Minority Report | Indian or Sasian


Minority Report | Indian or Sasian

I no longer say I am an Indian when someone asks where I am from. I say I am Sasian,” said Rajeev Sethi, chairman and founding trustee of The Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF).

The veteran Sethi, who is India’s most recognized cultural guru abroad as well as back home, whose thoughtfully curated exhibitions have deconstructed cultural India before the world, was speaking to artists, designers, and textile experts under a sprawling old Peepul tree in the backyard of his office headquarters in Delhi.

It was the fifth anniversary of Jiyo, an initiative launched by AHF, under which creative grassroots enterprises are self-managed by the skilled poor.

Sethi’s speech, delivered in his textured, gentle voice, intently touched upon the past and the present of India’s art, craft and folk experiences, the paradox between the poverty some of our states heave under and their cultural richness, and what it means for our future.

Sethi wasn’t speaking without context. His reference was The Sasian (South Asian) Journey proposed as The Smithsonian Institution’s Folk Life Festival planned in the US for the summer of 2017.

To be mounted as a large, public-private, cross-cultural initiative promoting the creative and cultural industries of the South Asian people (Sasians), and their industrious diaspora in the US, the festival is proposed as a joint venture between the Smithsonian, the Asian Heritage Foundation, The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and other not-for-profit organizations from nine countries.

It aims to provide an unprecedented platform for interaction between traditional skills from Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Afghanistan and India.

This is where the Sasian identity comes in. A state of being that was porous and flexible, evolving and inclusive of other cultures similar to us as being a part of the South Asian subcontinent but not the same. “Let’s change the paradigm, let’s think of and represent ourselves as a region instead of a country,” added Sethi.

As a part of his audience, I came back mulling how it would be to think and act like a Sasian.

Just that morning I had read Zoher Abdoolcarim’s essay in Time magazine that dwelt on what he calls, “a central existentialist dilemma: What is India?”

Written in the context of the multiple narratives of nationhood against the juggernaut of the forthcoming general election, Abdoolcarim quoted his South Asia bureau chief who terms the “violent swings between bursts of liberation and oppression as an ‘India interrupted’”.

It is like the mother of all dilemmas. First, the open-ended idea of “What’s India?” sparking a “Who is an Indian?” inquiry in its wake. Two, the foil we must ideally embrace of a shared identity across borders: “Who is a Sasian?”

Much as I look forward to following Smithsonian’s Folk Life Festival linking the cultural nuances of nine countries, I can’t begin to imagine how millions of us could learn to feel flexible about our being Indian.

Our challenges, exhilarations, citizens’ expectations and subsequent frustrations that contribute to our identity are so intensely Indian in daily experiences, folk traditions, and our lives in villages or cities that it is not easy to reinterpret them.

Whether we are anxious or expectant about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerging as the single largest party in the parliamentary elections, thus placing a conservative politician like Narendra Modi in the prime ministerial seat, is a nail-biting exercise in a truly “Indian” sense. So is our disillusionment with the Congress. I find little that’s Sasian about it.

Sethi is obviously speaking about cultural networks that tread beyond geography and politics and why programmes of sustainability and trust between vulnerable cultural communities living in the same region are crucial.

But I wouldn’t find it so easy to slash the experience of being Indian that comes through the locally woven textiles I wear, the gooseflesh I get when I see village dyers mixing the indigo dye with their hands and feet plunged into a vat (nails already turned blue), the smell of dhokla (a Gujarati savoury) stirred with fried green chillies and asafoetida while travelling in Gujarat or the bangles my housekeeper wears to announce her married Bengali identity.

My own identity—like those who live in India as second-generation Sindhis after the Partition—has anyway seen many trials in many social fittings rooms. How will this become Sasian? How will we think from a South Asian point of view in an “India interrupted”?

That’s why I find Sethi’s proposal for the Smithsonian’s Folk Life Festival rather relevant for our time. It could teach people with confused identities like me how to update who we are in the contemporary world. To understand why clinging to narrow, one-nation terms in self-definition may no longer be enough or gratifying.