Diwali, Dance And The Indian Diaspora.


It is that time of the year when the local councils in New Zealand and Asia:NZ have ‘official’ celebrations of Diwali in Auckland and Wellington. White folksy interpretation of a Hindu festival with Fiji-Indian conceptualisation and a sprinkle of Hindu fundamentalism disguised as Bollywood. It is a great way to carry on the Free Trade Deal (FTA) dialogue with India, apparently. But definitely a sneaky way for the fundamentalists to hoodwink PC, dumb white folk to think that Hindu=India, all at once homogenous, exotic, hard to understand and where everyone eats samosas. Whoever said cultural integration of diasporic peoples cannot be simplified so as to tick all the boxes? Then we all live happily ever after.

It took me three years to complete this documentary. I went into the homes of my people here, engaged with bright, enthusiastic school kids who have no platform for expression and listened to the ‘elders’ lecture me on the meaning of ‘being Indian’ (or how important they really are).  I also got an amazing story from a old, old man, now deceased, about how he went back to India and participated in the struggle for freedom. There were many of his generation, who,  inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, travelled by sea to India to resist British rule. That unfortunately is not part of the video inserted below but I hope to tell the story some day.

Filmmaking is hard work and without money the only things that sustain you are passion and a burning desire to tell a story.  If I had any funding for this film it might have been a different product. However, the journey so far has made me determined to continue telling stories that don’t fit trends or showcase the exotic peoples of the East and Africa, even as case studies in neo-liberalism.  Middle class Indians across the world are a force to reckon with economically but most of the time (I assume, from my experiences in New Zealand), really not interested in political movements or resistance or protest unless things affect them. Equality and solidarity within humanity is not worth the same as Indians being equal to white people. So we continue to perpetuate stereotypes of a model minority imitating culture from back home and compare ourselves to imperial masters, even aspire to be them. There is a little sliver, a gap somewhere in there though where the stories stay invisible, unheard, un-articulated.  Emotions that overlap, experiences that are shared with all humanity. That’s where I attempt to work. This film is the first of many more to come, as many as I can possibly make in this life. Enjoy!

Passive Performance As Multiculturalism. (In New Zealand) Part 2.


In part one of this blog I introduced my argument and quoted Milton Fisk. Multiculturalism in New Zealand is based on a neoliberal model that recognises diversity but does not allow it flow over into the mainstream because that upsets the economic structure and global expression of the same. I used as a starting point an article by Henry Johnson and Guil Figgins that: (a)Examines the re-contextualization and transformation of Diwali in New Zealand with emphasis on performance (b) Explores the role that various organisations have and looks at (c) The ways in which performances are expressions of self-identity and part of a process of place-making.

Re-contextualization/Tranformation:

The paper says Diwali Downunder is a secular affair that is recontextualised and transformed into a celebration.

Diwali, as celebrated in India, is a family affair. However it is still public in a way because the entire country celebrates it according to region and community. So it is a public-private affair. There is no place for communal performance of any kind especially Bollywood. The ‘transformation’ cannot be called secular because the very nature of the festival excludes non-Hindu South Asians-it is a Hindu festival within a ‘homogenous’ space as per organisers. Perhaps because India is a larger economy than other South Asian countries? In my film Jennifer King says that since the Chinese Lantern Festival was successful, they decided on Diwali. (So a non-religious Chinese festival is the same as a deeply religious Hindu festival?) Then the very nature of this does not offer any scope for re-contextualization. My questions:

  • Is a publicly celebrated foreign festival a true transformation when the space is predetermined by government organisations?
  • How can a culture be re-contextualized in that same space which only seeks passive participation from the local Indian community?
  • Isnt the otherness endorsed by the same and then to maintain that because it is about replicating and imitating from back home and that becomes representation.
  • You need local creatives to re-contextualize. Where are the local artists?
  • Why has Jacob Rajan never performed at Diwali?
  • Name one creative who has come out of this transformed/re-contextualized space to breakout on to the national stage?

Organisations and events:

The paper says that the role of the organisations is positive and Asia:NZ’s role (then known as Asia 2000) contributes towards developing visibility.

To a certain extent that is true but what has the role of Asia:NZ to develop visibility of the Indian community got to do with social integration? Asia:NZ Foundation was established in 1994 by the Jenny Shipley government (National) to help develop better economic ties with Asian countries. On 7/11/2004, the tenth anniversary of Asia:NZ, Phil Goff (Labour), then in government, said in a speech in Parliament Ten years ago, New Zealand had embarked on a policy of active engagement with Asian economies. We had expanded our ties with Asian countries on a number of fronts politically, economically and diplomatically. …”

When you have economic benefit as your core ojective then culture has to be shaped and presented accordingly. Diversity becomes a commodity instead of a value.

Then organisations develop mutually beneficial MOUs such as with Auckland City Council.

Self-identity and Place-making:

Expression of self identity means taking charge of who you are. Culturally, ethnically and in the present. It means challenging notions of being the ‘other’ to oneself and to the mainstream. That goes beyond recognition. It is about equality.

  • Expression of self identity is a form of resistance and that is anathema to neo-liberal multiculturalism. The Indian identity here is shaped within the context of Diwali-exotic and different. But equal?

Placemaking comes from telling stories by owning a place and you own a place by actively participating in the place/space. There is only passive participation in the Diwali Mela.

  • Real place-making can happen only when the past is not sought to be fossilised in the present. It is different from cultural maintenance.

Indian culture then does not spill into, flow into and mix with other cultures or even the mainstream. How then can social issues be addressed?

What multiculturalism then?

It is clear from the current neoliberal model of multiculturalism in New Zealand that migrants and their diversity are recognised for economic benefits. The inference in my film is the same. “Food, footfalls and festivals for cultural consumption…my identity reduced to song and dance to satisfy the stakeholders…” Here the stakeholders are the organisers and sponsors. The Indian community is clearly not perceived as a stakeholder in an active, participatory, decision-making manner except to please them about their presence and numbers at an annual Diwali Mela. As if seeing others like yourself once a year in masses is reassuring of your place and space in New Zealand.

I do not have a clear cut answer to which model of multiculturalism New Zealand should seek. It is a matter of korero, dialogue.

Milton Fisk: The cultural view of recognition stays within the bounds of neoliberalism. the social view of recognition does not counterpose recognition and equality; instead, it makes equality a vital part of recognition.

Amartya Sen: 1-Promote diversity as a value in itself. 2-Focus on the freedom of reasoning and decision-making positively supported through social opportunities.(Identity And Violence The Illusion Of Destiny. Sen, Amartya. Allen Lane-Penguin Books, 2006.)

Tariq Modood:1-Socio-economic opportunities and outcomes. 2-Socio-cultural mixing. 3Civic participation and belonging (Open Democracy blog)

New Zealand is unique because we have the Treaty Of Waitangi that no other country in this world has. Any form of multiculturalism cannot be propagated without involving tangata whenua. How does the Diwali Mela create a dialogue with Maori? What is the place of migrants as tau iwi? If migrant culture is seen as economically viable to sell the idea of New Zealand as blissfully diverse, to tell India and China that their people are loved here so let’s get on with the FTA, then Maori will become invisible to migrants. That would be perilous.

And after all this, I must make clear that I am not against the Bollywood dance competition or Diwali. It is the implementation and institutionalisation that is problematic. Besides, the Indian community in New Zealand, the youth need to take charge of their identity. Not just as ‘Indians’ but as New Zealanders. They need to question their space here. Merely doing an anti-Paul Henry dance at Diwali does not stop the racism. Neither is it resistance.

Passive Performance As Multiculturalism. (In New Zealand.) Part 1


This blog I have put together from a presentation I did at a Symposium in Dunedin ‘Interrogating Multiculturalism in New Zealand: An Asian Studies Perspective’ jointly organised by Otago University and Victoria University. It is still rough and there are some gaps to fully support my argument but I prefer to post it rather than write a longer academic article (and it is still in two parts). A friend advised me to read Foucault and Derrida but I do not have the time to digest such heavy reading. You can either agree or disagree.

The title comes from my documentary film DANCE BABY DANCE naach gaana hum aur tum that I made to examine the representation of the Indian community in New Zealand via the Bollywood dance competition at the Diwali Mela organised by Auckland City Council and Asia:NZ Foundation. The questions I asked myself and put to the viewer were ‘What does it mean to be Indian in New Zealand?’ ‘Who are the people that decide?’

When I first came to New Zealand and discovered that Diwali is celebrated as a publicly funded* festival through the organisations above, I was happy and excited. It was a way of sharing my culture with mainstream New Zealand. But the more I saw this festival the more uncomfortable it made me. Is this how multiculturalism is officially expressed in New Zealand? An annual festival that brings in footfalls and local Indians but to what end? How does this help in integration? How does it create a platform for querying your space and identity in New Zealand? What is the discourse around it? Is there a critical discourse? If not why not? The only way I could find out was by making a film. I interviewed the organisers and followed five different kinds of participants as they rehearsed for the Bollywood dance competition (since this was the ‘showstopper’ and heavily promoted and also the most problematic) . What did I infer at the end?

I needed academic backup to support my conclusion. My arguments come from the point of view of being an ‘ethnic’ media practitioner in the mainstream media of New Zealand who is on the fringe of the community and the mainstream by virtue of being neither or both and hence requiring me to be think in a critical manner. Outside/inside or inside/outside.

To begin, I referred to an article by Henry Johnson and Guil Figgins: Diwali Downunder-Transforming And Performing Tradition In Aotearoa New Zealand. This paper
a) Examines the re-contextualization and transformation of Diwali in New Zealand with emphasis on performance
b) Explores the role that various organisations have
c) The ways in which performances are expressions of self-identity and part of a process of place-making.

I’d like to argue that all three are limited and shaped by neo-liberal ideas of multiculturalism that converts migrant/ethnic cultures into soft, non-threatening consumable exotica to maintain the position of the ‘other’ rather than allow for integration. This then (a) Creates a space for passive participation (b) Continues to ghettoise the community (c) Sweeps social issues to the fringe or under the carpet because those are not part of this form of multiculturalism. Cultural differences are celebrated and accepted but rigidly maintained and not allowed tospill over into an effort to have equality of a form that would run counter to the economic norms the regime is expected in the global context to protect.’  I quote Milton Fisk, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Indiana University who wrote about Multiculturalism and Neoliberalism.…in the liberalism and the neoliberalism that associate closely with a positive view of the economic market, the notions of equal worth and equal dignity do not imply a right to economic equality but only a right to recognition. Here recognition implies…no more than an acceptance of others with their difference and of the task of maintaining that difference when they desire that their difference be maintained.”

Recognition of diversity is not the same as equality. It is a diversion from normalising and engaging with migrants and their lives and stories in New Zealand. Negotiating multiple identities and existence in New Zealand-they get lost in this ‘recognition and endorsement’ of popular Indian culture (Bollywood) and its economic hegemony. This recognition is like the carrot, it leads to the mirage of freedom and equity. But for the Indian community in New Zealand this multiculturalism continues to underscore and locate representation in food, clothes and performances rather than an exploration of their inherent complexities and space in New Zealand or creating a platform for democratic participation and open, critical discourse. Eventually failing to translate into wider cultural engagement or integration because it is always the ‘other’.

——————————————————————end of part 1——————

*The Diwali Mela is funded through various private sponsors, the Lion Foundation and advertisers but the primary organisations are government bodies who ‘raise’ the money, hence I use the term publicly funded.