Monday, April 26, 2004

Time Magazine Shows More Desi Love

Time has published another flattering articlediscussing the rising tide of South Asian-American influence in the U.S.

"The brash young man seizes the stage of Manhattan's Broadway Theater, sings and dances to a vigorous bhangra and, feeling his rock-star-in-the-making oats, shouts, "Are ya with me, Bombay? ... Are ya with me, New York?" This scene from the new musical Bombay Dreams poses the cultural question of the moment. South Asian pop — Bollywood movies, Indian music and dance, the whole vibrant masala of subcontinental culture — not only enthralls a billion Indians at home but also spans half the world, from Africa and the Middle East to Eastern Europe and the Indian diaspora in Britain and the U.S. Now Indi-pop is close to a critical mass in the U.S. The 2 million American Desis (mainly people of Indian and Pakistani heritage) have made it a burgeoning niche industry. But can it finally catch on in the mall theaters and dance clubs and living rooms of America? Will ya be with it, New York? New Orleans? Nebraska?

The cultural stew is simmering and ready to boil over. Just as Indian food graduated from big-city exotica to mainstream international cuisine, Indi-pop culture could become a new part of American pop culture. It certainly has the energy and glamour to curry favor with more than those who favor curry. It might even gain the hipness it has in Britain — where, as Meera Syal, the original librettist of Bombay Dreams, boldly said, "Brown is the new black."

Meera Syal is right. Brown is the new Black. Brown is the new "it" ethnicity, and Brown is going to be the next accepted section of American society. This isn't jsut because of Bombay Dreams, or Monsoon Wedding. It isn't because Bollywood has finally come to Hollywood, or because Gurinder Chadha has showed the world that it isn't just white British Suburbia who long to bend a ball like Bekcham, and live lives like everyone else. It isn't because South Asians in America are intelligent, or work hard, or drive cabs, or are doctors and engineers, and tech heads. It is because Desis have come to America, and shared with pride, our culture, our music, our religions, ourselves, in order to become productive and recognized members of American society.

"This process, notes writer Hanif Kureishi, "is inevitable, because culture moves forward by taking new and original voices from the margin and moving them into the center. You saw it with Elvis. You saw it with Toni Morrison." If Bombay Dreams is a hit, you may see it with Indian composer A.R. Rahman. You can already see it in the critical and commercial success of novelists like Kureishi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje and Arundhati Roy. Their success has led the way for a slew of South Asians, including Michelle de Kretser (from Sri Lanka), Monica Ali (from Bangladesh) and Mohsin Hamid (from Pakistan)."

It seems that a lot is riding on the success of Bombay Dreams, and while this play may (or may not) mark the arrival of desi-American culture on a truly mainstream level, it is important to note that this broadway production, while it does have cultural significance, it is not the final arbiter of whether or not all things desi have arrived. Indeed, since 1997, and Talvin Singh's album Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground, was released, Singh introduced what at that time came to be known as the era of Asian Cool. That was 97-seven years ago, and the desi "thing" is still going strong. Many discussions amongst those interested in the status of the diaspora discuss whether or not Desi music, movies, and culture is here to stay, or just part of a passing fad. My feeling is that we are on to something new here, a new genre that is not just a mix of west and east, or a tradtional meets modern genre, but a desi-American genre rivalling the genre created in the last 1990's by Latin American immigrants and members of its diaspora. "The Indian Thing" has been discussed as a passing fad for far too long to actually be one. Soon, Barnes and Nobles and Borders will have a desi-American section, as will Tower Records, and Blockbuster video. Starbucks will be forced to have chai (minus the latte) that actually mimics the beverage available on the subcontinent, and samosas will actually be available in the pastry case. If not, I guess I will have to open a store that encompasses all those things myself.

And incidentally, another indicator of how popular Bollywood and desi culture is becoming--ABC's, The Bachelor will feature Bollywood themed dates on its upcoming episode.

Anyway--to read the full story, click here.

I will leave the post with this quote by Mira Nair that features in the Time Article:

"I came from India to Harvard in 1976," Nair recalls, "and I was one of only three Indians in the undergraduate class. Five years ago, when I went back, Harvard had 1,500 South Asian students. Which means in five more years, America will be run by people who look like us. We bear no illusions about the elite anymore. We are the elite."

That is empowering.


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