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South Asian groups on campus foster community, cultural belonging

Students dance in a performance by Naacho South Asian Dance Company.
Courtesy of David Akpokiere

South Asian students find community in a myriad of ways, not least through student organizations and clubs. Some of these associations are new, while others can be traced back to the 1980s. These groups provide spaces of affiliation and cultural expression for students, helping to facilitate community building for students of these backgrounds.

The University’s campus today hosts a variety of South Asian affiliated groups, from dance companies centered around diverse South Asian dance styles, to religious or affinity spaces like the Princeton Hindu Satsangam (PHS) and Muslim Students Association (MSA).

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The Daily Princetonian spoke with past and present leaders across several of the University’s South Asian student groups.

The early years of the South Asian Students Association (SASA)

Founded in 1986, the South Asian Students Association, commonly referred to as SASA, started as a cultural group focused on building community through cultural programming, movie screenings, film festivals, and lectures throughout its early years. At the time, the group was heavily focused on the South Asian graduate student population, with a substantial number for students coming directly from countries in South Asia.

When K. Balasubramanian GS ’91, one of the founding members and the first president of SASA, arrived at Princeton, “there was really no formal setting for people of South Asian background to get together.” He recalls himself and Anant Narayanan GS ’83 “march[ing] into the Dean’s office” and pitching the idea for a South Asian Students Association, with the goal of providing the Princeton South Asian community with cultural events.

As an official group, SASA was able to communicate with the New York Indian consulate, which connected them with Indian artists, singers and dancers.

South Asian life started showing up on campus in other ways. WPRB aired the radio show Sangeet, focused on Indian music and programming. According to Balasubramanian, the local Indian community started calling in after the show’s debut. With these budding connections, SASA became more than just a campus organization.

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“[SASA] was not just for students,” said Balasubramanian, “but some place for the South Asian community to get together in the Princeton area, because back in ’84 [when he came to Princeton], a lot of the other what you may think of currently as social venues, like temples, mosques … did not exist in this area,” said Balasubramanian. “It was almost from day one, a community-focused organization.”

“If you asked me what [SASA] did,” explained Balasubramanian, “[SASA] connected the local community along with the students, and … it connected the grad students with the undergrads.” 

Balasubramanian cites the international student network to be very helpful in aiding international students in their transition to Princeton in the 1980s, from things as everyday as traveling to “the local K-mart to get bedding.” There were even “weekly shopping trips” to the local Indian supermarket to get groceries.

“Back then, the nearest Indian restaurant to campus was about a 15-mile drive away,” Balasubramanian continued.

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Malini Raghavan GS ’91, an alumna member of SASA, said she found that Princeton “was a lot to navigate as an international student,” with Princeton not being a “vegetarian-friendly town,” as opposed to today. She cited food as an adjustment. “It was not an easy transition, but being part of a South Asian community actually helped,” she told the ‘Prince.’

While the original version of SASA became essentially inactive in 2013, recently, students have been attempting to revive it.

Anika Agarwal ’25, a current co-President of SASA, was one of five members of the Class of 2025 who worked to relaunch SASA in their freshman year by COVID-era seniors who had tried but were unable to revive the inactive group.

Agarwal is a former business project manager for the ‘Prince.’

In the Forbes Dining Hall in 2021, the five students — Anika Agarwal, Amina Anowara, Jashvi Desai, Sunrit Panda, and Shruti Roy — started their planning.

The group’s Spring 2023 docket included a mango lassi event, a movie night, a SASA dinner, an alumni event, and the pinnacle of the semester: mock shaadi, a large-scale event with dance performances and hundreds of attendees that SASA had been working towards for a year.

“As we get bigger, it’s tougher to have a tighter community,” acknowledges Afzal Hussain ’25, Head of Alumni Outreach. But he’s optimistic about the trajectory of SASA, citing the leadership and the influx of younger Class of 2026 students as reasons for its resurgence.

A comedy group starts up over the turn of the century

“We were not thespians. We were simply a gaggle of goofballs who had unwittingly stumbled upon a way to discuss common issues and have a good time doing it,” said Kushanava Choudhury ’00 in a Voices piece in a 2000 Daily Princetonian issue.

Choudhury was referring to Princeton South Asian Theatrics (PSAT), the first college group of its kind established in the U.S.

Pitched by Karthick Ramakrishnan GS ’02 at a general SASA meeting, PSAT started off informally in 1998. Sachin Shah ’01 would join Ramakrishnan in writing and organizing the first informal PSAT show. Their first skit, a 45-minute satirical show complete with accents, was soon after performed at a SASA event in the now Carl A. Fields center. After the show’s debut, the informal PSAT troupe expanded their comedic skit into a full-length play.

Shah credits the beginning of PSAT as having a “big role in starting to form the South Asian community on campus in a lot of ways,” as it was a medium for South Asian students to connect and “share [their] experiences,” particularly second-generation South Asian students. This was a different, and growing, demographic from the students who initially founded SASA.

“Fundamentally, we’re just a bunch of people who like being around each other,” said Choudhury in his 2000 piece. “Through shared humor — of cheapskate fathers, doting mothers and gossipy aunties — we’ve accomplished something unique: We’ve formed the germ for a sense of community among South Asian students on this campus.”

Current PSAT Co-President (and SASA Publicity Chair) Nooha Kawsar ’25 said the group has the dual role of being a comedy group as well as a vehicle of representation bringing light to South Asian stories. In this position, the group seeks to “strike a balance” between stereotypical Desi humor and important social issues.

Kawsar explained that in the recent past and moving forward, PSAT has been trying to move away from South Asian stereotypes in their shows, shifting towards a practice where they “[cast] Desi people in roles that have not been usually occupied by them … [as] representation matters a lot.”

Kawsar summed up her philosophy towards the new trajectory of PSAT through a conversation she had with a fellow member; “we’re not funny because we are Desi people, but we are Desi people who are funny.”

Kawsar lastly pointed out her hopes for the South Asian groups like PSAT and SASA at Princeton to be grounded in “[moving] past … India-centric [events or jokes].” 

“While those sorts of jokes and those sorts of stories in the West have allowed South Asians to have representation, I think that a lot of times it overlooks the stories of other cultures in South Asia,” says Kawsar, emphasizing the importance of representing the many cultures that exist in the region.

Dance and activism in the modern era

The variety of student groups with a South Asian majority has expanded substantially, including groups focused on arts and activism.

Founded in 2011, Princeton Bhangra is a dance group that specializes in the Punjabi dance form of Bhangra. Shruti Joshi ’25, the current President, spoke to the ‘Prince’ about Bhangra’s significance and cultural implications.

Bhangra “allow[s] people to tie their South Asian culture with some sort of form of dance and art,” said Joshi. 

Though Bhangra is traditionally Punjabi, the group isn’t restricted to any South Asian culture. Joshi finds that although she is not Punjabi, she was able to find a community within it.

“There’s a lot of discussion surrounding [what differentiates us, where in South Asia we are from] … but when we’re performing, it doesn’t feel like that at all. We’re all just there to show something that we’ve worked on that connects us to our roots in South Asia,” said Joshi.

The team contains a diversity of students, from South India to Pakistan. Bhangra functions as a way for students of all backgrounds to connect to their heritage and identity, regardless what part of South Asia they are from, said Joshi.

“Some of the second [generation] South Asian Americans have not been to any part of South Asia before,” said Joshi. “Being able to connect through dance is very valuable and kind of brings a part of South Asia to them, on campus.”

Joshi notes a divide between first and second generation South Asians at Princeton, and views South Asian student organizations as ways to bridge that divide. “Music and dance is one really nice way that you can kind of connect, just because … it’s so universal,” said Joshi. “You just look for what you have in common and what you can learn from each other.”

The Naacho Dance Company is another South Asian dance group.

For Saarthak Chaturvedi ’25, one of the presidents of Naacho, Princeton was a culture shock. Originally from India, Chaturvedi explained that during his freshman year, he “kind of struggled to find that connection to home or connection to where I came from, and dance just happened to be a beautiful medium to make that happen. And I didn’t really expect that.”

Some groups have played on an increased political awareness. The South Asian Progressive Alliance (SAPA) was founded in 2019, during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in India. The Indian law that “provide[d] a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.” 

Uma Fox ’26, a member of SAPA, pinpoints the passing of this act as a “pivotal moment” for the diaspora’s understanding of “India’s right-wing shift and the extent of very popular support for anti-ethnic minority … and anti-Muslim policies that endanger a lot of Indians and a lot of South Asians beyond Muslims.”

According to Fox, SAPA “interpret[s] South Asian culture to be progressive and to include progressive values in its ethos,” and goes on to establish SAPA’s inherent academic ties as a non-exclusive group “dedicated to the study of South Asia and advocacy for South Asia.”

The academic-centered, progressive group includes a variety of students from different South Asian countries.

Finding a sense of place

For South Asian students at Princeton, taking part in groups or attending events designed to promote a sense of community can maintain cultural ties, a connection to heritage, and a sense of visibility. In these groups, sometimes a family can be found no matter how far from home one is. Different groups cater to first-generation and second-generation students respectively.

Chaturvedi felt that he had found this sense of belonging in Naacho.

“When it comes to my background, and my roots, and that feeling of being so far away from home, having a community where you get to just have a good time and dance to mostly South Asian music, it’s been very fun.”

Mira Eashwaran is a staff Features writer for the ‘Prince.’

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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