Indo–U.S. Relations, Cultural Changes in
INDO–U.S. RELATIONS, CULTURAL CHANGES IN
INDO–U.S. RELATIONS, CULTURAL CHANGES IN In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, India and the United States found themselves bound together by an expanding web of cultural ties. This development seemed all the more astounding given the history of Indo–U.S. relations, marked more by wary estrangement than warm embrace. Indeed, despite a post–cold war rapprochement, the governments of the two countries continued to find that their interests often diverged. Yet, their peoples have embarked upon a relationship of transcreative synergy across every cultural medium that is profoundly transforming both countries, and that may have significant implications in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment.
The twentieth century has often been called the "American century." The United States grew to global economic and political dominance, ultimately out-spending the Soviet Union into oblivion, and thus ending the cold war. The engine of the United States' extraordinary growth during these decades was unmatchable technological innovation. The United States' technological lead was driven in no small part by the brain power of brilliant immigrants, many of whom came from India. The inestimable contributions of thousands of highly trained Indian migrants in every area of American scientific and technological achievement culminated with the information technology revolution most associated with California's Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet throughout this period of rapid change, American images of India remained virtually unchanged. The average American thought of India rarely, if at all. Indian high culture barely made a small entry into the rarified world of the urban elite. For the vast majority of Americans, a few forgettable Indian moments consisted of shocking pictures of the desperately poor on the television news, or the orientalized images of maharajahs, palaces, elephants, and tigers from the nostalgic era of the British Raj. Aside from a fleeting moment during the 1960s when the Beatles returned from their pilgrimage to Rishikesh, Indian culture did not penetrate the psyche of the average American. India remained for most Americans a distant, timeless place whose culture's only possible contemporary contribution might be transcendental meditation, useful primarily as a therapeutic escape from the stresses of modern life.
The opening years of the twenty-first century, however, saw a revolutionary transformation of these stereo-typical images in the United States. Today, the average American is far more likely to associate India with technological innovation rather than grinding poverty, with hip fashion rather than tigers and elephants, or with the latest movies rather than sitar concerts. India thus has emerged as one of the primary engines of global cultural innovation in the twenty-first century. Its relationship with the United States is no small reason for this incredible metamorphosis. In fact, India's cultural relationship with the United States is changing the very definition of what it means to be American, even as the absorption and reinterpretation of American consumer culture is changing what it means to be Indian.
The biggest factor in the emergence of this new transcreative synergy between India and the United States was undoubtedly the explosive growth of the Indian-American community at the historical moment of the information and communication technologies boom. Cold war imperatives moved the United States to liberalize immigration laws during the 1960s in order to allow a limited number of highly educated and technically skilled immigrants from non-European countries, including India, into the United States. A first wave of Indian physicians, engineers, and scientists came to America during the late 1960s and early 1970s, lured by a standard of living far above anything to which they could aspire at home. Subsequent immigration reforms led to more immigrants; the 2000 census counted more than 1 million persons of Indian descent living in the United States. By 2004, that number had increased to 1.7 million, and was expected to reach over 2 million by 2010 and to double again by 2020, making Indians the fastest-growing immigrant group in the United States.
Indian Americans also became the most prosperous and one of the most highly educated immigrant groups in the country, with a per capita income of $60,093, versus $38,885 for the general population, and with 58 percent holding a bachelor's degree or higher, versus 20 percent for the general population. By 2004, one out of every ten Indian Americans was reported to be a millionaire. Nowhere was the extraordinary success of the Indian American immigrant community more dramatic and more visible than in California's Silicon Valley, where high-tech entrepreneurs from India founded some of the most successful start-up companies of the late twentieth century and created some of the most widely used American products, from Hotmail.com to Corel's WordPerfect.
Meanwhile, two additional phenomena were occurring that would profoundly transform the cultural dynamic between India and the United States. First, the children of the first post-1960s wave of Indian immigrants were entering colleges across the country. In contrast to their technically skilled parents, the second generation, having grown up with a dual cultural heritage, began in increasing numbers to explore careers in the arts, journalism, and the humanities, endeavors that allowed them to express their identity as Indian Americans. The community itself was also changing. As immigration laws expanded to include family members and other categories, the Indian American community became more educationally and economically diverse, with many families living below the poverty line. As the population grew, "Little India" communities sprang up in every major American urban area, from Devon Street in Chicago, to Jackson Heights, Queens, in New York, to Fremont, California. These enclaves offered all the comforts of "home," from food and clothing to Bollywood movies and Indian film soundtracks. The offspring of Indian and other South Asian immigrant taxi drivers, semiconductor fabricators, and newspaper vendors often "Black-identified," adopting the dress, idioms, and music of African American youth culture. Second-generation Indian Americans began to conjugate the Hindi film songs and Punjabi bhangra beats of their parents with the sounds of rap and hip-hop. The 1990s saw an explosion of Indian American DJs, who spliced Hindi film tracks over the pulsing rhythms of both hip-hop and bhangra. By the time African American hip-hop star Jay-Z recorded an album with bhangra-rap star Punjabi MC, Indo-American fusion pop culture was well on its way into the mainstream.
At the same time, cutting-edge information and communication technologies—often the brain-children of Indian immigrants—were compressing the time it took to bridge what used to be the almost unfathomable distance between North America and India. Along the way, an equally dynamic Indian fusion culture emerging in London was swept into what quickly become a pan-global Indian cultural phenomenon, relayed around the world by an Indian diaspora population of over 20 million. Riding this wave, India burst into the American imagination in the early 2000s as never before. For the first time in its history, the United States, the country that had defined "newness" since its revolutionary beginnings in the eighteenth century, was displaced as the land of the "new" by one of the world's most ancient civilizations, India.
This was due in no small part to the transformation of the "brain drain" model, which had brought the first wave of highly technically skilled Indian workers to the United States, into a "brain circulation" or even a "brain gain" model. Successful Indian immigrant entrepreneurs, physicians, scientists, and engineers began to understand that the very technologies they had helped to invent could provide a ticket home—not to the India they left behind in the 1960s but to an India that their skills could transform into a global center for technological innovation. A steady stream of "America-returned" Indians joined a significant number of highly talented individuals who had never left India, creating high-tech companies such as Asim Premji's Infosys in Bangalore, in Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai. American high-tech companies soon joined the caravan of technology leaders and entrepreneurs on the India trail, with Hewlett-Packard, Intel, General Electric, IBM, Microsoft, and others opening offices in India. Many U.S. companies began to "outsource" highly skilled work, formerly performed at much greater cost in the United States, to India. The NRI, or "non-resident Indian," who had made it in California became a "newly returned Indian" living in a California-style gated community in Bangalore that boasted every amenity one could expect at a posh U.S. address, but at a fraction of the American cost.
Hooked into an American-inspired global consumer culture, with the privatization of Indian television and the advent of satellite broadcast technology and cable, the lifestyle expectations of young urban Indians was irreversibly transformed. The Internet completed the connection, in real time, of young Indians in India with young Indians in the Indian diaspora, adding another dimension to "Cyber-India." The fascination of Indians with the diaspora and the nostalgia of diaspora Indians for an increasingly imaginary Indian homeland spawned a spate of blockbuster movies such as Kul Ho Na Ho, starring Bollywood hero and heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan as a newly arrived Indian migrant in New York who falls for one less "fresh off the boat." Young people in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai became indistinguishable from their diaspora counterparts. Their tastes had become profoundly internationalized. Thanks to India's liberalized economy and new urban prosperity, international brands of clothing were available in major Indian cities, along with the latest hair styles, makeup trends, club music, and the ubiquitous "mobiles" glued to every ear.
Young Indians went well beyond the passive consumption of global popular culture and international brands. They became active producers of new, hybridized cultural content that landed in the capitals of North America and Europe as the latest craze among non-Indian and Indian diaspora populations alike. Fashion moguls Anand Jon and Sandy Dalal, both based in New York, created their own successful lines of Indian-inspired clothing, while European couture superstars such as Giorgio Armani and Jean-Paul Gauthier began to "cite" Indian colors, textiles, prints, and images in their own work. Composer A. R. Rehman, based in India, became an international sensation, while Bally Sagoo created London-inspired fusion sounds; Norah Jones, the Grammy Award–winning daughter of sitar star Ravi Shankar, created soft jazz croonings that bore no trace of her Indian paternity. English-language Indian literary colossus Salman Rushdie moved to New York, while novelist Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni and travel writer Pico Iyer remained on the West Coast. Jhumpa Lahiri's debut collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, depicting Indian immigrants caught between India and America, won a Pulitzer Prize for "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life." Diaspora Indians became not just Indian stars but, simply, stars.
The Indian American cultural revolution continued at the box office with an explosion of "search for identity" films, from Krutin Patel's ABCD to Anurag Mehta's American Chai to Nikhil Kamkolkar's Indian Cowboy. Ismail Merchant, of the Merchant-Ivory Productions team that produced A Room with a View and Howards End, continued to turn out films with Indian diaspora themes, such as The Mystic Masseur, based on the novel by V. S. Naipaul. New York–based Indian film director Mira Nair achieved the ultimate "crossover" success with her Monsoon Wedding, a movie that portrayed the contradictions of contemporary Indians fully engaged in the contradictions of twenty-first-century life, featuring an arranged marriage between a diaspora Indian and an Indian Indian. She went on to produce a sumptuous version of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair that featured an Indian musical dance extravaganza right out of the purest Bollywood tradition.
In New York, there was an explosion of Indian American theater, ranging from Aasif Mandvi's side-splitting comedy Sakina's Restaurant to the Broadway hit Bombay Dreams by musical producer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Contemporary visual artists from India, as well as those working in the United States, including the Gujarati but New York–based painter Natvar Bhavsar and Washington, D.C.–based Anil Revri, sell out shows in trendy galleries such as Sundaram Tagore's gallery in Soho. Their work has a markedly Indian sensibility in terms of color and geometry, yet it is as attractive to deep-pocketed Indian Americans as to other American and international collectors.
On a more mundane level, it is easy to find Indian entrées such as palak paneer and chicken tikka in the frozen food section of any supermarket in most major or even mid-sized American cities. Indian chai has become as much a fixture of the ubiquitous American coffeehouse scene as have lattes and cappuccinos. The American "dosa wrap" has expanded the South Indian traditional repertory to include such nontraditional fillings as roast chicken and goat cheese. The masala bhangra workout has become the latest fitness craze in California. These transformations and others led Newsweek magazine in 2004 to proclaim under the rubric "American Masala" that South Asians in the United States "have changed the way we eat, dress, work and play."
Meanwhile, in India, American culture was transforming the lives of the urban and the affluent and challenging the Indian government to meet the aspirations of the millions of Indians who still live below the poverty level yet can see all around them, and on television, the new affluence of their fellow citizens. Starbucks attempted a foray into the land of Darjeeling and other teas. Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and other fast-food restaurants have set up shop in India, while new shopping malls complete with underground parking, escalators, and multiplex movie theaters feature international brands. Many young urban Indian girls have become Westernized to such a degree that they not only no longer wear traditional Indian dress but need help from mothers or aunts to put on a sari when a social occasion requires one. Indian television, once the lone territory of state-run Doordarshan television, began to broadcast Western popular culture with MTV. MTV simply rebroadcast in India shows designed for American and other Western audiences. Local networks leapt into a deregulated Indian television market with old reruns of Bewitched and Baywatch, dubbed in Hindi. Today, no television network can survive in India unless it broadcasts locally produced content featuring local talent. An explosion of Indian-produced talk shows, sitcoms, soap operas, and game shows now dominate the television screens of India.
The visibility of India, Indians, and Indian Americans has reached new levels in American media. Major American magazines, such as Business Week and Wired, now run cover stories on the Indian technology revolution and outsourcing. Indian actress Aishwarya Rai is featured in photo spreads in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, proclaimed to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, a rising "international superstar." British Indian actress Parminder Nagra has a role on the television series ER, while Indian actors regularly have cameo or even episode-starring roles on major American television network and cable shows. NBC is working on a comedy, Nevermind Nirvana, based on the lives of a family of Indian immigrant doctors, the Mehtas, modeled on the British hit series The Kumars. Meanwhile, real-life television doctor Sanjay Gupta dispatches medical advice daily to millions of Americans who watch CNN. The increasing visibility of Indian Americans in everyday American life has everyone in the media business talking "crossover." With India predicted by some leading economists to overtake the U.S. economy within the next fifty years, it is looking more and more as if the next American century may be Indian.
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