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 Post subject: Symposium - Exploring South Asianness
PostPosted: Sat May 15, 2004 3:25 am 

Joined: Sun Oct 24, 1999 11:01 pm
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Saturday 22 May 2004 10am - 4pm, ICA Cinema 1

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Akademi, in collaboration with the ICA, bring together leading international thinkers in a one day symposium –

NO MAN’S LAND – Exploring South Asianness. Together they will examine the complex terrain of South Asian identity politics, deconstructing the origin, development, relevance and implications of ‘South Asianness’ from their very different perspectives.

The term has achieved wide currency today - often for the sake of political expedience - but it is hotly disputed within the diaspora as well as the regions themselves. Is 'South Asianness' a new nationality or convenient catch all, a diverse and resilient state of being or just 'Indianness' in disguise? And how relevant is the concept to those of increasingly mixed or ‘multi mongrelist’ backgrounds?

This symposium will provide an important forum for the audience to question and explode the myths, truths and paradoxes inherent within essentialised identities, with key academics, policy makers, and artists.

Key note speaker Sunil Khilnani (Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC), will expand on his seminal work The Idea of India.

Shobana Jeyasingh , acclaimed choreographer and founder of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, will chair the discussions with contributions from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (The Independent), Jeevan Deol (St John's College, Cambridge), Daoud Ali (School of Oriental and African Studies), Pavan Varma (Nehru Centre), Andrée Grau (Roehampton University of Surrey), Keith Khan (Moti Roti), Parminder Vir (Carlton TV), Sanjoy Roy (The Guardian), and Sanjay Sharma (University of East London).

Event NO MAN’S LAND – Exploring South Asianness

Date Saturday 22 May 2004

Time 10 am – 4pm

Venue ICA, The Mall, London SW1 – Cinema 1

Tickets £11 / £10 Concs / £9 ICA Members

Tickets/Info 020 7930 3647


This project is supported by Arts Council England, Decibel, Air India and Asians in Media.

Akademi, established in 1979 is one of the UK’s leading dance agencies dedicated to South Asian Dance. It works to enhance excellence in the practice, understanding and appreciation of South Asian dance across the UK within a contemporary artistic, social and educational context. Akademi stimulates research and debate, develops and trains dance artists and creates groundbreaking dance experiences. Its aim is to establish South Asian dance as an important force in contemporary British culture.

No Mans Land is a follow up symposium to South Asian Aesthetics Unwrapped! Conference held in March 2002 at the Royal Opera House, featuring contributions from Anish Kapoor, Shobana Jeyasingh, Talvin Singh and Akram Khan amongst others.

Geographically South Asia includes three of the world’s most populous countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Tibet.

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 Post subject: Re: Symposium - Exploring South Asianness
PostPosted: Tue Jun 01, 2004 12:00 am 

Joined: Mon Nov 25, 2002 12:01 am
Posts: 117
Location: London/Chicago
Akādemi, founded in 1979, aims to have South Asian dance forms become a viable force within British society. Currently the strategies Akādemi employs include developing partnerships with local, national, 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. Akādemi 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 Akādemi 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 Asia” 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 Asia “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 the last sixty years reveals a multiplicity of cultural affiliations and political forms that 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 of whether Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics be included in “South Asia”, Pakistan with its religious majority, Bangladesh with its linguistic/cultural majority, Sri Lanka with its ethnic majority, Nepal and its Hindu, Bhutan and the Buddhist and India a state with no singular national, religious, ethnic or cultural grouping, none of these states subscribe to one identity, one culture or any one political system. This has had its ramifications in the region but in India, given the magnitude of its diversity, a democratic political system has enabled varied cultural groupings to maintain their integrity.

In India, the negotiation between differing cultural contents has fostered a distance between state and culture that assures continued enrichment of separate histories and artistic traditions. It is perhaps with this management and acceptance of diversity with its graduations of hybridity and an ever increasing number of diasporaic communities throughout the world that has propped the adoption of “South Asia” as a concept that contains mutual sympathies that transcend national, religious, ethnic and other cultural groupings. From an Indian perspective it is perhaps the burden of diversity regulated by democratic legislation that has saved its multiplicity. Certainly within cultural practice, diversity fosters choices made in private that facilitate creativity and the ability to critically discriminate the quality of one’s personal identity. As a descriptor of identity and especially as an indicator in the characterisation of art practice “South Asia” offers security for those who welcome a singular identifiable oneness. This security though poses a threat for those who deplore the potential condensation or homogeneity posed by the term especially when faced with the disparity of cultural affiliations in India and an ever expanding diasporaic condition with its different yet connected alternative heritages.

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 Asia” as 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 illustrated in a life story that revealed his anxiety at having to describe and thus defend his heritage and identity in North America. Deol associates “South Asia” 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 Asia” as the result of racialised estimations of particular sectors of art practice. There are art practices within the rubric of “South Asia” that are classical but with this evaluation come two stigmas: the liability of nostalgia and the notion that these forms are exotica. Label and preservation of a “South Asia 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 warns though that there is the stereotype and the myth that Indians have held endearingly and propagated out of response to the confrontation of alternative cultural experiences. In the past, colonisation and currently the homogenising effects of globalisation have attempted to deconstruct and denigrate the indigenous self. 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. On the other side there is the tyranny of simplistic notions of South Asia that invisiblise the number of extremely dynamic cultural identities within its proposed aegis. Despite this Varma believes there needs to be a priority, some unifying factor that can be construed as “South Asian”.

Keith Khan and Parminder Vir are artists whose art making 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. Keith Khan is a spectacularist working on both sides of the Atlantic. Khan celebrates diversity and how 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. Media, economics, and commerce are the instigators causing the erosion of cultural iconography making culture flexible and fluid. Khan with his collaborators actively seeks to demystify cultural experience by exposing and punctuating difference. 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 felt those who would support her art practice had problems with her identity and ethnicity but she herself had no issues with her identity and considers the exploration of ethnicity an asset not a liability.

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 Asia”. Roy’s life story served as a metaphor and illustrated 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 Asia” belongs to several cultures but is never completely anyone of them. Is the choice to assume the burden of representation by admitting mixed cultural affiliations or 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 whether he or she participates appraises the performative act. Who determines what “South Asian ness” entails in this interaction? Identity then becomes a matter of negotiations and tactics depending on 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 term carries a connotation. Its application is a referral to ethnic arts that in the hierarchy of art practice in the West is marginal with some of its practices, due to hybridisation and synthesises considered artistically impure. For Jeyasingh, “South Asia” signifies a collision of absolutes where identity is shaped by a confluence of dominance over subordinates. The Western arts hierarchy seems to have coined this term to distinguish and regulate art practice because they legitimate and regulate definition and resources. Identity becomes a matter of survival rather than a free choice safe from the consequences of satisfying imposed aesthetic prerequisites.

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 knowings 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. This lack of clarity simplifies and misconstrues the identity of a dance and its makers and gives power to those who view dance because ultimately it is the viewers’ gaze that apprises and appreciates cultural expression and its art. No dance practice is ever about the form itself. Embodiment and apprehension of that embodiment can and often contradict each other. The strategies that underpin the conflation of a choreographer and her art, a dancer and the aesthetic being performed, renders a cultural reading permeated with notions of heritage and tradition.

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 seem 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.


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 Post subject: Re: Symposium - Exploring South Asianness
PostPosted: Sun Jun 13, 2004 9:37 pm 

Joined: Fri Oct 22, 1999 11:01 pm
Posts: 14494
Location: SF Bay Area
I find it very interesting that there is a huge misconception among Americans about what constitutes Asian and South Asian in particular.

In most of the world, "South Asian" refers to those whose roots trace back to the Indian subcontinent that includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc.

Many Americans however tend to myopically limit the term "Asian" to those whose cultural heritage emanates from the Far East, most notably China, thus lumping Indians along with Middle Easterners. How many times have I heard an Indian incorrectly referred to by an American as being Arabic or Middle Eastern?!!!

As a side note, Buddha, widely revered among the Chinese and Japanese, was Indian.

On another side note, don't forget that a majority of Arab nations fall within the continent of Asia and the rest in Africa.

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 Post subject: Re: Symposium - Exploring South Asianness
PostPosted: Fri Jun 18, 2004 1:40 am 

Joined: Fri Apr 09, 2004 11:01 pm
Posts: 17
Location: London
South Asian Dance UK

Conference at the ICA 22 May 2004

No man’s land – Exploring South Asianness

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 Akādemi 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 Akādemi 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 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 experience 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 Akādemi 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 into 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


Julia Skene-Wenzel

<small>[ 18 June 2004, 03:42 AM: Message edited by: Julia Skene-Wenzel ]</small>

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