- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

It wasn’t too long ago that Aroon Shivdasani would hear an irritated complaint from her now 22-year old daughter: “Mom, not your Indian music again.”

Of late, says Miss Shivdasani, her daughter is sampling CDs from artists such as the Coventry, England-based Panjabi MC and the London-born DJ Rekha.

Both are DJs who have helped create a new vogue in pop music: a fusion of traditional bhangra rhythms from India’s Punjab region and Western hip-hop.

“Now I hear, ‘Mom, have you heard this?’ ” says Miss Shivdasani, executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council in New York City. “It’s part of her culture.”

That would be American pop culture, an arena in which Indian influence has expanded considerably in the last few years, if not through actual Indian-born musicians and filmmakers then through the vast global Indian diaspora, big chunks of which are found in the United Kingdom and in America.

In England, the old British colonial presence on the Indian subcontinent has long produced fruitful Anglo-Indian connections, especially in literary fiction, with contemporary novelists such as Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, an ethnic Indian from Trinidad.

Earlier than that, the imperial link produced works such as E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” and “Jungle Book” (still a popular Disney movie franchise).

Here in America, however, Indian cultural inroads are more recent. According to U.S. Census figures, the Asian-Indian population more than doubled from 800,000 in 1990 to 1.7 million in 2000, with many finding work in the professional class and the high-tech industry.

Miss Shivdasani, whose organization supports Indian artists working in North America, says the artistic segment of America’s Indian immigrants has blossomed in the last five years and is now “exploding.”

Sometimes, the Indian diaspora’s offspring have deceptively European surnames like Jones — as in Norah Jones, the Grammy-winning pop-jazz sensation and daughter of the popular Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar.

Miss Jones, by all indications, is far more interested in traditional American music — from Hank Williams to Hoagy Carmichael — than in anything emanating from Punjab.

But there are diaspora artists whose work is overtly Indian, like director Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding,” a crossover, English-language comedy about an arranged marriage in India.

Another director of Indian heritage, Gurinder Chadha, helmed one of the spring’s most surprising hits, “Bend It Like Beckham,” the story of an English-born Indian teenager jousting with traditionalist Sikh parents over her love of soccer.

Despite a limited release, “Beckham” has grossed $26.3 million in the United States — a robust performance for a low-budget British movie without marquee actors about an activity, soccer, that’s never quite caught on here.

And it’s still going strong: Yesterday, Fox Searchlight expanded “Beckham” nationwide to a total of 1,200 screens.

The most successful Indian-born director on either side of the Atlantic, though, is M. Night Shyamalan.

Raised near Philadelphia, Mr. Shyamalan has generated a string of box-office hits with better-than-average critical notices, including “Stuart Little” (for which he wrote the screenplay), the $294 million-grossing “The Sixth Sense” and last year’s “Signs,” which netted Mel Gibson the biggest box-office opening of his career so far.

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Indians have flourished in the American movie industry; the doors were kicked open decades ago, well before the ‘90s-era spike in Indian immigration to the United States.

Ismail Merchant, for instance, the Bombay-born half of the legendary Merchant-Ivory production team, has been in business in Hollywood since the mid-‘60s, yielding, along with partner James Ivory, movies such as “Howard’s End,” “The Remains of the Day” and several other critically acclaimed literary adaptations. (Next week, their latest project, “Le Divorce,” based on Diane Johnson’s novel, hits area theaters.)

Mr. Merchant is “the granddaddy of the diaspora,” Miss Shivdasani remarks. While India has long had its own pop entertainment industry — dubbed Bollywood — “he was the first Indian to make films outside India that people paid attention to.”

What’s been more surprising, perhaps, is the Indian penetration into pop music.

There are young Indian musicians such as Sunny Jain and Ravish Momin, both percussionists based in New York, who have blended classical Indian music with all manner of African and Asian rhythms. Vijay Iyer, meanwhile, has infused jazz piano with a similar sensibility.

But this is the stuff of world music esoterica.

Improbably, perhaps, it has been hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and Missy Elliot who have embraced the sounds of the subcontinent, plucking it from obscure underground clubs (such as one in New York, run by DJ Rekha) and European discotheques.

Panjabi MC owes much of his stateside fame to Jay-Z, who collaborated with the British DJ on “Mundian To Bach Ke” (Punjabi for “Beware of the Boys”). From Panjabi’s recently released CD “Beware,” the cut was remixed, with partly English lyrics, by the American rapper.

The bhangra-hip-hop melange may be the most notable Western pop foray into the subcontinent since the late ‘60s and the Beatles-inspired incorporation of the sitar and raga-style sounds, as well as the hippie generation’s fascination with the easygoing spirituality of the ashram.

But in that era it was more a case of the West “pushing” outward rather than “pulling” inward, to borrow the formulation of political scientist Samuel Huntington.

An enduring, if narrowly realized, symbol of the one-way pollination is the Rolling Stones’ famous logo, the lascivious red mouth and tongue.

Mick Jagger commissioned designer John Pasch to Westernize a striking image he frequently noticed on calendars in the Indian and Pakistani shops of London: the disembodied tongue of the Hindu goddess Kali.

The image was co-opted, and few people realize its provenance.

Not so with today’s South Asian invasion — an invasion from both within and without.

“It’s a natural evolution,” says Miss Shivdasani, “as Indians go out and do different things in different milieus. For the last decade, people have been trying to build an awareness of who they are outside of India.

“They don’t remain in their little ghettos,” she continues. “It’s so exciting, because this is what art is all about — whether it’s food, dance or music. Here’s another sound. Here’s another flavor.

“Look at how salsa came on,” Miss Shivdasani points out, referring to the now ubiquitous, but once exclusively Latin, rhythm.

Indians have a long way to go before their numbers compete with American Hispanics, who are now the country’s largest ethnic minority population.

But given their relatively small slice of the populace, they’ve proved influential beyond their numbers.

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