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Founder, artistic director and choreographer of ZEE TV Shiv Shakti Dance Company, Michael Salickram.

This Thursday, Hindus across T&T will observe Divali–the celebration of good over evil, light over darkness. On this local national holiday when Mother Lakshmi is believed to roam the Earth, bestowing blessings of wealth and happiness, many will prepare sumptuous East Indian favourites, wear new clothes and adorn their homes and streets with beautiful decorations, including thousands of eye-catching deyas.

As usual in our melting pot of cultures and peoples, others will also join in the festivities making the occasion, “A Trini Divali”.

This is also the title of a much-anticipated concert series to be hosted on Zee TV from November 1 to 4. And who better to convey the spirit of Trinidad and Tobago than the Zee TV Shiv Shakti Dance Company.

As founder, artistic director and choreographer for Shiv Shakti, Michael Salickram informed Sunday Guardian recently, “A Trini Divali” was conceptualised by Roshan Persad and is a wonderful blend of East Indian film and devotional songs, film dances, devotional dances and steelpan performances, and even features a modelling segment.

Shiv Shakti has partnered with the broadcasters in the past to produce local cultural programmes, which garnered over 40,000 views worldwide last Divali and Christmas.

According to Salickram, this year, the focus is highlighting the talent of the youth through the likes of singer Kaitlyn Sultan and pannist Joshua Regrello, and to continue to promote the diverse culture of this country.

Known for its bold use of colour, its vibrance and innovative choreography, Shiv Shakti has distinguished itself as a foremost East Indian dance troupe in the Caribbean and beyond since its inception 34 years ago. Under Salickram’s leadership, the group has copped awards time and time again, with the dance guru, as Salickram is affectionately called, showing himself to be a force on the local and international landscape of East Indian dance. In 2004, he was awarded his most outstanding accolade to date, the Chaconia Silver for his outstanding contribution towards the development of culture and the arts in T&T.

Breaking barriers that limited dances to either classical East Indian dance or dance recreated from Bollywood films, in the early years, Salickram sought to develop something uniquely Trinidadian. He ended up with a contemporary style, mixed with Classical East Indian dance elements, Bollywood, folk and African influences.

“I wanted to create a style that could be Indo-Trinidadian, so styles were from different dance techniques. Some dances would be a combination of classical and folk dances and some would be Bollywood style depending on the occasion. Like we say: Shiv Shakti has a dance for every occasion,” Salickram laughed.

“What I always say is that when we are asked abroad especially, to show what our talent is, we cannot go and display the talent of India, Africa or any other country. We have to show them what our talent is here which is chutney, calypso, limbo, steelpan.”

He proudly recalled how awed many people of South Korea and India were a few years ago after Shiv Shakti did a production in their countries when they realised that “we in Trinidad have a culture of our own.”

Of course, there are other features that make the more than 40 performing members of Shiv Shakti from areas across Trinidad stand out.

Their keenness to research dance styles and design custom-made costumes embellished with sequins or gems or are hand-painted, and their knack for doing their hair and make-up is a winning formula, said Salickram. He just wrapped up participation in a documentary showcasing Best Village stalwarts on TTT.

Having Indira Salickram tasked with stitching costumes, Gail Boodoosingh doing handwork and Joycelyn Abraham managing props, costume design and just about anything else also helps their process.

Based in Couva, Shiv Shakti boasts eight dance schools in T&T where the members are very focused on education and consider themselves to be a “dance family,” Salickram said.

Salickram felt that though Divali celebrations would be on a smaller scale due to the pandemic, the group would still approach all their engagements, like their appearances at the Divali Nagar Site last week, with their customary high standard.

The festival usually kindles positivity and unity in communities in this country. Helping to prepare delicacies, cleaning the house, bursting bamboo, splitting bamboo to place and light deyas on in the yard and village in Princes Town where he grew up were some of Salickram’s fond memories of Divali.

“It was so much fun going to collect the mud to actually put onto the bamboo to hold the deyas (in place)…and playing with starlights. In those days we never had fireworks, we had starlights. That was the closest thing to fireworks for us. Everybody would come out in the village and we would share what we made for the day–all vegetarian stuff–greet each other and it was really beautiful.

“We would sing songs, sit and talk about old times…kind of what you do for Old Year’s night because Divali is like a whole new beginning for Hindus. It’s like a whole new year for us, so we really look forward. You clean the house, varnish the floor, so much excitement, paint over the house, try to clean up before 6 pm because they say it’s inauspicious to be sweeping your house after six on Divali Day, in fact throughout the year,” he recalled.

He also reminisced on the new outfits everyone would wear for the occasion, and the drive or walk around the area to view decorations and deyas, lamenting that we were losing the authenticity of the celebration that is truly Trinbagonian because of the rise of social media and the like.

He insisted that Shiv Shakti would never lose its social conscience as the dance company supports many temples and charitable organisations like the Ganesh Utsav Foundation and Isha Foundation.

Salickram said he views Trinidad and Tobago as a small cultural village where we should encourage others to reach for their dreams.

One of the greatest moments for the only ever male winner of dance at Mastana Bahar (1992) and champion of Scouting for Talent in 2002, was making his debut in the Bollywood film industry as a choreographer on the movie “Dulha Mil Gaya”. He added that he was also grateful to have represented T&T as part of a contingent for the World Cup 2006 in Germany when the Soca Warriors qualified that time.

“It was an amazing experience. You would never feel so proud to hold your national flag and walk the streets. It was a phenomenal experience. And then to see when you’re driving through the streets, the flag of Trinidad and Tobago on all these apartment buildings.”

Despite his achievements, he holds a unique dream for the country and himself close to his heart.

“One of my dreams actually is to represent my country in a Broadway production because I believe we have the resources here, we have the talent. All we need is an opportunity to package a very good show…not just snippets of our culture, but a full understanding of what we are.”

Salickram had a message for T&T in the face of the COVID crisis. He felt that despite the setbacks, the people of this country would benefit from working together to pick up the pieces.

He added, “Despite the pandemic, there is always hope and we always have to look on the brighter side. At least our country is not in war like some other countries. We’re not living with that kind of fear. We should make the best of what we have. Sometimes we worry about what we need and never appreciate what we have.”

Recalling “the Ganges and the Nile” unity dance performed with the Malick Folk Performers which took both dance companies on tours worldwide, Salickram said people would see the dance and always ask what was the secret of such a beautiful fusion.

“When Malick and Shiv Shakti meet we are just a real big loving family. They come over by us for Divali, we storm by them at Christmas. The secret is love,” he said.

Q&A with assistant artistic director and dancer of Shiv Shakti, Anastasia Salickram

How long have you been a part of the group?

I was actually born into Shiv Shakti as my mother was the former lead dancer of the company. I, myself, started dancing ever since I could remember. I made my debut appearance with the performing company at the tender age of 11. Today, I share the spotlight as one of the frontline dancers with the senior company as well as the lead dancer of the Swastika dance group, which is a branch of our parent company. I also assist with the administrative aspect, choreography, audio editing, marketing etc.

What do you enjoy most about being a member of the group?

Firstly, it gives me an opportunity to pursue my first love which is dance, along with opportunities that may sometimes seem unimaginable. In my opinion, dance is the ultimate form of devotion. You become one with yourself and all that surrounds you. Apart from the art form itself, the bond created with our girls is what we consider a “sisterhood”.

Please share any Divali reflections or memorable Divali moments you have had with the group.

Back in 2018, I was indeed privileged to represent my country at an international Divali pageant which was held in Guadeloupe. Apart from being victorious and copping the first prize, the experience was very refreshing as I was able to form lifelong friendships with the other contestants, sharing our diverse culture with those around the world.

Any words you would like to share about learning from dance guru, Michael Salickram?

He’s not only my uncle but a mentor; a source of inspiration. He has taught me many lessons like: “Nothing in life comes easy. Success can only be achieved through dedication and hard work.” But most importantly, he has taught me: “Be yourself, but be your best self.” Today, I live by those simple words and try to emulate those attributes in everything that I do: “Humility with majesty.”