A Historic Oscar Performance Left Indian Performers Out—and South Asian Americans Aren’t Having It
An Indian-American yoga teacher explains how on-stage exclusion hurts as much as the in-studio erasure she's observed in yoga.
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The 2023 Academy Awards gave the Indian diaspora a lot to celebrate. I was quite happy that an Indian documentary won an Oscar. The Elephant Whisperers, about an Indian couple caring for orphan elephants in the forests of Tamil Nadu, was a very heartwarming story. And three of the producers were Indian women. The Oscar win was a lovely acknowledgement.
Then “Naatu Naatu”—which can be translated as “Dance Dance”—became the first Indian song to win an Oscar. The Telugu song is from the soundtrack of the movie RRR, an action film about two Indian revolutionaries fighting against British colonizers. It’s performed in the language of Andhra Pradesh, a state in the southern region of India. It’s unusual to have a song from the Indian film industry be nominated for an award, so that was the talk of the Indian community. Everyone was very gung ho.
But in the days following the Oscars, headlines signaled a problem. “Indians Disappointed at Naatu Naatu.” “Naatu Naatu at the Oscars: A Cultural Triumph Gone Wrong.” “South Asian dancers feel betrayed.”
The disappointment emerged from the fact that, although the performance featured two Indian singers and a diverse mix of dancers, there was not a single South Asian dancer in the group. Someone thought to cast Brown men as the lead dancers, but they didn’t think it was important to have any representation from the culture the dance was celebrating.
I was quite shocked. When I watched the performance, I assumed that the people who were dancing would be the actors from the movie or at least Indian. Instead, the lead dancers were a mixed-race American dancer and a Lebanese Canadian. It was a sad reminder of how appropriation and erasure take place in so many contexts.
Whitewashing, Brownwashing, and Tokenism
In the yoga world, South Asian erasure is changing but it is still very prevalent.
Over the years, as the practice became more popular in the West, it became increasingly whitewashed. Images of yoga presented it as a fitness activity primarily represented by thin, affluent, flexible, White women, some of whom even took on Indian-sounding names.
Today, we see more Indian people as teachers and leaders in the Western yoga scene, but they are often those who are considered “palatable.” It is a form of brownwashing when South Asian participation is limited to people who fit dominant-culture norms. The message is, “Yes, we can accept a South Asian person or other person of color, as long as they have a big following on social media or if they speak a certain way, look a certain way, or fit the Western norm in some way.” That means that there are people who have knowledge of yoga but, because they aren’t savvy about packaging themselves well, aren’t heard, aren’t seen.
In other cases, we are tokenized. “Here, this is your Brown representation for the week.” That happens in yoga spaces all the time—especially when people are trying to correct the whitewashing. They want to include a Black or Brown face, but they’re not really interested in that person’s culture. It has happened to me. When I was new to teaching, I was like, “Oh, wow, people are calling me and asking me to do this and that.” Now I see through that.
In a way, that’s what happened at the Oscars. The main dancers were Brown men–but not Tamil. Not Indian at all. The choreographers included people of color, but not people of the culture. Of course, the people they chose are all fantastic dancers. But you can’t tell me that, as rich a dance culture as India has, they couldn’t find Indian dancers to perform. That’s bullshit. It’s the Oscars. It’s not like you decide today and do it tomorrow. If they don’t have time and money to do a proper search, who does?
Like the choreographers who couldn’t seem to find Indian dancers, we hear the same thing in yoga spaces. When it comes to finding South Asian people to teach or speak or lead workshops, “We don’t know anyone,” is a common refrain. But we’re out there. You just have to take the time to look. The people you find may not fit your Westernized framework. They may not have a million followers. They may not be familiar to you or part of your circle, but they should not be overlooked.
Of course, not every Indian does yoga. Just because I’m a South Asian doesn’t mean I’m an expert in all things related to the practice. I don’t expect to be invited to do things just because I am from India. But there are South Asian experts and it’s upon us—yoga teachers, practitioners, and students—to do the research, find them, and listen to them.
The Irony of Colonization
There is this tension that exists for us that is a product of colonization and White supremacy. That’s what causes us to still see White people as “experts” on a culture that is not theirs. It’s why more teachers aren’t promoting Indian yoga scholarship that has existed for at least a thousand years. Instead, we quote White people’s interpretation of yoga. They may have done good scholarship and studied the texts, but does that overrule the knowledge of Indian and South Asian people who have been steeped in the culture and ancient knowledge?
Colonization is why we’re still looking to the Motion Picture Academy—an external, fairly White body—for acknowledgment of our talent and our contributions to film. It is the same in the yoga space. Too often, we’re still looking for that Western acknowledgement that we are now legitimate and our work is good.
It’s ironic that the premise of the movie—and particularly that song and dance—is about anti-colonialism. In that energetic scene, they’re telling the British that “You think we’re not sophisticated because we don’t dance like you, but we dance like this.” And the Telegu dance is powerful. But the fact that the song that we’re celebrating is being performed by people who are not desi—people from the South Asian diaspora—creates a sort of cognitive dissonance.
The View from India
There’s another nuance about a situation like this that is not really talked about. When you complain about this kind of erasure, people will say, “Oh, but the Indians in India are so happy that your song got nominated and awarded and that the song is being danced on the Oscar stage. Why are you nitpicking?”
When you are an Indian living in India, you don’t really have to fight every day to take up space and be acknowledged. Your culture is the dominant culture. When a song like “Naatu Naatu” is recognized on a world stage, you’re happy people are appreciating your dance, your stories, your creativity.
But those of us who are in the diaspora see ourselves being erased in so many realms. We have to fight harder to get our voices heard and to be on stage, so to speak. We see it in every space. Every day. We have to work harder than the dominant culture. I’m an immigrant and when I get up and say something, I have to make sure I’ve got all my data completely right and do my research really well and say things in a way that feels more palatable for the Western ear. My accent is different and the way I say certain things is different because my English was learned on another continent. So there’s a part of us which is always judging or evaluating the way we are and how we are perceived by the outside world.
So not having a South Asian person as one of the main dancers may seem like a small thing. But it is a completely different experience for us than it is for our relatives in India. It’s a reminder of our erasure in this culture.
Building Equitable Systems
How can we address this? We need to recognize where we are privileged—and leverage that privilege to become allies and speak up. For example, the people who were planning the “Naatu Naatu” production could have said, “You know what? Let’s get an Indian choreographer. They should have had an ally who said, “We have 20 dancers who are doing a Telugu dance without a person from that culture. What are we doing here?’”
There are times when I think that we have to completely dismantle the existing systems and build something new. Many people are doing this already, and that is a route I feel most drawn to. I see myself as a representative for people like me.
But don’t want to be a part of spaces where I’m the token desi voice. I would rather be a part of something organic, authentic, consistent. I’m learning, I’m studying, and I’m gathering people around me who are on this path of abolitionism—figuring out how to create spaces where people feel welcome, heard and accepted. The opposite of being erased.
Anjali Rao offers insight into the yoga stories and histories that have been obscured by hetero-patriarchy and colonization. She brings a multi disciplinary approach, integrating yoga philosophy and history, with storytelling, imagery and poetry. She is an Indian-American immigrant and a cancer survivor who believes that a dedicated practice of yoga in all its expansiveness can alchemize and heal the world by creating ripples of change within and around us. She is an aspiring writer, the host of “The Love of Yoga” podcast, and President of the Board of Directors of Accessible Yoga, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing the teachings and benefits of yoga with those who have been marginalized