Once confined largely to India and surrounding South Asian countries, languages have started to spread around the world, along with its speakers. People from India have travelled to the US in the past half century in search of economic opportunities, and in so doing have brought Indian languages with them. Regardless of one’s relation to Indian culture and its linguistic and religious diversity, it is virtually impossible to escape its influence in the US.
Open a newspaper every morning and one can find an article regarding India’s role as an up and coming economic and cultural force in the world. Turn on the television and one can find entire TV shows related to India. Even the radio blares Indo-Western Punjabi music on a daily basis. In order for one to fully understand and take part in the global phenomenon of India’s rise, it is necessary to comprehend Indian culture which is intrinsically tied to Hindi, the third most widely spoken language in the world.
Historically, India’s cultural attributes have found their way to America in the form of exoticism, and in recent years this fabricated image of India has been amplified by virtue of Hindi’s exposure in American film media like the 2004 sci-fi television series Lost. Much of the story of Lost revolves around the journey of a stranded crew of plane passengers on a mysterious lost island.
Naturally, the island happens to be steeped in ancient Indian-inspired architecture and, more significantly, features common Hindi phrases like “dharma” and “Namaste”. Clearly, this is not a wide range of vocabulary; nonetheless, it is the mystic, fundamentally bizarre character with which Hindi is portrayed that arguably condemns the language as merely a means for enthusing the show’s viewers.
Mainstream Western artistes like the Beatles have critically influenced the American audience’s perception of Hindi via integration of Hindi lyrics into their songs. In 1968, Beatles guitarist John Lennon composed a pop song named “Across the Universe,” which draws from both rudiments of Indian music and elements of transcendental meditation. The song blends the genre of psychedelic rock – often associated with LSD and hallucinogenic drug use – with the tranquil Hindi chorus line: “Jai guru deva, Om”.
The lyric has its obvious roots in Indian tradition; namely, the syllable “Om” which has elemental ties to several Indian religions. Lennon’s seemingly innocent pop song presents a vivid motif of drug use and meditational hallucination twisted with spiritual Hindi lyrics to ultimately degrade the meaning of the Hindi lyric altogether.
As we know, India is the richest linguistic nation in the world. Indian culture has greatly increased in prevalence and popularity over the last few decades. All aspects of Indian culture have manifested in various forms throughout popular American culture. From food to films, Indian culture can be seen everywhere. One particular arena where Indian culture takes a prominent role is dance. Dance is a fantastic expression of free will, energy and emotion, and Indian dances are able to exude these characteristics wonderfully. There is also a great cultural background behind each dance; regional and linguistic differences make individual dances unique and a spectacle to be seen.
When Suyash Raj, a 19-year-old junior at Washington University looks at the popularity of his nation's culture and languages in the United States, he sees nothing but bright signs. “I think it is definitely something I am proud of,” said Suyash, “to know that universities are recognising the growing significance of South Asian culture in the global society we live in today by responding and teaching the language that is used in the region.”
A cultural blend
Local Indian communities are growing in size, and together bring a collective interest in the preservation of Indian culture in America. Bharata Natyam, Raas, Garba, Bhangra, and film dance are principally the most popular dance forms found throughout America. In particular, college campuses have taken Indian dance forms, compounded their functional and artistic characteristics, and given the dances a level of artisanship that has never been experienced before. The dedication and interest of students into perfecting the dances has led to the formation of national dance competitions and the formation of dedicated dance teams that travel the country to participate in them.
Bollywood has seen its popularity soar outside of its native land. The rises in the Indian population in the US and recent improvements in media technology have made it easier for Bollywood to come to America, according to the book “Cultural Industries” by University of Leeds Professor of Media and Music Studies David Hesmondalgh. “Via new video and television technologies, the demand for Hindi-language films among the millions of Indian subjects living has boomed,” Hesmondalgh wrote.
Add to these developments India’s rapid economic expansion, technological innovation and increasing political clout that has amounted to a language that will likely have an even greater place in international business and politics than it does now. With India becoming a world power in the global marketplace, this is a useful skill for any person to have, translator, employee, native, or people looking for their roots.
“An essential component of US national security in the post-9/11 world is the ability to engage foreign governments and peoples, especially in critical regions, to encourage reform, promote understanding, convey respect for other cultures and provide an opportunity to learn more about our country and its citizens,” Dina Powell, Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs said in a briefing few years ago.
But business and foreign affairs are not the only motivations for students wanting to learn the language. There is a strong cultural element to it as well, as hundreds of thousands of American-born Indian children are now growing up in a country with a culture significantly removed from their parents’ own.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a chance to get back the culture we might have lost from being born here,” Orma Ravindranath, a senior who is majoring in Music at Washington University said.
(The writer is a well-known linguist and columnist. He presently teaches at the Washington University, USA)