5 Questions with Ameera Nimjee, Assistant Professor

May 15, 2023

Ameera Nimjee is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Music. She earned her PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago and joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2022. In combination with her teaching and research, she dances in the genre of classical Indian dance known as Kathak.

You’re not just a professor of music; you’re also a Kathak dancer. What’s the relationship between Kathak and your work and research?

Unlike some of the people I dance with today, who started when they were four and five years old, I came to Kathak when I was 17 or 18. I was in my undergrad, and I wanted a way to curricularize the music that I grew up with. In an early ethnomusicology class, we were shown a clip of Pakeezah. And I remember to this day these incredibly musical stops and starts and this gravity of a downbeat that controlled the whole dancer’s body. I wanted to figure that out. I started Kathak and quickly realized that the aesthetics in the dance form were in me already. And I didn’t look back. While I was envious that the movement vocabulary had flavored the body of people who started when they were really young, I did come to Kathak with a sense of what my body was and what it was doing, and I could ask critical questions about it. And that was really how I brought Kathak into my research. I dance to this day, and dance is a central part of my work and my methodology.

As an ethnographer, I ask questions about performance and I work very intimately in communities to which I belong and communities to which I’m adjacent. But I do so by working on the floor with folks. So I have a research trip coming up in June, and I’ll be working with my teacher. I’ve worked with her for 17 years now. If I have a hypothesis about the work or a critical question, we get to try those out on the dance floor together, or on the rug as musicians. So to your question, while perhaps the performance aspect preceded the research, I don’t think I’ve ever been a dancer without critical questions about performance. That’s how I live my life.

Can you tell me a little bit about your major research projects?

The book I’m writing is on how dancers negotiate the term contemporary in our work, and it comes from work I did in my PhD. There’s a genre called Indian contemporary dance, which has a very specific set of meanings, economies, and communities. The book zooms out a little bit to take on the term contemporary and ask what it means to people. So my work that is already out is on things as disparate as dancers who perform at diasporic weddings and Bollywood fitness programs and the seeping in of nakhra [swagger] or masti [mischief]. The term “contemporary” is so pushed, pulled, and engaged with that it looms over how people get work as dancers, both in India and the diaspora.

The second project is one that I sat with for a very, very long time. I’m Ismaili Muslim, and this community has been both transnational and migrant for a very long time. Because of that, you have Ismaili communities in Central Asia and the Middle East. And you have South Asian Ismailis who work in traditions that have always been between communities, like devotional practices that are highly inflected by raga, for example, and aesthetic and theoretical approaches to raga that end up working their way into folk practices. I’m interested in how these traditions have migrated with communities and what their functions are.

I’ve come across a body of wedding songs that are sung by women to daughters as a coded way of preparing their lives for marriage. And I think this is such a cool way to index how these communities, especially women, have migrated. When Ismailis were migrating from parts of British India to parts of Africa, the story for many families was that men left to establish themselves and then brought over wives or came back to get married. These songs track that experience in some ways. Studying the songs is the work I’m doing among the mothers and the aunties who have raised me to be who I am in the Ismaili community. I even accessed a little bit more of this work when I got married. I think these songs are a really, really rich place for the practice of migration and for the imagination of migration and what its fictions and truths interact with.

You’re looking at a lot of transnational or big picture movements, but the communities you study may be localized or distinct from the contexts in which they are set. Is there a tension between the community—the local—and the transnational processes it is experiencing?

I think this reflects the power of ethnography. When we do ethnography, we are so incredibly local, perhaps for the duration of our careers. But the point is to be able to draw out larger observations and paradigms from incredibly local practices. I think that ends up becoming the work of ethnography: What can we talk about? What can we contribute to any observation of larger paradigms and to making sense of how they work from these incredibly local experiences?

I’ve always had the experience that the transnational experience of the production of Indian or South Asian subjectivity is formed from the particular. That is a crucial thing I always remember, because I’ve always had a localized and specific particular experience in relation to the larger thing that is diasporic Desi identity. My family did not go back and forth to India. I don’t really have family in India, though I have some in Pakistan. What I did have was an emplaced community in Toronto, where I was born and raised, that had a strong sense of the identity of being associated with the practice of migration from another place. But that other place was South Asia, and that identity was so emplaced in South Asia because of language and culture and, in my father’s case, growing up in South Africa under apartheid, where like stayed with like.

This shows us that the particular and the local always produce the larger paradigm. While there may be this sense of what is more normative in the production of the South Asian experience I think that when we parse through and look at every ethnographer’s work, it is so hyper-localized. That is one of the beauties of this methodology of ethnography.

How has your teaching experience been at Yale?

It’s been such a lovely experience. I’m teaching one course, Music of South Asia, which is a performance-based introduction to the incredible, rich diversity of this region. It’s a gargantuan task because I feel responsible for doing certain things, one of which is to provincialize India, because otherwise it dominates the conversation, although it exerts its own gravitational pull because of the diversity and number of people within its borders. It can be a course that is meant to be fun from start to finish; we are immersed as much as possible in performance cultures. But while the music is a way in, it is my goal to make sure that folks come out with a sense of the structures of power that continue to pervade the region. So yes, we can look at aesthetics—and we do. And then we go and unravel how those aesthetics are part of a purveyance of power that continues to be held by certain communities that change from nation to nation. We talk about caste in India, caste in Nepal, caste in Sri Lanka. Yesterday I taught on Bharatanatyam in Sri Lanka, and how that looks on a minoritized Tamil body versus a Tamil Brahmin body in India.

I guess this diverges a bit from your question, which is about how teaching is going. And it’s been great. It’s such a pleasure to be able to have students come with me on the journey. I won’t speak for the students, but when they take the course, they might think it will be a fun way to learn about music. Or—and I’ve had this happen a lot—people want to add to their playlist. And yes, we can do that and we do. But we also must learn about these larger paradigms and how they work on people who experience the world in what is a transnational South Asia with lots of diasporic units.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I would add that community means a lot to me. When I think of community, I think of Professor Shailaja Paik’s talk last week on Tamasha women. She talked a lot about her ethnographic methodology. Tamasha women have been dissociated from their tradition, and their tradition is being co-opted to do certain things that serve the state and serve majorities. But Professor Paik is trying to remain close to the community. I think that I share that in terms of having a central focus on community. What drives a lot of my scholarship is how people live and experience community through performance as a maintaining force. And that is really, I think, what defines my work.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti