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No Man's Land  - Exploring South Asianness


Symposium by Akademi in collaboration with ICA


by Thea Nerissa Barnes


May 22, 2004 -- Venue ICA, The Mall, London


Founded in 1979, Akademi aims to have South Asian dance forms become a viable force within British society. Currently the strategies Akademi employs include developing partnerships with local, national, and international organisations to lobby for South Asian Dance, to assist in dance training and development of South Asian Dance artists, and to initiate community and education activities to make South Asian Dance forms more accessible. Akademi intends to nurture dance expressions of Indian descent including Classical, Contemporary, Folk and Popular dances that have either traditional or contemporary perspectives.

It is perhaps with this current mandate that Akademi in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London chose to celebrate its 25th anniversary by hosting the one-day symposium, NO MAN’S LAND – EXPLORING SOUTH ASIANNESS. Leading international thinkers, writers/journalists, lecturers, and makers of film and dance offered their perspectives on “South Asian” the “preferred descriptor” that designates identity and notions that describe the essence of dance, literature, cultures, even people of South Asia. South Asia though is a region comprised of the subcontinent of India plus Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and, depending on your sources, Afghanistan. Just what does the descriptor, “South Asian” “stand for” when discussing South Asia and its dance practice?

Sunil Khilnani, Professor of Politics and director South Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, stated emphatically that “'South Asia' is a flat term; a bureaucrat’s phrase," (1) that possibly around 1947 was a consequence of US State Department modern geopolitics and cartography in the early years of the Cold War. Given this, South Asia, as a descriptor, employed by geographical, geopolitical perspectives is indeterminate. The political history of this region in the last sixty years reveals a multiplicity of cultural affiliations and political forms.

Some of these social groupings have survived intact while others have fragmented despite the ministrations of British imperial power or global power classification schemes of US State Department. Even with the debate about whether Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics should be included, a unified singular distinctiveness for the region seems impractical with cultural, social, and political groups such as Pakistan and its religious majority, Bangladesh with its linguistic/cultural majority, Sri Lanka with its ethnic majority, Nepal and its Hindu, and Bhutan and its Buddhist. India as a state containing no singular national, religious, ethnic or cultural grouping confirms that none of the states in the region subscribe to one identity, one culture or any one political system. In India, though, given the magnitude of its diversity, varied cultural groupings have been able to maintain their integrity, some perhaps tenuously, because of its democratic political system.

In India, differing cultural belief systems and aesthetic preferences have fostered a distance between state and culture. This distancing whether self imposed or not has assisted in original sources enriching and sustaining separate histories and artistic traditions. Perhaps these insular interactions of culturally specific art practice benefited from the acceptance and management of diversity within a democratic society. The acknowledgement and perhaps “policing” of diversity fostered cultural tolerance. Tempered encounters of alternative life styles in the region also enabled graduations of hybridity within an increasing number of diasporaic communities throughout the world. This confluence of cultural specificities seems posed to embrace “South Asian” as a fluctuating, mutable concept able to contain mutual sympathies that transcend national, religious, ethnic and other types of cultural groupings. Perhaps from an Indian perspective diversity governed by a democratic approach to legislation has saved the characterization of its multiplicity.

Certainly within cultural practice, diversity enables choices made in private that facilitate creativity and the ability to discriminate critically the quality of one’s personal identity. As a descriptor of identity and especially as an indicator in the characterisation of artistic practice, “South Asian” offers security for those who welcome a singular identifiable oneness. This security though poses a threat for those who deplore the potential condensation posed by the descriptor. When faced with the disparity of cultural affiliations in India and an ever expanding diasporaic condition with its different yet connected alternative heritages, the threat of homogeneity is probable if only to give the magnitude of difference some unity.

Is "No Man’s Land" actually an exploration of racism? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist writing for The Guardian, The New York Times, Newsweek among others and noted for returning her MBE in protest of the new empire in Iraq, spoke candidly about the ramifications of the descriptor “South Asian”. For Alibhai-Brown “South Asian” is just another mechanism to highlight a “white” notion of India’s multiculturalism and provide those in power with yet another means to solidify their superiority.

The power to name is also the power to legitimate and assign cultural value, as Jeevan Deol, a research fellow who has written for The Times, The Independent, and presented programmes on BBC Radio 4. Deol, illustrated with a life story his anxiety at having to describe and thus defend his heritage and identity in North America. Deol associates “South Asian” with the colour “brown” and declares it a distorting factor in discussion of race and culture. It is a conjured diasporic perception of self or of “The Other” that seeks to establish shared experience at the expense of clarity. It only satisfies the left’s perspective for recognition of diverse, dispersed communities but furthers the divides established by the right. Sanjay Sharma, writer and senior lecturer at the School of Cultural and Innovation Studies, University of East London postulated the coinage of “South Asian” as the result of racialised estimations of particular sectors of art practice. There are art practices within the rubric of “South Asian” that are classical but with this evaluation come two stigmas: the liability of nostalgia and the notion that these are exotic forms that do not warrant the same privilege in status accorded Western forms. Label and preservation of a “South Asian ness” ghettoises as much as it exemplifies while it seeks to categorise the peculiarities of alternative art practice.

Pavan K Varma, author-diplomat and prolific writer has no existential doubts of who he is or has any inner tribulations about identity or representation. Varma believes there is a commonality of colonial shared history and geographical location that may lead to a “South Asian ness” that can be explored and celebrated. Varma believes that a notion of “South Asian ness” is required for survival, for clarity, for purity when surrounded by elements that hybridise or dilute essence. Varma spoke of stereotypes and those endearing myths Indians have held of themselves and their varied cultural practices. These have resulted in response to the encounter and negotiation with contra cultural sensibilities. In the past, colonisation and, currently the homogenising effects of globalisation, have fragmented as well as denigrated India’s numerous indigenous identities. There is the tyranny of simplicity within the use of “South Asian” that threatens to alienate or invisiblise the dynamic identities it intends to represent. Despite this Varma believes there needs to be a priority, some unifying factor that can be construed as “South Asian”.

Parminder Vir and Keith Khan are artists whose work substantiates the tenacity of their individual identities. Both described working in Britain as an on-going battle to explain identity or be constrained by preconceived notions of it. Parminder Vir OBE is an award-winning film and television producer serving as diversity advisor at Carlton Television. Vir offered her life story as evidence of the struggle to challenge the institution of racism and change denigrating strategies, stereotypes, and invisiblising agents within the broadcasting and film industry in Britain. Vir sited moments in her career when those who supported her art practice had problems with her identity and ethnicity but she herself had no issues with her identity. Vir considers the exploration of ethnicity an asset not a liability. Similarly, Keith Khan as a spectacularist who works on both sides of the Atlantic celebrates diversity. Khan embraces the ways we can re-present ourselves in the open spaces where disparity permeates life and exists in opposition to closed places that represent one cultural affiliation. Khan with his collaborators actively seeks to demystify cultural experience by exposing and punctuating difference. Khan’s video presentations illustrated how media, economics, and commerce are the instigators that cause erosion of cultural iconography making “culture” a flexible and fluid concept.

Writer for the Guardian, Dance Now, Dancing Times, Dance Theatre Journal, Pulse and other publications, Sanjoy Roy’s ruminations offered an embodied perspective for the descriptor “South Asian”. Roy’s life story serves as a metaphor and illustrates the predicament the descriptor poses. The descriptor is shifty, being somewhat chameleon-like, changing in response to the situation it finds itself in or the manner in which the descriptor is used. An attribute as much as a stigma, “South Asian” belongs to several cultures but is never completely any one of them. Thus the descriptor has several options: to assume the burden of representation by admitting mixed cultural affiliations or to be sequestered within a singular heritage and disavow the rest. In art practice, identity is appreciated or appropriated depending on the integrity of identity. In the case of dance, the one who watches appraises the performative act. Who then determines what “South Asian ness” entails? Even if the descriptor designates whom it re-presents, will the witness confirm and agree with the chosen characterisations? Identity, then, becomes a matter of negotiations and tactics dependant upon the encounter of two people, two cultures, and strategies for survival.

It is this shiftiness, this either/or ness that makes this descriptor contentious for Shobana Jeyasingh, choreographer/artistic director of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company and Chair for the day. Instead of being a designation of a region with notable cultural practices the descriptor “South Asian” has subversive connotations that marginalize alternative art practices. Western arts hierarchy seems to have coined this term to distinguish difference in art practice making purity in culturally specific work “ethnic” and any synthesis a bastardisation. For Jeyasingh, “South Asian” signifies a collision of absolutes where identity is shaped by a confluence of dominance over subordinates. Art practice in this rubric is more about strategies for survival rather than free, instinctive choices made without the burden of confronting conflicting or imposed aesthetic sensibilities.

Andrée Grau, writer and Dance and Programme Convener at Roehampton University of Surrey presented a video of Indian dance practitioners, a white female and a male dancer of Asian heritage defending their performance of classical Indian dance. Grau’s basic tenet is that dance is filtered through a screen of past knowledge that have more to do with mis-information and racialised notions regarding art practice than who and what is danced. A grand plié or jeté performed by Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance Company can be appreciated as post modernity but mulu mandi or prayanganam from bharata natyam performed by Jehyasingh Dance Company is considered cultural difference. Both choreographers draw on their respective classical heritages but Jehyasingh’s choreography is associated with Indian dance and somehow not “real art” (2). Nostalgia, exotica and perhaps prejudice eschew the possibilities of an honest and transparent engagement with the aesthetic characteristics of Jehyasingh’s dance. No dance practice is ever about the form itself. The strategies for making dance that underpin a choreographer and her art, a dancer and the aesthetic being performed, render a cultural reading permeated with notions of heritage and tradition. Uninformed or narrow appraisals simplify and misconstrue the identity of a dance and its makers giving power to those who view the dance because it is the viewers’ gaze that appraises and appreciates artistic expression. Embodiment and apprehension of that embodiment can and often contradict each other.

Currently there exist an amalgamation of “South Asian” classic and folk forms that have been transliterated or appropriated by other dance forms. These expressions find their inspiration in cinema, musical shows and MTV. There are also classic and folk forms fluctuating as much as they are trying to maintain traditional substance. Any descriptor intended to “stand for” a form indicates a political affiliation as much as it indicates cultural specifics and aesthetic choices in making and performing dance. “South Asian” connotes a conglomeration of separate histories as much as it denotes specific art practices. Unfortunately, while it represents a diversity of cultures it does not reflect their actuality – a proliferation of old and new, traditional and experimental, post colonial, post Cold War and post racial. Globalisation and the vicissitudes inherent in a diasporaic experience have also made it so “South Asian” can never simply be “Indian ness”. After the eloquent and rigorous presentations and ample open discussions between panel members and audience, no other descriptor or strategy offered was comparable to the possibilities inherent in “South Asian”. As the seminar drew to an end, a summation by Jehyasingh seemed to concede the descriptor as the current default that brings together as much as it frustrates and infuriates.

1. Khilnani, Sunil. “What is South Asian?” Paper presented at Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London 22 May 2004. Khilnani, Sunil. “What is South Asian?” Paper presented at Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London 22 May 2004.
2. Grau, Andrée. “A sheltering sky? – Negotiating identity through South Asian dance” Paper presented at Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London 22 May 2004.


Edited by Jeff.


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