April 21, 1987. The Tuesday after Easter. The All Blacks were knee-deep in final preparation for the inaugural Webb Ellis Cup, Rogernomics was in full swing and Crowded House dominated the charts with what could be the anthem for the era, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’.
It was also the day the Immigration Act 1987 received the royal assent, expunging a century of immigration policy that was, for all practical purposes, racist. The legislation banished ethnicity and nationality as the measurements of suitability for residency and replaced them with a single scale—merit—setting the course for New Zealand’s burgeoning multiculturalism.
Kiwi-Indians have since become, after the Chinese, the country’s largest Asian ethnic group. In the year that predated the act, fewer than 16,000 people of Indian ethnicity registered in the Census; in 2013, the group numbers more than 100,000, nearly three per cent of the population.
“India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country,” writes Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor, “but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” Perhaps New Zealand is the other side of that coin: a developed country that is relatively underdeveloped in the context of its history and cultural heritage. The act brought about a fresh chapter of New Zealand’s cultural heritage, and since 1987, those cultural fusions have evolved most perceptibly in suburban Auckland. For the Kiwi-Indian of South Auckland and West Auckland in particular, that fusion is often manifest through music and film.
Indian film has its roots in 2000-year-old Mahabharata Sanskrit epics, 10th-Century folk theatre and, more recently, Hollywood’s musicals of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The portmanteau ‘Bollywood’ was first coined in the ’70s. A decade later, the Kashmir conflict drove the iconic ‘dream sequences’ of song and dance to the mountains of Switzerland and Scandinavia, giving the glitz and musicality of Bollywood the signature levity and irony that make it famous. Yet it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that East bled into West, culturally and economically. Bollywood films and Hindi film music (or Filmi) were exported to lands wherever India’s 30-million-strong diaspora reside.
“Bollywood music is mostly borrowed from Indian folk music,” says Rajesh Maharaj of Humm FM, Auckland’s only Hindi FM station. “It’s gone global within the past 10 years very quickly. Number one thing is, I think, sales, because the Bollywood movie industry is very big.”
Maharaj came to New Zealand from Fiji in the mid-1990s and says that integration into New Zealand society remains one of the greatest challenges for new immigrants.
“Kids are going to Kiwi schools, integrating with students and learning the Kiwi way of life,” he says. As a result, Kiwi-Indians express themselves in a “mixed Bollywood” fashion. Parents might ask a question in Hindi but their children typically respond in 20 per cent Hindi, 80 per cent English, creating cultural differences within the household that are echoed through Humm FM’s 18–45-year-old audience.
“These people wouldn’t be traditional curry-munchers,” says Maharaj. “They will go to McDonald’s. They will have fish and chips on a Friday, like the Kiwi culture. They will go to the Viaduct for a drink. They will go to the Christmas in the Park. It’s our responsibility to accept the Kiwi culture, and it’s our duty to tell Kiwis who we are, what our traditions and culture are and what we stand for.”
Indians have been on these islands for longer than we may realise. In 1861, Gabriel Read discovered gold in Otago, but without the tip-off from ‘Black Peter’ (Bombay-born Edward Peters) to point the way, it may never have been. Peters wasn’t the first Indian here. Lascars (seamen) and sepoys (soldiers) had been deserting in twos and threes since the late 18th century, when British East India Company ships serviced Australian convict settlements, stocking up in New Zealand while homeward-bound. “A poor vagabond Hindoo” was seen sleeping in the stables of a prickly Lyttelton Times reader in 1860. “Surely the gentleman who imported this poor specimen of humanity, now that for some reason he has done with him, is bound either to keep him or send him back again,” he argued with perverse compassion.
Twos and threes. The 1881 Census confirmed six Indian men in the country— mostly white-gloved domestic staff of the southern gentry. In the years before World War I, however, a steady stream of migrants began to arrive from two northern states on the Indian subcontinent where British rule was well entrenched: Gujarat and Punjab.
“The first established community was actually down in King Country, cutting scrub,” says Navtej Randhawa, a fourth-generation Kiwi of Punjabi heritage. “The Punjabi, and particularly the Sikhs who have come in, have a very close affinity to the land.
We are farmers. We’ve always been tilling land, being part of the oldest established civilisation, the Indus Valley civilisation. We’ve been doing it for about 5000 years or so.”
Prior to 1920, almost half of all Indians in New Zealand lived in rural areas, working flax, cutting scrub, digging drains.
“I think they really fitted in well to the New Zealand pioneering way of life, where the life was very harsh and you had to do it by yourself. Nobody was going to spoon-feed you,”says Randhawa. With unrest in Punjab in the early 1980s, coupled with a lack of affordable Kiwi farmland, Punjabi refugees settled in Auckland alongside multi-generational Gujaratis.
“The reason we’ve gone into taxis or owning a shop is because we love to work for ourselves. As a people, we like to be our own boss,” says Randhawa. “Once the Government moved to the skilled migrant [category in 1987], we had a lot of these young graduates who came through, and they wanted to express their folk dances as well. The pioneering communities didn’t really celebrate or express their cultural heritage, but in Auckland, that wasn’t the case. Firstly, they were here in numbers, and secondly, you had people who knew how to practise and teach others.”
About 50 kilometres south of central Auckland, at the foot of the aptly named Bombay Hills, is Pukekohe. Indian migrants settled and tended market gardens there early last century. In the late 1920s, however, Pukekohe became the command centre of the White New Zealand League. The league fought against Asian immigration in order to defend what it considered to be the “racial integrity and economic prosperity” of European New Zealanders. Horticulturists led the charge, with labour organisations and the Returned Services’ Association closing in on each flank. Though the league largely disappeared within a decade, the racial segregation it had promoted endured well into the middle of the century.
“When my grandfather came out, he was a farmer in Pukekohe, and he couldn’t go in to have a haircut,” Ranjana Patel tells me one Sunday after the evening aarti (worship ritual) at Papatoetoe’s Swaminarayan Hindu Temple. Patel is a trustee of the temple, and a third-generation member of the Gujarati community that in 2013 celebrated 100 years in New Zealand.
“When we were growing up, Indian numbers were small, so it was a different dynamic,” she says. “There were no temples. We had an Indian association, which is where I went and learned to read and write Gujarati, and we used to do dancing. That, I think, kept our culture alive.
“When my children were growing up, there was very little for them to do—no Indian dancing, no temples, no nothing. So my kids probably missed out a little, but their kids are getting the culture back again. My grandkids want to learn dancing. And they are the stars of the school now: they’ve got the European structured way of doing things, and yet they have their Indian culture too.”
Coming from a 6000-year-old civilisation to a South Pacific nation that prides itself on social mobility alters some of the most established social conventions of India’s traditionally caste-based society.
“I think there’s probably some culture shock,” says Patel. “They can’t believe they can just talk to someone of a higher caste. They come with the old perception but when they know they can interact and talk and visit and eat at each other’s houses, all those barriers are gone very quickly.”
One Sunday in the eastern Auckland suburb of Pakuranga, I sat down to coffee and cake with Basant Sharma, as his extended family finished their weekly Bollywood dance practice in preparation for a wedding in Sydney. A research scientist turned electrical engineer, Sharma first came to Auckland from India in 1972.
“It was, you can say, monocultural then, in the sense of European and Maori. There was no other cross-cultural section anywhere, or we didn’t find it, at least. And I think that was reflected in all our social activities. Until the late 1960s, there was a very strong sense of discrimination about giving jobs to people who were not Europeans. They had to move to provincial towns. Even then, when they said their name, people said, ‘No, sorry, we won’t employ you.’”
According to the 2010 Otago University Press publication India in New Zealand: Local Identities, Global Relations, that situation likely still exists. While the Indian ethnic group is—relatively speaking more educated and qualified than the country’s majority European population, the report notes that its greater rate of unemployment “indicates exclusionary employment practices, resulting in a tragic under-utilisation of this precious human capital”.
But as with wider cultural changes, says Sharma, that situation may be changing. “If you go to a normal school room now, there may be perhaps 10 Europeans, three Indians, two Chinese, one Maori. I think then you know that your cultural identity is there,” he says. “It makes no difference to people now, whereas when you were growing up, there was no support for your culture, as such, in the outside society; it was only in your home.”
“I remember as a small kid when the harbour bridge was first opened, they had international floats,” says Sharma’s wife, Abhilasha. “Us girls were asked to be on the float, and each one had a costume from a different part of India. We were just feeling so proud. We were in the limelight at last.”
Now, the traditions of Indian music and movement are dazzling a new generation. Bollywood dance classes have emerged in community halls, leisure centres and unused garages across Auckland in the past decade. It’s a fusion, appropriating an old culture to inform the new one, and inviting New Zealanders to partake in the heritage of the subcontinent.
While the majority of those attending are of South Asian ethnicity, more New Zealanders of all bckgrounds are discovering the joy of this transnational, contemporary dance form that blends the roots of traditional Indian arts with western music.
“I feel like I can express myself fully,” says Jignal Bhagvandas. Born to Indian parents, the 20-year-old medical student began classes aged 10, competed through her teens and now teaches girls’ classes in the basement of her father’s North Shore home. “In Bollywood dancing you can literally do whatever you like, and there’s such a big theatrical component to it.”
It’s catching on with the most unlikely of audiences. Anju Desai hosts costumed, hip-swivelling, Bollywood-themed hen parties popular in Auckland’s leafy suburbs. The parties are in keeping with the fluid cross-pollination of Indian culture that has been occurring for the past century, but as the West’s awareness and appreciation of the East fastens, it also reflects upon the arts back in India.
“If you see a Bollywood movie,” says Desai, “there are international heroines now, because there’s enough work there and they pay really good money. Before, the Bollywood beauty was curvaceous. Now they are getting into the European way, they are very slim.”
Bollywood music and dance also feature in Auckland’s public calendar. Diwali (pronounced ‘devali’), the festival of light, is a celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and the renewal of life. For the past 12 years, the ancient Hindu festival has been hosted in Aotea Square each spring, attracting tens of thousands of Aucklanders over two days of performances, displays and food.
Another annual festival, Holi, celebrates the profuse colours of spring also—though in the southern hemisphere it occurs in autumn, not that it deters revellers splattering each other with multi-coloured powder.
At the official opening outside South Auckland’s Vodafone Events Centre, more than 2000 party-goers cake one another in colour upon the lawn—pure, raw fun, without a drop of alcohol served or seen.
On stage, Indian music lifts from pitch to pitch, from traditional folk to contemporary dance. In flamboyant attire, young Punjabi men step out the high-kneed, arm-waving rhythms of the Punjabi dance Bhangra, defined by the beat of the dhol, a portable, double-headed drum.
“Whenever you play any high-pitched music, the drum can fit into it,” says Harinder Singh, a Punjab-born, 37-year-old account manager. “Bhangra has been adopted by Bollywood movies big time. It’s very, very physical.”
It’s a potent fusion: ancient Asian instruments applied to the backbeats of hip-hop, powering its dance through the 21st century in a new land with a new culture now influenced by the many colours and creeds of its recent migrants.
“In the past, the Kiwi was very much a person of the European background, because that was the majority culture,” says Navtej Randhawa. “You even had third-or fourth-generation Indians who were Kiwis, but you always kind of felt he is an Indian rather than a Kiwi. But now, I think people are starting to see that majority is not the majority anymore and a lot of the small groups have started to become very big. They’ve always been Kiwis but now people have a broader understanding of what that means. I personally think that New Zealand has a real culture coming through rather than a single monologue which discouraged a lot of people from expressing their own identities.
“My sons’ generation will grow up without hang-ups,” says Randhawa. “They have got the world at their feet. Now China has just become our biggest trading partner, and then India, with the free-trade agreement coming, everybody will have to do business with India and China. So these kids have actually got the best of both worlds. They know their world is coming; they see a bright future.”