Ponnada: Disappointed in Nachte Raho

BY SRI PONNADA | MARCH 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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Last weekend, I went to the Indian Student Alliance’s Nachte Raho, an event marketed as “the largest South Asian dance competition in the Midwest with the top-nine dance teams in the nation.” So, naturally, as a person who’s been to more than my share of cultural events on campus, I had high expectations about what I was going to experience. Unfortunately, Nachte Raho turned out to be extremely limited as a cultural event.

The dance teams at Nachte Raho participated in only three categories: Bollywood fusion, Bhangra, and Raas. Raas is a popular dance form from Western India, and Bhangra is native to the state of Punjab, which is located in the most northern part of India. There were no South Indian styles of dancing being showcased, such as Khatakali (from the southwestern state of Kerala), Kuchipudi (from the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh), or Bharata Natyam — one of the most popular classical dances in India that was nurtured in the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu.

Instead of a complete program of Indian dancing, what I experienced were exclusively North Indian styles and “Bollywood” dancing that looked like a combination of the music video for Selena Gomez’s “Come & Get It” and perhaps a few music videos from popular Bollywood movies.

In addition to the lack of diversity in dances, the hosts of the event continually perpetuated popular Western stereotypes. For example, at one point during the show, one of the MCs criticized the cohost for speaking in an obviously exaggerated heavy Indian accent. Considering that many Indians — particular Indian immigrants — are given so much crap for their accents already, it was pretty insulting.

The show seemed to have been tailored to an audience whose members have never been exposed to the slightest bit of Indian culture. And if you were in fact someone who has never had any experience with Indian culture — as many of the audience members were — Nachte Raho didn’t teach you anything more about it than you could’ve picked up by watching Slumdog Millionaire.

Being a proud Indian who is very much connected to my culture and my homeland through language, visual art, and music, I was very disappointed to see how Nachte Raho has been showcasing Indian culture.

It’s bad enough that people in America equate Indian culture primarily with sexy, light-skinned women who dance to “Bollywood” music in skimpy belly-dancing outfits. Organizations on college campuses, such as the Indian Student Alliance, should not perpetuate stereotypes and create wrong ideas about Indian culture as well.

Given that many of the Indian people in and around Iowa City do have roots in South India, it would be wise for the Indian alliance to consider showcasing a wider variety of dances, including some of the dance forms that I mentioned earlier. After all, the organization does claim to “adhere to the principle of unity in diversity.” It would be nice to see that principle in play.

Other than that, it might also be a good idea to ease up on the “brown jokes” and show more appreciation for the culture. Mainstream American media have enough comical Indian characters, like Aziz Ansari, to play with stereotypes. It would be refreshing to see Indian culture being presented in a highly positive light, and with pride, as it rightly should be.

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