The Reduction of Culture: creating South Asian spaces at Tufts
“Hopefully one day we’ll have more specificity in South Asian groups on campus, but I’m glad we have what we do have,” remarked Meha Elhence, one of the three captains of the Tufts JumboRaas dance team.
The specificity that Elhence speaks of points to the myriad of distinct cultures within South Asia, each with their own customs, traditions, and practices. However, despite its immense diversity, South Asia is often portrayed homogenously in mainstream representations of the region. This ubiquitous flattening of South Asia is both reflected and actively combatted by the different South Asian spaces on campus as they foster communities that hope to reflect a full, truthful image of South Asian identities.
Ayesha Jalal, a professor in the History Department at Tufts and the director of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies, points to the region’s recent colonial history when explaining the reduction of South Asian identities that is typically observed in the United States.
“I think you’ll find anywhere, not just at Tufts, that when you think of South Asia you think of India, and when you think of India you think of Hinduism, and when you think of Hinduism you think of the Vedas,” he said. “The point is that the reduction is there, especially in this country, because South Asia is India.”
As Jalal suggests, equating South Asia to India results in a narrow and often inaccurate interpretation of what it means of be brown. This limited understanding leaves little room for non-Indian South Asians such as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans to exist and be recognized in America. However, as JT Mann, a sophomore of Punjabi-Sikh origin on the Tufts Bhangra team, points out, this omission not only erases non-Indian South Asians, but also flattens India itself. “You’re turning 1.3 billion people with hundreds of different cultures into one people, which isn’t true,” he said.
Mann points specifically to his experience on the Tufts Bhangra team to explain the importance of understanding the distinction between cultures within India, and how the American understanding of South Asia can result in the loss of entire cultures all together. While the Tufts Bhangra team is referred to as one of the four “South Asian dance teams” on campus, Mann explained that the dance form is specific to Punjab, a predominately Sikh region within India. “I’ve always thought of it as a Sikh-Punjabi cultural component,” he said. However, as the only Sikh-Punjabi on the team, Mann has often felt disappointed by the loss of the dance’s cultural significance at Tufts.
“It’s a fine line because it is a dance team on a college campus so people go to it to dance, but there are cultural components,” he stated. He mentioned the turbans worn by the team as an example. “The people who were dancing wore turbans because they were Sikh, and yet not everyone knows why you wear a turban,” he explained. Mann went on to express the complicated burden he bears as the only Sikh on the team, saying at times he feels like it’s hard for him as a Sikh person to explain to other members the significance of wearing turbans.
While Mann praised his team’s captains for their attempts to create a dialogue surrounding the meaning of the dance, he also acknowledged the limitations of these attempts. Despite the captains’ best efforts of relaying the cultural significance of Bhangra to the team, Mann pointed out the key distinction between being raised within a culture and learning it later in life from the outside.
“Even if you have learned the culture, it’s a different experience from being in the culture and having grown up with it,” he said. “I think our captains were really good about telling us what certain moves mean, but I think a lot of the times it wasn’t them knowing it; rather it was them translating a culture that they had learned themselves.”
However, this critique, as Mann suggests, is separate from the concerns often voiced about people of non-South Asian descent being on the team. “If you really want to boil it down, not all South Asian people are even of the same culture, so it’s not like it’s even a South Asian dance team.” And yet at Tufts, Bhangra is viewed as exactly that: one of the four South Asian dance teams on campus. In Mann’s view, this imprecise labeling is indicative of a “bigger problem of South Asian community.”
Elhence, on the other hand, had come to view the style of JumboRaas as completely distinct from the traditionally Gujrati dance form of Garba and Raas that the team is modeled on. Elhence explained that while Raas is traditionally a Gujarati dance performed at festivals and weddings, the way in which it is performed in competitive college circuits is extremely different. The focus on technique has made it so that “the choreography you see at a Raas competition you would never see at a social Garba or in India.” In this way, Elhence explained that the type of dance JumboRaas performs is an evolved style that has become specific to Indian-Americans.
While both Mann and Elhence spoke fondly of the South Asian community they have gained through their involvement with their respective dance groups, this community is contingent on performance and skill. For South Asians at Tufts who are looking for a space that is not social or performance based, South Asian Perspectives and Conversations, commonly referred to as SAPAC, offers a politically minded South Asian space. Iris Oliver, a senior at Tufts and a member of SAPAC’s executive board, explained the significance of having a non-performance based South Asian presence on campus. From her perspective, the dominance of South Asian dance teams coupled with the Tufts Association for South Asians’ annual culture show creates a “perception a lot of people have of what brown people at Tufts do.” Oliver said that “bringing another side of that has been important. Also, for me at least, it has been a really good source of community within the members of the club, and I think it’s nice because you don’t have to be good at dancing or xyz to join.”
SAPAC has consciously focused on highlighting other regions of South Asia in order to bring awareness to narratives that are often overshadowed by the extreme emphasis placed on India. Two years ago, the SAPAC e-board was a majority non-Indian South Asians, which Oliver noted was “pretty exciting because that never really happens.” She also mentioned that the presidents of SAPAC last year were Sri Lankan and Pakistani and that this leadership shaped a lot of the club’s discussions and focus. When discussing the perceptions of South Asia today and SAPAC’s role in deconstructing these, Oliver said, “it just ties back to if you look a certain way then that’s who you are and White people never really get put into one monolith. That might be obvious but I think it’s frustrating when people do that so we try as much as we can to be like, ‘No, that’s not what it is.’”
When it comes to the seeming difficulty of creating South Asian spaces on campus that maintain the diversity and nuances of South Asia itself, Professor Jalal provided some insight.
“This whole business of diversity can’t be maintained if you have certain kinds of attitudes,” he said. “One attitude says that this diversity needs to be tolerated, the other says that diversity is a God-given reality–when you do that you have no choice but to accommodate it.”