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Culturally Conscientious

Indians are no longer accepting of half-baked and misinformed portrayals of their culture.

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Culturally Conscientious

Indians are no longer accepting of half-baked and misinformed portrayals of their culture.

Last year when the cosmetic brand MAC introduced its new make-up line Vibe Tribe, it got talked about more for its failure to acknowledge Native American culture from which the line seemed to have taken inspiration, than for its warm, toasty hues. Angry Americans took to social media to express their outrage at what they saw as yet another example of cultural appropriation.

Although the company denied any other inspiration for its new line, besides music festivals and deserts, the public wasn’t amused by the Navajo-inspired print on packaging and models sporting tribal tattoos in its publicity images, without any mention, reference or homage to the tribe it had borrowed from.

Last year, Indians reacted equally unkindly to the music group Coldplay’s version of India in its video replete with Western stereotypes — sadhus, slum kids, peacocks and colors of Holi. The fact that the singer Beyonce, dressed as an Indian princess, seemed both unconvincing and uninformed about Indian cultural dress, drew more ire than flattery that the group may have been aiming for from its sub-continental fans.

The Reactions Presage a New Cultural Ethos.

In recent years, cultural appropriation has become an important, even sensitive, topic. As societies become more informed about other cultures, they are expected to be more considerate of the history they are borrowing from. But before everything from Selena Gomez’s bindi to Miley Cyrus’ twerking becomes a bone of cultural contention, one must understand that there is a difference between cultural appreciationand cultural appropriation.

This is especially true in a country such as America, where people from hundreds of cultures have descended to make it their home, bringing with them their unique nuances. Not surprisingly, different practices merge from time  to time. Should an American wearing a sari be viewed with skepticism? How about Indians dressed in Western wear, which has become a mainstay of younger Indian attire, not just in the West, but in the sub-continent too. Is it anything to feel conscious about? As Birkenstocks (a German footwear with contoured sole) become a global comfort fashion trend, and bangles, a woman’s accessory in India, a rage the world over, it is important to draw the distinction on what really constitutes a rude takeover of a tradition, disrespectful of its origin.

The issue of cultural appropriation is multi-layered, sometimes difficult to understand by those plucking an element from a minority culture. After all, a cultural aspect that is interesting to those who weren’t born within its traditions, or wearing or show-casing it, can even be a great form of flattery.

Susan Scafidi, in her book Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law discusses the ownership of various art forms, such as rap music or Geisha. She explains that people from communities that have been repressed in the past have little protection if their culture is exploited. She points out that U.S. laws offer no protection to folk traditions.

As the world becomes increasingly exposed to traditional cultures, Indians have long basked as a matter of great pride in the slightest incorporation of Indian elements into Western sensibilities. For decades, we celebrated how the sari was adapted on international runways, without any recognition or mention of its Indian origins. In the 1980s, when a British designer came to India and gave traditional garments a drastic new look with pallu slit open and zippered details, combined with a Victorian crinoline skirt, the reaction was one of shock and surprise, but the concern over cultural appropriation was never expressed.

So, what really has changed? Is it that we have become overtly guarded about our traditions? Or is it that the customs have been commoditized without passing on any apparent benefits to native cultures and groups, many of whom have faced repression in the past?

Sociologists contend that communities with a troubled history are more likely to feel offended when their cultural practices are plucked without understanding of their origins. Perhaps that’s why white girls with cornrow hair were criticized as insensitive, because for an entire race hair braiding is a cultural practice and not just a fashion statement.

But the evolving understanding has given us some great examples of favorable nods to traditional cultures as well. Samantha Cameron, wife of former British PM David Cameron, wore a sari for Diwali celebrations and even wore one in 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United Kingdom. The fact that she chose a costume so important and ingrained in Indian culture for an occasion so relevant to Indians was widely hailed as a great example of cultural appreciation. More recently, a British couple Micheal Falk and Alice Dixon became an Internet rage when they performed their wedding dance to the beats of hit Bollywood number London Thumakda from the movie Queen.

While the idea of a White couple gyrating to a Hindi song was reason enough for many Indians to find it cute, there were others reasons it tugged Indian hearts. The couple seemed to be in sync with their moves and it was clear that they did not just pick up high energy beats to match their steps, but had made an effort to understand the context and meaning of the song. After the song went viral the couple admitted in an interview that they love Bollywood and chose the song because they too were moving to the United Kingdom after their wedding, just as the movie’s protagonist Kangana Ranaut had. This careful understanding of the occasion and picking up something from Indian popular culture made the couple’s performance an instant hit.

In 2008, when the Italian fashion house Armani dressed male models in silk dhoti inspired drapes and band-collared jackets during its Men’s Wear presentation in Milan, it was a flattering moment for Indians. Armani also had his models pose in yoga postures on the ramp, giving recognition to the origins of the flowy silk drapes. The company confirmed that it was setting shop in India later that year to export silk dhotis, which provided a practical reason for seeing India on the ramp. The move, although motivated by business, nonetheless gave acknowledgement where it was due and was thus a good illustration of cultural appreciation.

The drive to own all our cultural practices runs the risk of reducing traditional cultures to mementos and museum history. We need to understand that it is as much our privilege to offer a slice of our life to people of other cultures. We need to be accommodating when people make serious efforts to understand our culture and borrow from it. There is as much joy in lending a White colleague a pair of Jodhpuris, as there is in buying a pair of Esparadilles in Spain and wearing it in India. Cultural exchange with a conscience is a beautiful thing and it should flourish in the new world.

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