Conversations with a snake

by Anandam P. Kavoori and Christina Joseph

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 86-91
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

Moving between textual elements, fragments from participant interviews, contextual frames, this reflexive ethnographic account looks at the intersections between Midi film dances, cultural performance in the diaspora and the reconstruction of gender politics. Four specific texts are examined: a Hindi film called NAGINA (Female Snake, Malhotra, 1986), transcripts of interviews with three dancers[1] [open notes in new window] who performed an interpretation of a dance from the movie for a cultural show called "India Night"[2] at a University in the southern United States; the student audience in the show,[3] and finally, the video of the actual performance. An ethno-feminist politics[4] underlies the account as also does an attempt to re-strategize representation: toward mimesis, auto-ethnography and fragmentation. Specifically, we use the idea of juxtaposition and placement of the different material as our mode of presentation.[5]


"Critical theory and radical postmodern discourse have transformed ethnographic writing. We are still In dialogue over the departure of grand theory, the crises of legitimation, claims of representation and the predicament of voice and story in ethnographic writing" (Stack 1996, 105).

"In the heterogeneity of the feminist struggle and its plurivocal projects, the impossibility of defining once and for all the condition of being sexualized as feminine and racialized as colored does not result from a lack of determination, but rather, from an inescapable awareness of the sterility of the unitary subject and its monolithic constructs. For language is in every case not only communication of the communicable but also, at the same time, a symbol of the noncommunicable" (Trinh 1991,7).

"We have been trying to theorize identity as constituted, not outside but within representations and hence of cinema, not as a second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists, but as that form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover places from which to speak. Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (Hall 1990,2).


The Nagina is a snake in the form of a woman. It is also the title of a movie made in Bombay. Two girls (no, young women is not a better choice) and a guy dance as Nagina and a Sapera (male snake charmer) in a performance of "India Night," an annual celebration of Indian culture and arts. The Nagina and the Sapera grew up in Georgia. We are in the mix: Not so FOB anymore-Indian-New-Delhi-Paul Anka raised and second generation Writing Culture bred.[6]


We think now with our own children in mind: "Everything is not as it should be. Indian girls from good families don't dance such vulgar dances."[7]

The two young women are dancing gyrating, their hips appear to be curving in and out of their silken clothes. The boys in the crowd are on their feet. As hips shake, there are catcalls. The Nagina snake their way around the hapless Sapera. The two girls flamboyantly strike at him. He runs and throws some sand at them. They circle him, dancing to a new frenzy, now changing into a slow suggestive rhythm. The snake charmer is spent, he collapses, the two snakes strike and he dies.

We think now with our childhood in mind:

bell hooks: "There is a hyperbolic quality when we retell stories. They become larger than life. And the object isn't to create any kind of accuracy. I think of the notion of de-familiarization, where you take what may be an everyday image and you present it In such a way that people have to think twice." (Dash 1992, 31).

We think about a scene from the film, JUNOON (OBSESSION, Shyam Benegal, 1978). A quirky tale of race, nationalism and romance, there is a paradigmatic scene, when a English girl, puts on the dress of a courtesan and swings into a room, showing off and asks her mother with a childlike glee: "How do I look mother?" The natives stand impassive as the girl's mother (played by Jennifer Kapoor, herself a Britisher) coldly intones: "Like a nautch girl." The daughter's face crumbles in disbelief, she runs out of the room.

It is clear that the girl's dress is structured in this particular exchange by the specific themes common to British imperial discourse — those of othering the native, retaining his exoticness and in this case, a dangerous native sexuality. As Indian middle class moviegoers, the lesson we learned was about class morality and the dangers of sexual slippage. Those lessons now resonate in our reactions to the two Nagina as they complete their mujra (a dance by a courtesan).

Indians from good families don't dance in this vulgar way.


In the movie, the Nagina, played sumptuously by Sridevi, is discovered by her mother-in-law in her true form. Upon discovery, she tells the history of her life as a snake and of her interest in the family.

"I had a husband and when your son was a boy, he bit him. But your son was rescued by a tantrik (religious specialist). You got your son, but to do that I had to pay an enormous price. Your son had died, but the tantrik took the life force from my Naga (male snake) and gave it to your son. I have kept his dead snake body with the hope that one day your son will come. I will bite him and give life to my Naga. One day your son came, my husband's life is within him and so I touched his feet, but then I felt some weakening in my heart and he escaped. Looking for another opportunity, I reached your haveli (upper class home). There for the first time I saw the love between a mother and a son. I felt if something happened to him you would not be able to live. I gave up on the idea of striking your son. I thought of a way to let you have your son and for me to retain my suhaag (wedded status), that is why I took this form. I promise you I will not take the form of a snake again and I beg you not to go to the tantrik, otherwise any ill-fate that will come will be at his hands."

There are a number of cultural themes that underpin this dramatic soap-operatic plea. One is the validation of the relationship between son and mother, which both predates and effectively castrates the emotive possibilities that may emerge within the marriage between the son and his wife. It locates power within the context of suhaag and of the obligations that this brings (touching feet). It is suffocatingly masculine.

"The social context of patriarchy gives the gaze a masculine character" (Lutz and Collins 1993, 365)

Immediately following the Nagina's plaintive appeal, the mother upholds her power over her son's destiny and calls in the tantrik to get rid of the Nagina. The tantrik in this case is a Sapera. The following song and dance routine ensues:

The Sapera (played by the magnificently evil Amrish Pun) announces he has come to rid the haveli of the Nagina. The mother greets the Sapera and hurriedly leaves. The Nagina, looks malevolent and sorrowful in equal measure as she repeats under her breath, "Oh mother, what have you done." The Sapera and his acolytes begin playing their beens (instruments) the tune played by all snake charmers in India. The Nagina rushes indoor, her body framed against a wall. She writhes, rolls and gyrates in a frenzy of orgiastic arousal. She holds her husband's picture to her breasts, as she rolls on the bed, her body heaving with the transformative pleasure of being a snake. Her face is repeatedly framed with the lattice of the bed — the source and site of pleasure — and her eyes are gleaming with a snake-like coldness mixed in with an animalistic gleam.

Both animal and human, her sexuality and violence, now cohabiting, she runs to the cupboard and takes out a white mujra dress (for a dance performed by a courtesan), Meanwhile the Sapera and his acolytes, play their beens with increased force and agitation, waiting for the Nagina to appear. She does so in spectacular style, arms raised above her head, she runs down the curving staircase in the main hall, a staple architectural feature of Hindi movies (reifying the class structure of the actors in patently uncomplicated terms). Running between the Sapera (and the acolytes) and around them, she begins to dance for them in the traditional mujra fashion, alternately sexual and shy in her movements.

The dance is alternated with skirmishes with the Sapera and his acolytes, who lunge at her with their beens. She alternates between attacking them and dancing to their tune. Towards the end of the song, the entire troupe gets up and begins to encircle her. She attacks, and three of the acolytes fall to the ground. The others move closer as she begins to withdraw, fighting them off. The door opens and the hero, the Nagina's husband, played by Rishi Kapoor rushes in. He takes one look at what is going on, understanding immediately his wife's sexual and moral compromise. He strides to his wife and slaps her violently. She rushes out in shame while the hero confronts the Sapera and his acolytes.


The two beds in the freshman dorm barely leave any space for us to sit. There is little problem getting them to talk. The two Nagina and the Sapera pass the tape recorder quickly to each other; their mutual desire to have somebody listen is evident.

We first talk about sexy dances.

Everything is not as it appears.

"Yeah. Defiantly," says the first Nagina. "It is about our sexuality. You know we can do something Indian and it's appreciated and we can have fun."

These dances, new in shock value for us, are renewal for them. Hindi films have long provided entertainment and cultural nourishment. As the second Nagina puts it, "My parents watch them in the evenings and you know growing up it was always around: songs that other kids were listening to, especially the remixes, the dances the community did. You just picked up these steps even if you didn't know where it came from." Hindi films' placement in such a central role should come as no surprise to us. But it does.

Shukla (1997) helps provide additional placement: "As Indians in first world countries form larger and more visible populations they begin to develop elaborate strategies for constructing associative identities" (296).

We return to talk of sexy dances. But we are told there is more to it than sex.

The first Nagina says, "I think that some of the dances can get very suggestive and risqué, but we chose not to do something like that. We chose an older dance, like the costumes in the other dances were more revealing, the must is like more upbeat."

The second Nagina spelled it out: "Nagina is an old classic movie dance."

Our dilemma is then to reconcile the classic with cosmopolitanism. Appadurai says,

"It seems impossible to study these new cosmopolitanism fruitfully without analyzing the transnational cultural flows with which they thrive, compete and feed off one another" (1996, 49).

What is popular culture today if its not globally popular? And what can be more popular than the past, especially if it serves the present? What is becoming decentered perhaps is our own notions of Indian authenticity (of seeing older Indian films as representing a certain classic sensibility, whose contexts have long expired). Perhaps what also underlies our dislike of the Nagina dance is not just its abrasive sexuality, but our need for placing it within popular culture and separate from an Indian cultural classicism Here too, one Nagina has an answer:

"I think we got the idea (for the dance) from the movie, but then we like put in other stuff, since the movie only has one snake, we came up with different movements for each of us. I would say some of the steps are from the movie, some are from other dances that we have done and some are classical Bharatnatyam dance steps."

Shukla (1997) begins to make sense now:

Cultural festivals "can be seen as an occasion for a new type of "imagined community' or an instance of diasporic nationalism, that is produced by immigrant Indians determined to project a positive image of themselves, and is steeped in romantic notions of the home country." (296)

And so does Mercer:

"Across a whole range of cultural forms there is a 'syncretic' dynamic which critically appropriates elements from the master-codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and re-articulating their symbolic meaning" (Mercer 1988, 57).

With creolization in mind, we thought about how this khichri (mixed lentil and rice dish) of a dance came about And yes, we still pursued the idea of sexy dances as a negative influence. It seemed to us that these creolized dances still

"seemed to represent a particular construction of romantic love, one based on models of modem forms of emotional slavery, in which the slave is under the masters arbitrary control"(Robinson 1998, 69).

On the other hand, there was an all-important difference. In the India Night dance, the Nagina killed the Sapera while in the movie the Nagina is slapped for her trouble.

Abu Lughod refers to "sexually irreverent discourse" in which women make fun of men and manhood. She reads such discourse "as a form of women's resistance to dominant definitions of sexuality and sexual difference which are forms of male power. As a form of resistance, it is symptomatic of where power lies and how it is exercised" (1990, 45).

Our question: Does the Nagina story tell us that where power is exercised is also where power identities are forged?

From Trinh Minh Ha: "The diasporic identities of women crisscross more than one occupied territory at a time, she remains perforce inappropriate/d — both inside and outside her own social positioning. What is offered then is the possibility of a break with the specular structure of hegemonic discourse and its scopic economy" (Trinh 1991, 4).


How does this dance, this nascent ethno-feminism fit into how the Nagina were raised? What we really wanted to ask was, "How do you become a Nagina?"

Nagina (and now we use the word as a metaphor for diasporic identity for young Indian girls) are born in the diaspora. The diaspora is a space of uncertainty where certainties must be assumed for survival. It is a space of contradiction, that begins in childhood, with their mothers and their mother-cultures.

"It is not just that mothers and mother-cultures often raise their daughters with contradictory messages, but also that they often seem unaware of these contradictions. They give voice to the hardships and difficulties of being a woman that have marked their lives, teaching us the limitations and miseries of the routine fates that await us as women, while also resisting our attempts to deviate from these cultural scripts" (Narayan 1997, 8)

For the Nagina the cultural scripts begin early. As a Nagina in the audience put it,

"I think Indian girls are just expected to take part in, like, dances, you know. I've being doing diya (candle) dances and dandia and raas and bhangra (all Indian folk dances) since I can remember."

These scripts, then, are provided via a gendered vision of the community, as an easy socialization into becoming an Indian girl. As another Nagina in the audience put it:

"I think Indian girls want to learn these because everybody in their community is doing it, all the other girls their age. I don't know if I had that many Indian friends growing up, except through my family and the community, and it was expected for us to learn, and the older girls taught us — not the ones our mothers' age — but the ones in between…I can see myself teaching some of this one day."

It seems to us that the Nagina and the Sapera are both performing and teaching a dance. A dance that functions simultaneously as the cultural preservation of an imagined Indian-ness (As the Sapera put it, "You know everyday Indian culture is being lost and we don't even know it") and as a celebration of their own hybridity and cultural politics. To repeat:

"Yeah. Defiantly. It is about our sexuality. You know we can do something Indian and it's appreciated and we can have fun."

We may also then presume that the dance is a political enterprise. An attempt to publicly and in concert with others, challenge and revise an account

"that is neither the account of an individual nor an account of the culture as a whole, but an account of some who have power within the culture…Both mothers and mother-cultures often inspire the same sorts of complicated emotional responses from their daughters — love and fear, the desire to repudiate and the desire to understand and be understood, a sense of deep connection and a desperate desire for distance" (Narayan, 1997, 9).


We think with the future of the Nagina in mind: Everything is not as it should be.

Our ambivalence is complete. If, the Nagina are right and it's not only about sex, and if their dance is about the introduction of difference into the formation of identity for Indian girls, a temporal question lingers: How much longer can this continue? This dance appears at a liminal space in their lives where these diasporic women (to be) may

"dare to mix, dare to cross the borders to introduce into language — verbal, visual, musical — everything monologism has repressed" (Trinh 1991, 14). But Trinh also points out that current identities are a "way of de-parting. And that identity may very well speak its plurality without suppressing its singularity" (Ibid).

Perhaps that singularity lies ahead: Marriage, children, the other in the self, the future where the rock of essentialism and withdrawal offers certain moorings. Or is it a future where

"identity is doubled, tripled, multiplied across time (generations) and space (cultures), where differences keep blooming within despite rejections from without" (Ibid).

These differences are what the Nagina must deal with; with the Sapera that one day they may marry; with those cultural presences, where diasporic

"domestic ideologies are constantly re-worked through gender (Stivens 1998, 4), where "women carry the burden of their family's honor" (Robinson 1998, 70).

It is in that space that the Nagina must dance.


1. The dancers performing the Nagina dance were all undergraduate students. Their ages between 17-19, they were born and raised in the U.S. South. Their Indian ethnicities were Gujarati and Bengali (for the two women dancers) and Punjabi (for the male dancer). Gujarati, Bengali and Punjabi refer to state/region-based identities in the Indian context.

All of the participants and the audience members interviewed had considerable familiarity with Hindi film music, and it made up an important component of the popular culture mix that they were raised in. In addition to Hindi film music, this mixture included U.S. mainstream pop, Indian classical music and dance, and regional (Indian) music and performance. The dance participants and the audience members emphasized that within this pop culture mix, the most important one was Hindi film music, both in its original score and in its re-mixes by DJ's in America and Britain.

2. "India Night" is an annual celebration of Indian culture, arts and identity and heritage put together by three populations: international students from India, first-generation Indian American students, and the local Indian community, consisting of older immigrants. Our study has focused on not only the text of the actual program over the last four years but also how "India Night" has become a site for the struggle to define cultural identity, authenticity and agency amongst the three populations. This paper examines some of the dynamics around gender, diaspora and performance for the first generation Indian American students.

3. The audience members interviewed have been across all three populations. This paper uses transcripts from interviews with students representing the first generation Indian American students. The students were all between the ages of 17-21. Both the dancers and the audience members belong to large immigrant South Asian communities living in larger cities of Georgia (Atlanta, Augusta, etc). The cultural milieu they grew up in can be referred to "diasporic traditionalism" with a heavy diet of family-based cultural gatherings, participation in cultural/religious festivals, gatherings for dinner at Indian restaurants. Many of the young people have made visits to India Most of them will marry within their regional and religious community, although dating with white Americans is increasingly common. In their lives as students, the role of the Indian American student association is central. The association provides community, allows for the development of interpersonal relationships and further socialization into their specific world: that of Indian hybridity in the white U.S. south.

4. By ethno-feminist politics, we refer to the primary placement of cultural ethnicity as a mode of identity articulation in a diasporic context. Our position aims at articulating the terms of feminist ethnicity drawing on recent post-colonial feminist scholarship with its emphasis on non-eurocentricity, multiple mediations, hybridity and displacement (Amos and Parmar, 1984, Grewal and Kaplan, 1994, Sen and Stivens 1998, Shaipe 1993, Trinh 1991).

5. Theoretically, we draw on debates around writing, subjectivity and representation within cultural studies. This literary turn can be traced in ethnographic writing to Clifford and Marcus (1986) framing of ethnography as real fiction. Recent work has focused on examining the role of the writer/ ethnographer in the practice of research itself (Krieger 1991, Ashley, Gilmore and Peters, 1994, Ellis and Flaherty, 1992) and to specific placement of these issues for post-colonial scholars (Chow 1993, Rosaldo 1989, Bhabha 1994).

Byway of "methodological" justification for our experimental style there already exists a tradition of marrying literary analysis to ethnography. For a theoretical history see the work of Denzin (1997) Our writing strategy draws heavily from the work of Kohn (1998, 1999) whose method can perhaps best be called "stripping," the placement of differing theoretical, textual and ethnographic materials in "strips" that allows for an open interpretative act. Kohn's method is polyvocal and allows for an interpretative flow that draws from the multiple connections that a reading of his various strips allow. They work simultaneously to identify differing contexts for interpretation (textual, ethnographic) and reinterpret those contexts through juxtaposition of the various transcripts and theoretical material. Most importantly, the burden of analysis appears to be placed on the interpretative act (by the reader) rather than in the act of representation (by the writer).

6. By "FOB" we mean, fresh off the boat, a term used by both older international Indian students and second generation Indian Americans to refer to newly arrived Indians. By "New-Delhi raised," we mean our location within a general cultural space, that of third world cosmopolitanism and within a specific cosmopolitanism marked by the regional, linguistic and class based diacritical signs of Indians growing up in New Delhi in the 1970s. The reference to Paul Anka is one such diacritical sign, marking a mode of western cultural consumption that predates contemporary western mediation in India, which is marked by satellite television. By "second generation writing culture bred," we are speaking to our professional training in Cultural Anthropology, Sociology and Cultural Studies which has been profoundly influenced by Clifford and Marcus' Writing Culture (1986).

7. Why did this film-style eroticized dancing shock us? The answer is two fold. The first two are those of class and gender. A middle class upbringing in India brings with it a certain ideology towards popular culture. This ideology sees eroticized Hindi film dances and its female performers as having entertainment value but not cultural worth or moral value. Our shock can then be read as an articulation of this Indian middle class ideology onto middle class Indian American students, for whom the contexts of performance are not the class and gender relations in India but the diaspora.

The second reason for our shock has to do with immigration. Here our shock value lay in what we as immigrants felt was passing for "Indian Culture." In place of classical dance, music, fiction or art, there was the all-consuming celebration of Hindi film-based popular culture.

In explicating such a personal reason for a research project, we are saying this: that subjectivity in research is centered, and it is political. In attempting to work through our reactions, we are both illuminating the politics of location in research work and fulfilling "proper" ethnographic goals: to describe the diasporic moment. This diasporic moment we learned can be understood by looking at how classical, folk culture and dance are mobilized by and mediated through Hindi cinema. Hindi cinema dominates diasporic community spaces and is appropriated by the Indian American generation asserting its national identity in a transnational context. This appropriation is accompanied by re-interpretation and representation of texts that at once resist the original, while also borrowing from and creolizing dominant codes of the culture the diaspora inhabits.


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