Celebrate the NEA Big Read with Us!

This past weekend was the kick-off for the NEA Big Read* of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Between the tasty samosas and snacks, the vibrant exhibit, the invigorating keynote address, and the friendly crowed comprising campus and local community members, the kick-off event provided a glimpse of what all is to come over the course of the next six weeks.

Dr. Koeli Goel gives remarks at the kick-off event at the Spurlock Museum for the NEA Big Read on Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake".

Dr. Koeli Goel gives remarks at the kick-off event at the Spurlock Museum for the NEA Big Read on Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”. Photo credit: Dr. Koeli Goel

The International and Area Studies Library is one of collaborating institutions working to provide 35 programs through February and into March to celebrate The Namesake and themes such as South Asia, diaspora, culture, immigration, and identity. Other partnering organizations include the Spurlock Museum, the Champaign Public Library, the Urbana Free Library, the Art Theater, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and more.

While all of the programs are free and open to the public (and all are worth attending) we would like to highlight the events being planned by the International and Area Studies Library so that our devoted readers and fans can come out and support us. So mark your calendars for the following exciting events:

Thanks to the generous support of the Dean of the Libraries, John Wilkin, and Mr. Pappu Patel of Bombay Market we are able to provide free refreshments at all of the events happening in the International and Area Studies Library. Events happening at other locations will have food and drinks available for purchase.

In addition to all of these wonderful events, there will also be two ongoing exhibits in the library throughout the month of February. Check out the first exhibit in the Marshall Gallery on the first floor of the Main Library building and then come up to IASL on the third floor to check out a second exhibit.

Please note that you do not have to have read the book in order to participate in any or all of these events. If you do want your own copy of the book, the International and Area Studies Library still has a few free copies to give away. If you have any questions or feedback about the programs, please feel free to be in touch with South Asian Studies & Global Popular Culture Librarian Mara Thacker (mthacker@illinois.edu), who is organizing the programs for IASL. Finally, if you are participating or following along on social media please tag us with #CUBigRead !

Happy reading!

NEA Big Read logo*NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

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Garba Raas in Champaign Urbana

Every year during the period of Navratri, the Indian Association at Urbana Champaign brings the festive vibe with Garba Raas and pooja. Garba is a form of dance that originated in the state of Gujarat, India.

Dancers performing Garba in Gujarat

Dancers performing Garba in Gujarat

It is usually performed for nine nights of Navratri around a centrally lit lamp or a picture or statue of goddess Durga, the feminine form of Divinity. Garba comes from the Sanskrit word Garbha that translates as womb, signifying ‘Source of Life’. Revolving dancers in concentric cycles represent the cycles of life, death, and rebirth with the only thing constant as the goddess, who represents the source of life.

The modern form of Garba is called Dandiya Raas which is traditionally performed by men using a pair of wooden sticks. Nowadays, Garba and Dandiya are merged together, creating a high energy dance form. The origin of the dance is traced back to the legendary myth of the fight between Goddess Durga and mighty demon king Mahishasura—the dance is an homage to their mythical fight. The dance sticks represent the sword and the dance form honors Durga’s victory over the demon.

Men, women and children wear traditional dresses with colorful embroidery and mirrors and dance to the music of the dhol, a type of double-headed drum, and Gujarati folk songs. The women and girls wear chaniya choli, a three piece dress with a colorful embroidered blouse decorated with mirrors, shells, beads and stars, a flared skirt and a long scarf wrapped around in the traditional way. They also adorn themselves with beautiful jewelry. Men wear a top called a kedia and pants known at pyjama, or a dhoti with an oxidized bracelet and a necklace.

The Indian Association of Urbana Champaign strives to provide a common identity for the local Indian community and facilitate cultural, social and educational services and opportunities for cultural integration for people of all ages. They also foster those activities that enhance mutual understanding and appreciation between the Indo-American community and the mainstream American community. They organize Garba and Dandiya Raas usually on the second weekend of Navratri. This year, it was at ‘Brookens Center Urbana Park District’ on Sep 22nd and 29th, Friday and Saturday. I was delighted to be part of the celebration this year. The event began with the opening prayer to Goddess Durga which included lighting the lamp and singing religious songs. The dancers began gathering around the statue of the goddess in concentric circles and started dancing to the Gujarati folk music played by the DJ. There were men, women, children and elderly people, all decked out in beautiful colors. With the soft beats, people started matching each other rhythms and following a pattern. It was amazing to see how they could sync with each other’s movements in an orderly way and generate a beautiful dynamic form.

Dancers forming a circle around the idol. People of all ages participated in the event.

Dancers forming a circle around the idol. People of all ages participated in the event.

 

Traditional Attire

Traditional Attire

Everyone was enjoying the dance form and participated with full spirit. Often women lead the men in the dance. They would clap their hands, step forward and backward, swirl around and move ahead repeating the pattern. Even the elderly were dancing passionately! Apart from the Indian families in attendance, there were a lot of U of I students that excitedly participated in Garba Raas. A lot of those students weren’t part of the Gujarati community, but had come to celebrate the auspicious time of Navratri and to experience the pleasure of this traditional dance form. Experts in Garba including both students and adults, were there to teach to the rhythms of Garba to the uninitiated. Even the newbies were merged into the circles and helped them grow larger and larger. I was keen on learning these fascinating dance steps and was guided well by friends who were skilled at it. Soon I could swing like other dancers and became a part of the concentric formations of dance.

The newbies trying to learn to dance

The newbies trying to learn to dance

After a while, the dancing switched from Garba to Dandiya where people started using sticks, holding one in each hand, and dancing around the idol. I was excited to try the colorful sticks for dancing. There were several smaller groups that began creating their own rhythm with sticks clashing against each other on the beats of the songs. I started dancing with 5 other people, forming pairs within the group and continuously switching partners while dancing with the music. The songs were mostly fast paced now, with swift movements and changing partners after every beat or two. Beads of sweat glistening on almost every dancer’s forehead, the enthusiasm was too high to tire them. Those small groups merged into one big circle that was creating a spiritual energy focused in the center of the hall towards goddess Durga.

Dancing with Dandiya

Dancing with Dandiya

There were refreshments too including lemonade, savory Indian snacks like samosa, and desserts like gulab jamun and kheer. Set up on a table in one corner, whenever the music would get a little low, people would take short breaks and refresh themselves with food, feeling all the more energetic for continuing their dance.

The whole dance session came to end with an elaborate worship ritual of the Goddess Durga by everyone. A priest, with a plate containing flowers, a fruit and an oil lamp offered the Goddess his and everyone else’s devotion and prayer. All of us sang the devotional songs in unison and thanked the goddess for the blissful life, family, friends, and a chance to celebrate these auspicious days with them.

Worshipping the Goddess

Worshipping the Goddess

The celebration brought students, families and even non-native Indians together, irrespective of which part of India or the world are they from. No one identified there as a Gujarati, Bengali or Punjabi, but as someone who came to immerse himself/herself into the magnanimous aura of the Goddess Durga and the power-packed dance form. Many Indian students and family here miss their country, hometown, and families– most especially during Navratri and Diwali.  This is the third year that I am away from home for Navratri and Diwali celebration and this period always makes me wanting to go home but the celebration made me feel as if I have a family here as well that celebrates the festive spirit with such love and warmth. Events and celebrations like these bring us closer and let us form one big family here, away from home, rejoicing in our culture, traditions, and values no matter where we are in the world.

Saloni Chawla
Graduate Teaching Assistant
Department of Landscape Architecture
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

 

References:

 

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“The Fairer Sex” Films, Too

Let us know your favorite female directors and/or movies directed by women in the comments below!

"We Can Do It!" poster for Westinghouse, closely associated with Rosie the Riveter, although not a depiction of the cultural icon itself.

The iconic “We Can Do It!” poster associated with Rosie the Riveter and female empowerment.

We heard you all loud and clear– you loved our March post on female authors from around the world! Just because Women’s History Month is over doesn’t mean we can’t highlight more talented female artists. So this week we bring you a post with films by female directors. And if you need further justification other than “we think it’s an interesting topic”, you may also be interested to know that:

  • April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and gender-based violence is a theme or undercurrent of many international documentary and feature films by women directors,
  • On Tuesday, April 5th from 7:00-9:00 pm the International and Area Studies Library is co-sponsoring a screening of one such film, “India’s Daughter” at the Spurlock Museum,
  • Renowned director Pang Eun-jin will be visiting the University of Illinois to screen two of her films, “The Way Back Home”, and “Perfect Number” on April 25, and 26 respectively.

Without further ado, here are a few fantastic films directed by a selection of talented women from around the world:

India’s Daugther: The Story of Jyoti Singh”  directed by Leslee Udwin (2015)

Tags: India, United Kingdom, Jyoti Singh, rape, documentary

“India’s Daughter” is a harrowing documentary recounting the infamous 2012 gang rape case in New Delhi which resulted in the death of a young girl, Jyoti Singh. Both the incident and the subsequent release of the film sparked protests and international conversations about women’s rights and violence against women. The film was banned from screening in India but has nonetheless had a worldwide impact, having been screened in countries all around the globe. One of the aspects of the film that makes it controversial is that the director, Leslee Udwin, is not a South Asian, and the film cannot help but comment on societal conditions and attitudes that contributed to the incident. The film is also difficult to watch because it gives voice to the rapists, their legal counsel, and the families of the rapists including the wife of one of the rapists who laments her suffering and the suffering of her children while her husband is in jail awaiting possible execution. .

Poster designed by Rachel Storm to advertise the April 5th screening of the film "India's Daughter".

Poster designed by Rachel Storm to advertise the April 5th screening of the film “India’s Daughter”.

More like this: “Saving Face” a documentary on acid attacks in Pakistan by Academy Award-winning Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy; “Salma” a documentary by Kim Longinotto telling the story of a Muslim poet and politician in Tamil Nadu, India who was locked away and confined in her home by her family for many years.

Wadjda” directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (2014)

Tags: Saudia Arabia, Islam, girls, mothers and daughters, feature films

“Wadjda” is a bittersweet film about a little girl in Saudi Arabia who dreams of owning her own bicycle so she can race with her neighborhood friend. Her mother doesn’t want to buy her the bike because it is not considered a proper toy for girls. Wadjda decides to enter a Koran recitation contest so she can use the prize money to buy the bike herself. Just as Wadjda is running into walls about what is proper for women, we also see her mother struggle with this as her husband searches for a second wife and copes with an overly challenging commute to work as, presumably, she is not allowed to drive herself.  The film manages to find hope and humor in conditions where women’s lives are heavily policed from an early age. The film is all the more remarkable in that it is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. In an interview with NPR, director Haifaa Al-Mansour recounts the logistical challenges of trying to shoot the film in a country where she is not supposed to be outside or mingling with men to whom she is not related.

More like this: “Blackboards” by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, a feature film about the lives of Kurdish refugees after the Iran-Iraq war; “The Square” by Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim on the Arab Spring.

Girlhood” by Celine Sciamma (2015)

Tags: France, black diaspora, coming-of-age films, gangs, adolescence, feature films

“Girlhood” is an intense and complicated film to watch, especially as an American [viewer] in a time when racism and civil rights is dominating the news. While this film is set in France, this film shows the ways in which race and economics are inextricably linked, irrespective, it would seem, of one’s country of origin. These considerations become even more complicated when one realizes that the director, Celine Sciamma, is white. On the one hand, “Girlhood” is supposed to be a coming-of-age story, where race is just one small part of a larger context that focuses on the development of a single character. On the other hand, that character is developing within the context of joining a neighborhood gang, fighting, drugs, prostitution, and an abusive family. These issues are thoughtfully considered in an interview between Celine Sciamma and Ghanaian-born film and culture writer Zeba Blay. Taking aside the complicated racial politics of this story, this film is also worth watching for its beautiful cinematography and the masterful acting by newcomer actress Karidja Toure who plays the lead role of Marieme. Like “Wadjda,” the film finds some hope and humor within a bleak situation, but with an ending that leaves the viewer anxious: one is befuddles as to whether the s/he is seeing a happy ending or the set-up for a tragedy waiting to happen.

More like this: Celine Sciamma has two other coming-of-age films, “Tomboy” and “Water Lilies“. To try out a different French female director, you can also check out the work of Agnes Jaoui. The library has several of her films and if you need a break from serious films on difficult social conditions, you can start with her 2000 comedy, “The Taste of Others“.

Take Care of My Cat” by Jae-eun Jeong (2004)

Tags: South Korea, friendship, young women, cats, feature films

“Take Care of My Cat” is a 2004 feature film about a group of friends who struggle to maintain their friendship and find their way after graduating high school in South Korea. One of the five girls, Hae-joo moves out of their smaller city of Inchon to try to make a new life in the more glamorous capital city, Seoul. Her success and ambition alienate her from other friends, most especially Ji-young. Ji-young is trapped by an impoverished home situation and has dreams that feel unattainable and hopeless. Trapped in between these two is Tae-hee who has both ambition and a difficult home situation. Tae-hee ends up in a place where she must choose between her two friends and in doing so choose a vision for her future. Observing the ways in which particular cultural conditions in South Korea impacted the girls’ choices and behavior was compelling while also considering the ways in which their struggles are universal. For example, Ji-young was unable to get a job she had applied for because she didn’t have an immediate relative to vouch for her, a custom that is largely irrelevant in the United States. Like women all over the world, for these girls becoming independent requires tough choices and unexpected development that can transform their personalities and values.

More like this: If you’re looking for another Korean film but would like to learn about North Korea, check out Yang Yonghi’s documentary “Dear Pyongyang“. For something completely different but still from East Asia, check out Joan Chen’s film “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl“.

Be sure to comment below letting us know what films you’d recommend that are directed by women or featuring them in lead roles. And be sure to like our Facebook page for more posts like these.

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“Sari, Not Sorry”: Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

The author acknowledges that the pun-intended title originates with Tanya Rawal’s “Saree, Not Sorry.”

Cultural appropriation was in the headlines (again) late this January when Coldplay and Beyoncé released a divisive music video, “Hymn for the Weekend”. The video was set in stereotypical, exotic India complete with peacocks, temples, yogis, Hindu gods, poverty, saris, glittering nose rings, and more. Oh, and of course people throwing around colored powder because if you believe the stereotypes, Holi (the iconic spring festival of colors) is a daily occurrence in India.

What exactly is cultural appropriation? Scholar and philosopher James Young defines it as a phenomenon in which “Members of one culture (I will call them outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (call them insiders)”, in his book Cultural Appropriation in the Arts. Importantly, this typically involves a dominant cultural group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups—i.e. when an American pop star wears a bindi and is deemed “fashionable” or “worldly” but experiences less or none of the historical discrimination or systemic oppression associated with being part of a minority group or having origins in much of the Global South. Frequently, there is a thin and fragile line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Personally, as a Jewish woman who is a South Asian Studies specialist, who also studies Middle Eastern and West African dance, I have regularly had to confront this issue. I have had to ask myself whether it is appropriate to use face paint in an African dance performance, or if I can get away with wearing a beloved salwar kameez (traditional South Asian outfit consisting of pants and a tunic) to work. While I struggle to make respectful decisions, I imagine that sometimes I get it wrong, which is why it has been so important to educate myself on the topic and be receptive to the experiences of and feedback from people with different cultural backgrounds.

Me wearing a salwar kameez to attend an Indian cultural function on campus.

The author dressed in a salwar kameez en route to attend an Indian cultural function on the Illinois campus.

Regarding the Coldplay video, there has been plenty of intelligent writing already published on the internet! The Times of India had several articles on the topic; National Public Radio talked about itThe Guardian wrote about it; and even the BBC had a say. One of the most thought-provoking takes I have read is author Kavitha Rajagopalan’s opinion article in The Observer. Rajagopalan takes the cultural appropriation critique a step further by asserting that the more insidious problem of this video is that it presents India as an exclusively Hindu country. In fact, India has an extremely ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse population that is omitted from the music video’s narrative. However, not everyone was upset by the video. Among many others, a column in The Hindu newspaper gave an alternative viewpoint saying that it “shows healthy appreciation for Indian culture, peppered with the idea of India as seen in the Western world”

Just Google “Coldplay” and you’ll see that “Coldplay cultural appropriation” is one of the top suggestions.

A screenshot of a Google search for “Coldplay” with a suggested search of “coldplay cultural appropriation” as the top suggestions.

Coldplay and Beyoncé are not alone in drawing ire from the Indian community And importantly, cultural appropriation is not just a South Asian problem. These artists are merely the newest members of a popular culture club that regularly references minority and traditionally “othered” groups to boost sales, boasting members such as Gwen Stefani, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Paul Simon, and Katy Perry. A complete list might exhaust you.

Image grabbed from Twitter at: http://tinyurl.com/katyperrycatw

An image of Katy Perry dressed as an ancient Egyptian queen, a geisha, and co-opting a popular African-American hairstyle. Image borrowed from Twitter at: http://tinyurl.com/katyperrycatw

Clearly cultural appropriation is a complex and sensitive issue. Here are some library and campus resources that will help you to frame your perspectives on the topic:

  1. The Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR): As stated on the OIIR website, this is a great campus resource that “seeks to improve campus climate by providing transformative learning experiences to the Illinois community that result in an appreciation for diversity and cross-cultural engagement”. This office holds workshops and lectures on the topic of cultural appropriation. Follow the OIIR calendar here.
  2. Orientalism: Discussions of cultural appropriation often refer back to this classic 1978 text written by literary theorist Edward Said. This is not an easy text to read, but it is a must read for understanding colonialism, cultural studies, and many of the humanities’ disciplines.
  3. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts: “A philosopher undertakes a systematic investigation of the moral and aesthetic issues to which cultural appropriation gives rise. .. Questions considered include: “Can cultural appropriation result in the production of aesthetically successful works of art?” and “Is cultural appropriation in the arts morally objectionable?” (Our library catalog).
  4. The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation: This book anthology “undertakes a comprehensive and systematic investigation of the moral and aesthetic questions that arise from the practice of cultural appropriation. It explores cultural appropriation in a wide variety of contexts, among them the arts and archaeology, museums, and religion” (Our library catalog).
  5. Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law: This e-book “offers the first comprehensive analysis of cultural authorship and appropriation within American law. From indigenous art to Linux, Susan Scafidi takes the reader on a tour of the no-man’s-land between law and culture, pausing to ask what prompts us to offer legal protection to works of literature, but not folklore? What does it mean for a creation to belong to a community, especially a diffuse or fractured one? Can we strike a balance between affiliative ownership and a creative commons? And is our national culture the product of Yankee ingenuity or cultural kleptomania? Providing new insights to communal authorship, cultural appropriation, intellectual property law, and the formation of American culture, this innovative and accessible guide greatly enriches future legal understanding of cultural production” (Our library catalog).
  6. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization: “In this bold look at the cultural effects of a shrinking world, leading cultural theorist Arjun Appadurai provides fresh ways of looking at popular consumption patterns, debates about multiculturalism, and ethnic violence in a broad global perspective” (Our library catalog).
  7. Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture: This work “Considers the misappropriation of African American popular culture through various genres, largely Hip Hop, to argue that while such cultural creations have the potential to be healing agents, they are still exploited -often with the complicity of African Americans- for commercial purposes and to maintain white ruling class hegemony” (Our library catalog).
  8. Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures: “For more than a hundred years, outsiders enamored of the perceived strengths of American Indian cultures have appropriated and distorted elements of them for their own purposes—more often than not ignoring the impact of the process on the Indians themselves. This book contains eight original contributions that consider the selling of American Indian culture and how it affects the Native community. It goes beyond studies of “white shamanism” to focus on commercial ventures, challenging readers to reconsider how Indian cultures have been commercialized in the twentieth century” (Our library catalog).

Here is a bonus non-library resource! If you’re trying to decide whether a fashion choice is cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation, check out this eminently readable and illustrated style guide to help you make a respectful decision. For more posts like these, be sure to follow the International & Area Studies Library’s Facebook page where we publish new posts for Glocal Notes every week of the semester.

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