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A South Asian group in New Orleans wants to put the masala in Mardi Gras

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is Mardi Gras season in New Orleans. That means parties, balls, and of course, parades. It is also a time when the city's cultural history is on display. Drew Hawkins of the Gulf States Newsroom looks at how new traditions fit into old celebrations.

DREW HAWKINS, BYLINE: It's the final dress rehearsal for the Krewe da Bhan Gras, a South Asian Mardi Gras dancing group of about 50 people. Inside a community center, the crew is getting ready, preparing costumes and putting on mehndi, or traditional Indian henna tattoos - think Bollywood meets Mardi Gras. They're also crafting handmade throws, which are basically small gifts. Traditionally, these are things like doubloons or beads. But co-founder Monica Dhand says they're putting their own spin on it.

MONICA DHAND: So we're giving out things that are traditional and DIY - bindis, bangles...

HAWKINS: A krewe, spelled K-R-E-W-E, is basically a social club. They get together throughout the year to work on costumes, put together parade floats and of course, rehearse their dance moves. There are a ton of krewes out there, each with their own theme and costumes, from dancing Marie Antoinettes and Princess Leias to the more traditional groups with the classic Mardi Gras masks. The Krewe da Bhan Gras was founded last year to, quote, "put the masala in Mardi Gras," according to their slogan. For Dhand, a South Asian Mardi Gras krewe just made sense.

DHAND: It was quite a natural fit. You know, there's lots of bright colors and, you know, people are really excited. It's really - it's very normal in South Asian culture to dance, especially the kind of dance we're doing, which is bhangra - it's a Northern Indian traditional dance - and mixing it with some Bollywood songs too.

HAWKINS: For their first appearance last year, Krewe da Bhan Gras marched in the Boheme parade. It's a fun, artsy one that's led by a green fairy. They were blown away by the response they got. Here's krewe member Amita Krishnan.

AMITA KRISHNAN: God, last year the crowd went wild. We loved it. People enjoyed it so much. They enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed it.

HAWKINS: Bhan Gras was such a hit that this year they've been invited to march in three parades. So the krewe is really focused on making sure everything looks perfect during rehearsal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANJABI MC'S SONG "MUNDIAN TO BACH KE")

HAWKINS: They're marching around outside the community center through a quiet New Orleans neighborhood, practicing their dance moves and occasionally dodging traffic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Left - car, car, car.

HAWKINS: The first parade is in just a few days, and there are still a few kinks to work out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So for this one, we're standing still for when we stop like this. And then we turn. And then we're standing still for the chicken.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Still, yeah.

HAWKINS: New groups like Krewe da Bhan Gras really embody the spirit of Mardi Gras. Hundreds of years of tradition, and it's still evolving, changing to reflect the city around it.

ARTHUR HARDY: It's just an example of how Mardi Gras belongs to the people.

HAWKINS: Arthur Hardy is one of the world's foremost Mardi Gras historians.

HARDY: You know, we talk about equity and inclusion and diversity. Well, Mardi Gras supplies all of that every year. And this particular new South Asian crew is an example of that.

HAWKINS: It's time for the first parade this year, and Krewe da Bhan Gras is dressed to the nines. We're talking full makeup, gold jewelry and choreographed real life Bollywood dancing. As the crew dances its way through the streets of the French Quarter, it's clear that all that practice has paid off. The crowd goes wild and dances right along with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALA CHASHMA")

AMAR ARSHI, BADSHAH, NEHA KAKKAR AND INDEEP BAKSHI: (Singing in non-English language).

HAWKINS: For NPR News, I'm Drew Hawkins in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Drew Hawkins