Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 29, 2009

Defining diasporic space

Extra desks had to be brought into a second floor CFA classroom on Friday afternoon. Even with the extra desks, some students had to sit on the floor. The audience of students and professors had gathered to hear Professor Nilanjana Bhattachariya of Colorado College deliver her talk titled “Reel Indians Sing & Dance.” Professor Bhattachariya’s talk, this year’s final music department colloquium, was about the role of songs in Bollywood films.

The talk started with an introduction by Knox music Professor Sarah Day-O’Connell, who met Bhattachariya when they were attending Cornell University. Bhattachariya began with a brief discussion of the history of Indian film and provided general information about the role music plays in Indian film. According to Bhattachariya, the first Hindi film with sound, “Alam Ara,” had seven songs. Current Bollywood films have, on average, 40 minutes of songs in a three-hour movie.

“Songs provide transitions through time, space, and dream sequences,” said Bhattachariya. She continued, discussing how songs tend to be centered around stunning locations, such as Dutch tulip fields or the Swiss Alps. According to Bhattachariya, the songs have always served as a way of affirming Hindi cultural identity and Indian nationalism. It was only in the 1990s that Hindi films began to be made for a global market and to reflect the changing nature of the Indian diaspora. There were four key films, most notably Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Kush Kush Humdahai, that brought Hindi film to a global audience, an audience made up of Indians living abroad in places like England and the United States.

These films of the ‘90s showed positive diaspora characters, who, though they did not live in India, were shown to still have an Indian identity by both the songs they sung and frequent references to songs from older movies. “The music defines the diasporic space of London as an authentic Indian cultural place [….] it helps to define solidly diasporic characters as Indians who live in the diaspora, not as Indian Americans, but as Diaspora Indians,” said Bhattachariya. “Even in diasporic locations, there are often few cues that important events do not take place in India [….] Song sequences modify gaps in space and time and they blur the lines between India and diasporic locations.”

“Indian authenticity is reaffirmed by song sequences [….] Song sequences serve to clarify the inner thoughts and impulses of the characters,” said Bhattachariya.

When asked how she met Bhattachariya, Day-O’Connell said, “We’re friends from grad school at Cornell, and we stayed in touch because Colorado College is in the ACM.” Bhattachariya said that part of her reason for coming to Knox for the talk is because she is “interested in building more connections between music departments in the ACM.”

When asked, Bhattachariya recommended two Bollywood films for Knox students: Omkara, (2006), an adaptation of Othello, and Lagaan (2001), a film about cricket in India which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2002 Academy Awards.

Ben Reeves

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