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Azhar Usman, right, Preacher Moss, left, and Azeem have fun during the �Allah Made Me Funny� comedy tour.
By NITISH S. RELE - [email protected]

�The media says the most ridiculous things about Islam. They�ll bring on some self-styled �expert on Middle Eastern terrorism� and he�s like, �Islam is a religion of violence, it�s a religion of terror � and it was spread by the sword.� That�s right! Islam was spread by the word!

�What�s that supposed to mean anyway? Maybe if Islam was a synonym for cream cheese?�

�Some people look at me as if I was responsible for 9/11. Me?! 9/11?!

Maybe Seven-Eleven.�

�I was in the UK recently -- it's a totally different vibe over there. In America, I'm just so used to people hating me for being a Muslim. So it was nice to finally be hated just for being an American. I felt so patriotic.�

Shocked beyond disbelief? Well, so were we. But before you come to any quick conclusions, let me introduce you to Azhar Usman, Preacher Moss and Azeem who formed the �Allah Made Me Funny� comedy tour. Originally formed in 2004, their act is based on transethnic and intercultural, keen and witty issues and general observational humor.

The group has been touring quite heavily all over the United States and Canada. In fact, folks in the south Florida area will be fortunate to see Usman perform with Rabbi Bob Alper at Temple Dor Dorim in Weston on Feb. 9. And on March 3, the �Allah Made Me Funny� tour is tentatively scheduled to take the stage in the Miami area.

What spurred Usman, who was born and brought up in Chicago and whose parents are originally from India, to co-found the group? �There is a lot of fear that non-Muslims have of Muslims and vice versa,� he replies. �The fear is caused by ignorance. If we can provide information to non-Muslims that there is nothing to be scared of while addressing Muslims that the U.S. is a lovely country, then we�ve achieved our aim.�

Very few are aware that the 30-year-old practiced law for a few years and even joined in the dotcom business. Reminiscing about his past, he says, �I used to feel trapped between three cultures," he jokes, "Mahabharat (that's Mother India), the Pax Americana, and that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam. I was never quite sure what direction my life would take � I could become a bhangra DJ mixing at desi college parties, a mere ABCD (that's American Born Confused Desi) or a potato (brown on the outside, white on the inside), or some 'fanatical religious' type."

Usman began dabbling in stage while in high school in Illinois. He enacted a variety of roles such as a retired judge and a Southern Baptist preacher in school plays. It was at the University of Illinois that his interest in business and law grew. �I knew I was disappointing my parents enough by refusing to become a doctor, so I had to at least meet them halfway. To most Indians, I'd say that a lawyer is about half as 'prestigious' as a doctor."

Nonetheless, while at the UIC Honors College, Azhar continued to pursue his passion for public speaking and further developed his speaking talents through coursework on professional speech writing and corporate communication, as well as the regular delivery of speeches at campus events and student activities.

At the University of Minnesota Law School � one of the 20 top law schools in the U.S. � he began to visit a local comedy club. �Although I didn�t build up the courage to get on stage during that time, I would regularly attend the open mics -- cheering on friends, brainstorming my own material, and daydreaming about giving it a try some day," he says of his frequent visits to the club.

It wasn�t too long before Preacher Moss, a 20-year veteran of the comedy world, called up Usman to join the Allah Tour. �It�s been well received and the audience understands our jokes,� says Usman, who also is a political activist and lecturer.

Usman reminds us that his standup act is free of vulgarity, profanity and blue material, making it appropriate for all audiences.

And he has other plans in the works besides the tour. He is working on a desi-themed 1/2 �hour comedy show. �It�s a scripted reality comedy, which in fact, is groundbreaking genre,� he says.

Meanwhile, Usman hopes that the Allah Tour will help to dispel myths and ignorance on both sides of the aisle, among Muslims and non-Muslims.

For more information on the Allah Tour and Azhar Usman, click on


Kuchipudi dance is Andhra Pradesh's outstanding contribution toward enrichment of Indian culture. Kuchipudi derives its name from the village of Kuchelapuram (a small sleepy hamlet) just 40 miles from Vijaywada in A.P., where it grew largely as a product of Bhakti (devotion) movement beginning in 7th century A.D.

As a classical dance form of dance, drama and music, Kuchipudi enjoys a unique place among the Indian classical dance idioms. It is racy and sprightly � indicating the quest for conquering of space and time. With all its vigorous and vibrating leaps and turns, it is not cast in the mold of impressionism. It is ebullient, scintillating and yet has the capacity to be intensely lyrical.

The telling of a story by a narrator even today is one of our most entertaining arts. The Sanskrit word for a storyteller was Kathakar. In the South, they are called Bhagavatars and from these storytellers of old, came the Bhagavata Mela Natakam of A.P. and Merattur, also called Kuchipudi. It is a dance drama of Nritta, Nritya and Natya wherein the actors sing and dance and vachikaabhinaya is as important as angikaabhinayam. The Nritta consists of Teermanams and Jatis and the Nritya of Shabdams and the Natya of acting with mudras for the songs. Nritta encompasses steps and movements in the form of patterns of dance, which though ornate in themselves have no meaning to convey.

In the old days, the Bhagavata Mela Natakams did not require a formal stage. A platform with a thatched roof sufficed, as did a wall as a backdrop. The actual performance has changed little over the centuries and the progression of scenes and events in a village performance are the same today as in days gone by.

Each character is brought in behind a curtain held by two people. Simple fire torches are held up to light the area and incense mixed with gugul is thrown into the flames to create the atmosphere of another mystic world. The natakam begins with the recitation of extracts from the four Vedas, symbolizing the birth of the fifth, the Natya Veda.

One of the most popular items in a Kuchipudi repertoire is Bhamakalapam, in which the dancer has enormous scope for dramatization of characters. The main character is Satyabhama, a beautiful but arrogant queen who goes through the process of discovering the path of true love and devotion for Lord Krishna. It is said or rather believed that the underlying meaning of the braid (hairdo) ornament that Satyabhama wore in the Bhamakalapam signifies that she is jiva, spirit of the universe to which the universe itself is an appendage. When the Bhama Kalapam is presented and Bhama enters behind the curtain, she commences by throwing her braid over the curtain. This gesture denotes a challenge to artists sitting in the audience to compete with the actor in enacting Bhama's role. If the challenger wins, with the sanction of the audience, he is allowed to cut off the braid and take it home as a trophy.

Next popular item is the Tarangam, where the dancer frequently performs the balancing act, feet poised on the edge of the brass plate as she moves around dancing with a pot of water on her head and lamps in her hand.

There also are popular musical compositions called shabdams in Kuchipudi, the best known being those of Kashinath, who wrote the Gajendra Moksham. The life of Krishna is danced from the Geet Govindam of Jayadeva.

The basic makeup of a kuchipudi artist was simple. Women were dressed in bright silk saris parted in the centre and taken separately around each leg to show off the body movements and facilitate dancing.

Today, Kuchipudi is considerably a different style of dance form than it originally used to be. In most of the cases, it is a solo performance done by female dancers. The Sutradhara has become a phenomenon of the past and the Vachika abhinaya or expressional numbers are sung by the danseuses herself instead of by the vocalists in the background on the stage, as was the traditional practice. The element of devotion to gods also has been done away with and it has become purely a secular affair with predominance of 'sringar' or erotic flavor. Besides the drama component has also been reduced.

The main expressional number is from Jaideva's Ashtapadi, the Ramayana, the Puranas, Tirtha Narayana's Krishna Lila Tarangini or Tyagaraja's compositions, but now the dancer combines into herself the roles of the singer who hums the 'daruvu', the actor who speaks the lines and the dancer who mimes and dances to interpret the text. Elements not indigenous to the dance drama such as sculpture-like stances and freezes based on perfect iconographic forms motifs and shapes have been incorporated into Kuchipudi dance recitals to make it more competitive.

Jyothi Venkatachalam, director of Abhyasa School Of Dance, Club Tampa Palms, offers classes in Bharat Natyam, traditional folk dances, Indian percussion instruments (Mridangam, Dholak, Ghatam, Kanjira, Morsingh and Konakol). She can be reached at (813) 977-9039 or (813) 404-7899 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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