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Vol 2 Issue 1 January 2009



Art Dance Cinema Literature Cuisine



The idea of India transcends the narrow barriers of religion, language, caste or class, both within and outside the Indian nation. What then do our common cultural values stand for? Throughout history Indian culture has been a living example of pluralism, of assimilation, of tolerance, of inclusiveness and the eternal values of truth and non-violence. It is these values of Indianness that unite us both in ideology and in practice. That is what makes us globally Indian. It is these values that we must uphold to the world in all that we do. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the inaugural address of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2008.

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Consulting Editor

K.G. Sreenivas
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n retrospective, the Prime Ministers words have had a prophetic resonance. For the past year was a watershed year, marked by cataclysmic events in Mumbai where a terror attack took the city hostage for nearly three days and claimed the lives of over 160 people while injuring over 200. The defining images of 2008 were those of Indias citizenry, cutting across creed and faith, coming together to defy the doctrine of hate and terror that shook the country and the world alike, like no other event has in recent times. The Prime Ministers words were prescient when he referred to the idea of Indianness. It was this spontaneous union in diversity that, in the final analysis, defined Indias nationhood. From those dreadful three days in November to this day has marked a period of introspection for Indias civil society. The wound may take a while to heal, but the spirit of the city of Mumbai, which to the world has symbolised Indias economic power and resilience, is unbroken. Ordinary policemen, citizens and special forces who laid down their lives both as innocent victims and valiant warriors to defend the city were the ultimate custodians of civil faith. Mumbai, in many ways, defined the final frontiers of national resilience On the occasion of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Pravasi Bharatiya pays tribute to those valiant men and women who represented some of Indias finest. Pravasi Bharatiya presents you, once more, a special edition to welcome you to Chennai, another historic city which has given the world iconic pravasis who make us proud. This edition makes a modest attempt to capture the diasporic fusion and synthesis of culture as represented in its arts and sculpture, cinema, dance, the written word, and that great unifier of hearts and souls food. From scholars and practitioners and writers to aficionados, Pravasi presents a diversity of amazing

vignettes and insights alike from the world of culture. Dr. Uttara Asha Coorlawala, New York-based professor of dance and choreographer and a consummate practitioner of the swirling graces, says how a diasporic natya shastra presents newer resonances and a newer cultural text and context to Indias classical art forms. Uttara says it calls for constant plumbing for deeper messages of humanity and for re-interpreting (for new contexts) pre-fixed ideas of identity and tradition. Dislocation, exile and angst are recurring themes in the life of the Written Word in diasporic literature. Pravasi presents a very special writer-artiste-performer who acknowledge(s) that the friction produced by my difference and lack of any sense of belonging has been fuel for my creativity. Those who do not have a home make one wherever they can find it... I seek that which is similar and therefore familiar. I find resonances of all those things which fundamentally stir me... Sharanya Manivannan, born incidentally in Chennai, but raised in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, reflects on the shamanic metamorphoses contexts lend her art and craft. Dr. Vidya Dehejia, Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, reflects on the replication and re-contexting of Indian architecture and building traditions in the United States. Temples in the US have become a referencing point and a cultural matrix of nostalgia and home. Alienation, angst and the urgent need to identify where I really belonged, spurred Tushar Unadkats motive sources of creativity. Tushar, a Canadian filmmaker of Indian origin, talks of his craft and oeuvre and how Indian cinema helps him traverse a variety of cultures and mediums with remarkable ease. Pravasi also takes you on a world tour of Indian diasporic cuisine, presenting you nuggets of crunchy, spicy and delicious food for thought and pleasure! Food keeps body and soul together and food keeps a nations traditions and memories alive even as they morph into a variety of delectable forms around the world. Welcome to the world of food, flavours and fragrances. In this edition, catch up with Thanabalan from Malaysia who is trying to establish bonds

with the relations of his forefathers who went to Malaysia over a century ago from Karaikal in Tamil Nadu. The wider the world becomes, the smaller it seems to become! Pravasi also brings to you news from the world of economy as it battles its biggest ever crisis since the Great Depression of 1929. At the G-20 Summit in Washington, Prime Minister Dr. Singh called for restoration of ethic and credibility in the global financial system. Summing up his prescription to deal with the crisis, he said, I would like to emphasise the importance of broad-based multilateral approaches to our efforts. Bodies such as the G-7 are no longer sufficient to meet the demands of the day. We need to ensure that any new architecture we design is genuinely multilateral with adequate representation from countries reflecting changes in economic realities. Also read a special feature on vallamkali Pravasi urges you to find out more about it in the pages that await you. For this and much more, we present you this special edition of Pravasi. The Great Indian Diaspora had arrived when the first travellers from India set foot on distant shores with ideas and enterprise. Today, in many ways, it represents a continuum which links us to a collective destiny and its shared memories. Pravasi Bharatiya welcomes you to the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and wishes you a great meeting of minds from across the globe. K.G. Sreenivas

Fluid, protean and eclectic there is no definitive form to an art unbound by tradition across diasporic culture


The meeting of local and Islamic cultures fuelled what is now Kathak. In Thanjavur, several cultures seemed to have contributed to the canon of Bharatanatyam.

Of intersecting

Swirling and rippling into all kinds of shapes as dance forms and dancers buzz back and forth from India, a diasporic natya shastra is read anew and resonates with surprising implications in its transplanted context and time, says Uttara Asha Coorlawala 24

he notion of Indian diasporic dance is linked with ideas of a central source dance form that is encircled with ever more distant echoes of itself rippling outwards. In this conception, geography and time are complicit in establishing a dominant central form as authoritative and as the circles dilate, relationship with Indianness whatever that is or is not is diluted. This notion can be inspirational, grounding and reassuring in that it calls for constant plumbing for deeper messages of humanity and for re-interpreting (for new contexts) pre-fixed ideas of identity and tradition. It is also a deeply problematic kind of theorising of the diasporic condition when it demands that hegemonies of purity and

authenticity must conflict with needs to assimilate socially and relate to global changes. This problem is being thrashed out in global forums today. I reference a very recent passionate discussion on the Odissi dance listserve (with its world wide readership) on what is and is not admissible as Odissi dance, all this just 50 years after Odissi dance was discovered and revived. Laid bare in the discussions were the needs of those artistes who must press up against boundaries versus the needs of others who want to hold to what they have learned, to value and master after considerable sacrifice and bodily investments. Issues as aesthetic excellence, technical mastery, depth, cultural inheritance, control,

and intellectual copyright/guru-dakshina issues were raised in the Edebate to the confusion of those who would disagree on some aspects of the discussion while agreeing with others. It is only certain that the intensity of these lively exchanges highlight the fact that a lot of people around the globe feel very strongly about this dance form and its future. I want to point out that scholars have established that the encounter between Indian dance and the West happened long before 1984s East West Dance Encounter in Mumbai It keeps on happening from the meeting of inquiring minds of the Mughal and Thanjavur courts to the re-formation of local forms into high classical art dances based on San-

skrit shastras that is into homegrown dances of the book in the early 20th century. The meeting of local and Islamic cultures fuelled what is now Kathak. In Thanjavur, several cultures seemed to have contributed to the canon of Bharatanatyam Tamil, Telugu, Maharatta and colonial influences were embraced, evidencing both intra cultural and cross cultural fusion. Lakshmi Subramaniam for example has written of how Raja Serfoji II (a Maratha king in Thanjavur) composed marching military tunes as far back as in 1803! The discourse of colonial and even post-colonial times, was fuelled by what Subramaniam calls the assimilation of modernity flowing from Europe, with its science, humanism and notions of self, national and governance. At the risk of reiterating the obvious, I want to remember that the encounter with external ideas happens with every translation between performance and the moment that performance is explained in any language other than that of dance. The new ideas are perceived either as contaminating or provocative depending on perspective and extent to which the ideas are imposed or embraced. Translations and generational transmissions have often restructured

pravasi bharatiya | january


pravasi bharatiya | january




Stage presence accrues from constant writing onto the dancers body what the audiences want and how they see. Viewer responses to performances acquire significance in relationship with the viewers prior experiences.

what we received, and so that embrace of cultural difference is already a part of what my generation inherited, before any of us moved outside India. During our glasnost developmental period when I was growing up, however, we believed passionately that there was some elementally Indian aspect of ourselves that we needed to find, and that the act of recovering it, would make us whole. Perhaps it did. And try explaining that today? Most current discourse on Indian dance forms attempts to prove or interrogate

just that! Among the most popular cultural exports from India today are its Hindi films, NRI films and Bollywood dance. What we once considered markers of foreign influence have become signals of authenticity, of Indianness, for a generation of young Americans of Indian origin. For example, the sinful hip thrusts of Helens generation have morphed into Saroj Khans and Shiamak Davars jhatkas and matkas. Although, the markers of authenticity/difference within multi-tiered classes, pluralistic religious and secu-

lar cultural practices (let alone beliefs) are incredibly divergent, my recollection of performing for audiences around India, and later beyond, taught me how dance is so much more than what one does. Arduous hours of work are not by themselves enough. Stage presence accrues from constant writing onto the dancers body what the audiences want and how they see. Viewer responses to performances acquire significance in relationship with the viewers prior experiences. These responses may or may not coincide with the performers

own contexts as in the recent superbly nuanced performance in Los Angeles by a Chennai performer, but which provoked a diverse range of responses and post performance writings . In October 2006 in a performance presented by in Los Angeles, a quintessential dancer and a multiple award winning artiste from Chennai, presented an entire performance of abhinaya, exploring the interior landscape of various women-protagonists (nayika). However, what provoked considerable comment was not so much her departure from the tradi-


pravasi bharatiya | january


pravasi bharatiya | january





1) See Lakshmi Subramaniam, Embracing the Canonical and the anthology Performing Pasts: Reinventing The Arts In Modern South India eds Indira Viswanathan Peterson and Devesh Soneji. Oxford University Press New Delhi. 2008 2) Responses included articles by Ramaa Bharadvay in (October 2006) & reprinted by National Sunday edition of Indian Express, India. Further responses included Lewis Segal, Senior Dance Critic, Los Angeles Times, CA Nov 2, 2006. and, 3) My career was inaugurated by the USIS, upon some consular officer or editors discovery of young girl in New York on student visa studying at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. In those days, there were very few persons from India with student visas and these tended to be graduates in technological and highly scientific studies. The USIS went on to sponsor my national tours of my dance performances across India. Perhaps their agenda was different from mine, but the performance tours (1973 & 1976, 1978) encouraged me to develop what I had hoped then would germinate an Indian modern dance. Ironically, then I ended up performing just that as an Indian cultural representative in Europe, as an ICCR empanelled dancer until I sustained a torn Anterior cruciate ligament and ripped cartilage in both knees accumulated from dancing on too many hard stage floors. It was at this point, that one of my friends observed in a dance conference in New Delhi, that I seemed to have been liberated into a new wider, perspective on dance, seeing more clearly a wider picture of who dances, and who calls the tunes.

tional concert format as her focus on the independent women portrayed in these poems, women who asserted their subjectivity in relationship to men. For anxious diaspora mothers, who had brought their young daughters to the dance recital to educate them in Indian morals, apparently the constructions of gender implied by the padam-s and javali-s were problematic. Yet others commended the performers choice and interpretations of nayikas, as having offered much needed models of subversive female icons in Indian culture icons who had been invisible to this generation. Here we have an instance when one past already re-written by early post independence social reform in the memory of the performer is read anew and resonates with sur-

prising implications in its transplanted context and time. The presence of multigenerational audiences and memories in the new country complicates reception of that past. The most wonderful aspects of the Indian dance forms today is that so many people dancers and nondancers come to crisis over the cultural and the technological, the material and the ideological, religious and secular, the erotic and the spiritual; when they are discussing dance. It amazes me that regardless of diaspora and source locations, there seem to be audiences and participants attuned to these discussions. This speaks to the complexity of cultural, historical and power implications inherent in bodies and in the patterning of behaviours and ideas that are the

structures and grammars of dance. I cannot here presume or dare to unravel this Gordian knots of investments, tatvas, fatwahs and agendas. I write only from my perspective of having danced professionally (70s to early 90s) and as a cultural representative of two governments, and of having lived my life bi-continentally. I have seen how my body and my choreographies were shushed in dichotomised representations of nation and West: how they were celebrated as first as examples of cultural transcendence, (as fusion in India of the 70s) and later as examples of diversity, exoticism (80s in Europe) and cultural multiplicity

(90s in India and the US). Looking back, I am pleased that the times of oppositional discussion are winding down and giving way to more plural ways of thinking about cultural expression. Today, years later, I am grateful for that my life in New York city with my family, and my positions at Barnard, Alvin Ailey and Long Island University, where I have opportunities to interact with young talented dancers of diverse cultural backgrounds. I am pleased when the young dancers are drawn to understand more deeply not only what they themselves can accomplish, but also what they might learn from what Indian dance is and has been. It gives me great joy to be involved with their processes and observe their directions of exploration. It is time to think of not one, but lots of adjacent circles intersecting, swirling, rippling, into all kinds of shapes as dance forms and dancers buzz back and forth from India to locales around the world, and as the YouTube pick-of-the-day enters my sensory world and that of my son and his friends. !


pravasi bharatiya | january


pravasi bharatiya | january



US-based Indian dancer, choreographer and teacher Uttara Asha Coorlawala performing Draupadis Saree, a fusion dance influenced by elements of Indian classical dances.

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Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs