Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Toxic Nationalism and the Diaspora" in THE GOAN EVERYDAY (30 October 2016)

As the date of the U.S. General Election draws nearer, Trump and Hindu Nationalists find favour in one another.

Goans can breathe a sigh of relief that the once most famous South Asian American Republican, the arch-conservative Dinesh D’souza, has all but slunk away from the public eye, owing to the fact that he was found guilty of campaign finance violations. Instead, while that son-of-Goan-soil attempts to shill yet another book about what he believes to be wrong with American politics, from the comfort of the Internet, other South Asians have taken up the mantle of embarrassing subcontinental people in the homeland and abroad.  

Enter the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC). In an event they hosted for U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump in New Jersey a fortnight ago, the RHC put on a clownish display that melded Bollywood, Islamophobia, and patriotism. Though several Indian American attendees were surprised to see Trump at the spectacle, which was billed “Humanity Against Terrorism”, perhaps their first clue that something wasn’t right should have been that the programme was presented by an organization that calls itself the Republican Hindu Coalition. Describing the affair in The Concourse as one where “Hindus and Trump Rallied together in a Xenophobic Fever Dream” (21 October), Giri Nathan marvels at how the “fundraiser for ‘victims of terror in America and around the world’” managed to “somehow set a new standard for surreality in the present election cycle, with a Donald Trump keynote speech bookended by hours of Bollywood song and dance”.

But not to be outdone by his hosts, Donald Trump upped the oddness ante by proclaiming, “I am a big fan of Hindu [sic], and I am a big fan of India!” As Eesha Pandit remarks in an article for Salon (22 October), Trump would be given to such effusiveness, since “[t]here are more than 4 million South Asian Americans currently living in the United States, and approximately 67 percent of them, or 2.7 million, are U.S. citizens. Additionally, South Asian-Americans are one of the most politically active ethnic blocs”. Trump went on to announce that if he was elected, “the Indian and Hindu community will have a big friend in the White House”.

Undoubtedly, the lynchpin in this unholy alliance between overseas Hindu nationalism and Trump’s pro-Hindu/Indian American stance is the Islamophobia both sides share. In The Guardian (17 October), Rashmee Kumar quotes Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan as saying of the RHC-Trump event that its “celebration of Diwali suggested that attendees were mostly upper caste…” In addition to a lamp-lighting ceremony, the audience was also treated to some sort of performance where make-believe terrorists and U.S. soldiers duked it out. The show was very much in keeping with Trump’s virulent anti-Muslim campaign, but it also speaks to Hindu Indian nationalism which posits Muslims as the other to the Indian nation.

That this then also appeals to the Trump-supporting Indian American, even if a miniscule demographic at just seven percent, bears witness to the perpetuation of toxic Hindu nationalism within the Indian nation-state and its diaspora. Further, in seeing India and Indian Americans only as Hindus, Trump additionally borrows from the community’s own self-presentation as manifestly upper caste and the authentic arbiters of Indianness.

Multiple incidents of post-9/11 xenophobia in American have shown that time and again racists cannot (and do not want to) tell the difference between Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, Latinos, Sikhs, Hindus, or anyone ‘foreign-appearing’ for that matter. Despite this, that the RHC would court a man whose supporters wish to “Make America Great Again”, which is euphemistic for making it White Again, is proof of a dysfunctional relationship. Equally enamoured, Trump has just released a campaign video in which he attempts to woo Indian American voters by speaking in Hindi. Maxwell Tani reports in Business Insider (27 October), that “[t]he ad prominently features an image of [Indian Prime Minister] Modi as well as Trump's take on Modi's popular campaign slogan, ‘Ab Ki Baar Trump Sarkaar,’ or, ‘This Time, We're With Trump's Government’”. Given Modi’s own history of drumming up Hindutva, this is not just the stuff of coincidence.

As can be seen by the commentators I have cited above, many South Asian Americans have actively voiced their disdain of the RHC ‘fundraiser’ and Trump’s odious pandering to the religiously nationalist sentiments of Indian American voters. In a similar vein, a video crusade titled #VoteAgainstHate has begun making the social media rounds in an effort to educate “long-time Republicans and unaffiliated voters, particularly of immigrant heritage, to vote against hate by not voting for Donald Trump”. In the version of the video aimed at South Asian American voters, several younger generation Americans of subcontinental heritage address their elders and remind them of their immigrant hardships and desires for a better life. “You guys are the American dream”, one of the speakers states emphatically in a plea to those who fail to see that Trump’s America is a dangerous one. 

But while the video does well to point out to South Asian Americans that casting their lot with Trump would be a disservice to immigrants, it does so by relying on the unquestioned belief in the homogeneity of the South Asian American community, particularly along the lines of class privilege as epitomised by the constant references to the American success stories of this demographic. Not only is this an overstatement which essentially reads Indian Americanness and, likely, caste privilege, onto the diversity of South Asian America, but it also doesn’t delve into the very elitism and Islamophobia in the community that has drawn Trump to it. It is not until this community begins to ask difficult questions of itself about its investment in caste privilege and nationalism that change can occur.

From The Goan.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"Making Goans Servants to the Tourism Master Plan" in THE GOAN EVERYDAY (16 October 2016)

Though the Goa Tourism Master Plan commissioned by the government expects to renew the industry, it fails to imagine a role for Goans that extends beyond that of service-providers.

 Buried within the recently released Tourism Master Plan (TMP) that the Goan government commissioned from the multinational corporation KPMG is this vision of how Goans are to be involved in the marketing of their homeland: “Campaigns with state coverage should be undertaken to inform citizens and raise their awareness on the importance of tourism and tourism hospitality. In addition, a civic pride campaign should promote the uniqueness, protection and the importance to conserve the national Natural and Cultural heritages of Goa (either monuments or living culture and nature) while encouraging Goans to travel and visit destinations within their Taluka and others” (p. 83). Well, the last time I checked, Goans do travel quite often “within their Talukas and others”. It’s called going to work.

The TMP not only envisages Goans as potential clients of the tourism industry in their own backyards, but it also wants to position them as servants to that industry rather than as stakeholders. So, even as the section of the TMP that is aimed at Goans is entitled “Building Awareness among Local Stakeholders”, it is additionally given the subheading “A Key Success Factor”, which suggests that the outlined measures are business tactics geared towards making Goans pliable as a source of labour. The delineated strategies include a list of four campaigns.

The first, “Goan Pride”, is meant to “encourage domestic travels … in order to transmit the importance for Goans to know and feel their State”. It is followed by “Tourism Awareness in Schools”, which “seeks to promote the importance of tourism for the State of Goa among young people and highlight … career opportunities” Yes, Goans should be invested in knowing about Goa and should be exposed to in-state career options. But even as the TMP touts education to boost state pride and dangles livelihoods before those of school-going age, its purpose in doing so is less for the betterment of Goans than it is to inculcate what in business-speak is referred to as a ‘buy-in’ into tourism.

 This is troubling for it is directed towards shaping the minds of the impressionably young, but equally so because the suggested pride-building in Goa is of a nationalistic ilk. Or so KPMG would have us believe, for under the ostensibly titled “Sustainable Tourism Awareness” campaign that wants to create “a culture which respects [the] environment”, the plan also recommends that this be done “by strengthening the national identity and pride”. In effect, then, it is not just that Goan youth are being asked to be environmentally and culturally conscious, but that such awareness be harnessed in profiting the nation, for the green and clean nation, here, is the brand that is being sold to tourists.

It should also be noticed that at the same time as the TMP shackles environmentalism to nationalism, it has little to offer in terms of concrete measures regarding how the environment should be protected (one wonders how far the nice-sounding idea of respecting the environment can go in saving it), leave alone the lack of sustainability of tourism in general. The shallowness of the TMP is symptomatic of how KPMG operates. In an article tellingly headlined “Critics see KPMG Report as ‘Smoke and Mirrors’” (22 July, 2011), The Toronto Star informs how a commissioned service review for the Canadian city of Toronto, essentially boiled down to KPMG outlining what services should be axed. When the company’s representatives were questioned by a Councillor about whether they had “considered long-term costs associated with cutting support to business improvement areas? [And] [w]hat about the economic benefits of arts funding, social services and entrepreneurship support?”, they simply responded: “We weren’t asked to quantify the impacts of reducing or eliminating the service”.

 In the case of Goa, the marriage of alleged environmental awareness, national consciousness, and business firmly aligns such corporations as KPMG and the State in ensuring the neoliberal promise of delivering Goa and Goans at the altar of so-called national progress while promoting corporate business interests. While Goans are charged with rendering service to the nation, little is said of what KPMG and the government will do to ensure the protection of Goa’s natural heritage, and even less about what will be done to support the creation and retention of homegrown businesses. As further evidence of the servitude that is expected of Goans in the tourism industry, consider that the last of the four campaigns, which is labelled “Goan Hosts”, sets out how it will “[develop] training programs on customer service”. While all kinds of employment should accord those in service respect and rights, what does it mean when a government-commissioned master plan only foresees the role of the people of its state as “hosts” and not as entrepreneurs or innovators?

In designating the place of Goans as those who are to be employed or are to be educated in providing service, the government and KPMG have fixed the future of many Goans within a narrow gamut of opportunities that do not encourage creativity, leadership, or innovation. This is extremely myopic, since the TMP is meant to envision Goa’s future as a tourism destination over the next 25 years. Between KPMG and the State, it has been decided that Goa must serve simultaneously as a pleasure periphery for India’s fun-seekers, but also as a hub for business providers from elsewhere who will profit off the land and its people while little investment is made for any purposes beyond the promotion and retention of corporate tourism.   

Saturday, October 1, 2016

"Kehinde Wiley’s Catholic Imaginary" in THE GOAN EVERYDAY (2 October 2016)

Artist Kehinde Wiley’s A New Republic offers a way to think about art and history as reflections on public culture. 

My longest held memory of the brown-cassocked St. Anthony is of that time on a school holiday when my grandmother made me kneel in front of the altar because I had stayed out longer than usual. She had frantically been asking of passers-by if they had seen her errant grandson. Oblivious, I sauntered back home and was promptly dragged to the shrine in her room. “Tell St. Anthony you’re sorry”, she ordered. Later, I would come to realise that the dear old lady, like so many Catholic Goans, held the tonsured Franciscan in such high esteem for the faith she placed in him as the finder of lost things, naughty lads included. A couple of weeks ago in the American city of Richmond, I encountered St. Anthony again at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, and he looked very different from my childhood memory. 

In Wiley’s canvas, “Anthony of Padua (2013), he is a young Black man with closely cropped hair. He wears an octopus pendant on a chain and is adorned in a military green jacket with patches. One of these decorative circles bears the image of a snarling black panther, a symbol suggestive of the Black Power movement of 1960s’ America. Cradled in the crook of his left arm is a book instead of the Child Jesus. His raised right hand holds a rod in place of the traditional stalk of lilies. In this pose, it is as if the saint is a painter, with palette and brush, taking in his subject. Behind him, flowers swirl, some of them encircling his waist, others set in relief against his teal-coloured trousers. Through it all, no Jesus to behold, the modern-day Anthony looks upon his viewers with an expression of deep composure. Haughtiness, even. His gaze breaks the fourth wall between the dramatic portrait and its spectators, between the exalted and the mundane. 

Reminiscent of the methods of Goan painter Angelo da Fonseca (1902-1967), the American Wiley employs ordinary people as subjects in depicting themes that evoke the Renaissance, French Rococo, and other Western periods of art, as well as European Christian iconography. Where da Fonseca used South Asian models, including his wife Ivy, to render Christian imagery, Wiley’s muses of choice are everyday Black Americans. In both cases, these artists’ works subvert Eurocentric conceptions of the sacred, by challenging implicit assumptions of race and class in the idealisation of the divine. Moreover, their images alter public culture by demonstrating that the faithful come in many hues and from various economic backgrounds, for the icons in their art are just regular folk. If such art is to be taken as political statement, then Wiley’s reverential presentation of Blackness resonates powerfully with the Black Lives Matter movement in today’s United States where serious questions are being asked about the police killings of Black men and women.

Wiley’s St. Anthony is inspired by the representation of the saint in the 1842-1843 stained glass window created by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres for the Chapelle St. Ferdinand in Porte des Ternes, Paris. Christian imagery appears elsewhere in Wiley’s oeuvre, including in his own stained glass windows, which again characterise young Black men in contemporary garb as saints. At the Virginia exhibition, museum patrons would have walked through a dark chapel-like gallery, where these back-lit windows and other elements of iconography would have been on display. They would then emerge into a brightly lit space where they would witness various canvasses from the artist’s World Stage series, including pieces from his Indian and Sri Lankan collections. 

In Kehinde Wiley – The World Stage: India-Sri Lanka (2011), critic Gayatri Sinha wonders if Wiley’s South Asian works challenge orientalised notions of the region, but concludes that he “instead pushes for a different dimension of recognition”, especially because the artist “takes young men of the street and accord[s] them a heroic cast … [A]ny one of them could be an unemployed youth familiar from the streets of Bombay or Bangalore. Or they could be Goa’s beach boys, car cleaners from the streets of Tamil Nadu, or young advisasis (tribals) serving in the capital’s diplomatic enclave” (pp. 7-8). To say that Sinha lets slip her class and caste biases would be to state the obvious. Indeed, what Sinha fails to acknowledge is the very divide that Wiley seeks to breach in placing paintings of young men of the street, beach boys, car cleaners, and “tribals” in the elite (or is that elitist?) spaces of the art gallery and the museum. In saying that these subjects are recognisable, Sinha implies their objectification by the Indian art patron. This othering is intensified when the critic does not question why Wiley’s subjects must exist outside these exclusive circles, while only the representation of who they are is allowed in so that it may be consumed by those with access to art.

“The European Orientalist discourse is invoked and vivified, but it also becomes the site for fresh enactments” in Wiley’s South Asia paintings, Sinha muses. Even so, it is Sinha herself who relies on an orientalised understanding of what constitutes South Asian culture when she traces a line between Wiley’s Indian scenes of “temples or prayer rooms” and “Hindu painting tradition from the 17th to the 19th centuries” (p. 8). Reliant solely on a British postcolonialist purview, this Brahmanical rendition of India not only eschews the Portuguese Indian legacy (except to tellingly minimise it to “Goa’s beach boys”) but also refuses to consider other faith traditions as influences in South Asian art history. 

To this end, even as Sinha sees Wiley’s representations of blackness as being linked to “histories of shared oppression” in the Afro-Asiatic context (p. 6), she is unable to connect the Catholic themes in the Nigerian American artist’s canon to South Asia. Wiley’s “Anthony of Padua” proves useful in this regard. Though St. Anthony died in Padua, Italy in 1231, he was born in Portugal in 1195. Revered around the Catholic world, his legacy took particular shape in the former Portuguese colony of Angola, where the 17th-18th century Kongolese prophetess and anti-colonial revolutionary Kimpa Vita claimed to be a medium for his spirit. 

In the novel Skin (2001), based on the Portuguese Afro-Asiatic slave trade, Margaret Mascarenhas transports the enslaved progeny of the real life Kimpa Vita to Goa. The novel’s magical realism manifests, among other things, in the form of the prophetess’ Goan descendants being able to shape-shift into black panthers. That the black panther appears as an emblem on St. Anthony’s jacket in Wiley’s painting is coincidental. However, what is not is how Wiley’s Catholic imaginary transcends space and time, in much the same way as a 12th-13th century Portuguese saint shape-shifts into a Black person in African history and in African American art. Here, one figure is not meant to replace the other; rather, what is to be contended with is why one is not as revered as the other. It is through this palette of complexities that Kehinde Wiley envisions a new republic, even as he questions its borders.

From The Goan.