I am about to tell of a journey which is not often narrated: down Person of Indian Origin memory lane. Typically, such a tale is reserved for first-generation Indians who describe a time when connecting to their culture wasn’t always easy….or even finding enough people to experience their heritage in a large, community setting. My point-of-view is a little different. I was born in a family that had been living in the US since 1963, and was raised in Colorado during a time which makes for great bedtime-story material to one day tell my grandkids. It’s the Indian-American version of how hard times used to be when the community was small and India was a land far, far away.
What did Indian-American families like mine do to entertain themselves and feel closer to their Indian heritage? We drove an hour each way to rent a Hindi film and buy a cassette with the latest Anil Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit hit. Get-togethers meant braving blizzards to hear uncles and aunties sing popular film songs, with ‘Chitthi Aayi Hai’ being a party favorite. And if someone had just come back from a trip to India, they would play a cassette from an unreleased film …the one mentioned in my mom’s copy of ‘Stardust’.
Weddings would be a place for us to dance to popular Hindi film tunes, and once in a while we’d attend cultural programs where children performed Bharatnatyam, and uncles and aunties again crooned songs popular ‘back home’. Just as was the case in India, our main source of entertainment was almost always associated with cinema. Despite being smaller in numbers, and having no YouTube or Hindi Mega Pack to tell us what’s new and possible in Indian entertainment, we made it work. If you had a harmonium, a mic and 2-liters of Coke, you had a rocking party. What is more amusing is that this was pretty much how things were when my mom was growing up in Missouri and Colorado. But instead of a cassette, the coveted item in those days was an LP of ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ which had traveled through three countries to reach a home in American suburbia.
The Indian Diaspora has grown tremendously from the time when my grandparents immigrated, and India is now closer than ever. Whether it’s New York or New Mexico, Indian-Americans have access to entertainment from every culture at the touch of a button and opportunities to see live Indian music and dance. Young women and men showcase their choreographing prowess at weddings by dedicating routines to the bride and groom. Indian student associations in colleges put together a string of large dances numbers to celebrate the sub-continent. And dancing continues to be an absolute must at functions celebrations during Holi and Navratri.
When we celebrate, it means we are singing and dancing. It’s as simple as that. As jubilant, beautiful and well-planned the entertainment is at the aforementioned settings, the more such functions you attend the greater your chances of knowing the latest chart-topper from a Hindi film. And most times the steps you saw on the big screen (or in the film promos on satellite channels) are again repeated…but this time it’s a live telecast. There are more venues to see live bhangra, garba-raas, and classical dance but when it comes to entertaining themselves at parties, weddings, cultural functions, and even Independence Day parades, Indian-Americans choose the ‘filmi’ route.
The Diaspora is far more comfortable with both their Indian and American identity like never before and culturally the world has become a much smaller place. Then why do we continue to party like it’s 1999? I am the first person on the dance floor when ‘Ooh La La’ is blasting at a wedding, and loudly cheer when ‘I Love My India’ is being played at a parade, but coming from a culture which is a paragon of diversity, and living in a country known as ‘the melting pot’ I know we can kick it up a notch. Can you imagine attending an Indian-American function where the evening included a Kathak-Tap dancing ensemble, an Indian stand-up comic from Trinidad, and a teen rock-band doing a Hindi-Tamil-Spanish mash up? Wouldn’t this be a more apt representation of the modern, Indian-American experience?
As we become more and more comfortable with our identity, pursue careers in various fields and become a greater part of American pop culture, I’m confident we will see more examples of our greater experience integrated into what we consider our more personal space, typically reserved for expression at Indian gatherings. I’m not suggesting there is a correct or proper way to celebrate or be entertained, or that partying needs to intellectualized. What I do offer is some food for thought, and suggest peeking outside the box we’ve been singing and dancing in for quite some time. Because how many times can we sing and dance to Munni Badnaam Hui? Even Malaika Arora Khan has a limit.