I love the littlest Shivashankar…

Kavya meets the President!

…contender-to-watch Vanya, so sassy in her blue and black frock. I can’t help it. She’s the reason why I’m writing this post. Well, that and because luminous Mutineer Nilanjana tweeted the link to this picture— and had she not made like a virtual, social-media bird, I would have never seen such a delightful image of last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, Kavya Shivashankar (on the left), meeting the President, with her family proudly beside her. Continue reading

Janina Opens The Gates

Remember how years ago we were all crushing on Janina Gavankar‘s alter web search engine persona, Ms. Dewey? Well she’s back, and this time she’s bringing it with full force, singing AND acting.

No word on if Janina’s working on an album, but it sounds like this Kanye cover was just a one off project. But I did learn that she was part of girl group Endera, which was signed on to the Cash Money Universal label. Which means, technically, she was the first Desi signed to the label, not Jay Sean. A singer and an actress, you may also recognize Janina from the L-Word where she played “Papi.” Her face will be all over your prime time television soon too – Janina is now playing police officer Leigh Turner on the new series vampire/werewolf/bump-in-night suburban drama The Gates which started last week.

I play Leigh Turner [on The Gates]. She’s a cop who is very good at her job but she has a pretty dark secret that she keeps to herself. The secret is rad, I couldn’t have guessed it in a million years…

> I think there is a small crop of us who are working just because we are good, not because we are good Indians. I am building a career on being as good as I possibly can be. I don’t want people to say, “She is a great Indian actress.” Like, you don’t say, “She is a great white actress,” or “She is a great black actress.” No one is saying that shit. There are a bunch of us who believe in this. Just be dope. I am just excited for the next generation where color doesn’t matter and they will be allowed to just be artists. The arts in general are just a huge part of the culture. [[complex](http://www.complex.com/blogs/2010/06/21/open-up-the-gates-actress-janina-gavankar-speaks/)] What do you think? Has Janina locked you down? Continue reading

Tipping Point? Haley’s journey nearly complete.

Nikki Haley’s victory Tuesday in the Republican primary battle for the South Carolina Governor’s mansion is symbolic of the huge strides that South Asian Americans have made in the past six years. I say this completely agnostic as to what kind of person or leader she will be or which policies she supports. You don’t have to support her politics one bit to pause and appreciate the demographic and historical significance of Tuesday’s victory. 2010 is a year in which a “raghead” is a few months away from being elected the chief executive of South Carolina. Something has fundamentally shifted. In 2004 when I wrote about Nikki on SM I did so in a post which cited Dalip Singh Saund in the title. He was the lone anomaly in Indian-American history.

So like, what’s up with South Carolina? Not widely recognized (at least by this blogger) as being a bastion of minority politics, all of a sudden South Carolina is the place to be if you are South Asian and have your eyes on the prize. Earlier this year, you may recall that Nikki Randhawa-Haley, 32, won the Republican Primary in South Carolina?s House District 87 and was to run unopposed in the November election. [SM]

Today Saund is no longer an anomaly but a harbinger:

The Republican Party stepped away from its long and uncomfortable history of racial and ethnic politics in South Carolina on Tuesday, nominating an Indian American woman for governor and an African American man for the House…

Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, overwhelmingly captured the GOP gubernatorial nomination over Rep. J. Gresham Barrett — despite a whisper campaign insinuating that she is not really a Christian, as she says she is. And in the 1st Congressional District, Tim Scott, a black state lawmaker from Charleston, convincingly defeated Charleston County Council member Paul Thurmond, a son of the late senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Barrett and Thurmond are white. [WaPo]

A commentator in the Baltimore Sun was exultant this afternoon. He even invoked spelling bees, ivy league schools, and Kal Penn:

… the next decade is set to be the Indian-American decade. Second generation Indian-Americans are building on their parents’ success and achieving in diverse fields. From Ms. Haley’s political success (she is the likely Republican nominee for governor of South Carolina) to prime-time TV, its hard to miss the rise of Indian-Americans.

As late as the 1990s, there was only one notable Indian-American character on TV, a cartoon character, Apu on “The Simpsons.” From the lovable, Slurpee-peddling Apu, we now have an Indian-American on a major TV show each night of the week. From Mindy Kaling on “The Office” to Naveen Andrews on “Lost” to Aziz Ansari on “Parks and Recreation” to Kunal Nayyar on “Big Bang Theory,” Indian-Americans are suddenly everywhere.Indian-Americans don’t just win elections; they win national spelling bees, including 9 of the last 25. Indian-Americans have also taken home three Nobel Prizes. At any Ivy League school, more than 5 of the population is Indian-American, quadruple the share of the national population. [BaltSun]
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Henna Banned in New Jersey!

henna2.jpgWhat’s a Jersey Desi girl to do without her “henna tattoo”? The New Jersey Legislature today passed a bill, A940, which would prohibits application of certain temporary tattoos. (h/t inothernews). I was surprised that all hell didn’t break loose from the Jersey Desi Bridezilla population who had to rework the activity on their Mehndi night. Then I read the legislation.

Assembly Bill No. 940 prohibits body art establishments from applying temporary tattoos containing paraphenylenediamine (PPD), including “black or blue henna…

[U]nlike traditional henna which is made from an organic, plant substance, certain temporary tattoos contain additives, in some cases, PPD which can unknowingly cause permanent health concerns and scarring. Long term effects include severe dermatitis, eye irritation and tearing, asthma, gastritis, renal failure, vertigo, tremors, convulsions and coma in humans…PPD is not approved for direct application to the skin. [njleg]

Phew! Y’all can relax.The ban is only on the black henna w/ PPD, not the traditional organic mehndi made from smashing up henna leaves. Though the South Asian subcontinent henna leaves all leave a deep red dying of the skin, the traditional black henna comes from Africa and the Middle East. It turns out black henna isn’t even derived from the same plant as regular henna is.

“Black Henna” is a misnomer arising from imports of plant-based hair dyes into the West in the late 19th century. Partly fermented, dried indigo was called “black henna” because it could be used in combination with henna to dye hair black. This gave rise to the belief that there was such a thing as “black henna” which could dye skin black. Indigo will not dye skin black.[wiki]

The lesson here, Mutiny? Don’t use henna/mehndi unless it is pure and natural, the kind from the motherland. And never get yourself tattooed at one of those beach side tattoo places. Desi, please. Everything-is-Indian Uncle now has another story to add to his list. Continue reading

Desis Run to The Hill

Over the weekend, the AP did a piece on the record number of Indian-Americans running for office in November, a topic I covered well before the primary season here.

Meet Reshma, Surya, Manan, Raj, Ami, Ravi, Nimrata and Kamala — a new wave of Indian-American politicians. At least eight children of Indian immigrants are running for Congress or statewide office, the most ever. [yahoo]


  • Reshma Saujani – New York, 14th Congressional District: She’s still up for her primary.
  • Surya Yalamanchili – Ohio, 2nd Congressional District: He won his Democratic primary.
  • Manan Trivedi – Pennsylvania, 6th Congressional District: He won his Democratic primary.
  • Raj Goyle – Kansas, 4th Congressional District
  • Ami Bera – California, 3rd Congressional District
  • Ravi Sangisetty – Louisiana, 3rd Congressional District
  • Nimrata “Nikki” Haley – South Carolina Governor: She (almost) won her Republican primary. Runoff on June 22nd.
  • Kamala Harris – CA Attorney General: She won the Democratic primary.

The article debates that the perceived assimilation of candidates into white American culture in an effort to get elected.

Yet when Haley’s motives are questioned and some suggest Indians must become less “foreign” to get elected, many of these new candidates are quick to ask: Who are we to judge the mashup of American ambition with an ancient culture?

> Manan Trivedi, a doctor and Iraq war veteran who recently won a Democratic primary for Congress in eastern Pennsylvania, said he did not view his ethnicity as a handicap: “The American electorate is smarter than that.”[[yahoo](http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100619/ap_on_re_us/us_indian_american_politicians)] He goes on to ask the question we at Sepia Mutiny ask time and time again…. > Christianity is a more critical issue for white Republicans than other groups — could a Hindu who worships multiple gods, or a turbaned Sikh who doesn’t cut his hair, survive a statewide Republican primary in the Bible Belt?[ [yahoo](http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100619/ap_on_re_us/us_indian_american_politicians)] Continue reading

Let’s Fly First Class


Objects are like people: they can tell you where they come from. I count objects that look desi. Look at the plane above. You have probably seen that art on trucks in places like Lahore or Ludhiana. It might be two in the afternoon. It is hot and dry around you, the man selling sugarcane juice is sleeping in the shade of a tree, and there’s no one else around. Your shadow is the smallest you’ve ever seen in your life. And then a truck comes to a stop beside you. The exhaust pours out as if from a chimney in a brick kiln. If you look past it, however, you see painted on the side of the truck, a landscape that includes snowy peaks, colorful huts, cool skies, fields brimming with flowers that will live longer even than plastic. Folk utopia!

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Elmo-wielding Terrorist Toddler Stars in Security Theater

I live in Washington, D.C.

10967282_3799e75522_m.jpg I have lived here since I moved to this great city from my native California in 1999, to attend graduate school. Back then, I went home at least twice a year; between Priceline.com’s $125 roundtrip fares and living three miles from Reagan National Airport, flying to NorCal was as easy as taking the “Metroliner” to New York City. I loved traveling. I loved the excitement, the anticipation, the permission I gave myself to buy mind-rotting magazines and over-priced candy from Hudson News, right before sauntering up to my gate.

Then, everything changed.

Traveling was no longer glamorous and thrilling, it was fraught and terrifying. Was it going to happen again? How could we stop it? How do you protect a massive, liberty-loving nation from crazed zealots who are willing to sacrifice their own lives for some twisted ideal?

Security. Lots and lots of security.

Lining up to be screened for hidden box-cutters or submitting to more thorough searches through our baggage made sense. We were trying to protect this country. We kept repeating, “Never again.” But somewhere between justifiable caution and utterly comprehensible fear, common sense was lost. What replaced it was an obtuse over-reliance on the obvious– but not your obvious or mine, no. It was the “obviousness” of the ignorant which suddenly became a battering ram of blunt discrimination used to profile, persecute and pervert. Continue reading

In Conversation With Vijay Iyer, Part II

Yesterday, you saw Part I of my conversation with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer (who, by the way, is playing at Birdland again tonight!). Herewith, Part II!

Video of Vijay Iyer Trio’s version of M.I.A.’s “Galang”

Vijay Iyer Trio’s award-winning album, “Historicity

VVG: What does it mean to be someone not only interested in making art, but also in articulating what it means? How did you get into writing? In a dialogue with your longtime collaborator, the saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, you talk about being accused of being “full of words and full of himself.” (I have some sympathy with this, having once been described as “fast-talking.”) You say, “But I felt like, either frame the discourse with your own language, or else let them take it over and completely misrepresent you.” Does this get at why you chose to take on writing as another facet of your career? To what extent do you feel that you are required to explain yourself, your philosophies of work and your work itself more because you are South Asian?

VI: I didn’t frame myself as a writer at first, but I’ve been publishing things here and there, first in academic journals, then in anthologies, then in some online media, and then in print magazines. Most of it has been by invitation, and the last few times I even got paid, so I guess that clinches it!

But seriously, I think the space where I’ve strived to produce specific discourse about identity was in the liner notes to my albums. I’ve always taken this task upon myself, sometimes to people’s dismay. (The “words and himself” quote was from a prominent jazz critic who actually likes my music.) I think of it as a textual counterpoint to an album, or as a letter to the future. But also it’s a rare opportunity to reach a captive audience; people don’t necessarily intend to read anything when they buy an album, but now they’re going to have those words in their hands every time they take the CD off the shelf. (At least that used to be the case when people still bought and listened to cd’s!) So it becomes a way to reach thousands of people over many years. People who revisit the music will at some point revisit the words.

I did find that I had to contextualize the music and my relationship to it. For all the rhetoric of tolerance and inclusiveness, there are some things that just don’t go down easy for Americans, and a South Asian American jazz composer-pianist is one of those things. It also doesn’t go down easy for jazz audiences, or other South Asians, or for people in general!

It’s never enough just to solve the problem internally for yourself. You’re always encountering people who are at some other point in the journey of awareness, and so you are constantly re-solving it for someone else. So that discourse becomes pretty crucial; fragments of it are going to keep coming back into the conversation. Continue reading

In Conversation With Vijay Iyer, Part I

Speekenbrink_HighRes_01.jpg photo by Hans Speekenbrink

Acclaimed jazz musician Vijay Iyer’s trio put out an amazing album last year. Historicity got terrific reviews. And the Jazz Journalists’ Association just named him Musician of the Year!

I have the album and love it and wanted to chat with him for the Mutiny; he was gracious enough to agree, and so here, in the first of two parts, is our conversation (which we did online).

(Tracks that are likely of special interest to some Mutiny readers: This track, a cover of M.I.A.’s “Galang,” has deservedly gotten lots of attention. An earlier album, Tragicomic, features a track called “Macaca Please.”

VVG: It’s been so exciting for me to watch your success, especially this year with “Historicity.” My older brother and I both played tenor saxophone relatively seriously when we were younger… Today, coincidentally, I am going to practice again for the first time in years! Your website describes you as “self-taught.” How do you teach yourself/practice? What’s your routine/process? How does your day as a musician work (when you’re not touring)?

VI: Thanks, Sugi! I am honored.

I’ve mostly grown musically over the years by trying new things. Sometimes that means trying to work through some existing musical idea that challenges me, and doing it very slowly; other times it’s about composing challenges for myself to try to play; still other times it’s through collaboration with others, whether in my area of music, in other areas of music, in other artistic fields like poetry, film, and theater, and even in less arts-oriented disciplines like the sciences. I don’t have much of a routine because I find every day is different – but my basic way of learning anything is by working on something for long enough that it’s not “practicing” anymore. As a player, I mostly practice being spontaneous; I practice improvising.

As for my day-to-day when I’m home, I spend an unwanted number of hours each day on business matters – emails, phone calls, paperwork, logistics. But I manage to make music every day, either playing or composing. And I spend as much time with my family as I can, especially my 5-year-old daughter. Continue reading

Artwallah’s Afterlife – June 18 to June 20th

artwallah_logo_w-on-b.jpg For Southern Californians who are making plans for the weekend – you should know, there has been a revival. Artwallah is back and though it is not as grandiose as the weekend long festival of yester years, the line-up this year seems pretty boss. It is the tenth anniversary festival, and long time Los Angeles residents will remember what an iconic event this festival once used to be.

North America’s decade-old, internationally renowned arts festival of the South Asian diaspora will present the freshest Cultural-Art-Collision on June 18th to 20th 2010 at the venerable Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.

> Co-presented by The South Asian Artists Collective and Highways, the tenth anniversary festival celebrates the theme of “Afterlife” with a presentation of original artist collaborations and multi-disciplinary performance – and an engaging children’s program for families. Tickets are now available online at www.highwaysperformance.org or via the Highways box office at 310-315-1459.[[artwallah](http://artwallah.southasianartists.org/)] Artists on the line-up The Pieces, [MadGuru’s screening of Gul](http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/006079.html), a dance piece by [Shyamala Moorty](http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/005847.html), comedic songs by[ Rasika Mathur](http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/006080.html), reading by Shilpa Agarwal (Haunting Bombay), and many, many more. There is also a gallery exhibit featuring “Thums Up N Up”, an installation by Yatin Parkhani. And on Sunday, there’s a children’s program with a yoga/comedy improv class and bhangra dance class. There’s a little bit of something, for everyone. Abhi and I will both be making it out to this amazing event. I hope you’ll be able to make it too, L.A.! Continue reading