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Desi Divas

Political Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances

Christine L. Garlough

Publication Year: 2013

Desi Divas: Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances is the product of five years of field research with progressive activists associated with the School for Indian Languages and Cultures (SILC), South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), the feminist dance collective Post Natyam, and the grassroots feminist political organization South Asian Sisters. Christine L. Garlough explores how traditional cultural forms may be critically appropriated by marginalized groups and used as rhetorical tools to promote deliberation and debate, spur understanding and connection, broaden political engagement, and advance particular social identities. Within this framework she examines how these performance activists advocate a political commitment to both justice and care, to both deliberative discussion and deeper understanding. To consider how this might happen in diasporic performance contexts, Garlough weaves together two lines of thinking. One grows from feminist theory and draws upon a core literature concerning the ethics of care. The other comes from rhetoric, philosophy, and political science literature on recognition and acknowledgment. This dual approach is used to reflect upon South Asian American women's performances that address pressing social problems related to gender inequality, immigration rights, ethnic stereotyping, hate crimes, and religious violence.

Case study chapters address the relatively unknown history of South Asian American rhetorical performances from the early 1800s to the present. Avant-garde feminist performances by the Post Natyam dance collective appropriate women's folk practices and Hindu goddess figures make rhetorical claims about hate crimes against South Asian Americans after 9/11. In Yoni ki Bat (a South Asian American version of The Vagina Monologues) a progressive performer transforms aspects of the Mahabharata narrative to address issues of sexual violence, such as incest and rape. Throughout the volume, Garlough argues that these performers rely on calls for acknowledgment that intertwine calls for justice and care. That is, they embed their testimony in traditional cultural forms to invite interest, reflection, and connection.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. 1-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-x

Writing a book is always a collective endeavor. With this in mind, I would like to express my deep gratitude to those who have contributed to this work. This book would not have come into being without the open and welcoming response of the South Asian American activists and performers whose efforts fill these pages: teachers and students at the School for Indian ...

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Chapter One: Toward Acknowledgment: Care in Diasporic Performances

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pp. 3-41

Shyamala Moorty sits on a cold, white toilet in the center of a bare stage. Her eyes move slowly across an audience that includes mainstream and South Asian American community members, war veterans, as well as university students and faculty. This diverse group has come together on a cold October night in Madison, Wisconsin, to participate in a 2005 performance ...

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Chapter Two: Performing South Asian American Histories

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pp. 43-72

One hundred years separate these evocations of flags and founding fathers in the name of minority exclusion.1 Taken together, however, they reveal a good deal about the central dilemmas facing South Asian American community members today. In both moments, South Asian Americans have found themselves characterized as perpetual strangers at the door of ...

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Chapter Three: National Recognition and Community Acknowledgment

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pp. 73-102

Performances at folk festivals have long encouraged community members to engage in imaginary travel, drawing attention to the tension between us/ them, here/there, and then/now, while also collapsing these divides (Bauman and Sawin 1991; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991). Growing out of colonial discourses of the eighteenth century, they implicitly address questions such ...

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Chapter Four: A Future in Relation to the Other

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pp. 103-144

As I write this, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. In the decade following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, much has changed in the United States, particularly for South Asian Americans. As Divakaruni’s quote suggests, while South Asian American community members mourned the terrible events, for many their horror was mixed with fear. ...

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Chapter Five: Cultural Activism and Sexuality in Feminist Performance

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pp. 145-180

In the United States today, consumer culture often fuels the multicultural attraction to everyday “ethnic” performances. Nose rings, mendhi tattoos, belly chains, and bindis—these traditional fashions associated with South Asian American women can now be found in most mainstream shopping centers as stylish accessories. Over the years, traditional styles from Asia ...

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Chapter Six: Intertwining Folklore and Rhetoric: Cultural Performance, Acknowledgment, and Social Justice

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pp. 181-196

As part of the human condition, innumerable manifestations of violence challenge us during the course of our lives. Around the world, people struggle daily to respond with dignity as they are subjected to terrorist acts, war crimes, racist speeches in public forums, physical and sexual abuse in the home, or deafening silence in response to requests for acknowledgment. ...


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pp. 197-209


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pp. 211-226


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pp. 227-233

E-ISBN-13: 9781621039242
E-ISBN-10: 1621039242
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617037320

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 819531738
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Desi Divas

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Performance art -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Performance art -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • South Asian American women -- Social life and customs.
  • South Asian American women -- Ethnic identity.
  • Women in the performing arts -- United States.
  • Art and social action -- United States.
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