copyright 2002, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
No. 45, Fall 2002

Why the dancing diasporic
desi men crossdressed

by Anandam P. Kavoori and Christina A. Joseph[1]


Announcer (walks to center of stage):

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We have a special treat for you. It’s a first. This first research paper written as a performative text.[2] (Pause for sense of exaggeration). A research play, if you will. If you know of others, we suggest you keep that knowledge to yourself (Pause for humor). It’s a multi-media play—auto-ethnographic, self-reflexive, bilingual and perhaps humorous.

Its narrative is structured through conversations between three sets of protagonists. The first are two anthropologists/ authors (referred to as A1 and A2—this rhymes with R2 and D2, if you know what I mean) who discuss the text of a Hindi film called Laawaris which means Orphaned and was made by the Bollywood director Prakash Mehra in 1981 and a dance by Indian film superstar Amitab Bachchan in the film where he dresses up as five different women. (Pause). Yes, Five.

The dialogue between the anthropologists/ authors is interspersed with extracts/interpretations of interviews with the second set of protagonists, three Indian students at a southern American University who performed a version of the dance. Two Indian members of the audience who watched the performance make up the third set of protagonists. (They are referred to as R1 and R2, for Respondent).

Finally, two narrators named “Made-to-Marcus” and “Vivid Mani” provide commentary/context/framing at different points in the play. You are probably wondering what the names “Vivid Mani” and “Made to Marcus” mean. Well, you’ll need to until the end of the play. When I come back. Don’t worry about it right now. What’s important (and what you came to see anyway) is this research play, which begins with the discovery of a mystery. Enjoy the show.

Act one: the mystery

A1 and A2 stand under two spotlights at two ends of the stage. Projected on the screen between them are three images of billboards. The first has the words “Laawaris” emblazoned on the top with a picture of Amitab Bachchan dancing in a white suit, his chest open to midriff and his eyes hostile. The second billboard is for a show called “India Night in Georgia,”[3] with a picture of four cross dressing men in the foreground. The third billboard reads simply “Crises of Representation” with blood dripping dramatically from the letters.

Made to Marcus:
“The popular Hindi film proves a considerable element of commonality to Indian communities, even among those were Hindi is not spoken, a profound homage to the Hindi filmŐs rooted-ness in the deep mythic structures of Indian civilization. Across the globe, the popular Hindi film commands an extraordinary allegiance from Indians.”[4]

Vivid Mani:
“The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with newness that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, re-figuring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The ‘past-present’ becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia of living.”[5]

(Stridently). Ladies and gentlemen, itŐs India Night from Georgia. (Ends lamely). Well, people talking about it anyway.

Lights fade from the billboards. A1 picks up a chair next to him and moves to the middle of the room. R1 and R2 join in from the other side of the stage. They hug each other, exchange abuses in Hindi, open cans of Budweiser and light cigarettes. Behind them the screen shows a concrete block of buildings with the words “Graduate Housing” written. An old Honda with a smashed headlight is superimposed on the building. A2 stands on one side of the stage.

A1: So what do you think of these guys crossdressing and dancing?

R1: I actually found it quite crass.

A1: Were you surprised to find who was playing Amitab Bachchan’s role?

R2: I mean, if you know the guy, it’s hard to believe it.

R1: Yeah, especially given that he was doing it. HeŐs a seedha[6] guy and it was just a surprise to see him do it.

R2: Actually, the guy’s family is you know really part of the community and well regarded. It was just the contrast...

R1: You know it reminded me of Hijras. Just the whole thing was a turn off. Just can’t understand why they chose to do that dance.

A1: Yes, they did remind me of Hijras in India.

“There is in India a community of people known as hijras described variously as eunuchs, transvestites, homosexual, bi-sexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynes and transsexuals. Hijras dress in women’s garments. They imitate a woman’s swaying walk, take female names upon being initiated into the community and affect in a comical way, women’s mannerisms.”[7]

A1 walks over to A2.

A1: So, the mystery is simply this: Why did four middle class good Indian-American boys, raised to behave properly, crossdress and dance lewdly in front of their families?

Made to Marcus:
“Men have cross-dressed for what have been considered erotic reasons deriving from psychopathological drives. In most western societies being a man and demonstrating masculinity is more highly prized than being a woman and displaying femininity. Some non-Western societies however are more tolerant and even encourage men to behave like women and women to act like men.”[8]

A2 (pointing to R1 and R2): You know for audience members like these two students from India, this may be crass but I am sure that the performers didn’t have hijras on their mind. I mean they grew up in America.

A1: Well, let’s talk to them. But they did watch the original dance by Amitab Bachchan in Laawaris. First let’s see what that’s all about. What do you think, Made to Marcus?

Made to Marcus:
“Identity groups are about themselves, for themselves, and nobody else.”[9]

Act two: the motive

R1 and R2 pick up their chairs and leave. A1 and A2 move to two ends of the stage. The screen at the center of the stage now shows a medley of Amitab Bachchan shots from his various film magazine covers between the 70Ős and 1990Ős.

Made to Marcus:
“Among the constituting elements of the Hindi film industry, the single most dominant group is the film’s stars. With a powerful grip on people’s imagination, ‘star texts’ compromising narratives of the film-stars’ lives, are a constant preoccupation of film magazines.”[10]

Vivid Mani:
Amitab was not just a creation of film magazines. “Amitab introduced the motif of the angry young man to Indian cinema. This is at a time in the mid 1970’s when domestic politics was in a period of great turmoil, student unrest was height, and the employment prospects for educated young men were bleak at best.”[11]

A1: He articulated a sense of unrest and paradoxically of community. I will always remember the time Amitab almost died during the making of the film Coolie. I can’t think of anything else that drew India together—besides the assassination of Indira Gandhi—than those hours when we all thought that he was dead.

The screen turns to a somber image of Amitab with his hands folded. A ticker tape at the bottom of the image runs the following statement as somber classical Indian music is played as background:

“The passionate affection of the people in this country through prayers, are moments that I will carry as a huge debt on me, to my grave. There are no words to substitute this feeling of the extent of affection of my fans and well wishers and the awareness towards the potential that one human body possesses.”[12]

A2: What I can't figure out is what possessed him to crossdress in Laawaris.

A1: Well, you got to see it in terms of the movie itself. Laawaris is a humdinger of a class conflict movie. It’s got all the redemptive pathos of The Wizard of Oz with its reiteration of the mythical centrism of the American farm.

A2: Where is the American farm in Laawaris? You're stretching it.

A1: No, of course, it’s not the American farm, but it is about redemptive pathos Bollywood-style where cultural and class centrism are unproblematically gendered.

The screen shows a sequence of scenes from the movie Laawaris with commentary from Made to Marcus and Vivid Money. A1 and A2 move to different corners of the stage.

Made to Marcus: Laawaris literally means “Without an Heir” but it can also signify “Orphaned” more generally, somebody who has not been claimed by anybody, somebody whose parents do not want to acknowledge or accept. Somebody, in short, that society rejects. The movie Laawaris tells the story of one such boy.

Vivid Mani: Here is how his story begins. A famous woman singer and a rich man are lovers. It is the rich manŐs birthday (also IndiaŐs Independence Day). After performing one of her songs, she rushes into the arms of her lover backstage eager to tell him that this was a special song for him and to give him a special message—hat at the end of the year there will be three of them and not just two. The rich man withdraws from her and says:

(Film excerpts plays on screen with subtitles)[13]

Rich Man: Who is this third person? Who is coming between us?

Singer: The third person is no stranger. He is yours, a sign of our love.

Rich Man: Don’t say such disgusting things, such evil things. One’s youth is meant for having fun, not for having kids. And there are so many people who want you. Don’t tell me you are trying to pass this kid off as mine when there are so many others in your life.

The Singer slaps the Rich Man

Rich Man: Today is India’s Independence Day, so go announce it from the Red Fort,[14] go announce it on the radio, go sing the song of my humiliation. And if you are not satisfied, then go somewhere where you will not have to reveal the father’s name.

Vivid Mani: The baby is given away to a drunk who beats the boy whenever he is drunk or so inclined. The boy grows up to into a strong, insolent, aggressive and self-confident hero. Amitab Bachchan plays the hero.

(Cut to film excerpt.)

Amitab: (in an aloof, rough voice) So where do I work?

Factory Supervisor: You will work in that area of the factory. Hey, why are you speaking so angrily? Soften up.

Amitab: This is my soft style, If I use my hard style, you will be quaking in your feet.

Factory Supervisor: Ok, Ok, just do your work

Need to Marcus: Amitab Bachchan displays a
Ňcontraction between detached stability into explosive force and back into self-enclosure. A device employed by other hero figures such as Clint Eastwood but in Bombay cinema it has become a distinctive marker of Amitab Bachchan. It is this behavior coupled with a distinct physical appearance that has been harnessed by Bachchan and the film makers in a series of roles that have inscribed him into contemporary Indian culture as a disruptive modern force that cannot be ignored.Ó[15]

Vivid Mani: The young man goes to work and makes money. On his way home, his father asks him for money for alcohol. Amitab refuses and says he will beat him up if he asks him again. His father turns to him angrily and says:

(Cut to film excerpt)

Father: Oh, go away. You are trying to scare me? Just because I'm getting old, you are showing your strength? You are someoneŐs elseŐs child, that’s why. If you were my child, you would have given me money for my drink. I spit on your money...

Amitab: You are lying. You just want money for your drink, tell me that. If you are not my father, then whose son am I?

Father: You belong to the garbage, rich people’s garbage. These rich people eat and throw their leftovers in the garbage. You are that leftover.

Made to Marcus: This paradigmatic scene in the film throws AmitabŐs already embittered life completely off balance. He goes into a shouting and raving fit, which culminates in his going to an adda[16] and drinking himself into an aggressive somnolence. He finds a man in the adda who is crying because his father is dead. Amitab addresses him:

(Cut to film excerpt)

Amitab: So your father died yesterday and you are still crying? I just killed my father, do you see me crying? Let me tell you something. These are all false relationships. Leave them all behind and live like me, like a laawaris. You've spoiled my mood, yaar.

Vivid Mani: Amitab turns to drinking and womanizing. In a whore house he meets a rich manŐs son who employs him as a hired thug. He earns the respect of the rich manŐs father (who happens to be his own father) and through a complex series of incidents finds validation and affection from the rich man’s sister and gains approval from the father. In a climactic scene where these relationships are established through the bonds of raakhi,[17] Amitab says:

Amitab: I have been abandoned all my life. That is all my worth is.

Rich Man’s father: Son, until yesterday you did not have a family. Today, you have a sister and a father.

Amitab: I have had such a hard life that I thought my heart was not capable of any feelings. But today, my wounds have been healed and my heart is alive with feeling. If this is a dream, I hope that my eyes never open again.

(Screen flickers off).

A1 and A2 walk to the middle of the stage.

A1: Let’s talk about this last scene. I think it’s important for understanding the crossdressing dance.

A2: Yeah, it’s paradigmatic in a number of ways. First, it brings to a close the basic premise of the film—that society only values those who belong. Amitab does not belong at birth; he does not belong to his drunken father; he does not belong to the workplace where he works. He only begins to belong when he is acknowledged by the class structure that he fights against. Specifically, the film seems to be saying that the vehicles which establishes his new identity are those of class excess (those of the rich man’s sonŐs repeating the sexual/ moral compromise of the father) but equally those of upper class magnanimity. The fact that AmitabŐs salvation comes at the hand of the rich man’s daughter speaks to the inherent displacement of a lower class person like Amitab who can only be rehabilitated financially through the son and humanistically through the fictive bonds of brotherhood bestowed by the daughter and the blessings of an unacknowledged paternity.

A1: I couldn't have put it better.

A1 and A2 move to their corners of the stage. The screen lights up again.

Need to Marcus: And what follows is important. Because soon after the raakhi is tied, Amitab realizes it’s his sister’s birthday. He then proceeds to sing the same song that years ago on his birthday his mother the singer had sung to his unacknowledged father. Each verse of this song shows Amitab in a different set of women’s clothes. The song is called “Mere Angane Mein” (In My Home).[18]

The screen shows Amitab Bachchan’s cross-dressing dance. A1 and A2 pull out TV remotes from their pockets and pause the tape after each verse to offer analysis in shorthand by listing concepts that occur to them.

First Verse (addressed by Amitab to the rich man’s son): What are you doing in my home? If you are somebody important, then you are up to no good.

A1 and A2 (speaking together): Class consciousness/over determined discourse/notion of home as moral center/agency and class/lower class as moral agent/discursive disruptions of class relations.[19]

Second Verse: If your wife is tall, she has a purpose. Stand her against the wall. You don’t need a ladder anymore.

Third Verse: If your wife is fat, she too has a purpose. Put her on the bed frame. What need do you have for a mattress?

A1 and A2 (together): Gendered functionalities/ bodies and visual regimes/male agency in patriarchy/ femininity and normalcy/bodies and domesticity/gender roles and class formation/hybrid sexualities/hijra sexualities.

Fourth Verse: If your wife is dark, she too has a purpose. Put her inside your eyes. What need do you have for eye liner?

Fifth Verse: If your wife is fair, she too has a purpose. Make her sit in a room. What need do you have for electricity?

Sixth Verse: If your wife is small, she too has a purpose. Put her in your lap. What need do you have for children?

A1 and A2 (together): Discursive constructions of femininity/patriarchal agency and feminine beauty/racialized norms of femininity/beauty and functionality/beauty and domesticity/color and female agency/color and functionality/body form and domesticity/femininity and childhood/gender and agency/hijra and hybrid sexualities.

A1 and A2 walk to center of stage.

A2: I’m lost in those words. We are at the end of this Act. (Pause for pun). So, what is the motive?

A1: Well, simply put, I guess it’s this. If what is being looked at is why a bunch of Indian American men crossdressed, then we needed to see what legitimated that act. Now, we have at least two answers: To understand the act, we first had to look at the overall discursive space that Amitab Bachchan occupies and then at the specific narrative space that this film and dance occupy. In both cases, the space is sociologically contingent on a number of historical and cultural forces. AmitabŐs case rests on a specific model of masculinity and in the case of the film, that masculinity articulates an unambiguous vision of community. In the case of community in the Indian context, the song reifies through a hijra performance (i.e. with humor at a distorted femininity/masculinity) the racial, class and gender politics of the Indian middle class mainstream viewership and their concept of community.

A2: In other words, the young men chose this song because it would sell and it made fun of women?

A1: Well, it’s never that simple, or maybe it is. I mean there is a lot more going on. Its performed in Georgia, remember. Let’s find out.

Act three: revelation

The screen in the center of the stage shows a bar with the words “The Blind Pig Tavern” on top. The TV shows a football game from the South Eastern Conference. A1 and three participants in the Crossdressing dance sit down. They open bottles of beers and start to drink.

A2 (standing on one side of the stage):
In the India Night version of Amitab BachchanŐs dance there were six participants in all. Five of the men dressed up as one of the women from each verse: tall (lambi); fat (moti); dark/black (kali); fair/white (gori) and small (chhoti). Amitab was played by the sixth man.

All six men are students. They met in college and were drawn to each other because of their Indian heritage. They visit each other frequently. Beer and football is usually involved. Their friendship was also built through other dances they have taken part in over their four years of college. Their crossdressing dance was performed in their senior year. The three students present tonight are Moti, Gori and the student we can call “American Amitab.”

Made to Marcus:
“Men form their gender identities by relating to the dominant values in the culture.”[20] However, “masculinity also varies within any one society by the various types of cultural groups that compose it. In the contemporary United States, masculinity is constructed differently by class culture, by race and ethnicity, and by age. The resulting matrix of masculinities is complicated and often the elements are cross-cutting, but without understanding this, we risk collapsing all masculinities into one hegemonic version.”[21]

A1: what made you decide on this act?

American Amitab: The thing was that we had done a bhangra[22] before and one last year, and we wanted to do something for laughs in place of something serious. And then Gori came up with the idea that let’s dress up and crossdress and we were like cool, let’s do that. Let’s do meera angane mey.

Moti: Gori came up with idea. And since none of us was going to be here after this year, since this was our last time together, we were like let’s do something different. This was the last time we could do something together.

Gori: It was pretty much the last time we could be together and we wanted to leave with a blast. We decided to something drastic actually, to do something different.

Vivid Mani: The ideology of male friendship-loyalty, affection and trust has never gone out of style. Urbanization and bureaucratization, social and geographical mobility, all may foster instrumental and expedient relationships, but they surely induce a sense of individual isolation.[23]

A1 walks over to A2:

A2: So is this is what it’s about—a way for Indian American men to bond, to remove the individual isolation they live under in post-industrial America. What do you think, Vivid Mani?

Vivid Mani: Well, you may have something there.
“One of the most interesting phenomena at present is the appearance of so-called crises of masculinity in advanced industrial nations. There is a widespread popular and academic agreement that something is troubling men.”[24]

A1: Not just any men but specifically Indian men raised in the United States.

A1 walks back to the group, sits down and asks a question:

A1: Why do most Indian men raised in America not want to dance at these cultural festivals?

Moti: In India, guys go and do garba and raas[25] and they already have skills to dance, but in America they grow up as guys so they cannot dance at all while the girls, since they are feminine, they can pull it off. ThatŐs the reason why. I mean even when we dance, that is the problem: there is an overflow of girls but there are no guys to dance with.

American Amitab: There are no open-minded guys who would come to the dance like we would. The girls want to be the center of attention on the stage. Guys here seem so uninterested. Usually the guys are not into cultural stuff, they just want to look good, show off, hang out and drink. They are not into the show. They will still go to garba, to hang out and look at the girls.

A2: The real issue it seems is that dancing is culturally prescriptive for women and not for men. Hindi films reiterate these concerns by locating the female body as the central source of performative pleasure. In other words, film culture provides a vocabulary for dance performances for women in the Indian diaspora and not for Indian men. What do you think, Made to Marcus?

Made to Marcus: I think you are on the right track.
“The relationship between the male body and the dominant discourses of masculinity converges upon the issue of desire. Consumer culture stimulates men’s desires to be attractive, intelligent and effectual individuals; the pleasure/desire axis thus sustains social forms which keep relationships as they are.”[26]

A1 gets up from his chair and walks over to A2.

A1: It still leaves the all-important question unanswered. If they did it out of a need for the articulation of a desi masculinity in the diaspora, how did they traverse the gendered/ sexualized terrain of the performance in the film itself?

Moti, Gori and American Amitab walk off stage.

A2: Well, lets look and compare.

The center of the stage has now has two screens. On one screen, there is the India Night dance which is screened and on the other Amitab BachchanŐs version.

A1 and A2 (together at the end of the screening). I see differences in sequence, structure and costume but this is part of the same discursive formation—similar narrative interpretation, similar sexualization of performance, similar male agency, similar sexual politics.

Vivid Mani: Huh. That’s surprising. I thought under current conditions of globalization
“history becomes spacialized out, aesthetic hierarchies and developments are collapsed with the mixing of genres and high art, popular and commercial forms.”[27]

Made to Marcus: Yes, but
“entertainment forms come to have the emotional significance they do: that is, by acquiring their signification in relation to the complex of meanings in the social-cultural situation in which they are produced.”[28]

A1: Well, let’s go back to what we do know: that men in the Diaspora don’t dance and women do. The issue must of necessity return to sexual politics. To women and how they are seen to dance.

Moti and Gori walk back on stage.

Moti: Look at Indian dances like Bharatnatyam and compare them to rock and pop videos on MTV. Do you see any of the Bharatnatyam dances mixed into dances by women? They are probably trying to improvise a little, but the movement that is coming out is more focused on an area of their body. Look at their outfits, look at the jhumka[29] in their hips. They are trying to make something more conspicuous than the art itself. ThatŐs what exactly what American culture is making them do.

Gori: Girls have a tendency to becoming slutty. I have noticed this. I know many of these girls personally. They actually do the dance to be slutty and attract more guys. Most of the girls want to be the solo. Teamwork might be significant, but they really want to go solo.

A2: So the issue of motive remains that for these Indian men, their performance is not about being slutty or going solo but about their own participation in a collective act. They assume both agency and priority in their performance.

A1: It is about what we knew all along. The revelation as, we properly foreshadowed at the end of Act 1, is about identity groups, about community.

Vivid Mani:
“While Europeans were intent on claiming lands for their sovereigns and for cartography, transforming land into space, Indians sought to render space into place, localizing spaces into habitats for communion with self. In so doing, they also cherished memories of the ancestral land.Ó[30

A2: Yes, it’s about the ancestral land and its sexual politics and reification of community. The crossdressing dance is also about creating a space for identity in the Diaspora—a move to address desi contestedness by claiming unambiguously an affiliation with a mythical rendering of desi identity. In the case of the crossdressing desi men, they locate themselves in direct opposition to both new Indian International students and younger second-generation Indian students (to which they belong) and instead place themselves in allegiance with older Indian immigrants who mainly subsist on a mythical/ essentialist rendering of Indian identity.

Moti: I consider myself as desi. The new Indian students are hardcore desi. But they are trying to be westernized and that does not suit them at all. And with the second generation Indians, they are trying to be desis which they are not. Their thinking is not desi.

Gori: When you see the Indian international students you see people that have been brought up not only by Indian parents but in India and you see the Indian culture that has been brought with them. Their thoughts are all Indian. They know what culture is all about.

American Amitab: I have seen all sides of society. I have sort of had this pressure ever since elementary and middle school, having the American way of life being pushed on me. I owe it to my parents. Because of them I was able to be, I guess it’s not much, but who I am right now. I don’t mean to be really Indian in my thoughts but deep down inside I am more Indian than anybody else, as far as my family.

A1: So the revelation is that the community made them do it?

A2: Well, paradoxically yes. The videotape of the dance is very popular in the Indian community now. It’s put on in various homes when people want to watch something funny.

A1: So the Indian students in Act 1 were wrong. Instead of embarrassing their community, the crossdressers actually celebrated it. It was equally a dance of celebration and control, of masculine destiny in the Diaspora. A destiny that resurrects a discourse very familiar to them—those from their immigrant parents. Listen to the American Amitab.

American Amitab: Even if you are pardon my language, fucked up, you have your parents to rely on. That has put this feeling inside me that, look, I need to do what makes them happy to at least until their lifetime.

Stage lights go out.


Announcer (walks onto the stage):

And so you have it. The first research play in the history of the world. (pause). Well, as you go home, we hope it will allow you “further exploration around the weighty issues surrounding culture, gender and performance.”[31] (Pause). Or you could get Indian takeout and curl up with a good Bollywood movie. At any rate let me get our big thoughts out of the way. We have three big thoughts. So please stay in your seats and don’t worry, the refreshment stands will be open for an hour after the show is finished.

The first has to do with those awkward names: Vivid Money and Made to Marcus. The names are tongue in cheek references to two influential scholars in the field of ethnography and postcolonial studies. George Marcus is well known for his work in rethinking ethnographic discourse and writing and Lata Mani is well known in the field of postcolonial studies. The term “Made to Marcus” (read, “made to mark us”) refers to the enthusiastic spirit in which postmodern ethnography has been embraced by many anthropologists from the developing world, a turn itself worthy of examination in looking at the link between academic discourse and the politics of placement. The term “Vivid Mani” (read, “vivid money”) is meant equally to refer to an author and to the purchase that postcolonial theory has had on many scholars from the developing world.

It goes without saying that the terms are not used in any way to criticize or provide commentary on the work of these fine scholars. What we do criticize and want to emphasize in this research play is that this attention to the act of construction should not make us forget the connection implicit in the title of Margery Wolf’s book, A Thrice Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism and Ethnographic Responsibility. It’s a message that Jane Flax warned us about over a decade ago, but it seems to have been forgotten. It’s worth repeating and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll read it in its entirety:

“A problem with thinking about (or only in terms of) texts, signs, or signification is that they tend to take on a life of their own or become the world…such an approach obscures the projection of its own activity onto the world and denies the existence of the variety of concrete social practices that enter into and are reflected in the constitution of language itself…This lack of attention to concrete social relations including the distribution of power results in the obscuring of relations of domination.”[32]

I can see you shifting in your seats and wondering if the next point is going to be as long-winded. I promise you it won’t be. In fact, I am done with four simple words: “Places changing, times unchanging.” In the terminological blizzard that is postmodern and postcolonial interrogation of the contemporary world, the nature of the unproblematic is often seen as unworthy of consideration. This research play points to the simple truths that often may underlie the complex apparatus that we bring to reality and research. It does this, in one place, by letting the anthropologists pause the video of Amitab’s performance and in staccato fashion provide the complex analytical grid that can underlie a single performance.

In the end, the revelation that does emerge is simple. The dance by the diasporic men, whatever else it may be about, is in the end about relations of domination in the Diaspora, a Diaspora that is startlingly similar to other spaces—dare we say, immigrant spaces in the original homeland. What is important is not difference, disarticualtion or hybridity but the reiteration of an unproblematic gendered ideology across all the spaces of the contemporary Diaspora, whether a village in Baroda, Gujrat or in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Finally, if you are still in your seat, the research play is about you. It interrogates the relations that you have brought to it. If life is a text—an overused analogy, if I ever heard one—then texts too have their own lives. Mary Bateson’s wonderful book Composing a life: Life as Work in Progress looks at the complex imbrication of life as text and text as life. This research play is we hope, one such complex mediation where the intertwining of fieldwork, writing, performance (life as text) are related to what is happening right now (you in your seats, me rattling on, in other words, text as life). It is that understanding, that manifestation of the possibility of transformation of every moment of life.

Thank you, Ladies and Gentleman. Good night. And we’ll see you at the movies.


1. “Desi” is the Hindi word most commonly used amongst Indians in the Diaspora for people from South Asia or of South Asian origin.

2. In writing our paper as a performative text, we are drawing on recent trends in ethnographic writing that have focused on issues of “exploring various intersections, various blendings of genre and voices’ (Reed-Danahay, 1997, 3). The important issues have been those of providing alternate ways for ethnographic expression including those of “real fiction,” poetry, plays, life histories, personal narratives (Archetti, 1994; Benson, 1993; Gullestad, 1996; Lavi, et al, 1993). Theoretically the focus on writing is reflected in anthropology’s literary turn and the development of a postmodern ethnography (Atkinson, 1992; Fischer, 1994; Strathern, 1987;Van Maanen, 1995) with its concomitant focus on issues of native identity, postcolonialism and gender (Narayan, 1993; Chow, 1993; Brettell, 1997).

3. This paper is part of a three-year ethnographic study of South Asians in the U.S. South. The performance analyzed here was done at “India Night,” an annual celebration of Indian culture, arts and identity at a Southern U.S university. The celebration brings together three populations: international students from India, first generation Indian American students, and the local Indian community, consisting of older immigrants. Our study has focused on media use (films, websites, videos) across these populations and on the actual text of the annual program. We argue that India Night has become a site for the struggle to define cultural identity, authenticity and agency amongst the three populations. This paper examines some of the dynamics around masculinity, film, Diaspora and performance for the first generation Indian American students.

Fieldwork and interviews for this project have been conducted across all three communities. This paper uses transcripts from interviews with three students (the dancers) representing the first generation Indian American students, with one caveat. Two of the three students were born in India but their parents immigrated to the United States soon after. The two respondents in the first act are Indian international students. The cultural milieu these first generation Indian American students grew up in is of a specific Indian ethnicity called “Gujarati” (i.e. from the Indian State of Gujarat). They described their community as cohesive, tied by bonds of language, commensality, food and frequent cultural celebrations such as dances, religious gatherings and family events around birthdays, marriages, etc. All three of the dancers had been to India numerous times, and their understanding of India was more contextual than others of their generation who had only been there once or twice in their life. All three dancers anticipated marrying within their ethnic and religious community.

4. Lal,, 10/12/00

5. Bhaba, 1994, 7

6. Honest, likeable.

7. Lal, 1998, 60, 68.

8. Bullogh and Bullogh, 1993.

9. Hobsbawm, 1996, 44.

10. Virdi, 1997.

11., 10/12/00.

12. Interview with Amitab Bachchan, Cine Blitz, 2000, 27.

13. The authors translated the subtitles here.

14. The Red Fort is where India’s Prime Minister gives his annual Independence Day Speech.

15. Mishra, Jeffrey and Shoesmith, 1989.

16. Adda is a cheap drinking establishment frequented by the poor.

17. Raakhi is a ceremony establishing a fictive sibling kinship between a man and a woman. It is symbolized by a thread which a woman puts on a man’s wrist.

18. One of the perils of translation is judgment calls as to whether to provide a literal translation or a contextual one. In the case of this song, the word “anganee” translates literally as courtyard or even veranda, but the contextual reference clearly indicates personal space and so we use the word “home” in our translation. Similarly, in the second line of each verse the line “she has a purpose” is a contextual translation of the words “uska bhi bada naam hai,” which translates literally as “she too has a big name.”

19. This rhetorical strategy can be seen as a kind of analytic shorthand that signals the contexts of interpretation without laying out a predetermined path for all readings to follow. We follow Denzin’s (1997) rationale and Kohn (1998, 1994) example in assuming this strategy.

20. Harris, Torres and Allender, 1994, 704.

21. Kimel and Messner, 1992,9-10.

22. A popular dance from the Indian state of Punjab. It’s very popular amongst South Asians in the Diaspora.

23. Hammond and Jablow, 1987, 256.

24. Mcdowell, 2000, 201.

25. Garba and Raas are dances from the Indian State of Gujarat.

26. Coward, 1985, 13

27. Featherstone, 1991, 69.

28. Dyer, 1993, 275.

29. Jhumka can be roughly translated as style. Here it refers to what the respondent thinks is an overly sexual style of women dancers

30. Lal,, 10/12/00.

31. Jump Cut reviewer’s comments

32. Flax, 1987, 632.


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