Like many others, I travel to see, hear, feel, smell and taste the unfamiliar. While interning with a contemporary dance company in Bangalore, India, I simultaneously benefitted from and deeply resented a lack of the ‘unfamiliar’ in my environment. Looking back, I longed for an escape from Western culture, and I was frequently left feeling unsatisfied by the pervasiveness of my own culture amongst those with whom I associated.
I knew, in an intellectual sense, that such thoughts imply that there is some sort of quintessential, exotic, and static Indian culture to be experienced; at the time, I used this knowledge to justify my minimal effort to go out of my way to create opportunities to experience “traditional” India. Though I ate street food, wore Kurtas, and traveled to Hampi to see ancient temples, I heavily relied on many Indians’ knowledge of Western culture, particularly the English language, to move through the country with relative ease. I did not learn a single word of Hindi or Kannada, the local language. I was able to live and work in Bangalore speaking only English, but every time I did struggle or feel frustrated – getting a cab or ordering food – it was because I was interacting with a local who did not speak English. Not knowing a local language meant I was mostly having meaningful interactions with English speakers only. I suppose this was one aspect of Western culture I was totally comfortable holding onto. Tasting new food, wearing new clothes, and seeing sites were all significantly less daunting than learning a new way to communicate.
I traveled to Bangalore to intern with a contemporary dance organization. Or was it that I interned with a contemporary dance organization in Bangalore so I could use Smith College funding to travel to India? Both reasons hold some truth. The Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, a non-profit organization, like most dance companies, included a professional performing company, a two-year diploma program for young adults, summer camps and intensives for children and teenagers, and community classes. The organization’s primary goal was to increase the practice and appreciation of contemporary dance – a predominantly Western discipline with widely acknowledged origins in modern and ballet and less discussed origins in Eastern somatic practices.
The company also offered training in a variety of traditional Indian movement practices, such as Bharatanatyam and Kalaripayattu. Just as contemporary dancers in the United States and Europe are often expected to be proficient in ballet, many contemporary dancers in India, I learned, believe traditional Indian movement practices to be foundational to their work.
Though I did learn a great deal about the state of dance in India by taking classes and speaking with dancers, my internship mostly involved performing miscellaneous administrative tasks. Aside from employing dancers and dance teachers, the company had nine full-time individuals performing administrative and production duties, and these were the individuals with whom I spent Monday through Friday 9 AM to 5 PM. Most had master’s degrees in varying disciplines, including psychology, arts administration, business, and lighting design. All spoke English fluently and used English to speak with one another while at work. This was, in part, because many professional people in Bangalore had moved from elsewhere, so they all knew different regional languages. Their proficiency in English was due to their high level of education. Several probably also learned English from their parents, as is characteristic of many people from middle to upper class in India.
I spent most of my time sitting at a desk working from my laptop. Some of my duties included researching international (mostly European) choreographers to invite for master classes and/or artistic residencies, as well as contacting high schools from which to recruit students for the diploma program. I was told that my being from the U.S. would intrigue career counselors at international (English-speaking) schools. Since I came to India hoping to fulfill my desire to escape Western culture, I often felt frustrated with my role being centered on my Western-ness. I resented my employers for not letting me truly experience India. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I spent most days inside the office, working at a computer. I felt like I was not really learning anything about India because, I was not, in my eyes, truly experiencing it by working for this organization. Aside from the fact that it was obviously not the duty of my coworkers to ensure I was seeing “the real India,” even though they actually often gave me restaurant and shopping recommendations that they felt represented a quintessential India, I fixated on the prevalence of English speakers around me as a symbol of my ‘inauthentic’ experience.
English speakers are prolific in India because of Britain’s imperial presence in the country, beginning in the 17th century and formally ending in 1947. In the 1830s, public schools across India began teaching English, and shortly thereafter, university students and government employees were expected to speak English. According to the 2016 EF English Proficiency Index published by the EF Education First, India ranks 22 of 72 countries rated for their English proficiency, indicating “moderate proficiency.” As in many other locations around the world, British colonization infected India with the idea that the English language and other aspects of Western culture are emblematic of economic and moral progress.
However, those who do not have formal education or professional careers often do not have as strong of a grasp of English as those who do, which is why I was not able to communicate efficiently with many cab drivers, restaurant workers, and other informally educated persons. The caste system in India, which divides Hindus into four main hierarchical, inherited, socioeconomic categories, exacerbates the inability of persons to move in and out of socio-economic positions. Not only has such a system made socio-economic upward mobility quite difficult in the past, contemporary Indian capitalism continues, in some ways, to inhibit individual economic growth, as in many other capitalistic economies.
My discomfort with speaking English was in part due to the fact that my being around English speakers in India meant that I was only associating and connecting with individuals from particular social statuses (specifically, higher income and lighter skinned). I was aware that by only being able to speak English, I was limited in the number and range of people with whom I could interact, which fueled my fear of having an inauthentic experience. Not only did I feel insecure about struggling to communicate with cab drivers and restaurant servers, but I was very uncomfortable with the fact that I could only efficiently communicate with more privileged persons. I recognized that just by being able to speak English, I was automatically seen as valuable in the workplace. Although my coworkers are certainly not to blame for social inequality in India, I think my resentment towards them for speaking English was a manifestation of my own discomfort with having benefited from inequality.
Dana Duren ’17 was born and raised in Austin, Texas. There, she first developed her passions for both dance and global cultural phenomena, which led her to double major in dance and anthropology at Smith College. Dana has mostly pursued both subjects separately, though she did conduct ethnographic research on different dance groups while studying abroad in Ghana. As of now, she intends to pursue dance performance, choreography, and education. She recently presented an original work “There’s something we’re not telling you” as a part of her senior thesis for the dance major.by