Bindis, Bharatanatyam, and Bollywood: An Indian student reflects on Cultural Appropriation

In today’s day and age, we have to become more careful with the things we say, the things we do and the things we wear. That’s the expected behaviour when one wants to be seen as  respecting other cultures. But things get complicated when one doesn’t realise what they’re doing is cultural appropriation. So, that begs the question “what is cultural appropriation?”

Basically, cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts a tradition or characteristic from a culture that they don’t originate from. But breaking it down a little further, it is when someone of a dominant culture adopts something of a culture that has been oppressed by the dominant one. Three recent events have succeeded in bringing the issue of cultural appropriation to the forefront.

The topic of culture appropriation suddenly took centre stage when Kylie Jenner posted a picture of her hair in cornrows. When Kylie Jenner posted the picture of her hair in cornrows on Instagram, people of African descent immediately accused her of cultural appropriation even though she meant no harm. To the contrary, the fact that Kylie Jenner even used that hair-style likely meant she liked this feature of the African culture and wasn’t trying to insult it.

As the controversy regarding Jenner escalated, celebrities like Amandla Stenberg, famously known for her act in the Hunger Games, took to Instagram and responded.

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Behind the veil of social media, backlash for cultural appropriation deemed unjustified can be quick and accusatory.

Perhaps Amandla Stenberg may have taken the fashion statement a little too personally.  Kylie Jenner didn’t do anything but post a picture of a hairstyle she liked on herself.  Another brouhaha over cultural appropriation relates to when Selena Gomez’s 2013 performance in  her song “Come and Get it” live at the MTV movie awards. She was criticised for wearing a bindi and was branded “insensitive” by Hindu religious leaders.

The bindi is a red dot worn on the forehead and is said to be the sixth chakra or the third eye of spiritual wisdom . It can be drawn on, or could come in the form of stickers and placed between the eyebrows or on the forehead.

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Selena Gomez was criticised for her performance at the MTV Movie Awards 2013 for wearing a bindi.

I would say that if one is adopting the culture’s clothing or thinking in a respectful manner, it is not cultural appropriation. When asked about the performance and choice of clothing, Shivani Chatterjee, a 10th grade student at SAS, said, “Sometimes you don’t know what it means even when you’re a Hindu, so I’m okay with it”.

When I look back at myself,  I have worn bindis since I was a kid without ever knowing the significance of the bindi – at least not until  I looked it up on google. My mother has worn her bindis of varying colours and shapes without  knowing its  significance until I told her. And that is why when Selena Gomez was criticised for wearing the bindi,  I found the entire situation a little strange. To me the bindi has and continues to be fashion statement  and not a religious one. However I realised if I’m wearing it for fashion and not insulting my culture, is it cultural appropriation? Since I am Indian and Hindu, not many would argue that it is cultural appropriation. Thus, why would it be a big deal if Selena Gomez wore a slightly different design without knowing the meaning behind it?

 

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Coldplay was criticized for portraying India “a little over the top” in their music video for the recent single “Hymn For The Weekend”.

Similarly, another musical group was accused of cultural appropriation. Coldplay’s music video for the song “Hymn for the Weekend” which was filmed in Mumbai featured the festival of Holi being played on the streets, along with Bharatnatyam dancers, old movies and Beyonce in an Indian getup acting as an actress. While I felt the video looked magical, most of the internet didn’t feel so and started accusing the Coldplay  of cultural appropriation. But going back to the definition of cultural appropriation, they weren’t portraying the culture of India the way it isn’t. Sure, if you go to India, the streets won’t be filled with kids throwing holi colours at each other and the city may not be as colourful as seen as in the video but many aspects  of the Indian culture the video depicted were accurate. It was just all bundled into one video, making it seem a little over the top but nevertheless accurate.

While the argument about whether artists need to portray reality in their videos has its merits, not all viewers are looking for realistic portrayals in an entertainment video.  The honest reality is that without the vibrant colours and the exaggerated emotions, the video would be dull and boring. As an Indian, I take no offence to the video because I know  that people don’t play with holi colours everyday on the roads. So, my message to the critics would be to set reality aside and just enjoy the video for the entertainment value that it stands for.

I find it rather ironical that when people want to embrace facets of  different cultures because they  appreciate them the cultural brigade raises its head and accuses them of disrespecting  a religion or tradition.

If people aren’t allowed to explore the variety of traditions and fashion of amongst society’s many religions, then what happens to cultural diversity?

With that said, in environments like Singapore, and more closely SAS, cultural diversity is prominent with the amount of third culture kids inhabiting it. .

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If the representative of a given culture doesn’t know the meaning behind a particular cultural convention, why stop people of other cultures who also don’t know the meaning?

“I feel like me and everyone here- we are all third culture kids and we take aspects from each other’s culture and kind of incorporate that into our own”, Lauren Pong,10th Grade, explained. “That wouldn’t be cultural appropriation because we are kind of trying to understand other cultures while at the same time not insult them”.

I truly understand that a lot of these cultures had to struggle and hold deep meaning in the things they do, wear and celebrate. Cornrows of the African origin or Hindu bindis hold great meaning behind them and to make fun or misuse them ignorantly would be unacceptable.

On the other hand, there could be another way to look at the situation. It’s not the problem with the culture, it’s a problem with the people. One doesn’t need to stop wearing what one wants, eat what one wants or practise what one wants just because people ridicule one or call one orthodox. One also doesn’t need to reprimand people who are trying to appreciate their culture and if they aren’t doing a good enough job, tell them how to do a better job. There are some people who purposefully make fun of culture and there are those who don’t mean to. It’s up to everyone to figure out which type deserves to be criticized. 

 

 

 

Author: Aditi Balasubramanian

Aditi Balasubramanian is a junior at SAS and a second year reporter for The Eye. This is her third year at SAS. She has lived in Singapore her whole life. In her free time, she enjoys writing, reading books and watching "Gilmore Girls" which may have fuelled her interest in being a journalist. She loves eating risotto, pasta and Indian food. She can be contacted at balasubram47401@sas.edu.sg.

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