of ‘Aunties’ & ‘Uncles’ by Kiren Thathiah


A few days ago, I was approached by the son of one of my old colleagues from the University where I worked. He asked whether I would be willing to help him with his development as an artist. Of course I agreed and, in the flow of the conversation, he asked me how he should address me. I told him that he could call me by my first name. He seemed reluctant to do so so I said he can address me as ‘uncle’. I suppose he would have been more comfortable addressing me as Prof or Ntate but “uncle’ was happily accepted.

I got to ruminate about the whole notion of ‘uncle’ and realised that the term has been corrupted and vulgarised over time. Now we are happy to refer to any old man as ‘that uncle’ and any older woman as ‘that aunty’.

Older readers may remember Aunt Nirmala and the stories she presented on radio way back then. She epitomised the respect that we invested in the term ‘aunty’.
Somewhere in the evolution of the community the term ‘Aunty’ has slipped from the dignity and respect that characterised Aunt Nirmala.

Today aunties are a dime a dozen and less invested with dignity and respect. And, if you haven’t noticed, there has been a proliferation of funny aunties. What is it about all these Indian comediennes with their accentuated “Indian” accents? They are everywhere and deliver commentary on a wide range of mundane issues.

I’ve often wondered why they are so popular and I’ve come up with two perspectives. The first notion is that the accent itself communicates a sense of comfortable familiarity. It’s like we all know someone who speaks with that accent but, for these people, it is not an accent at all. It is the way they speak and they don’t speak that way in order to be funny. So why do these comediennes choose this accent as a vehicle for their comedy? What would happen if the same content is delivered without that accent? Would we still find it funny? My feeling is that it won’t be funny at all.

This brings me to my second perspective. I toyed with the notion that this ‘comedy’ is derisive, self-deprecating and deeply rooted in a colonial mentality. This is a phenomenon common to many communities and people’s who were colonized and forced to adopt norms and behaviours of the colonizers in order to appear ‘civilized’ and then poke fun at those who didn’t change. In other words, these comediennes are placing themselves in the position of the colonizer and looking down on themselves at the same time. Of course comedians use accents all the time. Trevor Noah’s skit on how the South African Indians got their unique accent is funny on many different levels. He foregrounds the accent but offers an intelligent perspective about colonialism. Furthermore, he switches accents to enter into a dialogue that carries the story.
Russell Peters also uses accents. His skit about women talking in Arabic dispels myths about the language and its speakers. Both comedians are using accents to draw the listener into a story that is funny, sad and challenges conventional thinking at the same time.

If we think back to plays such as Lahnee’s Pleasure or Working Class Hero and other plays of the time, we may remember how the characters employed accents that were somewhat stereotypical and reflective of class and location. Some groups of comedians performed shows that highlighted the political challenges of (550) the day or provided social commentary that even poked fun at the “Indian” radio station under the banner “Radio Charo”. They interspersed their comedy with highly accomplished musical performances in the vernacular. Our”aunty” comedians today, however, rarely change their accents or characters. This character becomes the central social commentator.

Cast of Lahnee’s Pleasure

But, we may ask what is the subject of their comedy and how does this fit into the history of comedy within the community? Put differently, what do these comedians tell us about ourselves? Are they inadvertently promoting the notion that the stereotypical ‘Indian’ is uneducated and unsophisticated? Perhaps there is a deeper justification for this kind of comedy and, perhaps, it’s not fair to subject them to scrutiny in this way. After all it’s just fun.

The late, Acclaimed Playwright Kessie Govender, Founder of the Stables Theatre in Durban

The other side of the argument is that these skits are published in the public space and they become part of popular culture and, as such, we can’t be uncritical consumers of self-derision. Perhaps we should relook at the way we use the terms ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ and ask whether we should add ‘comedy aunty’ to the other derogatory stereotypes such as ‘temple aunty’, ‘market aunty’ and ‘samoosa aunty’!

Written By Professor Kiren Thatiah,  is an artist, academic, author, music composer and producer


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