effortless, but I grew so much this past year as a dancer and as well as a person. The lessons I learned from dance about hard work and resilience will carry on with me for the rest of my life and for that I am forever grateful. The event itself brought so many people together such as my aunt and cousin, who came all the way from India to attend, as well as so many relatives that we hadn’t seen in years. Grandparents, as well as young children all gathered in the audience to watch a display of their culture, or for some audience members, learn a new one. Not only did we spread awareness for this beautiful art form, but we also raised awareness on mental health amongst South Asians — an issue we’re passionate about.
Along with our guru, we decided to leverage this event to create awareness for mental health amongst South Asians in the United States. We decided to advocate for SAMHAJ, a charity that provides education and support for South Asians affected by serious mental illnesses. In order to educate people about mental health, SAMHAJ offers workshops to social service organizations, schools, and mental health professionals as well as provides culturally competent mental health services by creating bilingual support groups. You can donate to SAMHAJ via this link.
Overall, this process has been immensely gratifying and I simply cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me with Bharatanatyam.