Mobilizing India: Women, Music, and Migration between India and Trinidad
Review of Tejaswini Niranjana (2006) Mobilizing India: Women, Music, and Migration between India and Trinidad. London: Duke University Press.
This book rethinks diaspora and global modernities in the very considerations of the formation of Indo-Trinidadian music and identity. Tejaswini Niranjana’s wager is to
…contribute to the development of alternative frames of reference, so that Western modernity is no longer seen as the sole point of legitimization or comparison (Niranjana 2006, p.13)
Mobilizing India offers a relatively rare study of popular culture from a ‘South-South’ perspective: a researcher located in the ‘Third World’ (India) studying another ‘Southern’ society (Trinidad). While we may quibble with the utility of these monikers in a globalizing world, never the less there is no denying that in the movement of educational capital most grants for Third World scholars are still intended for visiting ‘First World’ localities.
Niranjana begins her journey as a rather ambivalent ethnographer, unsure of her cultural knowledge, in setting out to grasp the transformations of ‘sub-altern diasporic communities’ (p.32) – ‘Indianess’ in Trinidadian society. At the heart of the book is a committed critique of nationalism, colonialism, gender-relations and the public sphere vis-à-vis an analysis of the popular-performative music of soca-chutney. The book covers a 10 year period of fieldwork from 1994, which is mapped within a careful and detailed colonial history of indenture and migration in Trinidad.
While Mobilizing India’s arguments are multiple, its critical concern is with how the diasporic ‘East Indian’ unsettles the hegemony of an exclusionary yet universal Indianess (on the basis of caste, class and gender), both in India and abroad. Niranjana claims,
…modernity for the East Indian has been Creole and not Western modernity. Consider the possibility of the encounter of Indian indentured female labourers of varied castes…with the West refracted through the “Creole,” and consider what formations of “Westernization” it might result in, as opposed to the upper-caste-dominated professional migration of the West and the resultant convergence of Indian elite subjectivities with Western habits and aesthetics. (p.122)
It is through interrogating the contested performative politics of soca-chutney (and Hindi film), that identitarian claims of (in)authenticity – e.g. V.S. Naipal declaration that derivative East Indians ‘produced nothing’ (p.36) – are emphatically deconstructed.
Readers are informed of the complex ‘origins’ of soca-chutney music, particularly in relation to the dominant Afro-Trinidadian calypso. Tracing the roots/routes of soca-chutney through the conflicted narratives of Trinidadian artists the books provides the reader with an understanding from a seemingly an ‘insider’ perspective. By the end of Niranjana’s account, ubiquitous notions of musical syncreticism and hybridity are rendered inadequate for capturing the vicissitudes of this music’s performative registers. Nor is it an understatement to say the book is replete with sex, from the dancehall female pelvic thrustings of ‘whining’, to the lyrical slippage of ‘punani’ with ‘nani’ (grandmother), which unsurprisingly has vexed conservative-Hindu Trinidadians. Musico-sexual politics are certainly laid bare in this book! Take for example, the song by the female artist Drupatee Lick Down Mih Nani (Careless Driver 1998) that endlessly plays on double-meanings (‘Lick’ can mean both ‘to hit’ or ‘lick with a tongue’):
The driver was ruthless and drivin too hard
He bounced down mih nani right so in she yard
I-man lick up me nani … (p.100-1)
Normative sexuality and its operations in maintaining nationhood and modernity are traced by the author – from colonial to contemporary discourses of morality and identity – and also problematised in relation to the continuing disavowal of Indo-Trinidadian female sexuality. Case studies of star performers such as Drupatee and Denise Belfon (appearing on the book cover) provide an illuminating picture of how these provocative female chutney music artists disrupt essentialist and gendered claims of Indian and Caribbean purity. There is always a danger of valorising individual artists and reading off a (resistive or liberatory) cultural politics. How to read the popular is a question which continues to demand attention. Niranjana is clearly aware of the problem of the popular and seeks to situate her analysis through a historically driven account of diasporic identity formation.
The once hesitant ethnographer, Niranjana, in the closing chapter repositions herself as a cultural interlocutor involved in (re)making musical connections and collaboration between India and Trinidad. She brings together the musical practices of Remo Fernandez (a premier Indian pop-star) with Belfon and other Trinidadian artists. What could have easily resulted in a hackneyed academic attempt to politicize the fusions of Indo-Afro-Trinidadian music, is nonetheless reflexively fashioned in exploring the quotidian encounters and dissonances of cross-cultural dialogic exchange.
Invariably, many books about music are unable to capture the performative modalities of its object of inquiry. Theory and hermeneutic interpretation are endlessly liable to suffocate the dynamics of how the music actually works – its affective registers, temporaneous belongings and unruly identifications. The project of Mobilizing India tends to avoid these kinds of shortcomings, while still maintaining a conceptual framework that can travel. This book is not simply about music, and needs to be read as an urgent intervention in studying comparative popular culture from a standpoint troubling the universalizing address of Western global modernities.
To listen to music clips of Drupatee and other artists, visit the Mobilizing India website
This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in Ethnic & Racial Studies (c) 2007 copyright Taylor & Francis; Ethnic & Racial Studies is available online at: www.informaworld.com/ers