Doing the Desi Thing with Sunita S. Mukhi

Sunita Mukhi
Sunita Mukhi

Sunita S. Mukhi's first book, Doing the Desi Thing: Performing Indianness in New York City, is an immensely personal account of the creation of an Indian identity outside of India. The author, a well-known performer and story-teller, grew up in Manila's Indian community and later moved to New York City. Originally written as a Ph.D. dissertation in the Performance Studies Department of New York University, Doing the Desi Thing is an insightful reflection on identity, community and performance. Asia Society spoke with the author about imagined identities, popular culture, and the Indian diaspora.

Doing the Desi Thing is an exceptionally brave book because you are quite honest about your own personal hopes and contentions with the Indian community in New York. And yet it is a very academic book as well. How did you balance the personal with the academic?

All the work I've done has always been an exploration of self. Maybe that sounds self-obsessed, but this idea of Indianness has always been an obsession of mine. Having been born in the Philippines, and having to face the difference in my environment, always being different, always being asked, "What do you? Why do you look like this? Why do you eat this food? Why don't you take holy communion with us?" because I went to Catholic school. I always had to explain myself and always ask myself too why am I not doing this and why are we different at home compared to how my other Filipina classmates were behaving? Especially as we got older; it was problematic to want to date. Now it is different—everyone is dating, but then, the gossip factor as I was growing up was very high. And when I came here I decided to continue exploring this idea of Indianness, even in my work at San Francisco State University. It was in a different way, though, looking at how Indian classical dance changed in the diaspora.

In India, classical dance used to have a connotation of prostitution and devadasis performed classical dance. But in the diaspora, many middle class girls get trained in classical dance. Why is this?

In most middle class homes it's all right to do Indian classical dance because it's a pride and joy. And it was cleaned up with the 1920's reform movement. They tried to remove all the salacious elements and tried to make it look like a dance about divine love, higher love, or even if it is love between man and woman, a higher love. But when I wanted to take Indian classical dance when I turned 21 after I finished college, when I had gone to India to repatriate, as a middle class girl from overseas, it made me look bad. People asked, "Why are you learning classical dance? You are of marriageable age. What you should be learning is cooking, home economics. What are you doing learning Indian classical dance?" People were afraid I would want to become an artist rather than a housewife, the connotation that I was using my body to make money. And even when I was in San Francisco, the dance teachers, a lot of their students, especially from business families, were having a difficult time because they were not allowed to dance. So they were doing it on the sly. I guess within the business class, the woman is supposed to be a homemaker. You can only make a spectacle of yourself if it will promote your family's fame, but if you're going to promote Indian culture and make money off of it, it becomes a commodity. Somehow amongst businesspeople, that's not very good, which I find ironic. I have not figured it out yet. You can dance for the community, to be of service to the community. If whatever you make goes to charity, that is still acceptable. But otherwise, if you are a professional, it's a bit suspicious.

In your book, you describe a little girl dancing to the controversial song "Choli key Peechay." It's very interesting why it's acceptable for her to perform that song, but it would be dangerous for an older woman, who everybody recognized as a sexual being, to do the same dance. Why?

Because it would be a realized sexuality in an older woman. It was very interesting when I talked to that girl's mother and she did say that she wouldn't dance, but she would do everything to teach her daughter. She's a big girl now, in her teens, and goes to India every summer to study dance. She is being trained in the classical tradition. The mother used to dance in her youth, but now she is a homemaker. But she facilitates culture by inviting classical musicians to her house. They feel it is a way of being cultured. But they are of a business background.

Growing up in the Philippines, did you frequently travel to India?

We used to go every two or three years to visit family. However, India came to visit us more often in the form of music, and stories that Mama used to tell us. Our relatives used to visit us quite regularly. There was a decent-sized Sindhi community and sometimes we would get Hindi films. And we had relations with the Indian diplomatic community and sometimes we would have I ndian dance lessons. We used to mount about two or three shows a year to celebrate Diwali or New Year or Independence Day. I was part of this group called the Merry Maidens Club. We were active cultural producers, but all the profits of our shows would go to charity. People always attended. My community theater life was always very active. Plus I was doing theater in school. I was always performing.

Learning a sense of "Indianness" abroad, how do you think that sense differs from people growing up India? Do you think they have a sense of "Indianness"?

It's so taken for granted in India. They are not striving for it. They are not yearning for it because it's there. I hardly thought my cousins were thinking about it. But they were it.

Do you think people in India see themselves as "Indian" before seeing themselves as from a particular region or caste or religious sect?

I became aware of that much later, particularly when people starting asking me what my caste was. That was quite an unusual way of asking me what region I was from and I was surprised because I didn't know what they meant. I said I was a merchant. And they asked, "Well, what language do you speak?" and that didn't make sense because I spoke English. In Bombay, specifically, they asked, "What kind of a name is Mukhi?" And I said, "Oh, I'm Sindhi." "Oh, business," they would say, or "papadum-eating Sindhis," they would say. But when they asked me what caste I was from it was really to find out what region or what my father did. It was very confusing to me because in Manila we were all Sindhis primarily. There were some Punjabi people who we called "the other Indians." There was a difference and they were not in our daily life. We did invite them to be part of our cultural club, but they felt alienated. And it could be because they were not going to the same schools as we were, or maybe because they spoke Tagalog too much, much more than we did. Or maybe because they were Punjabi, I don't know the reason, but there was a clash. So when I went to India and when I was asked the question of caste, I was perplexed. But the kind of people I was associating with were primarily English speakers, so that is already a "caste" within itself.. And I was in Bombay, so there was a certain kind of urbanity and cosmopolitanness there. Or I was hanging out with my cousins who were going to Dehra Doon School and their friends were already pan-Indian, so it was quite a mish-mash, a perfect example of "Indianness." But were they talking about it? No, they were talking about their school, about going to the club. Identity and ethnicity were not important; having a boyfriend was more important.

Let's talk about the interaction between the classical tradition and Hindi popular music and this desi/marga distinction that you make in the book. In Hindi, desi means "countryman," the opposite of "foreigner," correct?

In Milton Singer's idea, in Hindu aesthetics there is a distinction between desi and marga. The marga forms are sanskritized and classical and you need to study them. They have text to back them up. But the desi forms are different. I use desi to distinguish a certain kind of parochiality. When you are considered a desi , you are of the earth. But you are also, so the earth, that you don't have any cosmopolitanness, and you don't have any upper-class refinement. At least when I was living in Bombay, it was derogatory. "All these people are too desi," people would say. But in the diaspora it becomes a term of brotherhood or sisterhood. It means you belong. And the word is also used to distinguish people of South Asian descent. So we are all desi though you maybe of another caste, class, or religion. It is a term of endearment, of inclusion. You say, "I'm dating a desi," as if to say, "I'm not dating a non-desi." Or "Let's get a desi cabdriver," and not give our money to some other kind of cabdriver. Or "How could you say that about a desi?"

Why in your book do you say "Indianness" and not "South Asianness"?

I didn't want to be a hypocrite. I am of Indian origin. I began to understand what it meant to be part of South Asia in New York. My parents thought of themselves as Indian and I have always thought of myself as Indian, if I had to categorize myself. The shows I went to were Indian shows. It was the Indian Independence Day Parade. The Pakistani parade was a different parade. I go to the Sindhi show in Rego Park performed by Sindhis who consider themselves Indian. Not that the producer of the show doesn't have relationships with Pakistani Sindhis, but it is an Indian show. In the same way that the NYU show is performed by Indians, I recognize the performers as Indian. I don't think it's a very popular view to take amongst my colleagues. But I don't want to advertise something that I have not done. I have not described the other desi forms. That's another book. A lot of this book is about the nation-state of India, or what we imagine to be the nation-state of India.

How do these diaspora displays of Indianness support a conservative nationalist ideology?

This is especially true of the Indian Independence Day Parade. And also in the Diwali festival, though it is supposed to be apolitical. The model that they use to present Indian culture in New York is the model that they use in India to show official Indian culture. Everything that is mixed up with contemporary forms like hip-hop was not allowed until 1993 or 1994, but otherwise they were very strict. Yet on the main stage, they were very strict until they had Bally Sagoo. So they did change their mind to adapt. I would like to say it was a very Indian thing to do, to accommodate the young people, to include young people in "Indianness." That does come up and they still enforce their hierarchies by putting folk and classical dances on the main stage and putting the most hybrid forms, the uncomfortable forms, on the side stage later. But Bally Sagoo was on the main stage because he is the icon of the South Asian diaspora. And that could be because of the influence of other producers that have come into the AIA (Associations of Indians in America), younger and more hip.

And SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association) and Sakhi for South Asian Women were omitted as well?

They are marginalized because they are not part of the AIA. If they become members and pay to be there, then they can join. So they do all these guerilla techniques of being part of it by protesting. And one year, Sakhi was part of it, but they made them stay towards the end of the line. And I think they asserted themselves and came forward, and they allowed SALGA to march another year. I find these guerilla techniques very interesting and exciting. But it irritates the AIA because they are not following orders. So instead SALGA and Sakhi make a presence for themselves by protesting. Though they are not official, people look forward to seeing what the SALGA and Sakhi people are going to do. It is a spectacle, but they are present and they have signs that say they are to be included. You know if one homosexual out there sees that sign and says "I have a place. I can still be homosexual and Indian," then it's quite good. A space has been opened up for different kinds of Indianness and they are slowly adjusting. The Indian community is growing up. I hope it comes out in my book that they have acknowledged this adaptation. I think it's all very healthy, actually. I'm more uncomfortable with the Indian Independence Day parade. It's a little more conservative than the Diwali celebration. You have anarchic performances that happen around the parade, and even the cultural program after the parade, there are groups that do their own thing. Some of these dances are very sexual and libidinous. Of course what is happening in the main parade is also libidinous, but in a more official form.

And occasionally the spectacle of violence as well.

And the spectacle of violence was quite scary. There is that potential for communal fighting as well, especially when you advocate a certain kind of nationalism.

But in most of the academic accounts of the diaspora, in London or New York, or wherever, academics say for the most part that everyone just becomes South Asian in the diaspora at the expense of regional or caste identities, that everyone gets along a lot better in the diaspora than they do in South Asia. Do you think that's true?

I think there are spaces where we can all come together. The Sindhis will attend the South Street Seaport Diwali celebration, but then they have a little niche in Queens where they will perform their Sindhiness. And I think that happens in the community at large, there is a different space where you can be of your particular caste or religion or region, because we are all of those identities, but we are also South Asian. We are also a bold and strong community and then we also have our little familiar groupings of people that speak the same language, etc. There are spaces for multiple identities to be expressed.

So what's next for you? Are you working on another book?

Actually, I really want to do something more novelistic and / or edit a book of poetry. The novel is more related to the Sindhi community and I want to use some of my family stories. The other is a book on erotic poetry in the diaspora. I haven't decided it yet if it will be just women's poetry. I would like to address the long tradition of erotic poetry in India and see what it's become in the diaspora. I am talking about ethnicity and identity all the time and now I want to talk about sex. What do we do with our identities? How do we love each other? I want to address this in my new works.

We look forward to them! Thanks for talking with us.

Thank you.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell of Asia Society.