Saffron-clad sadhus, glamorous dusky beauties, colourful temples and larger-than-life Bollywood movie posters: Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” has all that India is perceived to be. A good number of Indians, mainly via Twitter, seem annoyed by the video and feel this is cultural appropriation; that the portrayal comes at the cost of what “real India” is. They feel our diverse culture has been stereotyped and narrowed down to a few traditional markers.
But what is the real India? For a clueless Twitter user angry at all things on earth, real India could mean a highly liberal democracy which raises software and tech wizards with no space for disparity. Or, probably, a country which either lacks a culture or has a culture based inside Twitter, not tradition, inside Facebook, not festivals, and in rich cosmopolitan colonies and not villages, temples, holy babas and elegant dance forms.
The outrage, unfortunately, reflects either a state of denial or discomfort about the embedded truths of India or a total lack of awareness. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that while discussing these “Indianisms”, pride is the dominating feeling among ourselves, but it turns to anger when a white person on “poverty tourism” points out the same things.
It’s true that any cultural identity has much more to offer than half a dozen clichéd attributes. But we cannot help it; each culture has its own idiosyncrasies, which are historically best captured in works of art, whether it be Spain’s bull-fighting or Africa’s tribes. And when art does so, it depicts, not mocks; it shows what the consumers love, it does not claim in any way that art is academia – the total picture.
We earn nearly $20 billion in foreign exchange from our tourism industry annually. Our distinct cultural aspects pull tourists in and we are proud of it. We leverage the very same clichéd cultural markers to earn 3 per cent of our GDP: the same clichés that we do not want Chris Martin to leverage.
Young and urban India is changing fast, and it is fair for us to want the world to know this and depict that in art, music and cinema. But it takes time for the world to shift mindsets formed long before Jules Verne talked of elephants, princes and processions in Around The World In Eighty Days.
Stereotypes have existed as long as diverse human settlements have. If Indians command a certain stereotype, we cannot really help it, except by breaking it. And a stereotype about a culture can be broken only when the whole country works towards it.
We inspire certain stereotypes because we have reflected that in the past, and it is essential to accept that uniformly and take it in good humour, not only when it suits us.