The Newsletter 87 Autumn 2020

Indian cultural research. An Auckland reflection

Alison Booth

My research portfolio includes studies that focus on event management, cultural performance and issues of cultural sustainability. I am interested in networks as the relationship between people, resources and events are key for viability. I strongly believe that ethnography depends on respect, honesty and love for people and their cultural expressions. In my PhD thesis Performance networks: Indian cultural production in Aotearoa/New Zealand, I wrote “It comes down to the trust you have in people and that people have in you” (2016, p.160).

Because of my San Franciscan heritage, I view the world quite differently than those identifying as ‘New Zealand Europeans’ in an Auckland context. My PhD at the University of Otago required me to position myself in my research not just as an ethnographer, but also as a member of one diaspora gazing into cultural performances through the eyes of another diaspora. My networks include close family friends of South Indian heritage in California, India and New Zealand; my husband, who is an ethnomusicologist focusing on the music and culture of India, as well as an experienced performer of classical Indian music; students at the University of Auckland; and local Indian musicians and touring musicians in New Zealand. Without these networks, I would not be working on a Diwali project with Henry Johnson at the University of Otago’s Centre for Global Migration, a Parsi food study, an event project in Rotorua, or a palliative care project with a local charity.

One of the projects that I am currently working on is with an Auckland-based Mumbai Parsi woman. We are looking at the potential of food in the cultural survival of the dwindling global Parsi population. When I was in Mumbai in early February 2020, I attended the Kala Ghoda Festival and participated in a heritage walking tour that focussed on Parsi culture from the perspective of food. I also jumped at the chance to meet a Parsi friend for lunch. We shared a meal at Britannia, the well-known Parsi restaurant in Fort, in memory of her late father, who was a Bollywood musician and composer and a close family friend. I have found that many Parsis, in Mumbai and Auckland, have opinions about Britannia; too expensive, not the most delicious, not authentic, the owner was a royalist who admired the Queen as well as a publicity hound. As an ethnographer, I just listened and reflected on the quite emotive statements about quite a modest restaurant. In fact, my personal experience at Britannia, was a meal filled with reminiscences, laughter and delight, with my dear friend, who was sharing her heart with me; through recollections of love and grief. We indulged in her father’s favourite dishes and lamented that he was not with us anymore. The Britannia staff wanted to know if I was also Parsi as I was adept at eating with my right hand and totally at ease at the table. This multi-generational and multi-cultural story frames my research profiles and my family experiences with performers and producing events over decades.

As I write, New Zealand is in a four-week Covid-19 lockdown, prohibiting any public events or family gatherings. With this in mind, I am reflecting on the impacts on the visibility of Indian popular culture in our current closed environment and from my personal family ‘bubble’. Global conferences that were planned are cancelled. In New Zealand, Indian food stores have not been included in the essential services category of supermarkets, dairies, hospitals and banks. Places of worship and community gatherings are no longer accessible, a situation in strong contrast to only a couple of weeks ago, when we hosted a sarangi (bowed zither) player from Mumbai and a tabla (set of two hand drums) player from Australia, performing at community events in New Zealand. They asked to stay with us, as we share performance experiences, friends and lineages that span the global musician networks and the Indian musical diaspora. Although both classically trained musicians, they have found the only formula for their survival has been to collaborate with western musicians on global tours. With India's borders closing on 20 March, the tabla player headed home to Australia and to a 14-day quarantine. The sarangi player cut short his New Zealand tour schedule, catching the last plane back to Mumbai before the Indian borders closure and further restrictions.

There will be no more live performances for the foreseeable future, as all venues and borders have been closed. What has appeared are more virtual performances, as online communities reform creative spaces for musicians. For instance, Shashank Subramanyam, a Carnatic flautist in Chennai, announced a free workshop through his Facebook site. The global challenge will be to manage the immense broadband connections to keep our networks and creative works alive.

Alison Booth is a specialist in ethnography, festivalisation, and Indian cultural representation of diasporic communities and event production practices. Alison is a Research Associate at the Centre for Global Migration at the University of Otago and working on various community event-based projects. She is a PhD supervisor at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and previously lectured, researched and acted as Programme Leader in BA Event Management in the Faculty of Culture and Society.