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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Ravi Shankar, R.I.P.
Peter C. Hansen  (December 12, 2012, 5:51 pm)

With today's NPR announcement of Ravi Shankar's death at age 92, an era has ended. On the one hand, Indian classical music has lost its most recognized icon, and the "World Music" phenomenon has lost its godfather. On a more personal level, which is of course irrelevant to these larger streams, my favorite musician has now gone and I can only collect his existing albums without hope of new ones.

On a hot summer day in 1986, my friend Noah (himself now long and sadly passed away) and his mother took me to New York City. What the reason was, I cannot recall. In some record store, I looked through the international offerings with a vague desire to learn about Indian music. I had never really heard it before, although Indian communities in and around my hometown of Piscataway were burgeoning. I picked up a casette which I still have, and which I have never seen on CD – The Genius of Ravi Shankar. I had no idea who this fellow was. Nevertheless, I listened to it, got deeply into it, picked up his Sounds of India with its 12-minute Bhimapalasi, and was off to the races. This was not a popular decision in my household. On a tense highway drive through the snows of Maine during a college interview visit in the winter of 1988-89, I popped in Shankar and was quickly ordered to "turn off that g*****n rubber-band music!" I have heard the phrase around the house since, usually jokingly, but everyone has long gotten used to hearing that twang around my computer.

My CD pile has grown over the past 26 years, and my iTunes playlist – appropriately called "Ravi's World" – now lists 301 songs and 2.3 days of music. Shankar's music opened one heck of a large door for me, introducing me to Seshadri (my favorite of his disciples), Shrivastav, Banerjee, Satya Pawar Dev, Shweta Javeri (my crown jewel for vocalists), Allah Jilai Bai (especially her Moomal), Abida Parveen, Lakshmi Shankar, Shobha Gurtu, Bhimsen Joshi (naturally) and multiple Ustad Khans, among many others. There is the shahnai music, the sarod, the violin (North and South flavors), Vedic chant, jugalbandi vocals, etc., etc., etc. While I admit to having been prejudiced against Anoushka Shankar when her name first appeared, as I thought she might be trading on her father's fame, a concert at the Kennedy Center by her and the pandit corrected that misconception. She is indeed very good, and promises great things in the future.

Folks may disagree on favorites, and any committed Indian music fan will want to throw other masters onto (or out of) the top-of-the-top list, so let it simply be said that there is an entire world of classical Indian artists out there for discovery. There are also the related traditions – Afghan (such as Herawi), Persian (especially the young singer Shajarian Homayoon), and more distant Turkish and Arabic styles. (To get started, simply head to that indispensable shop, the Princeton Record Exchange. Alternatively, you can catch the long-running Sangeet program on Princeton's WPRB, at 103.3.)

So what does all of this have to do with conservatism and New Jersey? Well, in an idiosyncratically New Jersey sense, it connects perfectly. First, on the conservatism side, I must confess that I have never pursued Ravi's mixes with Western classical music. (The New Agey, electronica-oriented Tana Mana is quite different, and excellent on its own terms.) I am devoted to both classical musical traditions, but am wary about casual mash-ups. I am sure I will try them out some day, but for now – a quarter-century and counting, admittedly – I prefer to dive deep into the classics on their own terms.

As for the New Jersey connection, any inhabitant of the Trenton-New York corridor will know that the answer is obvious – the Indian presence is happily everywhere. Gujaratis, Tamils, Punjabis, Bengalis and a host of other Indian groups have settled en masse in central NJ, and have brought a wealth of culture with them. Metropark (where my dad once hunted rabbits) can often look like an Indian train station with its Bollywood-themed posters. From beautiful temples to Indian supermarkets – like the awesome spice wall of Patel's Cash & Carry on Route 27 – Indian communities have brightened the region with warm colors, shimmering saris, religious events, warm accents, no end of music, and of course food of every regional flavor. Indian restaurants in NJ don't always last long, but they can be spectacular. (Mrs. Nanjappan, the Kalluri Corner site is free again for a grand reopening, hint hint!) I am still waiting to get to India, but until then I can confidently say that NJ beats England hands-down in the curry department.

My most awesome Indian experience in NJ was the summer 1991 mega-festival held in Edison. It was insanely hot the evening that my friend and I visited with throngs – multitudes – of folks, mostly Indian. Acre after acre of tents, papier-mache statues and floats, stages, food stalls, religious icons and images, the festival was a statement of self-confident, peaceful pride on an immense scale. The food was unapologetically scalding, or at least it seemed so at the time to my white-bread palate. I found a great Shankar CD with its spectacular Parameshwari, and a great Hindi textbook. The overall effect of the event was stunning, and it was not just the near-heatstroke. A whole new world opened up.

Now, I realize that some folks, particularly among those over 35, consider the Indian community to be something of an alien presence. This is natural given the sudden appearance of a very different cultural group. At the same time, folks having been mixing and trading experiences for a long time now, and many "native" New Jerseyans of every age have tried at least a basic curry. (For vindaloo or sambar, perhaps another generation is needed.) In the end, I have no doubt that when the next group shows up, there will be old Indian householders complaining to their Italian neighbors about the newbies.

This being the ever-forthright New Jersey, however, the question may properly be asked whether the Indian community can be considered a "traditional" part of the state. The answer is a resounding yes. To begin with, Indians have become part of the warp and woof of NJ life in very short order. More importantly, however, NJ is not a nation-state. Its identity lies elsewhere, and the Indians have fit in perfectly.

For example, while New Jersey is largely Christian (of every type), it is enriched by an old, large Jewish population and newer, vigorous Hindu and Muslim communities. As for ethnicity, New Jersey is the United Nations in macro. There is no thus no ethno-religious way to say that Indians are not "one of us." If that is the case, then no one in NJ can be "one of us," because there is no one "us." In NJ, "us" refers to two things. First, it means our own ethnic community, however blended. So we may have to wait on that account until Johnny marries Rani, or Dev marries Bev. Second, however, "us" means our neighborhoods and towns, and that means homeowners, taxpayers, working stiffs, parents and kids. That makes for a lot of shared interests, and the public schools can make for a large patch of common ground. It is also amazing what a snowfall or hurricane can do to reveal our common humanity, values ... and identity.

To put the whole question of NJ inclusivity in historical perspective, let me quote John T. McNeill's seminal work, The History and Character of Calvinism. On Route 27 in Franklin Park, one finds a wealth of Indian shops and restaurants in the area around the old Six Mile Run Reformed Church. (Them's my people, on my mother's side.) Is this juxtaposition of old and new local ethnic groups an offense to the spirit of "traditional" New Jersey? Hardly. The melting pot still boils away, and every new ingredient took a while to blend in. About the old church's community, for example, McNeill writes as follows, at p. 344:

In January 1720, [Theodore Jacob Frelinghuysen] began work in settlements on the Raritan River, New Jersey. Frelinghuysen preached with evangelical passion, called his hearers to repentance and renewal of life, charged his colleagues in the ministry with being unconverted, warned the ill-disciplined and careless from the Lord's Supper, and pronounced damnation upon hardened sinners.

Frelinghuysen was not a long-established Jerseyan. In fact, he was born in Westphalia (in modern Germany) and had been appointed by the Dutch Reformed classis in Amsterdam at the appeal of a Long Island preacher to pound some Calvinist sense into the Dutch settlers along the Raritan. In short, he was a newbie among newbies, and bringing a tough European – and even then foreign – influence to bear on the locals. His teaching took hold with some, and the churches stand today, but he didn't create a unified people. As McNeill points out, "[h]is methods were calculated to arouse opposition: he was accused of Labadism and Quakerism, and when churches were closed to him, he was forced to hold his growingly popular meetings in barns. (Id.)

In other words, some locals took to him, and some did not. As always in New Jersey, people kept their own opinions, but lived and let live even as they kvetched. Later, in 1784, sixty years after Frelinghuysen's descent on the Raritan, a Dutch Reformed member with a distinctly English name – John Henry Livingston – restored unity to the querulous Dutch Reformed churches and took over the leadership of their famous New Brunswick Theological Seminary on the Raritan. (Id., p. 350.) That now-ancient institution today describes itself on Google as a "teaching institution of the Reformed Church in America with a strong urban ministry focus." Its website shows a host of people, few of whom appear to be pure Dutch, or indeed even remotely Dutch. And yet, it all makes perfect sense in NJ – people coming together from many backgrounds, united by a common interest and forging a common experience that respects tradition.

As New Jersey grew and developed, the old Six Mile Run church saw English, Irish, Italians, Poles and Hungarians move in, among many others. Some Hungarians founded what is now Magyar Bank in nearby New Brunswick in 1922, and a branch of this old bank today stands not far away. Nor did the old Dutch church stand still in time. The current pastor of Six Mile Run was born in Argentina and specializes in "multicultural ministry." Meanwhile, no doubt there are in the area, as in Montgomery not far away, many who can trace their roots well past the Revolution to the Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam. Folks like myself, for instance. But are these old Dutchmen like those on the cigar boxes? Nope. They bred with the English, the Irish, the Danes, the Italians and so on. They also melded into the American cultural landscape, right up to Starbucks and Skype. Thus, when one reads the local histories, like the tale of Frelinghuysen, the people, culture and issues of the day can often seem far more alien than our most "exotic" neighbors.

So now have come the Indians, with the great Udipi Cafe joining Bagel Time and Pho 99 Vietnamese by the old church. (The now-defunct Ghanaian restaurant Asanka in nearby Somerset is meanwhile much missed.) The offices of Indian doctors and other professionals dot the area. Grandmas shop at Patel's. Are these (now long-established) neighbors still "new," let alone alien? Nope. No way, no how. Welcoming the Indians is not a matter of bravely putting on a grimaced smile, as in Europe. It is instead like recognizing a cousin one hasn't met before. Sure, Frelinghuysen would not have recognized our Indian neighbors, but a lot of the locals didn't recognize Frelinghuysen when he showed up, and they were all Dutch back then.

The debate over assimilation almost always focuses on the need for newcomers to adapt to local customs. There is a lot to be said for that – it is the flip side of avoiding the Ugly American approach when abroad. At the same time, however, one should not overlook the local desire to assimilate to the newcomers. I don't know anyone who pines for the old Dutch ways, largely because few people have any idea what those were. (Even in Holland, that ancient lifestyle is now long gone.) Most folks like the spice of variety, and in NJ particularly this has led to an incredible cultural masala.

For instance, my cousin can patter out a mix of Italian, Yiddish and English that would make the Bladerunner patois-speakers shake their heads in confusion. A West Indian friend can express heartsickness at the destruction of the beach communities she summered at, and then delve into the political intracacies of Italian Long Branch and its takeover by corrupt developers. Along Route 9, monarchist Russians elect leaders for their old Cossack bands from the Don and Kuban, while just down the road there is a town populated mostly by Hasidic Jews. While the Hindenberg blew up not far away, there have been no such conflagrations among these Old Country folks. Heading back northwest, we find a descendent of those Dutch Reformed settlers who is a fan of all things Indian, revering his ancestral denomination's outpost as he heads for sambar and idli.

In another two centuries, or perhaps today, Route 27 could see someone named Raj van Zandt heading for Kenyan nyama choma after church at St. Peter's in New Brunswick, or perhaps after prayers at the Muslim Center of Middlesex County. It could – and already does – happen in NJ, and it is this sort of everyday experience that makes the state the wonder that it is.

So, rest in peace, Ravi. You have brought joy to millions, and enriched lives around the world. In New Jersey, many will miss you – both the oldtimers and the newcomers (to Indian music, that is).