“What on earth are you wearing?”
This question was addressed to me, in some form or another, by many of the students gathered for the activities fair last year. As an editor of a campus publication, I was forced to attend the event and, on a whim, had decided to don the kurta and pants lying at the back of my closet. On some level, this was a very simple decision: they are comfortable. Others, however, saw something incongruous in the sight of a New England WASP walking around in traditional Indian clothing, and, admittedly, there was a deeper aesthetic at work, the same reason that there are not one but three kurtas hanging in my wardrobe. Allow me to explain.
To exoticize something assumes that it is pointedly different from one’s personal or inherited experience and that by marking it as “other” or foreign, it may be engaged with as a kind of novelty. My own encounters with cultural difference have always been more complex: born in the South and raised on the Eastern seaboard, I can’t easily identify “roots” anywhere in the United States. While there’s no colonial-era familial homestead, I maintain an easier relationship with the cultural institutions of the Northeast than the South, while still holding dear the “Southern gentility” that allows strangers to cheerily converse and young men to hold doors open. The net result of this sense of dislocation across the Mason-Dixon is that I trace my identity not through my childhood homes, but rather the reading material of my early years: world mythology, including traditions of both the East and West. But I don’t really like those divisions: East, West, Occident, Orient. Those were irrelevant terms to a 5-year-old, and even early on I had a sense of a common human history that would take high school paradigms to geographically splice.
High school wasn’t all damaging dogmatics, though, nor were English-language tales from the Ramayana my sole encounter with the literature of India. Senior year, I had the fortune to read a wonderful novel titled The God of Small Things, the Booker-award winning debut work by Arundhati Roy. In this deliriously elliptical narrative, it wasn’t some recognition of a culture opened to my eyes that struck me, but the familiarity of the prose and its lyric: it was the way I wanted to write. Even steadfast anglophile T.S. Eliot acknowledged the brilliance of Indian literature: after all, when the thunder speaks in The Waste Land, its message is in Sanskrit. Just as Eliot found inspiration in the Upanishads, I’ve discovered my own spark in the works of contemporary authors. Bharati Mukherjee. Jhumpa Lahiri. They and others are often a blueprint for patterning my own composition, just as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has helped me think about why I write at all.
Of course, there are many ways to tell a story, and while I tend to limit myself to the written word, I appreciate that there are many vehicles for narrative expression. Roy recognizes the alternatives, as well: in one of my favorite scenes in literature, from The God of Small Things, her protagonists witness a kathakali performance that becomes a meditation on how timeless histories are perpetually re-inscribed through the movements of the dance. Admittedly, such physicalized narratives exist in Western performances, be it ballet or jazz tap; perhaps, then, it is the multiplicity of traditions, or their histories, that makes Indian dance so fascinating.
Earlier this year, at a bharatanatyam performance, I ended up seated in front of a friend in an advanced Hindi course who was writing a report on the show for his class. Why, he asked, was I there? The answer was, and is, that I’m captivated by the tradition, this physical vocabulary that can make legible both mythical texts and modern-day dramas. Dance removes the fourth wall I feel is imposed by the written page, and, in bharatanatyam, I appreciate the way a story can live in the same space and moment as its audience. The narrative doesn’t even have to be that evolved. Bhangra, too, is meant to evoke joy in both performer and observer, and even if it’s not a detailed tale told in sign, this consonant experience of dancer and audience is one I’ve learned through Indian traditions.
Remarkably, I think this consonance can be replicated on the sound stage as well as a traditional theatre. Reading profiles in Time or USA Today, one would be led to believe that Americans just don’t “get” Bollywood: “Why are there music videos interrupting the story? What’s with all the melodrama?” While I think it’s a bit of simplification to equate Indian cinema with these elements (as any viewing of a Satyajit Ray film might reveal), I also think that Hollywood is possessed of a strange aesthetic amnesia. Sixty years ago, song and dance numbers were a commonplace feature of American films. When did Hollywood become so hung up on verisimilitude that it forgot how to simply make enjoyable movies? To me, the more puzzling question is why the American film industry routinely releases soundtracks or music videos with clips from a feature production, but generally insists on separating music and film as discrete entities. Consequently, I explain my attraction to Bollywood cinema to non-Indian friends by saying that the music doesn’t “interrupt” the action. Dance, acting, and music are, for me, all part of one continuum of storytelling.
“It’s a kurta,” I explained, “a traditional Indian garment.” To those who seemed particularly incredulous, I added, “It’s very comfortable.” Most of them probably still thought I was just being strange, my long history and consideration of Indian aesthetics invisible to them. I hope they’ll come around some day. In the meanwhile, I put on my headset and crank up the bhangra on my CD player.
Joseph Babcock is a graduate student in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.