Bhangra, Race, and Gender

This Monday, April 7th, our very own Vicki Virk will be talking with Falu Bakrania, Associate Professor of Race and Resistance Studies at SFSU, about "Bhangra and Belonging: South Asian Music in the Diaspora." If you'd like to attend in person, the talk is from 4:00 to 5:30 pm at 554 Barrows Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. In preparation, and out of a deep sense of curiosity, a number of us Dholrhythmers have been devouring Bakrania's book Bhangra and Asian Underground: South Asian Music and the Politics of Belonging in Britain. What does the bhangra scene look like when viewed through the eyes of an academic? A lot the same, and a lot different, than what we experience on the ground in San Francisco.

Photo Credit: Odell Hussey

Bakrania's project is to examine how postcolonial youth negotiate their identity as both British and as South Asian through clubbing. I don't know whether I'm impressed or jealous that Bakrania got funding to study clubbing in London for almost two years- probably a bit of both. She found the club scene in Britain to be a hotly contested site, with different groups jockeying to assert their notion of identity as important and authentic. In turn, ordinary club goers actively constructed a "hybrid" identity for themselves while at the club, blending British and Asian definitions of identity into something unique. This identity formation followed them out of the club, informing the way they perceived themselves in the rest of their lives. 

Photo Credit: Odell Hussey

In London during the 90's bhangra went head-to-head with the Asian Underground, sparking intense criticism from both sides. Bhangra labeled the Asian Underground scene as culturally inauthentic, pandering to a white market by pulling classical Indian motifs and removing their context to make them easily accessible. The AU scene criticized bhangra right back as uncultured and unintelligent, also pandering to whites. I'm going to quote Nitin Sawhney for having the courage to go on record saying "But bhangra... is so simple, it's unreal. Bhangra is four-four music, it's perfect for Western ears, and that's why it's received such interest." In the tumult Panjabi MC ended up labeled as producing black music, since "Mundian To Bach Ke" is primarily a hip-hop track. In the end the debate really didn't matter; AU music died out as fans chased new trends and bhangra, in Bakrania's argument, never fully crossed over to mainstream success.

Photo Credit: Odell Hussey

The place where Bakrania's research got interesting was when she started talking about women. In case you hadn't noticed, bhangra is pretty male. Quick- list five female bhangra artists besides Miss Pooja. Any luck? Men by and large produce the music and in London it's primarily men who consumed it in clubs. Where were the women while all this is going on? Having an interesting time of it. London bhangra clubs had audiences up to 85% male, and sexual harassment was ubiquitous. As a result, women who attended bhangra clubs were primarily lower class, of a marginalized identity (divorced, separated, single mothers, victims of domestic violence), and prepared to aggressively protect themselves if necessary. Ironically, this caused middle and upper middle class South Asian women to flee bhangra clubs for the AU scene, searching for a place to construct a more authentic South Asian identity without being defined by gendered harassment.

Photo Credit: Odell Hussey

Things are a little bit different in San Francisco now than they were in London. We're a lot less violent; almost all the London clubs Bakrania researched for her book are now closed due to fighting. Sexual harassment still happens, but it's a far cry at Public Works from what it used to be at the Rickshaw Stop. Because white patrons were often prevented from entering London bhangra clubs at the door, our San Francisco crowds are more diverse. Perhaps NonStop falls more along the lines of an AU club from the 90's. With primarily female organizers and an all-female dance troupe, however, we seem to avoid some of the visual exoticization of South Asian women that was part of the decoration and ambiance of the AU scene. 

Photo Credit: Odell Hussey

At most NonStops half of our crowd in non-desi, and our gender ratio approaches 50%. Our dance troupe is also diverse, reflecting our NonStop audience. Bakrania barely mentions white women in her book, although she does castigate one AU group for having a white classically trained dancer on stage. I suppose if you're focused on identity formation in postcolonial youth, other groups are less relevant. But I found Bhangra and Asian Underground doesn't create a useful lens for our non-desi Dholrhythmers (not all of whom are white) and club goers. Bakrania's research also tends to conflate South Asian-American members and club goers, in the case of Dholrhythms flattening the experience of North Indians, South Indians, Fijian-Indians, and first and second generation women as the same. I'm also curious about what bhangra might have to do with the construction of Punjabi identity specifically, as opposed to simply constructing a hybrid South Asian identity.  So many questions, so little time... but it will be fascinating to hear what both our speakers have to say about the similarities and differences between the London and San Francisco bhangra scenes.


The Elephant’s Eye

Just published in India Currents!

Shiva’s Family, India Rajasthan, Bundhi c. 1730; ink. gouache, and gold on paper; 11-7/8 x 8-5/12. in. 

“Animals are complex. Often marginalized, there’s increasing interest in understanding how animals feel… there’s a discrepancy, though, between how we understand our own feelings and those of animals” explains Guest Curator Padma Maitland. The Berkeley Art Museum’s new exhibition, “The Elephant’s Eye: Artful Animals in South and Southeast Asia” brings together thirty paintings, ink studies, and sculptures from India, Thailand, and Cambodia to explore the representation and meaning of animals in South and Southeast Asian art. 

“As Padma and I began looking at images from the collection it was apparent that the exhibition would be made up of different types of art: religious, folk and classical paintings, sculpture, and tapestry as well as drawings. I liked his approach because it opened doors to new ways of looking at these objects and put material in interesting juxtaposition in a rather non-traditional way” says Julia White, Senior Curator for Asian Art at the Berkeley Art Museum. Maitland worked closely with both White and Penny Edwards, UC Berkeley Professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies, to develop the “The Elephant’s Eye”.

Historical Page (from an unidentified manuscript), Mughal, Shah Jahani copy of an Akbar Period original, mid 17th century; ink, gouache, and gold on paper; 11-3/16 x 7-3/8 in.; gift of Jean and Francis Marshall. 

The link between animals and the Berkeley Art Museum’s collection was first discovered by Penny Edwards while developing a seminar about animal magic. Fortuitously, Edward’s discovery dovetailed nicely with Maitland’s own graduate work on representations of elephants in Dalit Buddhist art and architecture in India. “Once we began, looking for perhaps just a handful of items, we both were delighted to find art work that helped to expand on the theme. BAM/PFA has a wonderful collection of Indian paintings, primarily from the Jean and Francis Marshall collection, that Padma was able to use as a major resource” comments White.

With input from all of the Berkeley Art Museum’s departments, the exhibit was carefully crafted to explore a variety of social and historical settings. “The relationship between animals and humans is complex, changing over time and according to context,” says Maitland. One of the pieces in the exhibition, a beautifully composed Shah Jahani copy of an Akbar Period original, shows a procession of men traveling with elephants, horses, and dogs through rocky terrain. In this instance animals are a representation of power and wealth, “The formal expression can be a telling testament to how animals are understood or perceived in relation to the time and context of its creation” explains Maitland. 

Tethered Elephant, India, Rajasthan, Bundhi, 1720; ink, color wash, and gold on paper; 8 x p in.; gift of Jean and Francis Marshall. 

Although a variety of animals are featured throughout the exhibit, it is the elephant that takes center stage. “Elephants are particularly prolific in the collection and the type of art from the region we were choosing… elephants furthermore feature prominently in popular imagination, so seem a fruitful focus for a show appealing to a wider audience” explains Maitland. A Bundhi painting from the 1730’s features Ganesh arrayed as part of Shiva’s family, tapping into a deeply religious interpretation of the elephant. Another earlier and dramatic work from the 17th century shows Vishnu and Garuda saving the King of the Elephants, Gajendra Moksha, from a dynamic crocodile.

The exhibition also reveals a glimpse of life from behind the eyes of an elephant. “A naturalistic depiction of an elephant reflects a different understanding of the animal than a more stylized or iconic version does” comments Maitland. An 18th century Bundhi painting from the exhibition reveals a clever elephant escaping his tethers. The exhibit also includes work by conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who trained elephants to create their own paintings at the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project in Thailand. “Instead of being a painting of an elephant, it is a painting done by the elephant Ramona” says Maitland.

Maitland will be giving a guided tour of the exhibition April 13th. “By focusing on representation of animals in the art of South and Southeast Asia, it was our hope that the exhibition would open up a discussion of the relationships between how animals are depicted and how they are understood” says Maitland. “The Elephant’s Eye” is a chance for viewers of all ages to engage both empathetically and intellectually with the animals in front of them. “Working with Padma on this show was a delightful experience and I think the exhibition is a real achievement and contribution to our exhibition program,” concludes White.

The Elephant’s Eye: Artful Animals in South and Southeast Asia
Through June 29th
Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
Wednesday through Sunday, 11am-5pm
Tickets begin at $10



Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Just published in India Currents!

Fasting Buddha, 700-800. India; Jammu and Kashmir state. Ivory. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  1986.70

You know what yoga is, right? Perhaps it’s time to examine that preconception. “People have a certain set of ideas about what yoga is, whether they’re a practitioner or not,” says Qamar Adamjee, Associate Curator of South Asian Art at the Asian Art Museum. “This exhibition gives a richer sense of yoga’s histories; there’s no single path and no single answer.” Featuring 130 pieces of art from twenty-five museums and private collections across India, Europe, and the United States Yoga: The Art of Transformation highlights Indian religious traditions from the 2nd to 20th centuries.   

Conceived by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, “we are proud to be the only West Coast venue for this groundbreaking exhibition on yoga’s history” says Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum. The exhibit reunites three 10th century stone yoginis from the same temple in Tamil Nadu, reveals pages from the first illustrated book of asanas, and features Thomas Edison’s 1902 film Hindoo Fakir, identified as the first movie made about India. Throughout the exhibit special attention is paid to philosophy while problematizing the orientalism and cultural appropriation that often defines contemporary yoga practice.

Vishnu in his man-lion incarnation as Yoga-Narasimha, approx. 1250. India; Tamil Nadu state. Bronze. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1973.187.

“Sun salutations were not devised until the 1930’s, by which time they were in association with wresting and body building exercises” explains Adamjee. The exhibit explores the long history before sun salutations, including Jain meditation, Buddhist revisions of asceticism, Sikh yogic practices, the development of hatha yoga, and the dialogue between Hindu and Sufi mystics. Stunning Mughal albums point to the connection between spiritual power and political rule. “There was a tight relationship between gurus and kings. Gurus were often political advisors” says Adamjee.

One of the exhibition’s multiple narratives is transgressive practice. Violent battles for control between militant yogi orders join nuanced explorations of the figure of the yogi himself. “Literature is filled with tales of yogis who shape-shift and pluck out other people’s livers” adds Adamjee. Yogic powers developed through austerities attracted both 19th century Theosophists and the colonial desire to classify, and negatively define, yogic practitioners. 20th century film, photography, and publicity posters reveal a complicated western fascination with the idea of a magical fakir.

Yogini, 1000–1050. India; Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh state. Sandstone. Courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art90.92. 

“The yoga world today is largely composed of female practitioners. We see female presences early in the exhibition, then sources fade for a while,” comments Adamjee. In response a strand of the exhibition’s narrative traces the feminine, including a sandstone yogini from 11th century Uttar Pradesh. “She’s an absolutely gorgeous, enigmatic figure who challenges and attracts the viewer. Sensitively carved, her halo echoing the head of the owl she sits astride, the figure’s composition communicates the power of the dakini,” says Adamjee. This dauntless dakini offers viewers the chance to identify with, and challenge, the selves and narratives they see reflected in the exhibition. “Seeing the exhibition is a chance to reaffirm the amazing historical wealth from South Asia’s past” Adamjee concludes.

A slew of events accompany the yoga exhibit. In April Dr. Margaret Chesney, Director of UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and Dr. Anand Dhruva, an integrative medicine physician, will meet for several talks to discuss Ayurveda, yoga, and health. On May 4th Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose, the Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian Art from the Art Institute of Chicago, will juxtapose Vivekananda’s reformation of yoga with Jitish Kallat’s installation Public Notice 3, talking about religious tolerance and terrorism. Throughout the exhibition in-gallery curator talks, lectures by senior yoga teachers, punchy BAAT CHEET programs about yoga in California, classical Indian dancing, yoga workshops, and multiple family and children’s activities are scheduled.

It can be easy to dismiss an exhibit about something intrinsic to your history, especially when it’s bound to draw Lululemon-clad crowds. Yet Yoga: The Art of Transformation is a nuanced study of Indian tradition. The exhibition demands an understanding and appreciation for yoga to properly access its depth and breadth. Come, stand in front of the art, and see what transforms for you.

Yoga:  The Art of Transformation
Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm
Adults $17, seniors and students $13, children under 12 free


The World On Our Plates

Just published in India Currents!

Around the Table: food, creativity, community inspired SACHI to plan a dynamic event at the San Jose Museum of Art, a celebration of food and cuisine combined with outstanding scholarship and a thought-provoking exhibition,” says Kalpana Desai, President of the Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India.  “SACHI is thrilled to present Harold McGee and Rachel Laudan to share groundbreaking perspectives on the culture and science of cooking. ‘Epilogue’, a piece by contemporary Indian artist Jitish Kallat, will be an inspiring backdrop for our April 11th program The World on Our Plates” explains Desai.

After refreshments and a guided tour of the exhibit Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, will provide an illustrated talk about 2,000 years of food history. “South Asia was the cradle not only of several of the world’s major religions but of the world’s major cuisines as well,” explains Laudan. Food was a crucial component for both South Asian culture and religion. “Monasteries spread ways of processing and cooking new dishes and foods such as cane sugar, using sugar refining as a metaphor for spiritual progress.” Laudan is particularly interested in the ways cuisine is linked to conversion, “Monks, often with the agreement of the state, spread not only their religion but the accompanying cuisine as well as the trade and farming to support it.”

Laudan is joined by Harold McGee, author of the now classic On Food and Cooking. A regular columnist for the New York Times, McGee has written extensively about the science of cooking. “Science is all about exploring our world, looking below surface appearances to understand how things work, and then using that understanding to make and do things differently.” He believes cooks were the first scientists, “They observed how heat energy could transform natural materials, and developed their craft according.” McGee will illuminate the kitchen science of popular restaurant chefs and talk about the second edition of On Food and Cooking, “I essentially rewrote it from beginning to end and expanded it significantly, because readers had become both more interested and more knowledgeable.”

“Religious leaders told understandable stories about food, whether of the Buddha partaking of sweet grain dishes after his enlightenment or of Vishnu ordering the churning of the primordial ocean of milk” says Laudan. Food was central to the teaching and spread of religion in South Asia, and retains its centrality in our own kitchens today. Join Rachel Laudan and Harold McGee for an evening of art, cooking, and science that explores and reaffirms the place of food in our families and communities.

The World on our Plates:  Epic Journeys in Food and Cuisine
Friday, April 11th, 6:00pm-9:30pm
San Jose Museum of Art
110 S. Market Street, San Jose
Tickets begin at $20
e-mail info@sachi.org or call 650-918-6335 for tickets


Lesson: Early British Imperialsim

Here is one more lesson I developed for the Asian Art Museum's curriculum. This time it's a one-day lesson with a painting title bound to draw student interest. And once that interest is attracted, it's an excellent way to analyze perspectives of British imperialism in India. To access teacher and student materials associated with this lesson, follow this link.

Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, after a painting by John Zoffany (1733-1810).  Etching by Richard Earlom, British (1743-1822), 1794.  Hand-colored mezzotint on paper.  Asian Art Museum, from the collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D., 2005.64.653.

Title:  Early British Imperialism In India

Objective:  To explore imperialism from the perspectives of both the colonizers and the colonized through art.

Duration:  One 50 minute class period

Resource Type:  Lesson or Activity

Region:  South Asia

Topic:  Trade and Exchange; Colonialism

Grade Level:  High School (10th Grade)

Curriculum Unit:  Deconstructing Perspectives of Colonial South Asia

Keyword Results:  imperialism, British imperialism, early British imperialism, India, Lucknow, Colonel Mordaunt, cock match, cock fighting, Johann Zoffany, John Zoffany, Maharaja:  The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts, colonialism, British colonialism

Lesson Plan “Early British Imperialism in India”
PowerPoint Presentation  “Early British Imperialism in India”
Student Handout 1:  Analyzing a Primary Source
Teacher Key 1:  Analyzing a Primary Source
Student Handout 2:  Context for Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match from 1794
Student Handout 3:  Investigating Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Matches
Teacher Key 2:  Investigating Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Matches

Content Standards (California):  HSS  10.4:  Students analyze patterns of global change in the era of New Imperialism in at least two of the following regions or countries:  Africa, Southeast Asia, China, India, Latin America, and the Philippines.  10.4.3:  Explain imperialism from the perspective of the colonizers and the colonized and the varied immediate and long-term responses by the people under colonial rule.

Warren Hastings, Esq., Governor General of Bengal & c. & c.  By Sir Joshua Reynolds, British (1723-1792) and Thomas Watson, British (1743-1781), 1777.  Ink on paper.  Asian Art Museum, from the collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D., 2005.64.79


Introduction (10 min):  “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” from 1794

Project the PowerPoint Early British Imperialism in India.  Have students look at the image of Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match from 1794 and begin Student Handout 1:  Analyzing a Primary Source by completing the “What do you see” boxRead the quote below, then fill in the rest of the boxes together as a class.

Read to Class:  Excerpt from Maya Jasanoff’s Edge of Empire

“At first glance, the painting plainly seems to illustrate a world of luxury, lassitude, pleasure, and indulgence.  This is an image, above all, of the exotic:  of Europeans ‘going native’ and of decadent Asians, of lush temptations and shameless self-indulgence.  But it is easy to forget, looking at the picture today, just how familiar it all would have been to the people who appear in it (most of whom are identifiable historical figures).  They were not merely playing at being exotic.  Around the time this was painted, in fact, Colonel Mordaunt’s cockfights-- to say nothing of banquets, festivals weddings, and many other occasions where Europeans and Asians came together—were practically weekly events.”

Small Group Activity (15 min):  Context for “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” from 1794

From the PowerPoint show students the Nawab of Awadh and Warren Hastings, the two patrons of “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” from 1794.  Distribute Student Handout 2:  Context for Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match from 1794.  Have students read aloud in pairs.

Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match.  ca 1850.  India; Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh State.  Opaque watercolors on cloth.  Asian Art Museum, from the collection of William K. Ehrenfeld, M.D.  1988.23.2.

Class Discussion (25 min):  Investigating “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” from 1794 and 1850

From the PowerPoint show “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” from 1794. 

What do you see in the painting now that you didn’t see before?
Can you identify the Nawab of Awadh, Colonel Mordaunt, and Johann Zoffany in the painting?  How does this change your understanding of the painting?
How does this painting portray Europeans and Indians in India?

Show the last PowerPoint image, “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” from 1850.  Explain to students this is a later Indian interpretation of Zoffany’s painting.  

How are these two images similar?  How are they different?
What did you first notice in this image? 
Who do you think are the most important people in this image?  How does the artist show you?
How does this painting portray Europeans and Indians in India?

Homework:  Distribute Student Handout 3:  Investigating Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Matches. 

This lesson was created by Thatcher Palmer, a history teacher at the Education Academy of Ygnacio Valley High School, and edited by Michelle Baird, in partnership with the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project and the Asian Art Museum’s Maharaja:  The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts.