A Question of Voice: Indo-Caribbean American Feminism through Music in New York City

By Piliai, Rupa | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

A Question of Voice: Indo-Caribbean American Feminism through Music in New York City


Piliai, Rupa, Women's Studies Quarterly


As we sat in her cozy, sparsely decorated living room, Ranjitha,1 a thirtytwo-year-old Indo-Caribbean American singer and vocal teacher, reflected upon the issues we had discussed over the past hour:

You know how heavy-kafi2-heavy these topics are. These are not little things. This is not like, let's feed the homeless and poor and maybe make a dent in that if we get corporate sponsorship. You're talking about ideals and tradition and . . . [sighs] I don't know what else to call it. Prejudices? Paradoxes? (Ranjitha, pers. comm.)

In sharing her history in New York City, Ranjitha had framed her experiences in terms ofwhat it means to be an Indo-Caribbean American woman in the United States.3 Her story echoes many I have heard from other Ind°Caribbean American women artists during my fieldwork. Idolized as models of good Hindu women,4 these artists, dancers of Kathak5 and singers of classical Indian music and devotional songs, have the difficult task of performing and maintaining the authenticity of the Indianness of the Indo-Caribbean Americans living in the city. As they all vigilantly preserve and pass down the classical Indian arts,6 they also inhabit the interstices of their existence. Between immigrant and American, West Indian and East Indian, traditional and modern, religious and secular, these women crave to express their polycultural voice and to articulate an Indo-Caribbean American feminism which resolves the tensions between these binaries which impact their experience in New York.

To appreciate the contradictions they live, this article investigates these tensions by focusing on the experiences of Ranjitha. As will become apparent, Ranjitha's efforts to voice her polycultural self and realize an Ind°Caribbean American feminism through her art are thwarted by her community's history of twice migration, first from India to the Caribbean and then from the Caribbean to New York City. Because this history of twice migration renders their Indianness as less than, this double-diasporic community relies upon the authentic performances of classical Indian traditions to claim belonging to the Indian American diaspora and, by extension, access to the privileges associated with being acknowledged as a model minority in the United States.

Tasked with executing such performances of Indianness, Ranjitha and other Indo-Caribbean American women artists embody an ideal of a good Hindu, Indian woman akin to the bhadramahila or "respectable woman," an ideological construct that dates back to the Indian nationalist movement (Chatterjee 1993). Although the bhadramahila is unique to nineteenth-century Bengal, I will highlight in my discussion of recent scholarship how the larger ideology of respectable femininity embodied by the bhadramahila remains a productive lens for scholars of India and the Indian diaspora through time to examine the intersection of gender, nationalism, and race (Ramamurthy 2008; Radhakrishnan 2011; Reddy 2015). In particular, I will draw upon this scholarship to demonstrate the continued relevance of this figure to the Indo-Caribbean American community in New York City. By considering how this ideology and ideal are present in the experiences of Ranjitha, I will illustrate how Ind°Caribbean American women are central to the Indo-Caribbean American community's claims to Indianness and model minority status in the United States. Such an illustration is critical in appreciating the importance of gender in how Asian diasporas navigate notions of belonging and experiences of racialization in new locations. Also, my focus on the Indo-Caribbean American community highlights the "heterogeneity" and "multiplicity" of South Asian America (Lowe 1996). Further, I will show how this construct of the bhadramahila also presents questions about the prevailing formulation of voice as empowering, suggesting that at times performance is not transformative but disciplining.

Bhadramahila: Then and Now

In his book The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Partha Chatterjee (1993) explores how gender is renegotiated during Indian independence by examining the response of the Bengali middle class in the 1920s. …

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