“No Indian-ness” return — Diaspora Dialogue

Jyoti: In addition to discussing the significance costume has onstage for classical dancers and their audiences, on a few occasions we’ve discussed at length the complexities of wearing Indian garb while travelling across India. For myself, as someone who looks Indian, but speaks very American-accented English, I found myself wearing mostly salwar kameez, kurtas and saris while producing the tour. This, for me, nourished a kind of “safeness” as it mitigated my own foreign-ness, enabling deeper access to various social, cultural, institutional and even psychological spaces. Though I can manage Hindi, my accent is much to be desired, and when I do speak, it is clear that I am from the West. Wearing Indian clothes helps to strategically deploy my Indian-ness in ways that challenge stereotypes about NRIs who tend to ape the West and leave their Indian culture behind. It also helps me pass.

Martin Favor, in his profound analysis of authenticity and race, argues that passing demands a "cultural fixing" of boundaries while drawing connections between physical markers of identity (33). In Favor's discussion, he speaks of links between race and culture. In my case, while in India, my passing corresponded to associations across nationalism, Indian-ness and culture. Wearing Indian clothes, as simple a choice that it may seem, is a performative act that momentarily construes a sense of authenticity and belonging. Yet, even at the moment of applying the bindi between my brows or throwing a dupatta across my shoulders, I know, a priori, that this authenticity, is a fiction.

Authenticity is a word, sentiment, sensibility that so often surfaces among audience members' experience of Indian classical dance. This authenticity is marked by the silk costume, jewelry, hair, make-up, guru style, music, facial expressions, etc. The list really goes on and on. Yet, is this authenticity ever tangible? Leela Venkataraman, a writer for The Times of India and one of India's leading dance critics, asked in her complimentary review of Bruise Blood/Faultline, “What is the concept of Indian-ness… of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company on its maiden tour? In her blog response to the same show in Delhi, Aranyani, an early career bharata natyam dancer, wrote,“there was very little that was Indian about this contemporary dance performance.” I still struggle to grasp this concept of Indian-ness, though I am convinced it is connected to discourses of authenticity, nationalism and tradition.

What would you say about your own work, Shobana? Could it “pass” as Indian? On some level, it represents the contradictions of Indian life. It signifies the collision of the modern with the traditional. It also points to the inherent hybridity of the subcontinent's multitudinous cultures that both define and challenge a singular sense of Indian-ness. How do you respond to audience members' search for Indian-ness in your work?

Shobana: There is obviously a vibrant intellectual project going on in India which is concerned with recognising, identifying, defining and labeling the rules and features of this new beast called “Indian Contemporary Dance”. One of the problems is that the word “contemporary” has been colonised by a huge range of artists from classicists (who contemporise their practice but are still able to be recognised as classical) to those who feel free to take their influences from a variety of non classical sources, both Indian and non Indian. The search for the Indian-ness marker seems particularly to preoccupy those from a classical dance background perhaps because they are used to having a consensual template. In classical dance, it is easier to have common principles that operate in all and any circumstance, and therefore, ideas of authenticity tend to survive better. The rules for an araimandi remain the same in Toronto or in Hong Kong. However to seek the same historicity in contemporary art works is more problematic.

The whole idea of the contemporary is to break away from unifying rules, to introduce the personal, to be tainted by time rather than aim to be timeless. How each Indian in the subcontinent responds to the choices facing him or her in the digital age is as varied as the many races, languages, religions and cuisines that make up India. In the press conference in Bangalore, for example, the journalists wore salwars or jeans if they were women and trousers if they were men. Most of the women had short hair and no bindis. There were Christians from Kerala as well as Hindus.

To look for singular signs of Indian-ness in a contemporary dance performance is to miss the point of its existence. To try and historicise something as a matter of course (by looking for features like facial expressions which are a feature of the historic dance culture) that basically comes from a non-historic impetus is to be distracted from the main story. To use it as a marker of belonging to the subcontinent is tantamount to dismissing every Indian man in trousers in Mumbai or Delhi as inauthentic.

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Works Cited
Favor, Martin J.  (1999) Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance. Durham: Duke University Press.