Re-Imagining South Asian Diasporic Culture

by Vijay Iyer

[E]ven more strongly apparent is the predominance of the imaginative faculty among the Indians, as is seen even in their science and that peculiar tendency to mysticism which this faculty has imparted to the whole Indian philosophy... This decided and peculiar character of the whole intellectual culture of the Indians will not permit us to doubt which of the various faculties of the soul is there the ruling and preponderant element.
- Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of History (1890)

Imagine yourself the wealthy, British owner of a lush tea estate in Ceylon around the turn of the century. Your breakfast tea would have tasted a good deal like Awake.
Ingredients: A blend of high grown, hand-picked black teas and the mumbled chantings of a certified tea shaman.

- From the wrapper of a Tazo "Awake" brand teabag made in Portland, Oregon (1997)

First, a factual distinction: my family is South Asian, not (as I am frequently mistakenly described) Southeast Asian. The South Asian subcontinent includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka (formerly "Ceylon"), Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. Southeast Asia typically is meant to include the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar. The notion of "South Asian identity" is a recent invention intended to promote solidarity among the "imagined community" of diasporic peoples of the various South Asian cultures, who have been treated typically as one monolithic people, and targeted as such in acts of racism and imperialism. The term "South Asian" functions in much the same way that "East Asian" or "Southeast Asian" or the umbrella term "Asian" does, namely, to unify diverse peoples against common obstacles, in the name of empowerment and coalition-building. Note that "East Asian American" is frequently and erroneously conflated with "Asian American," whereas the latter should rightfully encompass East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples living in the Americas.

Since I come from the east coast, I am used to being around a lot of people of South Asian origin. Demographically, we are just more present there. Of the million of us in this country, more than half reside in the New York - New Jersey - Pennsylvania region alone.

But I have found that on this coast, the catch-all term "Asian" most often refers specifically to the cultures of the Pacific Rim. Thus, when my first album was released on Asian Improv Records in 1995, I was asked by a prominent Bay Area Euro-American musician why India is considered part of Asia. When I pointed out that the South Asian subcontinent is by definition a subset of Asia, he inquired why he couldn't also be included on the label, since "Northwest Asia" should be worthy of equal consideration.

My colleague's facetious remark made me wonder: If (in your imagination) India isn't in Asia, then where IS it, if it exists at all? And more importantly, if South Asia -- a full 20% of the world's population -- is invisible to you, then am I, too? And if so, what can someone like me possibly do in the arts, when people sharing your views sit on arts panels, college faculties, and grant boards?

In light of this widespread viewpoint, it has been no small step for Asian Improv to include me on its roster in any capacity at all. Despite its status as a progressive Asian-American organization, only recently has AIR begun to make connections with other Asian communities in addition to Japanese and Chinese ones. For this I applaud and thank them, and only encourage the collective to take more steps, to initiate more intensive outreach to South and Southeast Asian communities.

My parents came to the US in the mid-'60s. They were on the front end of the wave of immigrants who were allowed in at that time because of a major shift in immigration policy. This makes me part of the first major generation of South Asians born in this country. And as our generation comes of age, a number of us are learning what it means to attempt to assume nonstereotypical roles, such as community activists and artists, in contrast with the stereotypical roles such as engineers and anesthesiologists at one extreme, or cab drivers and 7-11 storeowners at the other.

We find that we tend to have a hard time being heard. Instead what we have experienced in this country is either this variety of invisibility, or a pressure to conform to what I have been calling the "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" view of South Asia, namely the concept that the entirety of South Asian cultures can be emblemized by their purchasable items -- fabrics, trinkets, fine arts, tasty foods, and watered-down glosses of our religious texts.

This year, the 50th anniversary of independence from the British Raj, has been witness to this phenomenon. Never mind the fact that one billion of us have to contend each day with what it means to be a part of this splintered, tumultuous post-colonial South Asian supercommunity. If we want to be South Asian artists, we are expected to treat our ethnicity in obvious and reductive ways, to appeal to the wealthy British plantation owner in everybody, by dressing up our contemporary ideas in saris and lungis, in bangles and bindis, in turbans and pointy shoes, in the shamanistic chantings, robust teas, exotic incense smokes, and shimmering tanpura drones of imagined, Orientalist India.

But I refuse.

Instead, I have attempted to focus on aspects of my heritage that naturally interest me, and to refract them through my own heterogeneous awareness. I must begin from the standpoint that my worldview -- that of a real person with a body, a soul, memories, emotions -- is a valid product of this world, and it has given me something to say, and I feel that I can say it through music. This concept is notoriously difficult to sell to media-types who want a 15-second encapsulation of your life's work, who want to work with The Idea Of You rather than with you, the human being.

My parents are of South Indian origin (i.e. their families came from Tamil-speaking regions in southern India), but they each grew up in urban centers like Bombay and Hyderabad, which are increasingly cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse -- by which I mean that many of the hundred-odd South Asian language-cultures are represented. One aspect of their subsequent cultural legacy that I value is the constant multiplicity of languages that have always been part of their lives. Implicit in this awareness is an acceptance of difference, and an openness and adaptability to different cultural influences. I do not mean that adaptation takes place at the expense of previous cultural ties, but rather that other viewpoints are respected equally with one's own. Another aspect of their lives that has found its way into my awareness is a certain kind of critical consciousness, reflected partially in their ambivalence towards their homeland, traditions, and religion, much of which they left behind when they came to this country.

I could describe the result as a deeply improvisational way of life. As my family sought to carve out a niche for itself in American society, we had to stay acutely aware and to readjust continually to their environment, in order to flourish without compromising our sense of self. The factors of racism and intolerance were alleviated by our taking part in social, religious, and cultural events in the small Indian diasporic community where we lived, and maintaining ties with relatives in India as well as we could. But we couldn't resist the forces of assimilation, which, indeed, structured the minds of my generation, as we grew up bombarded by mainstream media.

In its broadest sense, improvisation embodies the process of humans interacting with each other and with their environments and finding their own ways of expressing themselves. I can't tell you exactly why I became a so-called "jazz musician." I might say that it "happened to me," sometime in my adolescence. But I can say that the musical languages and codes from the "jazz" traditions that speak through me make it possible for me to BE MYSELF -- just as my parents had to figure out how to be themselves in an alien environment. In a way it makes sense that these musical modes of discourse were initiated by African Americans, because as long as they have been in the "New World," Africans have needed to form their own private means of expression based on their explicit and implicit African sensibilities, as an act of resistance to the attempted categorical erasure of their cultural knowledge base.

In college courses I was fortunate to absorb a more detailed sense of the history of African-American musics, from the Middle Passage up to the current day. I also gathered a more detailed sense of the connections between West African and African-American musics and cultures. But one also learns those kinds of things from being immersed in a music-culture; when such information structures are learned or appreciated in a non-academic environment, they yield deeper truths. While in college back east, I played a lot of gigs in the economically depressed, predominantly African-American city of New Haven. There were times there when I realized that my playing was "speaking" directly to certain audience members, who were speaking right back. I began to realize consciously what I had felt intuitively all along -- that this music carries extra information beyond the "note" level. I believe that this concept of musically encoded information is ancient and very non-Western -- and specifically African.

Then when I moved to the Bay Area in 1992, for over a year I was the house pianist in jam sessions at the Bird Kage, a club on Telegraph Avenue in north Oakland. It was another space for collective musical expression, involving the audience and all the musicians as well. This session was (and still is) run by a trumpet player in his 70's named Robert Porter. Many of the other musicians (such as Ed Kelley, Smiley Winters, and even Pharaoh Sanders) were older, and I found that the music we were playing was a profound expression of their lives, and the lives of the audience members as well. A lot of these old standards and Tin Pan Alley tunes had been part of these people's collective memories. Improvising over a tune like "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" was a way of bringing old memories back to life, and reworking and commenting on them in a musical context. The process that some people call "Signifyin(g)" -- the continual reference to a shared, tacit, collectively understood body of knowledge -- describes this process well. And I had similar musical-dialogic experiences with other musicians and audience members there. Musical expression really was like conversing, or even like some kind of collective ritual. Experimentation and originality were valued, not criticized, because it was a way of bringing your point of view to the table. As George Lewis has written, musical improvisation functions as the exchange of personal narrative. We are encouraged in improvisational contexts to "tell our own story" symbolically through music. This is true in many oral traditions, whenever the musician or singer or storyteller is expected to embellish, update, or reinvent. Aspects of the artist's personality are "carried" in the performer's holistic approach to these improvisational elements.

I see hip-hop today as most closely parallel to what jazz once was, namely, a truly organic expression of urban African-American experiences, created mostly by poor people using the meager resources available to them. It has a whole world of its own that is quite separate from the mainstream music industry, but it is continually interacting with and scraping up against the mainstream, shaping and being shaped by contemporary esthetics.

Saxophonist Aaron Stewart has noted that each generation of African Americans in the 20th century has had to build a music-culture essentially from the ground up, due to lack of resources and education about what came before. One could say that there has been an effective hiding of information about the work of monumental figures in black cultural history, so there is a constant process of wheel reinvention. Thus by previous standards, hip-hop music is musically derivative and dull, because it doesn't have enough chord changes or melodies. But the fact is that hip-hop culture has its own highly developed, distinctive, elaborate esthetics and standards. Wynton Marsalis goes into print saying that hip-hop contains no thought, care, or knowledge, and requires no practice or skill to create, but the rappers, lyricists, DJ's, and producers I know are incredibly talented people who are always thinking about their craft and their message on many levels.

We have before our eyes, in hip-hop, a popular music (like jazz once was) with its own set of codes and references to black culture (like jazz), requiring highly developed improvisational skills (like jazz) and speaking the voice of an oppressed minority (like jazz). The main difference is that the means of musical production is different -- samplers, turntables, and lyrics have replaced instruments, chords, and melodies, but that's because so few people in the inner city have had access to instruments and instruction. And in fact it has a whole UNDERGROUND stratum that is motivated less by profit and fame than it is by circulation of information and mutual respect.

I think that the qualities of "jazz" that I find most important -- the privileging of improvisation (which encourages individualism), and the heightened awareness of "extra," culturally-encoded elements (which encourages collectivism) -- make it a valuable carrier for social metaphor, and an important tool for activism. And you also find these elements in hip-hop, and in plenty of popular genres in-between, which indicates that it's not about the individual genres but the complex sensibilities that give rise to them -- a combination of African aesthetics and subaltern conditions.

Some people like to worry about the "death" of jazz. That's really not the issue, any more than the fact that American English has departed significantly from British English is an issue. Languages and musics and cultures change in time due to many factors. But I do care about information being available to people, and I do care about the presence of a plurality of viewpoints that are well-informed and articulate. These things are truly dying, because of poor education and misplaced priorities. The real threat is that information is hidden from the people who need it, and history is rewritten. The true history of African-American music and all of its repercussions are hidden from people who don't go to college, because it's not a part of America's selective memory -- it doesn't appear on TV or get referred to continually in American culture.

To combat all of these forces, we need to (1) remain in touch with their cultural surroundings and to be aware of the strands of history that have contributed to those surroundings, (2) resist appropriation and exploitation by large record companies and the mainstream music industry, which is easier to do if we join forces with like-minded artists, (3) continue to produce and document our own music, regardless of the music industry or of popular support, and (4) engage in verbal documentation of their own viewpoints, as we attempt to do with this volume. It should be clear that AIR, the AACM, and the M-Base collective have provided shining examples for others to follow.

So the question now is, given all of that, how do we create an organic South Asian diasporic artistic vision that is reflective of and meaningful to its diverse community? How do we learn from these models of African-American and Asian-American musics, which arose out of necessity? We need to make our community aware of a similar necessity. We need to address the people in my generation, the future architects of what will become our subculture. We need to show each other, by example and by collaboration, that it is possible to have contemporary arts function as mobilizing forces in the community. We need to develop a new way of "re-imagining" our South Asian communities, by resuming control of the discourse concerning our identities, celebrating the millennia-old traditions that have brought us to where we are, and celebrating our ways of living today, but also by remaining conscious and critical of our own aesthetics and the socioeconomic dynamics that affect us. We need to forge a new South Asian diasporic critical consciousness that throws off the shackles of centuries of European "Indological" revisionist historical scholarship and imperialist exploitation. We need to create works that confront the power struggles that brought us into our current predicaments, works that cry out who we are.

There are plenty of important, precedent-setting cultural workers whose imaginings are already changing the world in this way. South Asian writers such as Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Vikram Chandra, Gita Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, and Arundhati Roy have paved the way for postcolonial and diasporic literature. Filmmakers like Srinivas Krishna and Deepa Mehta have pushed the envelope of contemporary film. Thinkers such as Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak, Arjun Appadurai, Romila Thapar, and Ranajit Guha have deconstructed and reconstructed South Asian postcoloniality. Musicmakers such as Sheila Chandra, Najma Akhtar, L. Shankar, Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussain, and most famously the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have blazed musical trails.

To this list we must add the new generation of creative South Asians -- individuals such as alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Sundar Viswanathan, trumpeter Satish Pennathur, drummers Chander Sardjoe and Qasim Naqvi, percussionist Suphala Patankar, bassist/composer Vytas Nagisetty, vocalist & Bay Area community activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan, and this pianist-author, and creative aggregates such as the Bay-Area-based multimedia performance collective CHAAT, the New York-based South Asian Women's Creative Collective, Toronto-based Desh Pardesh, and London-based percussionist-producer-DJ Talvin Singh's Outcaste Records -- to bring our innovations, incantations, and imaginations into the next millennium.

(c) 1997 by Vijay Iyer. This article will appear in ImprovisAsians Journal, and portions of it also appeared in the magazine Foie Gras .

Send mail to Vijay Iyer
Up to CNMAT home page

Last modified 19 January 1998
My last name is NOT spelled Ayer, Ayler, Ayers, Dyer, Eyer, Eyler, Iyes, Jyer, Lyer, Tyler, or Tyer.