Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Playing with identity and authenticity: Hetain Patel at TEDGlobal 2013

Posted by: Helen Walters
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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“I don’t know how to introduce this, so I’ll just say, ‘Hetain Patel,’” says TED curator Chris Anderson. So no one knows what to expect, and that’s as may be, because this is some crazy right here.

Patel walks onstage and crouches in a chair next to the dancer Yuyu Rau. He speaks a few sentences in Mandarin, and Rau proceeds to translate. “If I may, I would like to tell you a little bit about myself and my artwork. I was born and raised near Manchester in England, but I’m not going to say it in English to you. I’m trying to avoid any assumptions that might be made from my northern accent.”

It’s at this point that the audience begins to get the sense that something is up. Patel continues: “The only problem with my Chinese Mandarin is I can only speak this one paragraph, which I learned by heart when I was visiting China. So I just repeat it in different tones and hope you won’t notice.” He and Rau look at one another. “Needless to say I would like to apologize to any Mandarin speaker in the audience.”

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Patel is playing with our preconceptions of identity and authenticity, and the pair interact with dance-style moves as he tells us stories of growing up as an Indian in England and his love of kung fu. “My artwork is about identity and leverage,” says Patel through Rau. “Challenging common assumptions on how we look like or where we come from. Gender, race, class. What makes us who we are anyway?”

Now Patel begins to speak to us directly. “This year I will be 32 years old, the same age Bruce Lee was when he died.” He strikes a martial arts pose, and wonders aloud what advice Lee might give him. “Don’t imitate my voice. It offends me,” he says, in an obvious attempt at an impersonation of Lee. Oh.

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Patel tells us of shaving his head and trying to regrow his hair so he could style it as his father had it in the 1960s. “At first it went very well, I started to get discounts in Indian shops,” he says to big laughs from the audience. “Then my moustache got way too big. It didn’t look Indian any more,” he adds wryly.

Imitation is not without risk, he says. “But I am going to stick with it. Contrary to what we might usually assume, imitating someone can reveal something unique. Every time I fail to become more like my father, I become more like myself. Every time I fail to become Bruce Lee, I become more authentically me. This is my art. I strive for authenticity. Even if it comes in a shape that I might not usually expect.”

He concludes by crouching on the floor, Indian-style. “It’s only recently that I’ve started to understand that I didn’t learn to sit like this through being Indian,” he says. “I learned this from Spiderman.” Surreal, bizarre, and utterly charming.

Hetain Patel’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »