LITERARY REVIEW

Generation remix

Culture

TISHANI DOSHI

Generation remix

THIS edition of International Gallerie, which emerged with the help of a grant from the British Council, devotes itself to exploring multicultural vibrancy in Britain today. A rather well timed publication, given the heated debates over immigration and asylum policy in the lead-up to the recent British parliamentary elections. Bina Sarkar Ellias, in her editor's note, puts forward the claim that while diversity and pluralism are being celebrated in the U.K. like never before, they are still a long way from being a fully integrated society.

Historically, Britain has been a nation of settlers: Celts, Romans, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Danes and Vikings, Jews, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, East Europeans, Caribbean-Africans, Chinese — all have clamoured toward her shores, and continue to do so. Despite, or perhaps, because of this massive onslaught of human movement, immigration and asylum are still dirty words in Britain, dominated by overtures of fear and framed around economics rather than in a culturally stereoscopic way (to borrow Rushdie's term). While this issue of Gallerie focuses mainly on the experience of the South Asian community in the U.K., the common themes explored, of identity and belonging, resonate with a larger immigrant population as a whole.

One of the more interesting arguments offered is by writer Fiona Sampson, who claims that Britain's long exposure to the radically "other" cultures of other continents and their guilt about the forms those contracts took, have forced them to be more committed to multiculturalism. "Monocultures", she says, "are dangerous, introverted and unstable when they continually try to refine and define themselves". True: Britain's dodgy record with empire and colonialism may have forced a new sensitivity to market trends which appear to favour the racially hybrid and the ethnically ambiguous. But with the 2001 Bradford riots and 9/11 looming as ever-present spectres, clearly, the melting pot theory needs a bit of a stir.

As Benjamin Zephaniah, Caribbean poet-novelist and playwright, argues, the struggle for equality cannot be executed with mere tokens from the establishment. It requires unity, understanding, respect for the future, and a strong foundation of justice. Vociferously anti-Empire, Zephaniah recently rejected the much-coveted OBE (invitation to be appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire). "Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word `empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality... "

Different artists have different mantras. For Akram Khan, a Bangladeshi dancer who blends Kathak with contemporary dance, confusion over fusion is his mainstay. His explorations are in trying to find clarity in the chaos of dance forms entering his body, and to create his own physical language in the process. Sculptor Anish Kapoor concerns himself with form and absence. His contemplations are to do with emptiness, slowing down, journeys into the womb and sky. Though Kapoor has been living in England for the past 35 years, his work is rooted in his memory of India; everything goes back to this link. In his work, there is a similar kind of circling; unremitting queries until a conclusive form is yielded.

In many ways, the artists featured in this issue are trying not only to reconcile problems of geography through their art, but also to transcend them. Take the Singh twins, born and brought up in England. Their art is India-inspired, borrowing the Mughal miniature as a medium of expression to voice contemporary concerns as diverse as the global obsession with celebrities, genetic engineering, the corruption of politics, the impact of multinationals, and the hypocrisy of an elitist modern art world.

For Jatinder Verma, who set up the first Asian theatre group in England 30 years ago, any transformation or move from the informative to the revelatory in the audience, whether Asian or Western, is exciting. His own journey has taken him from community halls to London's West End, but the search remains much the same: to use theatre as a means to find a voice, to dialogue between the past and the present.

As always, Gallerie is spectacularly produced — an art work in itself with strong writing and compelling visual images. Somewhat inexplicable though, is the surprisingly scant reference made to the changing urban music trends in the U.K., now almost monopolised by immigrant Asian and African beats. Ghetto, garage, hip-hop, and bhangra are no longer "alternative" — they form the pulsating heartbeats of nightclubs and I-pods all over the country. In a sense, it is through music that Asians and Africans have finally "arrived", because it is through music that they have been able to break away from the stereotypes of curry houses and corner shops.

For urban youth in the U.K., the lines between white, black and brown are increasingly being brought down in terms of fashion, music, lifestyle and sport. Wiggas (the term used for white youngsters who used to copy black styles, subsequently dismissed as "white niggers") are now the norm. Which explains why Channel 4 voted David Beckham the most famous black man in Britain last year.

This paradigm shift is far more important than chicken tikka superseding fish `n chips as the nation's favourite food, because music has the power to effect change in awareness, values and race labels unlike anything else. With "Mixed Race" now the third largest ethnic minority group in Britain today, the remix generation looks like it's here to stay — and this should be reason enough to celebrate.

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