Call for Submissions: Be(com)ing Desi in America
An Exhibition and Performances by Subcontinental Drift in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
In February 2014 in Washington, D.C., Subcontinental Drift, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, will present a visual and performing arts exhibition entitled Be(com)ing Desi in America. This exhibition will run parallel to the Smithsonian exhibition Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, which will be on display at the National Museum of Natural History from December 2013 through Spring 2015.
In our own unique ways, each of us challenges, claims, defines and redefines what it means to be South Asian in America. How does desi-ness manifest in your life? And how did the desi that is you come into being?
Do you tweak your mom’s or dad’s recipes? (Re)fashion a desi garment for your current wardrobe? Embody beauty beyond Bollywood ideals? Remix raagas with “western” beats? And push beyond prejudices—internalized and in the wider world—about how to look, who to partner with, and what occupation or hobbies to engage in?
For Be(com)ing Desi in America, we’re interested in recipes and works of visual and performing art that show your unique desi-ness AND tell the story of how you came to embrace it (or not), while sharing your perspective on issues of aesthetics and (body) image.
Send us your photographs, painting, sculpture, poetry, performance clips (spoken word, theater, dance and music), films, cartoons, comics, drawings and digital graphics.
Submissions and questions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Both new and existing pieces are welcome. The deadline is 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, October 13, 2013.
If there’s one thing that Indians across the world share, it’s their love for movies. As newborns, they are weaned on cinema by star-struck parents and as toddlers, their first steps are mingled with dance steps learned from Bollywood movies on video. School kids can rattle off famous dialogue from Hindi films and as young adults, they often take their cues from the romantic sequences in their favorite films. Even patriotism and national integration are often invoked by Bollywood’s rousing lyrics and over-the-top emotions.
This year marks the 100th year of Indian cinema and this vibrant industry seems to be gaining momentum and strength across the world. Immigrants have brought their love of cinema to America, carrying memories of the golden age of cinema of the 50′s, the wonderful films of V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, and Guru Dutt.
Then there’s that whole period of the 70′s when Amitabh Bachchan was the “angry young man” and the industry almost revolved around him. Slowly, the “masala movies” of the 70′s morphed into Bollywood, and now that catch-all phrase covers just about every movie produced by India’s multi-million dollar film industry.
Young Indian Americans have acquired this passion for film from their immigrant parents and watched countless videos from the local Indian stores. Many young people living in American towns can break into “filmi” dance at a moment’s notice. In fact, folk dances, Bollywood dancing, and bhangra have become big business in the Indian communities, with dance studios teaching all these forms. Indians carry this love into college campuses and most Indian organizations have dance teams, contests, and special events.
The compulsion to make movies about their roots began a few decades ago when young Indian Americans came of age and found brown faces were not represented at all in the mainstream cinema. American Desi was one of the first films to be made by this new generation telling their stories of cultural confusion and adjustment. For struggling actors of South Asian descent it was a difficult time when roles for them were few and far-between, and the choice was to play a taxi driver, a swami—or a terrorist.
With America’s changing demographics, a lot has changed. It’s acceptable—even cool—to be an Indian and there is an increasing array of roles for Indian faces on mainstream TV and movies. At one time many Indian parents were much more conservative about their children’s career choices—it had to be doctor, engineer or lawyer; now they are open and supportive of a wide range of choices which can be actor, director, or even stand-up comic.
There are now several Indian actors in Hollywood and independent films, including Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Samrat Chakrabarti, Parminder Nagra, Sarita Choudhury, Manu Narayan, and Ajay Naidu.
At the recent New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) which showcased over 44 independent films and documentaries from India and the Diaspora, one got to see many films made by emerging Indian American filmmakers which proved that cinema has become a way of life for the second-generation South Asians.
The opening night film was Chittagong made by first time filmmaker Bedabrata Pain, who was a scientist at NASA before he decided to become a filmmaker. In fact, he has been inducted into the US Space Technology Hall of Fame for his inventions in digital imaging. This powerful film takes us to British India of the 1930′s, to a true life story of revolutionaries taking on their English Masters.
Some of the Indian Americans who showcased their films at this festival, almost always with Indian subjects, include Mukesh Vidyasagar, who made Silent Water—a film which creates awareness about clean water and raises funds for Gramalaya, a non-profit in India; Anirban Roy of Los Angeles, whose Aashpordha about teenage rebellion, has been picked up for national telecast by SBS Australia; Mridu Chandra of New York has produced award-winning films, including Himalaya Song which showed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Her new film, Indian Summer, follows a real Indian-American story—children at the Hindu Heritage Summer Camp in Rochester, NY.
Many emerging filmmakers are starting out with short films and going the film festival route. Vishesh Sharma has moved only in 2000 to the US but has just finished directing his first short film Color of Anger. There’s Vivek Sharma, who has directed the 14-minute film The Plan. It will be interesting to see how the careers of these filmmakers evolve.
One filmmaker who thinks out of the box is Vikram Gandhi, a graduate of Columbia University. He’s done music videos and ad films for major corporations, but his first feature film, bagged him the Audience Award for the Best Documentary at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. The premise is quite stunning: in Kumare he takes on religious groups and blind faith by pretending to be an Indian guru named Kumare. True to human nature, the fawning disciples really follow!
There is a lot of crisscrossing between continents: Bornila Chatterjee, who was born in Los Angeles, moved to Kolkata and then returned to the US to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her first feature film was seen at the NYIFF—Let’s Be Out, the Sun is Shining. It won the Audience Prize over several other films, including films from India.
Inspired by the filmmakers of the diaspora like Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and M. Night Shyamalan, there are young Indian American filmmakers dreaming their dreams and making their own kind of films across the USA. Some like Nageshwar Kukonoor travel back to India to become a big success there!
So one has to watch out for all that these emerging filmmakers will be accomplishing in this 100th year of Indian cinema. They may well re-define what constitutes an Indian film, bringing all their American experiences to it.
Lavina Melwani is an award-winning journalist who has written for several international publications including: India Today, Newsday, The Week, WSJ, Travel Plus and The Hindu. She lives in New York. Her online magazine, Lassi with Lavina, is about Indian art and culture. Click here to visit her website, Lassi with Lavina.
In the following essays, she explores Indian-American life, journeys to India, America and the emerging self.
So have you heard the one about Jay Leno and the Golden Temple?
A recent sketch on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (aired January 19th) featured a clip of the Republican candidates and their summer homes. The last image was supposed to be the summer home of Mitt Romney. The image that appeared was that of the Golden Temple (also known as Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib) a sacred and revered temple to many Sikhs around the world.
How rich is Mitt Romney? He’s so rich that his summer home is the Golden Temple! Ba Dum!
Many in the Sikh American community did not find the insinuation of Romney’s wealth and ownership and the image of the Golden Temple very funny. The implication that the center of Sikh faith and center of charity was viewed as a luxurious vacation home was viewed as racist and derogatory. An online petition was launched over Jay Leno’s sketch. BBC World News reported Indian-American, Randeep Dhillon, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Leno, stating Leno’s sketch “clearly exposes plaintiff, other Sikhs and their religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it falsely portrays the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh”.
India’s Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, found it “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable.” The US State department weighed in on the controversary. US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US Constitution strictly protected freedom of speech and commented that Leno’s remarks were “satirical in nature.” She also emphasized the US had “absolute respect” for all Indians, including Sikhs, and that President Barack Obama was the first president to celebrate the birthday of the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, at the White House.
So I searched the internet to find how others felt about the sketch. I came across the blogger Rupinder Mohan Singh‘s very insightful blog “American Turban: A Discussion about the Sikh American Experience”, about his observations about the treatment of himself and other Sikh Americans around the United States. Singh makes the suggestion that this misstep, should be seen as an opportunity to have an open discussion as to what it means to be Sikh in a 9/11 world.
“Jay Leno’s bit was our chance to welcome the public into our world to educate people in a positive way about what Darbar Sahib is and stands for. We have lost that opportunity and, instead, we have demonstrated that we are a close-minded, short-sighted and paranoid group of people. For many, the real comedy is now not the joke that Jay Leno told, but the response to it by Sikhs and Indian politicians.”
In a response to a comment on his blog, Singh writes that Jay Leno is in business to mock. He’s a comedian. So why not choose other religious site like the Udupi Sri Krishna Matha, or the Vatican, or the the Masjid al-Haram or the Mormon Temple?
What are your thoughts on this topic? Post comments below or on our Facebook Page.
Rajshree Solanki is the Registration Specialist for Loans at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
I once saw Ravi Coltrane play in a small club in New York City, about 15 years ago. I knew he was John Coltrane’s son and I thought it interesting that he had an Indian first name. I learned soon after that he was named after Ravi Shankar. John Coltrane had a deep respect for Shankar, and while they met various times, Coltrane passed away before he could take lessons from Shankar. Still, Indian music found its way into John Coltrane’s albums, and this trend grew – American jazz musicians would learn and borrow from Indian classical music. It would have varying degrees of an exotic quality – respectful yet invoked partly because of the sound’s foreignness.
Today, the practice of American jazz musicians invoking Indian classical music continues. But, it is now South Asian Americans who are doing this, and to remarkable effect. Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Rez Abbasi, Sanjay Mishra, Asha Putli, Sachal Vasandani, and others who immigrated when they were younger or grew up in the United States have made a living as jazz musicians and singers. For these artists it is less an exploration into “the other” and more into the self. In the words of Mahanthappa, “Indian-American identity reigns supreme in my work.”
These musicians bring together various musical styles in subtle ways, such as by incorporating a particular Carnatic rhythm that would be hard to discern as overtly Indian to the novice ears. Yet, such blending of styles requires years of research and has earned significant praise. Looking at the websites of these musicians will reveal almost countless laudatory reviews.
Last week, the Embassy of India co-sponsored a week’s worth of South Asian American jazz artists at the Blues Alley. I had the pleasure of seeing Rez Abbasi play guitar in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto-saxophone quartet on Friday night. It was an electric performance. Each member sounded out in turn and in concert, and Mahanthappa played along a couple of electronic, computer-led jazz episodes as well. This is cutting-edge music, with references to an Indian past and to a high-tech future. The lines between real and recorded are blurred, as they are between East and West both musically and personally.
Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.
by Aditya Desai
The District’s cultural nerve center in the U Street corridor was host to a South Asian hip-hop concert last month, showcasing performances by Indian American MCs, rappers, beat-boxers, and dancers.
The concert, dubbed Drift Elemental and hosted by local South Asian arts organization Subcontinental Drift, drew a heavy crowd on Friday, both Desi and non-Desi, all present to support art and bust a few dance moves.
As they took the stage, the MCs paid tribute to the old school hip-hop that they grew up listening to, each song set an emphatic homage to the culture of back-door hip-hop clubs. That night, New York’s DJ Insomnia and his crew of turntable maestros backed up the vocalists. In between acts, they took center stage and mixed a live dance set, allowing the crowd to not just witness, but in a sense “re-live” the same experience the artists were paying homage to. Filled out by a performance from breakdancers, the night overall stayed very much in the world of one-mic MCs, scratching vinyls, heavy bass beats, and subliminal lyrics.
Vocal acts from Raja Wilco, Ko the Timeless, and Navi & The Whole Damme Delegation set the tone for the night, with lurid rhymes that didn’t wax too poetic about the usual immigrant strife, but still carried the weight of cultural tensions.
And really, why make a big deal of it? It was a South-Asian event, the crowd was mostly populated by brown faces. The show was full-on embrace not of the Indian ancestry, but rather the heritage that these Desi MCs have created in the States.
Just as these MCs grew up with Run DMC, Notorious BIG, and Doug E. Fresh, other Desi kids across the country are striving to be rock legends, pop divas, or symphony stars. Though offhand it would seem that there was too much emphasis on the “Western” aspect, artists would engage with the audience between songs to give background and perspective on encountering these musical styles. For example, an R&B-influenced ballad was always framed in response to Bollywood romance numbers.
The hope is always, of course, that the Indian background is able to bring a fresh spin to the art – not only to keep the Eastern traditions alive, but also to bring a new vibrancy to the Western. Such collaborations aren’t uncommon – Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, Jay-Z and Punjabi MC, Snoop Dogg and Pritam – but perhaps to think of the new horizon: the two musical styles embedded into the single artists.
Perhaps symbolic of the notion was the live-painted mural done by graffiti artists in the concert venue. Though the subcontinent looms in the background, the hijab-donning woman is looks out at us, spray-can in hand, ready to make her mark on the rest of the world.
Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.
by Ted Young (Summer 2011 intern)
If I relied on nothing else other than popular culture to inform me about Indians and Indian Americans I would think that they all have mystical powers somehow related to their religious beliefs… Oh yeah, also they love to dance. Until this summer, when I started doing research for HomeSpun, I never really questioned where these images came from. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but as critical as I am as a Chinese American of the representation of my own ethnic group in the media, I really did not question the ones I saw of Indian Americans. I just accepted that all Indians and Indian Americans had some form of superpower.
Interning here at the Smithsonian APA Program and doing research for the HomeSpun project has opened my eyes to just how ingrained these mystic Indian ideas were in my mind. While researching a range of topics for HomeSpun, from the history of the American circus to the Microsoft Cricket Club, I have been completely fascinated by how India has captured the American imagination.
Indians have long been associated with a certain level of mysticism and magic. Apparently, Indians were considered naturally mystical because 19th century American magicians could not figure out the “Indian Rope Trick” where you can watch here. Though accounts of this trick vary, the basic trick is when the magician makes a rope go up vertically and has a boy climb it. The more outrageous versions of the story have the magician climbing the rope after the boy, cutting him up, and then putting him back together. Despite the numerous published accounts of this trick, audiences have traveled to India to observe it themselves, and huge monetary offers made to learn the secret, American magicians could not figure out how the trick was done. Some tried to explain it as hypnotism while others went as far to claim the trick did not even exist! While the part about the boy disappearing or being cut up and put together is clearly a stretch, to put it mildly, the basic trick of making the rope stand up straight is not. While American magicians could not figure out how this trick was done, they still brushed the trick off as amateur. However, this never stopped them from pursuing ways of imitating it in the United States. The elusiveness of the trick’s secret just increased the trick’s mysticism and the sense of magic and mystery of India.
The mystery and magic associated with India is as embedded in America as deeply as apple pie. From Johnny Quest to Johnny Carson, American cultural icons have been able to tap into the realm of magic by associating with Indians. Jonny Quest had his Hadji, Carson had his Carnac, and even today Homer Simpson has his Apu. The relation between Indians and mysticism transcends generations. Apparently, secrets remain in India that they just won’t share with the rest of us. It allows them to make rope grow into the air, grants them psychic powers, and as any devote Simpsons fan will tell you, allows them to succeed in the realms of small business.
The frustration of not being able to figure out one magic trick is just a small glimpse of the legacy of Indian mysticism in American culture. Personally, I do not even think that the trick is all that impressive, but that could be because I have grown up in an age of computer generated special effects. Seeing a rope stand up by itself does not hold a candle to giant transforming robots fighting each other or Robert Downey Jr. flying around and blowing stuff up or even my smart phone for that matter. Still, the impact of this one trick on American popular culture is astounding. Besides, I still cannot figure out how it’s done.
“Sim Sim Salabim” is what Hadji would say to do magic on the Jonny Quest television show. It has no real meaning or ties to any language.
Ted Young is an African American Studies Major and Sociology Minor at Oberlin College.
by Priya Chhaya
Suspended from the ceiling
A map filled with arts
Dancing over a wheel, a chakra
Calling for virtue from the people.
And at the crowded, energetic stage
Sounds of Rajasthan flow into the melody of the violin
Embrace the dance styling of Punjabi rhythm
Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din.
The art, the dance, the music, the film
All merge together amidst the written word
Imagining the city, embracing the politics
Tagore debates Gandhi
Margins and Majority on the silver screen
India is more than just the sum of its arts
More than a saffron-colored sari, or an exotic smell
But for a short while there is a glimpse,
An attempt to encompass, to gather, to embrace
India at the Max.
For the last twenty days, I attended a variety of shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. From March 1-20, the festival known as Maximum India strove to reveal India to audiences from a variety of perspectives including art, literature, film, dance, song, and comedy. These performances piece together a vision of complexity and variety. My mission for the festival was to enjoy as many of the free performances as I could. What I couldn’t attend in person, I streamed the recording at home as a live webcast or watched an archived performance.
At every performance, I kept in mind one essential question, “If this festival is about Maximum India, what India are we seeing?” I believe that an Indian identity cannot be deciphered through words alone. That identity comes from the collective culture across class, geography, and race. Or, as Nayantara Sahgal stated in the last session I attended: “Identity is something you want it to be, not what others decide for you.”
So, what did I find? I learned that music is a universal language. The rock beats of Raghu Dixit included watching an older couple, dancing cheek to cheek, while waiting to go to the opera. A few yards away, a father and daughter bounced up and down while a smallish mosh pit crowded together near the stage. During a Rajasthani music performance, where a female dancer moved with tiers of pots upon her head, a little boy crawled over my foot to get a better view.
During a literature panel discussing the depiction of Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta in novels, I listened to how authors struggle to portray India beyond the exotic stereotype (spice smelling air and flashes of color). I also visited the exhibit Kaleidoscope: Mapping India’s Crafts. My experience walking through the exhibit was enhanced by video reels, installed at either end, of an individual navigating through an Indian city. Between the two films, various bicycles were on display holding tiffin boxes, pots, ice machines, and other mainstays of crowded urban markets.
As for the other paid performances? I talked to one non-Indian who experienced the Henrik Ibsen play, When We The Dead Awaken, where all lines were read in Manipuri. Even with subtitles, she found it difficult to understand (and screaming of the lines also became a little jarring). I also checked in with my mother who excitedly described her itch to stand up and dance in the back of the theater during the The Manganiyar Seduction where a group of musicians brought in the sounds of the desert while sitting in a series of boxes as high as the theater ceiling. One of my uncles talked about sitting on stage for the maestro Zakir Hussain, and another friend watched in awe as two classical dance forms from different areas of the country came together.
Perhaps that is one of the great things about having festivals such as Maximum India. Even when there is something different for everyone to go to—no two individuals experience the same show in the same way. We all bring our own perspectives to the world around us, and while some may jump up and down at a rock concert, others like to hang back and take in the sounds. The emotional connection that resonates from hearing and seeing is an individual experience.
My last event involved listening with rapt attention as the niece of Nehru and award winning author Salman Rushdie talked about religion, politics and the Indian narrative—marking the changes in India since independence—and showing how the nation changes with every generation. The lecture even stepped outside of India talking about the influence of Tagore in South America, and Gandhi in movements on the other side of the world. Their conversations about how the written word equals resistance and that literature and politics go hand in hand in defining the Indian identity, and that perhaps this festival, and all that we write about it can continue to explore India to the max.
One final note, as I write this from home, I am listening to Panjabi MC (on the webcast) close out the festival. As the song winds down with familiar tones from his 2002 hit with rapper Jay-Z, he calls out over a crowded room for hands to be raised in the air like a pair of drummers hammer out a beat: Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din. I can see that even as this festival becomes a memory—mixing all the conversations I’ve had and images I’ve seen—this festival was also, above all else, a whole lot of fun.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.
by Aditya Desai
I don’t get much time to watch TV, and so one can imagine that I wouldn’t have much interest in tuning into the Emmy Awards. However, I was very delighted to read the headlines and see that British Indian actress Archie Panjabi snagged the award for Best Supporting Actress Drama for her role in CBS’s The Good Wife.
Upon learning this, I clicked over to the show’s IMDb page and main website to see what type of character she portrayed: Kalinda Sharma, a sexy, confident, stiletto-clad private investigator for the show’s Chicago legal firm. She wears smart outfits, dishes clever words with the judges and lawyers, and is supposedly by fan speculation a closeted lesbian.
Here now I, who had zero interest in the show five minutes prior, applaud such a strong and well-defined character of Indian descent. And what is even more commendable, the show’s writers did not retroactively make her Indian upon casting Panjabi. Rather, she was originally written as a “Bollywood Erin Brockovich private investigator” as told in this LA Times interview.
This comes from a steadily growing presence of Desi characters on television, well-known examples being Kelli Kapoor from The Office or Mohinder Suresh from Heroes. But now with an Emmy win, the industry has, intentionally or not, acknowledged the Indian community’s presence in the legal world, typically portrayed in the media as being affluent and high-powered.
So I raise my glass in kudos to both Archie Panjabi and The Good Wife’s writers and production team for creating an Indian American character that simply inhabits the same great personalities played by mainstream actresses without making it about the ethnicity.
I may just decide to make some time in the schedule to tune in to a couple episodes.
by Suhrid Barua
Harishchandrachi Factory, the directorial venture of veteran theater personality Paresh Mokani, was screened at the Baird auditorium located on the Constitution Avenue level of the National Museum of Natural History, as part of the recently held 2009 South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF). As on expected lines, the screening of Harishchandrachi Factory met with massive success.
Harishchandrachi Factory is a 2009 Marathi film (with English sub-titles) which underpins the incredible journey of Dadasaheb Phalke when he went about making Raja Harishchandra in 1913, India’s first full-length feature which subsequently triggered the birth of Indian cinema. The film depicts the obstacles and hurdles the father of Indian film industry faced in the making of Raja Harishchandra.
Set in the early 20th century, Harishchandrachi Factory was shot in the Indian city of Pune. The two-hour-long film is a long overdue tribute to Dadasaheb Phalke, who abandoned a well-established printing business, turned unemployed and then dabbled into filmmaking, sowing the seeds of Bollywood (as Indian film industry is so called) becoming a household name today.
Harishchandrachi Factory is the directorial debut of Paresh Mokani, and it turned out to be a lucky charm for him as the film got elected as India’s official entry to the 82nd Academy Awards in the Foreign Language Film Category. Interestingly, Harishchandrachi Factory beat off competition from 15 films including Bollywood movies like New York and Delhi 6 to get selected for the honor.
Harishchandrachi Factory has also won a slew of awards, perhaps an indication that the film has been received well by the masses. The film took the honors for the best director, best film and best art direction at the 46th Maharashtra State Film Awards, and also for best director at Pune International Film Festival early this year.
What’s more, if the maker of the film is to be believed, this is the first ever film to have been made on Dadasaheb Phalke. The film has Nandu Mahadev playing Dadasaheb Phalke and Vibhavari Deshpande as his wife Saraswati. The other members of the cast include Mohit Gokhale, Atharva Karve, Dilip Joglekar and Pravin Tarde.