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No Man's Land  - Exploring South Asianness


Symposium by Akademi in collaboration with ICA


What's in a label?


by Julia Skene-Wenzel


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


Welcome to No Man’s Land – to post-modern living. In the run up to a new European constitution, the debate for and against the slow abandonment of the nation state, towards larger units of economical and cultural flow is ever present. It seems that more flexible modes of classification are needed, within which a wider range of differences can be recognized and tolerated - attaining unity through diversity. But who decides upon those classifications? Do they really allow room for diversity, or do they merely gloss over regional and cultural differences, creating a smooth and homogenised view of the world?

On its 25th anniversary, the Akademi for South Asian Dance UK and the ICA invite an open discussion to explore the disputed territory of ‘South Asianness’. Geographically, so-called South Asia encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Tibet. However, these countries do not formally or informally unite in an economic or political block. So what does this term stand for? Is it a label that has been created to fulfil our need to classify and simplify reality? In other words, if no man’s land is an area not assigned to any owner, is ‘South Asianness’ a label without content?

The Akademi aims to nurture and promote South Asian dance in Britain. Following the successful ‘South Asian Aesthetics Unwrapped!' conference at the Royal Opera House in March 2002, it has decided to broaden the examination of ‘South Asianness’ beyond aesthetics. A panel of international scholars, journalists and artists have come together to asses its underlying influence on cultural, artistic and political products, as well as the effects on identity construction by the South Asian community in diaspora.

I joined the discussion in the afternoon, which was opened by Andrée Grau, reader in dance and programme convener (MA Ballet Studies) at Roehampton University of Surrey. Her presentation ‘A sheltering sky? – Negotiating identity through South Asian dance’ focused on the mechanisms that effect South Asian dance practice in Britain today. The starting point of her study is the acknowledgement of classification and labelling, as part of our daily experience. We make sense of the world, by labelling objects, people and dance. Consequently, dance is filtered through a screen of perception, which is then further divided into genre and subgenre. The attached labels are not neutral, but carry connotation from their residing culture and often speak more about those who label, then about the dance itself. If artists are not aligned with the cultural mainstream, they are mostly classified via their socio-cultural identity, rather than the structure of their dance practice. There are always people in power, who constitute the cultural centre, and then there are others, who are being confined to the margins.

Her train of thought reminded me of Foucault’s analysis of power and knowledge. In his studies he clearly establishes that power produces knowledge and that power and knowledge imply one another. There can be no power relation without the constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not constitute at the same time power relations.

Thus, according to Grau, the West is often regarded as embodying modernity, while Eastern culture stands for tradition and the past. She acknowledges that labels are necessary to make sense of the world, but asks the question: “when does a name/label become a limitation and by extension a liability?”*
"‘South Asian dance’ is a political construction, introduced to broaden the classification ‘Indian dance’". It was felt that a more generic term is more appropriate, as it encompasses the various styles, cultures and origins of these dance forms. Just like the classification "Contemporary dance", "South Asian dance" has become a simplified description of its content, overlooking differences and highlighting similarities.
In the diasporic context, some argue that it creates distance and therefore frees the artist from the notion of lost heritage; others find its ignorance of differences limiting. Thus while some perceive it as supportive, others feel that it is restrictive. Its status as a new nationality draws together what has been pulled apart, but by generalising its content, it runs the risk of deflating the artists and their uniqueness.

Today’s configurations derive from the colonial world. Even though post-colonial theory has tried to change “people from objects of colonial violence into subjects of history”* it has to be acknowledged that power relations have remained largely unchanged. As a result, South Asian dance has to battle the notion of the exotic and is being confined to the ethnic box.

Grau illustrated her presentation with a short film, which highlighted the current limitations dance practitioners of various South Asian dance forms face. Often, actual performance skills are not the decisive factor in the evaluation of their work, but they are judged on whether or not they are South Asian and have trained in India. Furthermore, popular opinion and institutional power verifies that ballet is regarded a universal dance form, while South Asian dance is still confined to its cultural links.

Grau closed her reflections by stressing the importance of not “othering”* members of minorities and the need for looking at issues of identity and alterity within a “framework of inclusion/exclusion and access to resources”*.

Discussing these and other implications, the afternoon session resumed with a panel debating "Wild blue yonder – art, identity and representation beyond borders". Sanjay Sharma, Parminder Vir, Keith Khan and Sanjoy Roy expressed their opinions and shared personal experiences of the impact that "South Asianness" has had and continues to have on their surrounding culture, art work and personal lives.

Keith Khan, trained in Fine Arts, has worked as a carnivalist for many years. Some of his well-known, recent work includes the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games 2002 and the Queen’s Jubilee Parade. He is a founder and artistic director of ‘motiroti’, an art led company that works with people and new technology. Introducing a selection of his work, he emphasised today’s break down of identity, which allows negotiation of culture and heritage. Aspects of our personality can be commoditised, which allows a free self definition. Racism still exists, but eventually, cultural identity will become obsolete. Having worked in Europe, as well as the United States, he feels that spaces have opened and shifted, and as a result there is more cultural fluidity. By pushing for South Asian visibility, he tries to demystify its cultural identity with the aim of exposing ‘otherness’. Khan believes that by highlighting South Asian relevance in today’s society, it can move into the heart of British, or Western culture.

Sanjay Sharma, senior lecturer at the School of Cultural and Innovation Studies of the University of East London, agreed that ‘otherness’ needs to be integrated by the white power. At present, white groups are able to transcend and create universal products, while minorities are confined to create culturally specific commodities. As a result, white products claim to speak for everyone, including the various encompassed ethnic minorities, and added to that white institutions also decide if and when something is being elevated to the cutting edge; i.e. at present it is Bollywood and Asian culture. Multicultural capitalism champions racism of inclusion and for ‘otherness’ to be integrated into white society, but real multiculturalism is edgy and rough, not glossy and idealised. He disputed the notion of floating identities, which are the matter of personal choice, but stated that identity is an act of collective struggle. His presentation raised the questions of how ‘otherness’ can resist being commoditised and labelled exotic, when integrated and whether in today’s political climate it still needs to comply with white spaces, in order to penetrate society?

Parminder Vir OBE, an award-winning film and television producer and diversity adviser at Carlton Television, looks back on a long and successful career. She has played an active part in opening mainstream culture to ethnic minorities and remembers the collective struggle that was needed to open up these spaces. Her memories start when arriving in the UK in the 1960’s and the subsequent joint struggle of blacks and asians to open white institutions. In the 60’s and 70’s, black and asian cultures were stereotyped on TV, with no means of them taking over production. But the 80’s brought big protests which could not be silenced and the 90’s shifted spaces and created more opportunities for ethnic minorities in mainstream culture. While she personally has never felt at odds with her identity and as a film maker does not want to be limited to dealing solemnly with her own identity, institutions have had problems with her ethnicity and identity. Today, Asian and Black culture is starting to be integrated into our cultural centre and Vir pleaded that in an age of integrated casting and cross-over programs, ethnicity can and should be embraced as an asset, not a limitation.

Sanjoy Roy, dance critic for the Guardian, Dance Now, Dancing Times and other dance publications shared his experience of being mixed-race in British society. In contrast to Parminder Vir, he has had problems with his identity and describes it as changeable and depending on whom he meets. He summarized some of the attributes that society has for people with mixed heritages: the notion of shiftiness, a person in disguise, lost in no man’s land, but at the same time: is bridging cultures, is rich in traditions, a new creation. He has accepted that there is no universal way of dealing with the situation, however he is adamant that even in his state of uncertainty, he would never call himself South Asian.

The panel discussion resumed with a brief question and answer section for the audience and was closed by the chair Shobana Jeyasingh, director/choreographer of the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. She summarised the various opinions presented throughout the day and finished on a personal wish that out of all of Roy’s options, she would like to be referred to as ‘a new creation’.

Instead of celebrating its 25th anniversary with a big dance performance, the Akademi has chosen to raise and draw attention to these important issues. Integration into a global trans-national structure can only be achieved when differences are acknowledged and accepted as assets to a broader cultural structure. Recognising our shared humanity, ‘otherness’ needs to be able to move from the margins into the cultural centre and while still honouring and celebrating its traditions and past, it needs to be given the possibility to transcend its heritage and move in new directions.

"South Asianness" will be a valid label, as long as we recognize it as a collective term for various cultures and products. It does, however, only mark a starting point for further explorations and does not constitute an exhaustive label that limits and confines its content to a superficial commonality.

* “A sheltering sky?-Negotiating identity through South Asian dance”, Dr Andrée
Grau, Roehampton University of Surrey, ICA 22nd May 2004.

Edited by Jeff.


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