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Man's Land - Exploring South Asianness
Symposium by Akademi
in collaboration with ICA
by Thea Nerissa Barnes
22, 2004 -- Venue ICA, The Mall, London
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
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
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
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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