I am in shock. At a meeting in London with the administrators of one of the most important arts programming mandates, I encountered something ugly. In her response to why Indian artists and composers are never considered part of the “mainstream” – enjoying the same rights, respect and privileges as their Western counterparts – the head of the table said that a greater proliferation of Asian audiences (the “saree brigade”, to be exact) would be something terrible and undesirable. Racial overtones sullied the progress of further conversation: “Imagine this place full of them!” (“Them” meaning coloured people.) Indeed.

I don’t seem to be alone in this bizarre situation. Another arts colleague talks of how Asian decision-makers and creators are not always consulted by Western institutions for programming of Asian festivals. Irony seems writ large over these anecdotes. But the causes underlying them seem more worrisome. And wrong.

On another occasion, I found myself stopped outside a major opera house in Europe and asked to produce my ticket after it had already been validated once. Seeing that it was a complimentary pass, no explanation of my musical credentials or proximity to the chief conductor satisfied the manager. Several minutes into the first act, and multiple crosschecks later, I was allowed to sit. No apology was deemed necessary.

The background

In mythological discourse, tremendous emphasis is placed on the difference between the natural order of things (Prakriti) and the human-influenced structural basis of understanding (Sanskriti or culture). This eternal dyad inspires discourse, debate and, in a way, progress in the modern world. Either way, the stress is on improving understanding and empathy.

Whenever the natural order is threatened, cultural understanding deepens and expands to embrace new realities. Over centuries, therefore, the Indian mind has become immensely capable of receiving plurality without undue difficulty. Indeed, it thrives on the ability to create amidst opposing realities. Improvisation is venerated.

In the West, the natural order has been suppressed to a point where homogeneity and standardisation are celebrated. Single philosophies often dominate there. In society, this results in standardised social codes and policies that reinforce them. In the humanities and in the arts, adherence to scripted technique and guided enquiry supersede wild improvisation. There is a latent fear of heterogeneity, often likened to outright chaos.

However, the old order changeth. The rise in Asian and African immigrants has meant necessary expansion in the thinking on policy-making. In education, this has meant broadening the outlook of old syllabi and teaching style. In the arts, it has necessitated the creation of a new lexicon to define and reorder things. And as always, the West seems to have created a new way of looking at a problem that it stylishly terms “multiculturalism”.

It is therefore highly amusing to be told how to behave in this supposedly new “multicultural” society. Tokenism is often used as a substitute for any real understanding. Indeed, whole organisations have sprouted to “bridge cultural divides” ( whatever that means) where confused expatriates are told what “Indians like”, and why it is good manners to take one’s shoes off before entering a building, often leading to depressingly hilarious outcomes.

In a world where multi-racial dependence is more necessary than avoidable, how do we truly develop an appreciation of the “other”? While this is certainly no essay on racial hegemony and the world order, it seeks to highlight the unnecessary role of racial prejudice in the understanding, appreciation and propagation of culture, specifically with respect to the performing arts.

The diversity token

In Europe and the United Kingdom, for instance, annual or occasional festivals are organised around Bollywood and big ticket entertainers, to the accompaniment of samosas, chai and saree workshops (a concession to the eponymous brigade, undoubtedly). This spectacle usually lasts about a week or so. This done, the organising institution places a well-earned check against its diversity objective and goes on to do more structured, time-honoured “mainstream” programming.

In America, the propagation of cultural understanding and its associated programming and conference activity is in a more polarised situation. For instance, most events involving Indian arts or artistes are helmed by non-resident Indians. The targeted audiences are often the South Asian diaspora. The same can be said of the arts and heritage of most South Asian regions and countries.

The rare festival or exhibit directed or curated by a Western arts organisation reverts to the European model of celebrating the exotic. We as a people, our aspirations, cultural expression and story find little place in a model that seeks easy categorisation and adherence to a Western template and ideology. Worryingly, we have also sprouted a new band of artistes and performers who anglicise the narrative, abbreviate and parenthesise South Asian artistry into acceptable bullet points. In doing so, we inadvertently catalyse the racist machinery into validating its inherent belief system.

Future tense

The racism manifesto seems alive and well. Indeed, we as a people espouse it in our own way of life. However, this may not bode well in the brave new world we are headed towards.

Our colonial history and centuries of dominion subjugation notwithstanding, we need not be lulled into complacent stupor with “diversity days” and consolation prize festivals and events. Indeed, our arts and cultural narrative are potentially the most valuable assets in our collective armoury.

Asserting our right to be understood and meaningfully engaged with should be the beginning of a more empathic world order. This means more participative cultural policy-making, more inclusive curation and far more nuanced cultural understanding. Ideas that we are unafraid to demand. So what if it means that the “saree brigade” comes to be spotted more often in major performing arts venues.