Mahajan's musical message explores Indian tradition

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Playwright Varun Mahajan's musicals always have a message for his Indian and American audiences.

“Arranged Marriage,” his third creation, will explore the problem Indian couples might have in adjusting to the traditional arranged marriage. The musical will be performed from April 26 to 28 at the Charity Randall Theater in the Stephen Foster Memorial in Pittsburgh's Oakland Neighborhood.

“Is it an arranged or love marriage? I am asked that all the time,” the Franklin Park resident said.

For this production, Mahajan traveled to India to work with composers and musicians to record an original score. Indian artists also designed and constructed stage decorations, backdrops and costumes. Yet with all this Indian influence, dialogue is in English and English song lyrics will be shown with a projector.

Mahajan's first musical, “Living in America,” was produced in 2010, and he followed it with “Where is the Culture?” in 2011. Each took on struggles that confront those assimilating into a new culture.

The musicals also are creative collaborations for Mahajan and his wife, Sonia. As trained dancers, both designed the choreography in a variety of Indian styles.

They met as dance students, married in August 1996 and came to the U.S. in October of 1996, when Varun Mahajan, now 43, accepted a computer-engineering job offer.

“We treated this as a honeymoon,” he said.

While the couple was building a new life, an invitation to Diwali, a Hindu festival, reminded them of their love of dance.

“‘Come and dance,' the host said. With everyone watching, we danced even more. It turned into a performance for us,” Mahajan remembered.

Invitations to teach young Indian children also came their way. The Mahajans now have about 150 students in their Guiding Star Dance Foundation classes in Franklin Park and Carnegie, and 18 of them are taking part in this musical.

“This is not just Indian people doing Indian dances,” he said, but a blend of talented people “engaged in an ideal way to share culture with American theater.”

Sravya Gedela, 14, of Franklin Park, has been a student of Sonia Mahajan for five years and studies classical Indian dance. The North Allegheny Intermediate High School freshman has been dancing since 2001.

“It's really fun and a great experience,” she said of being in the cast that rehearses in the Indian Community Center in Carnegie.

Nick Vaglia, 24, of McCandless competes across the U.S. in Latin and ballroom dancing but now finds Indian dance an excellent way to express himself. The moves, he said, are 100 percent different.

“It's harder to get the body to move the correct way,” said Vaglia, a FedEx employee.

Andrew Hill, 28, of Pittsburgh's downtown, found Guiding Star's classes on Craigslist about two years ago.

“I've been dancing since I was in diapers,” he said. “My brother and sister started dance first. They quit, and I stayed.” His specialties are tap, jazz, hip hop and ballet.

“It's new for me,” Hills said of Indian choreography. “There's more cultural significance. I like eating the food and learning the dances.”

Danielle Overly, 28, of Pittsburgh's North Side describes herself as an American cabaret fusion dancer. She teaches belly dancing at Community College of Allegheny County.

“The moves are completely different from the Arabic, which is organic and fluid,” she said. “It's a stronger dance, not similar at all. Everything matches the lyrics.”

Overly said she hopes to continue lessons in Indian dance. “It's energetic, upbeat and sweaty,” she said. “And I like it.”

Mahajan said he hopes for that same enthusiasm from his April audiences. After a recent show for senior citizens, he was touched by the warm reception.

“I definitely feel blessed, and I get humbled down by all the support,” he said. “God has given me the best of both worlds. I am honored by the creative energy in me, and I respect God.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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