Story by Rachel Friedman, Campus Editor, and Sam Zern, Editor in Chief
When Annie Abraham and Mohh Gupta walked into the Memorial Gym AUX storage room on Feb. 6, they were shocked to find the space completely empty. For the past six years, the BhangraDores have stored their instruments, props, costumes and other performance equipment in the room without issue. Now, suddenly, everything was gone.
Abraham and Gupta were told by a Vanderbilt facilities employee* that the space was ordered to be cleared in early January. However, they learned that that information had gone from Athletics to Events to the Vanderbilt Performing Arts Council, who misunderstood the location of the storage room and only emailed the groups that used dance studios A and B, meaning the BhangraDores, who use dance studio C, did not know their storage needed to be emptied. Abraham and Gupta, along with other members of the cultural dance team, then spent the rest of their morning frantically digging through the dumpsters behind Memorial Gym to recover what they could.
The group came together to write an open letter explaining what happened and the implications of the incident. The letter has since circulated widely among the student body on social media. After publishing the letter, members of BhangraDores met with administration and are now in the process of revising their initial letter, which they say reflects their immediate shock at the situation, to more accurately convey their concerns in the days since the incident.
“We now realize that our issue isn’t necessarily the workers who went and threw everything away, because they were just following orders,” BhangraDores co-Team Manager Diya Mathur said. “It’s more the response that, when the people who were working in Memorial Gymnasium and Athletics, they saw our teammates literally dumpster diving, going in dumpsters trying to retrieve a lot of things, trying to figure out what happened, [and] their response was very apathetic.”
The team estimated that about $10,000 worth of khunde and saaps (props and instruments), a dhol (large Indian drum) and Vardi (costumes) were thrown in the dumpster. Many of the Vardi were stained with liquid from other garbage bags thrown on top of them in the dumpster. The group was able to recover much of their property, but after searching through all of the dumpsters, their speakers, headphones, jewelry, parts of the Vardi, other elaborately embroidered clothing and two of their suitcases were missing.
We don’t want it to just be they write a check and send us an apology letter
The items, while expensive, also had a lot of sentimental value to the members of the team, and to see the staff act so apathetically was especially disappointing, Mathur said.
“The question that comes mind is whether football jerseys or American flags would have been subjected to the same treatment had they been stored in the AUX Gym like our Vardi and props. Would they have been thrown out without hesitation or prior warning? We suspect the answer is no and this makes every member of our team feel as if we are unwanted and disrespected on this campus,” the students said in the letter.
On Feb. 7, members of the Bhangradores sat down with Vanderbilt administration to discuss the incident. Officials present were very apologetic and came forward as allies, Vohra said. The university does have plans to reimburse the team, the BhangraDores said. The plans for how that will take place are still being made.
“We deeply regret that this incident occurred. We are looking into the matter and are funding the replacement of the BhangraDores’ equipment and other items that were mistakenly discarded. In doing so, we fully realize this is not simply about replacement as the items are of great cultural significance,” Malcom Turner, Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletics Director, said. “At this point, it seems there was a misunderstanding regarding the need to move the items from where the group had stored them in Memorial Gym. However, the outcome of this misunderstanding is unacceptable, and we are actively taking steps to remedy the situation for our students.”
However, students are looking for more than apologies or monetary compensation. To the team, the incident reflects a larger problem on campus, and the greater importance lies around changing the culture.
“We don’t want it to just be they write a check and send us an apology letter and it’s done with, because we want more people in the conversation,” Mathur said.
On Saturday, the BhangraDores will be dancing in a competition at the University of North Carolina. Despite the stress of the incident, the Bhangradores are trying to stay focused and positive.
“For every competition, we wear so many things and there’s so much culture and respect behind every piece we wear,” Mathur said. “We were, at first, stressed out about that because we’ve been practicing and planning so long for that.”
While they won’t be able to use their own costumes and props, students from other Bhangra teams across the country have reached out to offer support, and the UNC Bhangra team was able to offer the BhangraDores costumes so that they can still perform.
It’s more than just a dance team. We’re fighting for our heritage here.
While the incident was upsetting and jarring for team members, Vohra sees a silver lining – the opportunity to address the issues of minority representation and microaggressions on campus.
“Obviously, it’s extremely unfortunate, everything that happened, but a lot of these issues have festered in much more subtle ways,” Vohra said. “I think anybody who is a person of color, is a minority, has experienced some sort of oppression, some sort of exclusion, sometimes even overtly. But I think this is something very tangible.”
Vohra said training the staff and faculty, especially educators that interact with students, on cultural competency could help to avoid incidents like these in the future. Moving forward, Vohra hopes to see other organizations and communities come together and stand with the Bhangradores.
“Long term what I’m looking for now is just more awareness and more respect,” Vohra said. “The BhangraDores, we travel and compete and practice so much, and it’s more than just a dance team. We’re fighting for our heritage here.”
*a previous version of this article named Eric Chaffin as the university representative the BhangraDores spoke with initially. The Hustler could not confirm that this was the individual. The article has been updated to reflect this.