Interview: How Links Across the Oceans Have Shaped Indian Identity

In conversation with Ananya Jahanara Kabir, professor of English at King’s College, London.

Mumbai: The old trading routes across the seas over the centuries resulted in, among other things, cultural cross pollination. This showed up in many ways, not the least in music and dance. Europe, Africa and Asia influenced each other and newer cultures were born. India contributed a lot to this exchange and absorbed much too.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir, professor of English at King’s College, London, has been working on the cultural dimension of the linkages across the Indian Ocean and beyond. In Mumbai to present a paper on ‘The Creolisation Between the Oceans: The Music and Dance of Goa’, Kabir spoke to The Wire about her findings and what this implies for the Indian identity.

You are a professor of English, and in fact studied old English. Yet you have written on Kashmir, among other things.

I’ve had a chequered career. I read English literature in Calcutta, then, as a curious scholar, decided to study something not seen appropriate for colonial subjects – old English; old Norse, actually. There were a couple of other students from former colonies, but I was the only one from a brown country in my class in Oxford.

Around the 1990s, studying for a PhD, I began thinking of India and identity, and after the riots in Gujarat in 2002, I wanted to demystify the codes we were cladded in, our identities. I was a modern, secular Muslim from Calcutta – what did it mean in contemporary South Asia. Two questions bothered me – why were we so obsessed with Kashmir and what did Partition mean to families who still had connections on the other side.

This resulted in two books – the one on Kashmir, Territory of Desire, was about how we ‘consumed’ Kashmir, through holidays, culture, cinema.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir. Photo: Special arrangement

Your latest project traces cultural links along the old oceanic trading routes.

I have a 10-year itch – I get the urge to look at new things, new ideas every few years or so. While I was writing my books, I continued teaching and was getting interested in Indian art. I recall the exact moment my interest in music, dance and culture began. I had gone to Mexico city for just a few days to see an exhibition of modern Indian art. There I realised that it was just like home – Mexico City reminded me of Delhi. Impromptu, I decided to learn Spanish when I got back to England.

Soon after, I had to spend three months in Calcutta, and dusted off my Latin music collection – we’ve all heard it while growing up, and the rhythm is not new to us.

One day, while walking down Park Street, I came across a poster advertising Salsa classes in my neighbourhood – it was a revolution in my city. I joined, and was very pleasantly surprised to see people from all backgrounds coming to learn. All this was combining to tell me something. This led to my current work, the Luso (Portuguese) connection, which of course India has in Goa.

You call it Creolisation. The word Creole means different things in different parts of the world.

The word means not just a person or a language, which is how it is often used, but really implies a combination of several cultures that produces something new. That explains what we see in the Caribbean, where the enslaved Africans were taken, and it also explains the use of the word in New Orleans and in Mauritius. It’s a very malleable word. There is never one Creole language but many.

Over time, it has acquired a pejorative connotation, because it implies ‘lack of purity’, which is very useful politically to those who are too obsessed with purity.

We are seeing this in India, for example, in a society that is so diverse. It raises questions of identity. It leads to the policies of boundaries and paranoia, because we fear what is different. In fact, what we need is more Creolisation.

How and when did this ‘Creolisation’ begin?

There were many vectors – trade in spices, for example. Centuries ago the Romans were calling on the west coast of India for pepper and purple cloth. India is in the vanguard of this – we were part of the Silk Route and the Sea Routes.

So with all our history behind us, we are a mongrel people.

You could say that. And we are seeing this diversity of, now, the kind of possibilities that are emerging in social movements, in politics; it’s a kind of Creolisation of political arrangements too. It is seen as a threat by dominant structures.

Even interstitially, we are seeing smaller manifestations – young women working till late in call centres, unmindful of who they are working with.

Consider dance, for example. People, complete strangers, touching other people, holding on to them, and then, as the dance ends, they go their different ways. This kind of interaction flies in the fact of caste, class and religious purity. You see a loosening of structures here.

You are exploring this through music and dance.

Yes, because song and dance are expressions of modernity. Where we are sitting right now, in Bombay, was and is a very important confluence of modernity. Many dance influences emerged in the plantations of North and South America where the so-called masters danced the waltz, and the enslaved danced the predecessors of the Salsa and Tango and Jazz dances, and both absorbed from each other and these combinations travelled the world.

The urban spaces, such as Bombay, became the contact zones of these dances. The coastal connections are visible in Calcutta too, where the Armenians, the Jews and others came to trade.

Goa fits in because it was part of the Portuguese empire. The Jesuits taught the principles of Western music composition to Goans which centuries later came in use in the Bombay film industry. And so on.

So what we see is a growing cosmopolitan culture.

Yes, and this cosmopolitanism cannot happen without contact and such contact can be also seen as contamination. At its heart it can be seen as threatening, especially to the patriarchal system. Such cosmopolitanism can be good but I would hesitate to say that it has the ability completely and immediately to change the conservative. It is romantic to talk about the cosmopolitanism of Bombay, but it resides in enclaves in a wider sea of conservatism and more so in the smaller places.

When I was young, my family was based in Nagpur, and we went to the Gondwana Club, that had been set up by the British. Think about the name to begin with – the Gondwana Club. My mother learnt to make a lemon soufflé there! It was a small island and many of these islands around and within India form a kind of archipelago. These islands create Creole possibilities. I am looking at the histories of the Portuguese, the French, the English, the Dutch, the Jews, the Chinese and the Armenians, all those who came to India. The Sindhis too were an important vector.

I would love to write a manifesto for the Creolisation of India, about India in the Ocean world.