Indian bandwagon or true cultural crossover?

When I first came to the U.S., Americans asked me about that “dot on the forehead.” Now, Madonna wears a bindi. Bollywood borrows Hollywood plotlines (well, two or three for one three-hour film). Now, the Kronos Quartet reinterprets Bollywood composer R.D. Burman. Birthday cards are reproducing old kitschy Indian matchbox covers. Body-hugging T-shirts worn by gay guys in the Castro say “San Francisco” in Devnagari script. There are even Bollywood appreciation classes at universities. My kitsch has become their cool.

I have just finished visiting Filmi Girl where she had a link to this article by New American Media editor and radio host Sandip Roy from San Fransisco. After reading his essay on how Indian culture is quickly becoming what he perceives to be more of a fad than anything else, I felt slightly belittled and wondered, "Is this how I am seen?"

When I began my love affair with Bollywood, it extended immediately past the borders of celluloid. I was eager to buy my first saree, purchased several packages of self adhesive bindis, and started searching online for the best Hindi language learning program. None of this was done with the understanding of my friends and family (save my sister, who was the one person who I could share my new passion with) - in fact I had friends that insisted that this too shall pass, just as other interests had come in and out of my life through the years. Even my best friend, who proclaims they she discovered and enjoyed Indian music long before I did, fails to join me in my excitement to this day. So, I persevere - learning, loving and exploring on my own, never really giving much thought as to what my friends and family may continue thinking of me. However, Sandip Roy put into words a fear I've also had since the beginning.

If I don't really care what the people I know think about me, I absolutely care what Indians think of this gori larki . I've never worn any of my sarees out in public, and ventured out only once with a bindi on my forehead, for fear that I would somehow insult the very people I was trying to get to know. Opportunities pass me by almost daily where I fail to engage in conversation with the convenience store clerk, the wait staff at the pseudo-Indian restaurant, the lady I buy my jewellery from. All because of a fear, irrational as it may be, that my cover charge might be rejected and with it my entrance into this wonderful culture.

That being said, the few opportunities I have seized (even if I've had to be prodded), have lead to surprising experiences. I have a remarkably familiar relationship with the lady who I buy my movies from - so much so that she's offered to lend me cookbooks filled with recipes handed down to her from the generations before her and suggest we partake on a quest to tour India together (she's never been). One visit to Calgary started with a visit to Baitunnur Mosque, initiated by my completely fearless sister, which culminated in a tour by a lovely Muslim woman, Sehrish, and her equally wonderful father.

At any rate, Sandip Roy does have a point. From the Indian food stand at the local Farmer's Market, to the Taj Mahal paper pack at the town's scrapbook store, to numerous imprints in popular tv, to the hordes of Indian-inspired home decor at Pier One, Sears, even Walmart - there's no doubt that India has firmly established herself as a strong influence in North America, one that continues to grow. Whether or not Indian culture is embraced or exploited is perhaps the bigger question than whether too many Americans are eating "real" Indian cuisine.

I guess, no matter what the Sandip Roy's think of people like me (and the countless others that I'm quickly learning are out there too), at least I can take solace in the fact that no matter how long this movie may run, rest assured, I will be there until the end.

17 Response to "Indian bandwagon or true cultural crossover?"

  1. ajnabi says:
    August 1, 2009 at 6:35 PM

    I see both Roy's and your points as valid. However, I hope it leads to more understanding between our different cultures in the long run.

  2. Bollyviewer says:
    August 1, 2009 at 8:33 PM

    Thats so beautifuly written, Shell.

    Before I'd met all the wonderful non-Indian Bolly-bloggers, my views were fairly similar to Sandip Roy's. When Nicole Kidman gyrated to Chhamma chhamma in Moulin Rouge, Haley Bennet struck orgasmic poses to the tune of Buddhist chants (or was it Om?) in Music and Lyrics, and when I came across copies of Kama Sutra in EVERY book store in North America, it felt like Indian culture was being fetishised and exoticised, and I resented it. Now, I realise that there are people who are genuinely interested in finding about other cultures - not in the lets-understand-the-mystic-of the-east way but as getting to know about different peoples - and I dont feel that way, anymore.

    As to Indian dresses, to me they are a symbol of women's lack of freedom in Indian society. Indian men shifted to wearing western attire a century ago, while women wearing jeans/skirts even in urban areas is sometimes held up as an example of loss of Indian culture, today! So, it really puzzles me when I see a "free" American woman willingly wear Indian attire. That said, I dont think any Indian would be offended to see a non-Indian in Indian dresses! So go for it, if thats what you'd like.

  3. theBollywoodFan says:
    August 2, 2009 at 10:34 AM

    I think it's a bit of both, Shell. It is embraced, but much of it does still appear to be exploited. The more Americans of Indian descent infiltrate society (teachers, friends, doctors...who were raised by their Indian parents in the U.S., as opposed to those who moved from India), the better the level of understanding will likely be. The risk there is, and we already see some of this now...those involved in its exploitation in this part of the world include the Indian population!

    Having said that, I think there are more than enough women in India who wear traditional Indian attire for how vibrant they are and for their richness in class...because they simply like it more (not all Indian women would choose western dress over Indian if there weren't any perception issues involved; I'd bet more would stick to Indian) and because many guys like it more that way, and they know it! ;)

    From the 'goras' and 'goris' in my extended family, I know this view of Indian attire (subtle but classy, etc.) holds true for them, at least. (And it doesn't have to be one over the other, it could be both!) I think you've seen enough Indian movies already to get the attire right!

    That doesn't take away from Bollyviewer's comment about lack of freedom when it comes to dress, though. A segment of the country still sadly frowns upon the 'western influence' on dress, a lot of which is a result of what I perceive to be a flawed infusion of cultural values in a discussion for political reasons. Women (and men) should obviously have the right to wear what they want without having to worry about what people will think of them. That's easier said than done the world over, though.

    There's a case to be made for men's lack of freedom in Indian society too! I couldn't go to work in Bombay or any major city in the world (let alone India) wearing traditional Indian attire (a dhhoti or salwar kurta, for example) without being demonized. :P Whether I would want to is another question, but, the fact is, it's too bad societies limit us that way. Questions are: Do we care enough to do something about it? Can we, at an individual level?

  4. bollyviewer says:
    August 2, 2009 at 3:06 PM

    tBF, your argument is unanswerable! "because many guys like it more that way" - is sadly the reason for a lot of inconvenient fashions (stilletos, for e.g.) for women.

    And yes, I think men should have the right to be just as uncomfortable as women can be in Indian attire - men should be forced to get into a crowded bus with a dhoti that is in imminent danger of unraveling due to crowd pushing and pulling, or be forced to wear a duppatta in the same circumstances (I recall being almost strangled by one once in a crowded Delhi bus). Whats the odds that the Shiv Sena or Bajrang Dal will start a movement curbing Indian men's desire to wear Indian dress?

  5. hi hi Says:
    August 2, 2009 at 6:21 PM

    you forget the big amount of love srk always gives in every role and everything, the fact that he does not take himself (ego) too serious and that he can act!

  6. Jules says:
    August 3, 2009 at 12:22 AM

    Well, Sis... I try to live my life embracing all things. I guess it's not really fair to say that i don't *notice* differences in people, because I do notice those who aren't like me. But I don't notice them in a bad way. I look upon them, marvel in their beauty, am instantly curious about their cultures and want to know more about them and more about where they're from and what they stand for. I find something wonderful in almost every *different* person I come across. I am in love with the idea of celebrating other people. So if somebody wanted to celebrate being Canadian, because I set forth such a vibrant image that it made them want to do that, then I say please, by all means, do that! Do that, and let me emulate the wonders of your culture as well. Let me enjoy your food, colors, clothes... they always say immitation is the highest form of flattery.

    I can understand how for the Indians who see this happening as a fad and nothing more, it might be a little bit bothersome to them... but for those of us who actually love the things we've seen and heard enough to want to find out more and become friends with those of you we meet, what's so wrong with that?

    It saddens me that you, Sis, have taken the time to learn such a coomplicated language as Hindi as well as you have and you have nobody to share it with for fear that you will be perceived as insulting. I know all you want more than anything these days, and for the past year, is to feel welcomed into a community that you absolutely adore the bones of!!

    Just one more thing... if we ALL took steps to join hands and celebrate each others uniquenesses, we wouldn't all just blend into one same **Being**. We'd just love each other more.

  7. bollywooddeewana says:
    August 3, 2009 at 3:53 AM

    Great heartfelt post and i can see where you're coming from, as long as you're true to your heart and you respect filmi culture being different to everyday Indian life i'd say carry on loving and doing what you do

  8. shell says:
    August 3, 2009 at 7:39 AM

    @ ajnabi - One can hope that people will one day begin to embrace each other than argue.

    @ Bollyviewer - I never really thought of Indian culture as a fetish, but looking at your examples I can see your point. I'm glad that there have been some of us non-Indians who have changed your perception. It means a lot to at least be accepted by the Indians in the blogging community. As for the sarees, I didn't realize they were a symbol of oppression, as they are still so widely worn in film and by celebrities at events, etc. Although saying that, I've yet to see any Indians wear them in real life (I've only ever seen locals wear usually salwar kameeze). To me, they are truly beautful. That being said, while your words may give me the courage to step out of the house in one, I probably won't do so until I know that I am wearing them properly. Thanks for your awesome input!

    @ theBollywoodFan - I think I may have inadvertantly started a debate here. While I mentioned more than just attire, it certainly in interesting to see different points of view on the clothing situation. I do think that people should not be looked down on or "demonized" for wearing traditional dress if they want to and any society that does that should be shamed.

  9. shell says:
    August 3, 2009 at 9:08 AM

    @ Jules - all good points, sis! And, while I've started learning Hindi, I still have a long way to go, though it would be nice to use what little I know. I guess I could only ask someone how much I owe them and what time is so many times.
    Thanks for the awesome comment!

    @ bollywooddeewana - Thanks. Yes, Filmi Girl told me the same thing, but I fear I may be one who blurs, I don't really know what the difference is? Can you enlighten me please?

  10. bollyviewer says:
    August 3, 2009 at 12:35 PM

    Sarees (or any other Indian dress, for that matter) are not a symbol of oppression in general! Thats just my perception and that of others, who were peer-pressured into wearing Indian dresses (mostly salwar/churidar suits) in the most unsuitable environs for them. In my case it was the chemistry lab and later, an optics lab where the loose material in Indian dresses (for example, the loose salwar and/or kurta and the dupatta or scarf worn with it) can create a lot of damage by snagging on laboratory equipment and/or chemicals! I gave in during my undergrad but rebelled during grad school and stuck to jeans during my entire PhD. I had to brave comments such as, "Today you are wearing a woman's dress," on the rare occasion that I ventured out in a salwar-suit - and this in cosmopolitan Mumbai! Combine this with various schools/colleges enforcing salwar-suit as uniform or dress code for women, several extremist organisations pushing for more respect for Indian culture and hence, less skirts and jeans for women (while the men of these organisations themselves wear shirt-pants!), and the general formula being fed us women that wearing Western attire is more likely to get you unwanted (and well-deserved!) attention from roadside-romeos - and my perception of Indian dresses gets terribly skewed!

    That said, I do agree that Indian attire looks lovely and I do wear it on formal occasions, but it would never form a part of my daily life. So, seeing a non-Indian wear it just strikes me as a bit strange - but NEVER "insulting" to Indians!

  11. theBollywoodFan says:
    August 3, 2009 at 2:27 PM

    @Bollyviewer:

    ...should have the right to be just as uncomfortable...

    ROTFL, that's true! :D More about personal perceptions and not rights. You're right about the groups you mention -- they've proved 'cosmpolitan Mumbai' to be an urban myth. And I just re-read my comment, and we do agree. I'm sorry if it wasn't evident. (English isn't my first language.) I meant what I said at the macro (all India) level, much of which doesn't use any mode of transport on a daily basis.

    @Shell: I'm sorry to have taken a stance in my comment to you. I didn't mean to stir up a debate with reminders to unpleasant past experiences. I hope you stick to your quest. As with everything else, it will be what you choose to make of it.

    Peace.

  12. Daddy's Girl says:
    August 3, 2009 at 2:59 PM

    Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Shell. I love the last line, because I think it draws the distinction between you (and your interest in all things Indian) and those who jump on the 'Indian bandwagon' because it's 'cute' or 'trendy'. The difference between, as tBf put it, embracing and exploitation. For you, it's a sincere quest into something you love and are intrigued by, something you are committed to discovering as part of an ongoing process; for others, it's about trying to condense something rich, varied and complex into a few largely meaningless emblems. I'm not Indian, but I don't think your heartfelt approach could possibly be seen as offensive.
    I'll let bollywooddeewana speak for himself, but I don't think you give yourself enough credit - I do think you know the difference. Some Bollywood fans may be sucked into thinking that India is all about colour, romance and music; and of course, there's so much more to India than that. I remember reading about a man who got to India and was amazed that there weren't young lovers dancing around trees around every corner! A rather simplistic example of course, but I think you already do realise that there is so much more to this incredibly diverse, billion-strong country than the often broad cultural tropes we are exposed to in Hindi film.
    I know how I feel when someone from the western world buys a few danshikis, visits my continent once or twice, listens to some 'African' music, and maybe has a a couple 'African' friends, and then somehow think that these experiences somehow give them some kind of secret access into the 'mysterious and exotic world of Africans'. That I find annoying, ridiculous and condescending. On the other hand, when I meet foreigners who are curious about my country or my continent, open to learning more about it (even when what they learn is complicated, and even sometimes repugnant), and genuinely interested in embracing and sharing in those aspects of my culture that appeal to them (as opposed to arrogantly seeking to appropriate them), I am gladdened, appreciative, and sometimes even moved. But maybe that's just me - I certainly hope not!

  13. shell says:
    August 3, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    @ bollyviewer - First of all, I always wondered how some things were accomplished wearing some of the looser fabric clothing (like cooking, etc), and now I understand the answer to that is with great difficulty and danger! :) I think any time something is enforced, it can cause a certain rebellion towards it - something you can see a lot of with school dress codes. At any rate, I've learned something even just now. Thanks!

    @ tBf - " I'm sorry to have taken a stance in my comment to you. I didn't mean to stir up a debate with reminders to unpleasant past experiences."
    Not at all - like everything else, I'll just reel it all in! That's what these forums are for anyway.

    @ Daddy's Girl - Thanks so much! I'm glad you picked up on that last line. It was really a metaphor for my life. I honestly feel like what started with one movie has somehow changed me, even if it means my family and friends don't understand me anymore.

    What probably started as a fascination with a colorful exhuberant nation, has developed into an insatiable need to learn about the people, the land, the customs and traditions. I've no notions anymore that lead me to believe that everyday India is like Dhoom, but perhaps more like Swades or Billu (without the movie star, of course). Even knowing it's not all glamour and glitz, I still plan on going to India one day soon, and I will revel in ALL that it has to offer.

  14. Magpie Ima says:
    August 4, 2009 at 7:29 PM

    This is a great post and covers many of the concerns I have as a nice American Jewish girl who just happens to be crazy for Bollywood movies and Indian food as well as fascinated by South Asian cultures in general. Is it weird? Is it inappropriate? Am I being offensive?

    Last summer I was driving around with my windows down, car-dancing to the Om Shanti Om soundtrack. Stopped at a red light, I glanced over and noticed a South Asian couple in the car beside me. Mortified, I started to roll up my window and die of embarrassment when the driver leaned over, laughing, and yelled at me to tun it up.

    I think of that brief episode often because it makes me feel a little less weird about my obsessions. Maybe it's all OK and really we should all just be dancing.....

  15. shell says:
    August 4, 2009 at 9:07 PM

    @ Magpie Ima - I'm glad that I can be the voice of the non-desi fan, concerns and all, and at least I know that I'm not the only one out there.

    I ALWAYS drive with my ipod blaring, sometimes hoping that I will be overheard just so it serves as an icebreaker. Hasn't happened so far though.

    I think I need to let go of my fear and little bit and just go with the flow more or, as you said, just dance!

  16. bollywooddeewana says:
    August 5, 2009 at 3:16 AM

    What i pretty much meant is you don't go assuming that Indians are like this and this or indians like this since you saw it in a movie,which i'm sure you're not like.And as Daddy's girl said give yourself credit ;0)

    This was a horrible mistake i made myself a few times, whenever i met an Indian i always brought up bollywood as a subject and subconciously referred to how since this and that was done in a movie, they must be doing it too, of course i have since learnt from my ways and i do make it a point never to talk about bollywood to an Indian unless they bring it up themselves or if it seems relevant ( i often thought bollywood would be a common ground to my becoming friends with them). Of course i've since been wary of this as i've met lots of people with Indian origin who shriek or declare their hatred for all things bollywood

  17. shell says:
    August 5, 2009 at 6:59 AM

    Thanks, bollywooddeewana, I understand now. Thankfully I think I did know the difference, however, I may have tried using Bollywood as a starter - maybe not such a good idea after all.

    Anyway, thanks again, for responding to my inquiries!