Foreign Returned: Between Expatriate and Repatriate in Mumbai
Published in Artlink, Issue 38 No. 3, p. 44–49
Byculla is a neighbourhood in South Mumbai, the fourth station on the central railway line. A century ago, when the megalopolis of Mumbai was the seven islands of Bombay, Byculla was won from the sea as part of the great reclamation scheme. I find my exact location on a series of topographic maps displayed at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, Mumbai, ten minutes from the railway station, through the city’s largest vegetable market, and into the grounds shared by the museum and the zoo. These surrounds, I see on the maps, would have once been an extension to the fishing island of Mazagaon.
I have come to the museum in Byculla to see a contemporary art exhibition, but I am distracted. In this magnificent Victorian‑style treasure house, opened in 1857 as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the exhibition is dotted in‑between and amongst the collection. The space plays like a mixed tape, skipping casually between art and artefact with a few lovely and distracting digressions. Beyond Transnationalism: The Legacy of Post Independent Art from South Asia curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala occupies the foyer on both floors and the discreet rooms in the four corners of the building. The exhibition brings together seventeen South Asian artists from the United States who reconfigure the discussion of diaspora away from notions of nostalgia, dislocation and longing. As a whole, it points to the difficulty of describing lived experiences with the metanarratives of home, belonging or identity, instead looking for a new language, “beyond transnationalism,’’ to make sense of boundary‑crossing activities and affiliations.
It is a difficult task to talk about the swirling movements of people across boundaries and borders. There are many differing descriptors available, each with its own historical specificity. When is it appropriate to talk in terms of diaspora, and when is the more recent term “transnational” better suited? And what about the postcolonial hybrid or the post‑modern hyphen? In India’s case, as a country with the largest diaspora in the contemporary world, the figure of the “foreign returned” finds common currency to describe the émigrés who return. Seeing Beyond Transnationalism in my own fleeting visit to the country of my origins prompts me to think closely about these terms, and about different artists who work within their definitions, and how I might myself figure within them.
Like the movement of the people it signifies, diaspora is a concept that has travelled in vernacular use. It originally represented the historic experience of Jews and Armenians, and was later extended to refer to religious minorities in Europe. Since the 1970s, it has acquired an expanded use. Firstly, from the Greek root of the word diaspeirein, it refers to a “scattering across” of people, and it includes both forced and voluntary dispersals, from indentured labourers to labour migrants. Secondly, it refers to a group of people with the shared experience of a real or imagined homeland, the links to a place held in common by people across borders. Thirdly, it refers to the cultural or religious distinctiveness of a minority group, their identifiable difference. This also includes the discussion of hybridity, and the degrees of cultural assimilation and dissemination of the diaspora.
In the context of my other home in Auckland, artist Bepen Bhana is one of the most intriguing contributors to discussions of the South Asian diaspora. His practice takes a lead from childhood engagement with popular culture, which helped to shape his own cultural identity through the representations that were available to him in the 1970s and 1980s. A series of paintings from 2013, for example, recasts members of the TV series The Brady Bunch. Portraits of this quintessentially white‑American family show them smiling and sporting large tilak (Hindu caste markings) on their foreheads. In other series, he plays on the collective memories of diasporic identity formation with works referencing Basil Brush to Bollywood. Bhana’s forthcoming project centres on Sajid Khan, a young Muslim Indian who was relocated from Bombay to Beverly Hills in the 1960s to embark upon a singing and acting career. Between the mid‑to‑late 1960s and early 1970s, Khan developed a vast fan base of American teenage girls, cementing his status as a teen‑idol. He graced the covers and pages of teen magazines like 16, Tiger Beat, DATEbook, FaVe! and Teen Life, and shared pin‑up status and column inches with the likes of The Beatles, Jim Morrison, The Monkees, and Elvis Presley. By the early 1970s, Khan’s time as a Hollywood celebrity came to an end. He returned to India, and after a period working in Hindi cinema, he vanished from the public radar altogether. Through this project, Bhana unpacks discussions of orientalism and commodification in relation to Sajid Khan, effectively critiquing the West’s superficial and fleeting interest in the Other, in India and Indian religions. Arguably, the defining character of Bhana’s artistic practice could be seen in relation to geographic distance, which is also the fraught position from which he exercises the ability to observe the processes of cultural hybridity and cultural appropriation.
For artists with purse and profile that allows them cross‑border mobility, the idea of diaspora is perhaps not a particularly useful framework for discussion. Artist biographies which describe their subjects as “dividing their time” between cities like New York and New Delhi are all too common. If the term diaspora emphasises migratory flight and distance, then the concept of transnationalism refers to a person’s durable ties across this plane. It suggests cross‑border mobility, and refers to “all sorts of social formations, such as transnationally active networks, groups and organisations.” Transnationalism as an ideology suggests a field transcending territorial identities or nation‑state boundaries.
Back at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum in Mumbai, I encounter the work of artist Shelly Bahl. On a curved wall at entrance of the Museum hang two rolls of wallpaper with pen and ink drawings of a performer. An accompanying framed print, a video and a vitrine of archival documents disclose that it is the “exotic Indian singer of popular American tunes, Amru Sani.” Like many of the artists in Beyond Transnationalism, Bahl’s artistic practice responds to the unnatural descriptors in her biography that attempt to describe her ties to multiple places, to Benares, Toronto and New York, cities in which she was born, raised, and where she now resides. Her mixed‑media installation is titled International Woman of Mystery II: Amru Sani (2017–18) and is part of a series in which the artist reimagines the lives of historical transcultural women.
Amru Sani was an Indo‑Caribbean jazz singer and actress who performed internationally in the 1940s–60s, and who, at the height of her fame, disappeared. Bahl’s earlier exhibitions for the International Woman of Mystery series (2008–10) included four other cultural interlopers and cinematic stars: Helen (Helen Richardson Khan, Burma‑born Hindi film actress and dancer), Yoshiko Yamaguchi (Li Xianglan, Chinese‑born Japanese actress and singer), Anna Leonowens (Anglo‑Indian travel writer, educator and social activist), and Merle Oberon (Anglo‑Indian actress). What makes each an “international woman of mystery” is not only their racial ambiguity or some of their sudden disappearances, but their cultural multiplicity. In her lifetime, Amru Sani moved between cultural margins and occupied the hyphenated spaces between Indian, Caribbean and American. “Words such as Indian and American are abstract to begin with,” poet Jeet Thayil remarks, “[and] when they are put together they become a double abstraction joined by a hyphen.”
The flow of people across continents in recent years has produced a particular migration chronotype of which I am a part. “Foreign returned” is the Indian English idiom to describe the return of an émigré. The vernacular phrase encompasses both recent returnees and “counter‑diasporic migrants,” those returning after multiple generations in another country. The foreign returned form a surprising trend because they directly counter the mythology of success for many upwardly‑mobile young Indians whose idea of success is tied‑up with Silicon Valley and the Green Card lottery. Hindi‑language films such as Prashant Nair’s Umrika or Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss depict how the mythology of the “Umrikan [American] dream” unfurls in the imaginations of some people in India.
As a counter to these narratives of desire, there are “foreign returnees” such as Urvashi Goverdhan who voice their reasons for forgoing the American dream. Goverdhan’s video, which has been viewed more than eight‑hundred thousand times on YouTube, cites a loss of community and a sense of dislocation to describe her decision to return to Bengaluru after seven years in Atlanta. In Hindi cinema, the most popular example of the foreign returned is Mohan Bhargava from Swades. The film’s title translates in English to “own country,” and centres on the counter migration of the successful NASA scientist stoked by his longing for the homeland.
For other foreign returnees, the return is ontological. It is a return to the land of ancestors, a recovery of origins. The Indo‑Fijian‑Australian artist Shivanjani Lal has been living in Mumbai for a year. “It’s a strange situation I am in,” Lal says reflecting on her move to Mumbai in 2017, “I have money relative to others, and this wealth means I can move through the city in ways others can’t ... one where I am both visible and invisible, I am both powerful and powerless. I can’t really speak the language, only fragments, but I can understand it. I can hide in plain sight, I can pretend. I look like everyone around me, but I was born in Fiji.”
In her performance, में यहाँ नहीं हुँ (I am not here), Lal erases the nation‑state boundaries of where she is from on a political map. Performed in 2016 for Offstage 7 at Artspace in Auckland, she begins erasing her home country Australia, then Fiji where she was born, and finally her ancestral place of origin, India. It is a ritual of renewal through erasure, through doing away with what each place and movement between each territory might imply. But Lal’s quote is not to make a fetish of unbelonging, the idea of not belonging anywhere; rather, it is that Lal’s artistic practice speaks to the discomforts of accumulated movement and generations of cross‑border mobility.
Lal’s performance bears a familial resemblance to one of the most striking images of the exhibition at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which is Jaret Vadera’s 2014 map titled No Country from the Pangea Series. Using a black marker on a political world map, Vadera erases all indicators of countries and continents. Through this act, the work celebrates ambivalence, or as Vadera likes to frame it, “multivalence—a state of being that becomes comfortable for those who learn to navigate their intersectional identities on their own terms. His work inhabits a fluid field where an either/or, us‑versus‑them, divide‑and‑conquer mindset is of little value, one where new possibilities are always on the horizon and personal agency reigns supreme.”
There are countless other ways in which the axes of belonging cut across territories, geographies and locations. In the vicinity of Vadera’s work, I contemplate artist Zarina Hashmi’s 36 woodblock prints, each of which presents a geometric monochromatic design titled Home Is a Foreign Place. To make these images, Hashmi listed Urdu words for axis, distance, road, wall, and so on. She sent the list to a calligrapher in Pakistan, who wrote them in the traditional Nastaʿlīq script, which in her New York studio, she developed what she has described as “idea images, which flowed from these words.” The resulting images serve as a visual vocabulary to express ideas of home, memory, and loss. “I understood from a very early age that home is not necessarily a permanent place,” Hashmi said. “It is an idea we carry with us wherever we go. We are our homes.”
As for myself, I will be heading back to Auckland in a few weeks’ time. I am not a foreign returnee, at least not for the moment; instead, I go between the idea of being an expatriate and repatriate in this city of Mumbai. It is both a belonging and unbelonging as I move between the two cities, weaving myself into the fabric of each.