Continuing a legacy of Asian Arts and Culture…or not

UMass should not abandon Asian arts and culture

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Collegian File Photo

By Nell Mancini, Collegian Columnist

On Oct. 13, two dance companies from Sri Lanka and India performed a spectacular show at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center. The night was filled with beautiful and lively traditional dancing with rich history dazzling the audience, and it was all made possible by one woman: Ranjanaa Devi.

After serving as the founder and director of the Asian Arts and Culture Program at UMass for 35 years, Devi is retiring. Her résumé is impressive, to say the least, even when just looking at her accomplishments at UMass and within the Five Colleges. According the UMass website, the Asian Arts and Culture Program has become “a beacon of diversity,” and has given many students “unique opportunities” through “artist residencies and workshops.”

After meeting Devi for the first time just last week, and participating in two workshops she organized, I was able to get a glimpse into all that she does here at UMass. The Sri Lankan and Indian dance companies that she brought to the FAC visited Totman Gymnasium the day before their show to put on two workshops. They taught groups of students and members of the surrounding community about their cultural dances they were performing the next day. They taught lively Kandyan dancing from the mountain region of Sri Lanka and Odissi – a form of classical Indian dancing that originated in Hindu Temples of Odisha. They challenged the classes and a gave them fun evening. All the while, Devi was sitting on the sidelines and guiding them all.

Every so often, Devi would interject bits of wisdom, or ask the women running the workshops questions so we, as participants, could learn as much as possible about what we were experiencing. Her knowledge about two art forms that many people know very little about, especially in the United States, amazed me. Her obvious enthusiasm for what she’s doing and her interest in helping us learn was inspiring. My classmates and I left those classes feeling invigorated and curious about what else was out there.

However, even after all she has done, there are currently no plans to fill her position after she retires. A quick Google search of her name leads to an article on the UMass website about her retirement, filled with lists of her accomplishments and quotes from people throughout the Five College area, speaking about how much she has done for their community. Chancellor Subbaswamy even said, “the extraordinary work Ranjanaa Devi has done in bringing Asian arts and culture to the UMass campus and the wider Pioneer Valley community has had an enormous impact. And the significance of that work for me and my family, and my gratitude for her contributions and her friendship, cannot be overstated.”

Even with everything this woman has done for UMass, there seem to be no plans for continuing her legacy. In the article about her retirement, there was not even a small blurb saying they were looking to fill her position, or what would become of her position. They failed to mention completely what the future holds for the program. In a class discussion, one of my professors confirmed that the position will not be filled immediately after Devi’s retirement.

After meeting Devi and experiencing just a small taste of what she and her program does, I know that it is important that we keep her legacy going. Asian arts and culture are underrepresented and underappreciated in our society, but they are an important part of our history, and they influence much more than we realize. Arts education is very important, and cultural arts education is fundamental to understanding the arts world today. Devi has done a lot for UMass and the surrounding community, and her loss will be felt. Her position needs to be filled, not only to continue her 35-year legacy, but to continue the enrichment of our student body and our community for years to come.

Nell Mancini is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]