The only highlight of my otherwise monotonous and lackluster Saturday was a musician from Toronto playing the sitar at the Kitchener City Hall. Wielding the ancient Indian instrument, he was strumming the tunes of the ever-popular Beatles “within you, without you.” Thousands of years of evolution in Indian culture gave him the ability to have a hard mix of the products of two cultures and present a performance enjoyed by many.
Attended by the Indian diaspora residing in Kitchener-Waterloo, it was an afternoon of pomp and dance, food and festivals at the annual mela (fair) held by the India-Canada association of Waterloo region. The function had its fair share of entertainment, seminars, food and vendors selling everything from chai to chappals. Though the crowd was mostly of Indian origin, there was no lack of people who were neither Indian nor maintained a link to the culture of the country.
This event allowed Indo-Canadians to exhibit their arts, customs and traditions to the Kitchener-Waterloo region. By showing their cultural attributes, the diaspora demonstrated its soft power. The notion of soft power is relatively new in academic discourse. Coined by renowned Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., soft power defines the influence and attractiveness that a nation acquires when others are drawn to its culture and ideas. “It enables a nation to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion.” The subtle effects of culture, values, and opinions rather than more coercive and intimidating military force or economic incentive represent soft power. It allows India and the Indo-Canadian diaspora the ability to exhibit a palimpsest of creeds, culture, colours, customs, costumes and consonants for which the nation is renowned.
Something that caught my attention in the mela was the regional diversity of the Indo-Canadian diaspora present. The Indo-Canadian diaspora cannot be considered as a unified population. The regional differences in India and its populace are quite apparent. The overseas Indians emigrate from a land of 28 states and seven union territories, each of them having different and distinct traditions and languages. In many cases Indians adhering to different religions while living in the same state/region speak the same language, and peculiar but syncretic histories allow them to follow very similar traditions. As an example, a Hindu from the southern state of Tamil Nadu is linguistically and traditionally closer to a Muslim from the same state than a Hindu from the northern state of Punjab. The two have the ability to speak in Tamil, while the Hindu from the north parlays in Punjabi. If anything, the Punjabi Hindu maintains a closer linguistic and traditional link to Muslims from Pakistan.
The Waterloo mela demonstrated the soft power projected by the Indo-Canadian diaspora. However, an interesting query that emerges is that given the regionalism in India, and its overseas population in Canada, does the diaspora associate itself with the country, or the state to which emigrants originally belong? It can be argued that apart from Bollywood movies, which maintain the ability to tie in Indo-Canadians of all creed and cultures, Indian soft power is arguably spatially splintered. Many immigrants associate themselves not with the products of the country, but with that of the state or region to which they originally belong. Jazzy B, a Punjabi DJ only relatively famous in India, draws packed crowds in Punjabi dominated communities of Surrey and Brampton in Canada. Similarly, Tamil movies produced in South India, despite having a pan-Indian star cast, appeal mostly to people of Tamil origin. This diffusion of regional identities in the mela was quite apparent.
At the Waterloo fair, the performers and vendors were mostly of Gujarati origin. Therefore, the food, though considered pan-Indian, had a Gujarati culinary twist to it. The Bhangra performers were identifiably Punjabis, and so were the people offering typical north Indian Punjabi fare. People from South India, who account for one of the largest crowds of the Indo-Canadian diaspora in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, maintained an surprisingly minimal presence at this event.
After attending the mela, I have a few questions, many to which I do not have an answer. What exactly was the diaspora projecting through the fair? And whose culture and traditions are being projected? Has Gujarati soft power substituted for Indian soft power in this case? Though the diaspora seemed to be united under the banner of the India-Canada association, were they displaying their state or their national identity? It is hard to answer such questions by visiting merely one event. To pursue this line of questioning, I intend to go to the forthcoming Tamil Cultural Night in Waterloo to ask some new questions and uncover some more answers about soft power and the Indian Diaspora. For this mission I will consume more regional foods and cultural performances in the name of research. It is a hard job, but someone needs to do it.
Huzan Dordi is a master’s student working with Dr Walton-Roberts in the department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Huzan aims to understand how India’s ‘soft power’ is projected through the Indian diaspora.