Destination Culture

At Diasporadics, a two-day South Asian arts/activist festival held in October 2000 at the Riverside Church Theatre in New York's Upper West Side, Shonali Bose screened her film, Lifting the Veil. A documentary on workers rights in India, Lifting the Veil depicts the aftermath of the economic "liberalization" policies instituted by the postcolonial Indian government in 1991. Bose's film uses interviews with corporate executives, conversations with millworkers and manual labourers, and a voice-over narration to comment on the conditions of the Indian working class in an era of globalization. As multinational firms make inroads into the Indian domestic market, urban and rural landscapes are flooded with advertisements for Pepsi and Coca-Cola, while the urban poor become a supply of industrial labour, subject to the demands of globalizing capital. Lifting the Veil drew expressions of shock and outrage from viewers in the audience, numbering almost 250 young South Asian Americans. At the end of the film screening, Bose herself came onstage to denounce the socio-economic policies of the Indian state. In a rousing voice, shaking her fist, Bose demanded that the audience recognize the continued exploitation of Third World labour, aided by a combination of transnational capital, World Bank/IMF, and de-nationalization policies. The audience listened carefully, and cheered after Bose's talk. Yet there were also visible stirrings of discomfort in the audience: the viewers were chastised, and dutifully noted the call to join a working class anti-capitalist movement, but many of the young South Asians present at the screening were strangely distanced from the urgent geographical context of the film. In Shonali Bose's film and speech, South Asia becomes a real geo-political construct, brought ever-closer to the United States through new regimes of capital accumulation; yet however much Bose exhorts her viewers to participate in a political movement specific to the development of the modern Indian state, her efforts jar with the imagined construct of South Asia that is actively and continuously produced at Diasporadics -- a mythical "South Asia" that seeps through the organizational rhetoric and cultural programming of this arts/activist festival.

The screening of Lifting the Veil at Diasporadics 2000, and the contradictory and complex reactions that it provoked in the audience, illustrates the different forms of political activism that are made available to second-generation South Asian Americans at South Asian arts/activist festivals. Arts/activist festivals, such as Desh Pardesh (http://www.deshpardesh.net), Diasporadics, and Artwallah (http://www.artwallah.org), are an increasingly popular form of creative and political expression among second-generation South Asian Americans in metropolitan cities across north America, travelling from Toronto to New York to Los Angeles. On stage at Desh Pardesh, Diasporadics, and Artwallah, the floor is filled with singer-songwriters, dramatists, poets, writers, and visual artists, as well as puppeteers, dancers, and filmmakers. Using the arts as a form of public action, rather than passive consumption, the festivals showcase emerging forms of creative expression among young South Asians in the United States and Canada. As an advertisement for Diasporadics 2000 proclaims, the festival celebrates "the nexus between arts and activism in the south asian diaspora."

Given the increasing numbers of young urban South Asians who participate in arts/activist festivals, I want to ask two questions. First, what is the definition of "progressive action" that defines the format and content of these festivals, and what implications does this have for the location of "politics"? Second, what histories of "South Asia" circulate at the arts/activist festivals in order to generate collective notions of community? At a historical moment when the increasingly right-wing orientations of the U.S. state threatens to erase the specificity of immigrant histories, and glide over differences of class, sexuality, and gender, arts/activist festivals are a particularly important site from which to rethink the politics of organization among young South Asian Americans.

Diasporadics and Artwallah in the United States are both based on Desh Pardesh, which was first held in Canada in 1989. Desh Pardesh (translated as, "home Away From Home"), grew out of "Salaam Toronto!", a one-day arts event in 1988 sponsored by Khush, the Toronto-based South Asian gay men's organization, and was originally aimed at increasing gay and lesbian visibility in the South Asian and "mainstream" Canadian communities. Over the past decade, Desh Pardesh became a multi-day exhibition, workshop, and performance space with a commitment to queer, feminist, and labour-oriented programming. Funded by academic institutions, film boards and media groups, and by state-sponsored grants for lesbian/gay resources, Desh Pardesh quickly became an iconic forum for left-oriented and queer South Asian artists, activists, and academics in Canada and abroad. The breadth of programming that the Desh Pardesh festival board and the South Asian Visual Artists Collective (SAVAC) was able to curate each year enabled Desh Pardesh to function as a queer community space to organize around a wide variety of issues, political organization around a wide variety of issues, such as immigration laws, worker's rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and their relationship to the experiences of young South Asians in North America. In the process, Desh Pardesh became a cultural festival produced and celebrated by a South Asian diasporic community: that is, a "home away from home" for a community shaped not only by their common geographical distance from the Indian subcontinent, but also by recognition of the fact that the invocation of a place called "South Asia" as "home" only works outside the subcontinent. At Desh Pardesh, socializing and organizing around a collective identity as "South Asian" informed a class-based notion of progressive political action that directly confronted the racism of Canadian multiculturalism.

Seeking its inspiration from the organizational format and programming content of Desh Pardesh, Diasporadics in New York was first held in 1999, followed by Artwallah, which opened in Los Angeles in the spring of 2000. Diasporadics is organized by a changing collective of artists, activists, and academics in the greater New York area. Artwallah, on the other hand, has the institutional and financial backing of the Indo-American Cultural Center (http://www.iacc-la.org). While Diasporadics is funded through local community organizations, as well as individual donors, Artwallah is funded largely through private donations from business groups and individuals in the Indian American community, as well as a California state arts grant.

Like their Canadian counterpart, Diasporadics and Artwallah showcase local and international young South Asian artists in workshops and evening cultural shows; yet unlike Desh Pardesh's commitment to feminist, queer, and class-based direct action politics, programming at both Diasporadics and Artwallah emphasize a cultural identity-based politics. The programme booklet at Diasporadics 2000 informs the audience that:

The members of DIASPORADICS are committed to a progressive politics rooted in creative expression. We seek to provide a community forum that uses the arts to critique and resist social structures which marginalize individuals based on class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, age or physical ability.

Through the rhetoric of liberal individualism, Diasporadics espouses an identity-based politics of difference. Here, "progressive" action takes the form of adequate concern with "social structures" of race, gender, class, sexuality, and disability. Given that Diasporadics is a forum of expression oriented towards South Asians in diaspora, its programming must also be concerned with the territorial, linguistic, and religious divides between various nation-states on the Indian subcontinent to which some of the participants trace their history, and which may also inform different locations of political activism. However, by creating a vision of "South Asia" that side-steps other dominant structures of difference, such as language, caste, or region, Diasporadics fails to recognize that these other structures of difference are not just of concern to first-generation South Asian immigrants in America, but also have consequences for the form and content of political organization among second-generation South Asian Americans. By encouraging a form of cultural politics based on individual expressions of personal identity, Diasporadics and Artwallah foster a mythical notion of "South Asia": a South Asia that refers not to a real place of origin or geo-political location of politics, but to a common racial denominator of U.S. citizenship.

Occupying the back wall of the three-hour long visual arts exhibition at Diasporadics 2000, and on display for the full three days of Artwallah 2001, was a set of lithographs made by the Seattle-based artist Ameen Gill, titled The Mango Tree. Six panels, each eight feet long, are printed with photographs of the artist's father, grandfather, great-grandfather and their families, men who voyaged from India to north America in the early twentieth century. The panel series begins with Gill's great-grandfather who immigrated from rural Punjab to California in 1906, who found work as a groundskeeper for a U.S. senator in Santa Ana, and never returned to India; the next lithograph is a portrait of Gill's grandfather, who migrated from India to California in the 1920s, via Cuba and Mexico. Gill's grandfather ultimately found work in the lumberyards of Vancouver, and immigrated from the United States to Canada join an already-established Sikh community there. There is also a lithograph of Gill's own father, who left Punjab in 1933 to go directly to Vancouver, also to work in the lumber mills. The panels are interspersed with portrait photographs of the families that Gill's great-grandfather and grandfather left behind in India: wives and daughters who never accompanied them to Canada, and sons who followed in their footsteps.

Against the backdrop of the each panel photograph are faint handwritten scratches of words, transcribing a century of travel. As Gill writes down an oral history of her family's migration across the lithographs, she intervenes in the narrative which frames the portrait prints. Her intervention provides a sense of coherence to this series of lithographs, attempting to make sense of disjunctured lines of travel charted by men in her family, particularly in relation to the women they married and families that remained in India. The history of Gill's paternal family's travels from Punjab to north America does not necessarily need to be read coherently across the order of the panels. Printed on turban cloth, the lithographs are an insistent reminder of the ethnic and religious difference that marked the racial segregation of Sikhs in Canada and the United States in the early twentieth century, and that continues to operate as a sign for racial difference today.

The Mango Tree was a focal point of attraction in the exhibition room. In Gill's remembered history, the invocation of "South Asia" becomes a name for a geographical point of origin that is in some sense as mythological as it is historical: or what Audre Lorde might call, a "bio-mythography." In her book, Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name, Lorde imaginatively rewrites her own family's immigration from Grenada to Harlem to produce a narrative that is both autobiographical in content and mythical in form and reference. In the process, Grenada is historicized as a mythological source for Lorde's feminist and lesbian activism in the United States. Similarly, while the routes of travel narrated through the lithographs chart Gill's paternal history of migration -- leaving open the question of how Gill locates herself in this history as a South Asian Canadian woman -- The Mango Tree succeeds in producing a biomythography of travel that refers "back" to South Asia as a place of memory, nostalgia, a past time. Here "South Asia" becomes a space writ large from the very local history of immigration from the Punjab, and its success as a collective viewing experience means that divergent histories of immigration among viewers at the festivals must be at once recognized and elided. The Mango Tree reminds us that the history of South Asian immigration to north America is not only about the emigration of a professional class in the mid-1960s, but also about a ongoing history of labour migration that began under colonial administration of the subcontinent and continues in the economic liberalization policies instituted by the postcolonial Indian state today. At the same time, The Mango Tree is a story of those who are left behind: wives and daughters, whose own migrations only take place within the heterosexual compact of marriage. Given that the lithographs were displayed at both Diasporadics 2000 and Artwallah 2001, The Mango Tree operates as a cross-continental viewing experience, one in which Gill's personal history begins to stand in for the "family tree" of South Asian migration to the Americas as a whole, and in which her use of old portrait photographs, oral narratives, and turban cloth makes a remembered "South Asia" a real place in America.

In light of the larger organizational format of Diasporadics as a festival for an emergent racial minority in the United States, Lifting the Veil and Shonali Bose's presence on stage is an intervention which is strangely out of place. The labour activism and political economy that Bose speaks to is "over there" in India; progressive South Asians -- namely those who attend and participate in Diasporadics and Artwallah -- are meant to be concerned with the issues that Bose and her film raise, both in the general context of protest against the globalization of capital, and in the film's specific reference to the condition of the Indian working class. Yet the palpable feeling of unease in the audience that night leads me to think that Bose's film was deposited outside the project of Diasporadics. At a festival that celebrated cultural productions by second-generation South Asian Americans, films like Lifting the Veil produced a sense of guilt in the audience at an event which was, in some sense at least, about feeling good (feeling good about being South Asian American, about being queer and South Asian, etc). Lifting the Veil was out of place at a festival where the majority of artwork performed and on display was experiential, speaking directly from the artists' own life biographies -- experiences that did not necessarily comment on the relationship between South Asian immigration to America and the political economy of globalization. Thus, while The Mango Tree brought home to Diasporadics and Artwallah a nostalgic vision of homeland, Lifting the Veil demonstrated how much closer South Asia has come to America in terms of labour markets, and yet how distant it remains in terms of unequal distribution of capital. In doing so, Lifting the Veil highlighted the geographical and political limits of a mythical notion of "South Asia."

In November 2000, the executive board of directors of Desh Pardesh and members of SAVAC began to circulate on various South Asian arts-related email lists an urgent call for donations. Between decreasing Canadian government funding for minority/multicultural arts and rising demand from the diasporic South Asian arts community for a multi-day arts/activist festival, the Desh Pardesh board found itself short of funds to pay off a $10,000 annual operating cost, and in debt by $50,000 overall, thereby invalidating its funding status for the year 2001-2. The email flyer, which sought to generate financial support for Desh Pardesh in recognition of its work as the original arts/activist festival, was circulated to a number of queer, arts-related, and progressive political South Asian organizations and individuals, but was met with limited response. The inability to raise enough private funds to sustain the annual festival forced the Desh Pardesh board to acknowledge the festival's lack of viability as a long-running financial enterprise. On May 31, 2001, the executive board of directors finally announced the closure of Desh Pardesh.

The demise of Desh Pardesh was also an end of an era in community-oriented activism within the South Asian American community. For the decade of its existence, Desh Pardesh was a monument to the possibility of creating diasporic communities that worked through national, linguistic, and religious differences in order to create a queer, anti-racist, and activist South Asian collectivity. Yet as the final public letter from the executive board stated, Desh Pardesh closed with the hope that "Desh's presence has and will continue to inspire the development of new forums and venues for artistic and political expression."

With the demise of Desh Pardesh, the second-generation South Asian American arts/activist community now relies upon Diasporadics and Artwallah as its only major forums for creative political expression. However, Desh Pardesh's closure due to lack of funds emphasized the need for festivals like Artwallah to operate as viable financial enterprises, rather than simply function as community-based forums for political and artistic expression. A day after the announcement of Desh Pardesh's closure, Sarita Vasa, executive director of the IACC, posted an open letter on South Asian arts-related email groups. Invoking the prospective threat of Artwallah's closure due to lack of funds, Vasa solicited individual donations in $100 and $500 amounts for Artwallah, offering incentives ranging from private evenings with prominent media figures to discounts on IACC events. The privatization of Artwallah has significant implications for the structural format and political content of arts/activist festivals in general: if Desh Pardesh was committed to queer, feminist, and labour-oriented programming, then festivals like Artwallah appeal to middle-class family units for private donor funding. The impact of private funding on the politics of organizing among second-generation South Asian Americans cannot be underestimated. As Artwallah and Diasporadics emerge as the only remaining venues for South Asian arts/activist festivals in north America, the emphasis of both festivals on identity-based politics, and the liberal political vision of Artwallah in particular makes it increasingly unlikely that a focus on creating queer South Asian community spaces and fostering direct activist politics can be sustained. What that implies for the viability of "South Asian" as a political, rather than singularly cultural, term of collective action remains to be seen.

Comments

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