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.