Are bindis the tip of the cultural appropriation iceberg?

I’m testing out Facebook’s revamped Notes feature and riffing on bindis and questions cultural appropriation. Apologies if you’re reading a duplicate version of this piece, but it’s a useful way for me to track traffic.

I read this (linked) article this morning and it got me thinking about the wearing of bindis and other cultural markers, and where homage ends and cultural appropriation begins.

There are some very interesting points in this article about the trending habit in western societies for white women to wear bindis. I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but there is a core of belief which I think needs to be further explored.

Bindis are a poor choice for a battleground, especially since they are as much a fashion accessory as cultural/religious symbol even in India (I have some very fancy ones, including ones shaped like peacocks, and studded with coloured glass/plastic beads). However, the article does raise some good arguments about what constitutes an exploration, an homage to other cultures, and what is appropriative and demeaning.

Bindis come in a multiplicity of colours, shapes, and designs. They have morphed from the conservative, traditional red vermillion marker of marriage and religious faith of my early childhood, into the stunning designs and polychromatic beauty accessories of my teens and beyond.

Overlaid on this natural cultural shift from a cultural/religious marker to fashion accessory, is the complexity of cultural diversity within India itself. There’s a tendency to think of India as a culturally unified whole; all women wear saris, all men where dhotis. For anyone who’s spent time in India or around different Indian groups, you’ll know that’s simply not true.

There isn’t a unifying language. Hindi is not the national language, it is one of 24 official languages in use. Let that sink in for a minute. One of 24 official languages. There is, in fact, no national language in India. Hindi and English are the most commonly used, largely because the number of speakers of either/both of those languages far outnumber those of any other language.

There is not one unifying religion in India. However, almost 80% of the population are Hindus. Which brings me to the incredible diversity in practice within Hinduism itself. There are as ways to be a Hindu as there are gods and goddesses in the panoply of deities. Hinduism is a philosophy; long before it was institutionalised as a religion, it was a way of being in the world. It has a belief system that is so broad, so all-encompassing that it even allows for atheism. That’s right, you don’t have to believe in an omniscient creator being or beings to be a Hindu. There’s a whole other tangent I want to go off on here about Hinduism actually being a monotheistic religion, and not polytheistic as it’s often presented… but that’s for another essay. But if you do happen to believe in the presence of a God or Gods or Goddesses, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be the same God, Gods or Goddesses that your friend next door believes in. Neither will the way you worship that God, Gods or Goddesses be the same.

Clothing isn’t uniformly the same from one part of India to the next. Yes, the sari is most commonly identified with Indian women’s clothing, however, there are 9 yard saris and 6 yard saris, worn differently by different cultural groups. In the south western state of Kerala, where my family comes from, saris are not traditional garb. Instead, women wear a mundu veshti; a two piece sari made of muslin. It is the cloth that gave calico its name.

my aunts (both dec.) wearing the traditional Kerala mundu veshti

my aunts (both dec.) wearing the traditional Kerala mundu veshti

When the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company had strongholds in India, they used the southern trading ports along the Malabar coast (Kerala) as their base. Cloth was one of the things regularly bought and sold by these companies (along with spices, gold and so on). Calico and muslin were cloths unfamiliar to Europeans, so they had no name for it. They called it Calicut cloth, after the city of Calicut (Kozhikode), the third largest city in Kerala, and the capital city of the time, which got shortened to calico over time.

The shalwar kameez is common throughout northern India, but wasn’t traditional wear in the south. Dhotis are worn in some states, and not others. Men in Kerala wear mundu, or lungis; themselves a cultural borrowing from Myanmar.

So there’s no unifying language, religion, and not a unifying outfit either.

I deeply appreciate Yaschica Dutt’s statement about the bindi being a point of connection for her, and for millions of other Indian women with their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, with generations of their ancestors. I think she makes an excellent case about how colonising it feels to have that connection treated with such flippancy.

wearing north Indian wedding bindis at an Indian fashion show fundraiser for an university Indian club

wearing north Indian wedding bindis at an Indian fashion show fundraiser for an university Indian club

For me, and many others like me, the pottu or bindi wasn’t something we saw on the women folk in our families. In the photo above, neither of my aunts are wearing a bindi. My mother only wore one when going out, usually to a party, usually very small and unobtrusive. I don’t recall seeing either of my grandmothers wearing bindis, ever. Some aunts wore them, others didn’t, some cousins wear them, others don’t. There’s certainly no consistency in my family on this.

So, my words of caution are that I think we need to be careful when picking the battleground, but we, who are ethnically connected to India, also need to recognise that these markers, that have no consistency within India, are generalised to us. I absolutely stand by Dutt’s assertion that it was appropriative, that it felt like our traditions were being commoditised. When western women wear a bindi, in a setting that isn’t culturally related to India and Indian-ness, it is appropriative.

When cultural identifiers are worn as a fashion statement or an accessory by someone outside of that culture, it can be diminishing of that culture. When white women wear saris and bindis to be edgy, or exotic, it fetishises Indian culture and it is no less demeaning than the “noble savage” trope. It’s superficially intended as a compliment, so it often comes as a shock when Indians object or find it offensive. It’s a “look how much I love your culture! I eat your food and wear your clothes all the time”. But it’s a deliberate cherry picking of the more palatable to western tastes parts of the culture, while shunning the less appealing, less glamorous parts. It’s a putting on of cultural dress up clothes, only to shed them later when the game becomes tedious.

From the perspective of the culture being ‘worn’, it’s yet another form of paternalism. At its core is the arrogant assumption of the right of (predominantly) white women to access those cultural identifiers and use them as they please, for personal profit (Iggy Azalea, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Pussycat Dolls, Katy Perry, I’m side eyeing you in particular). In these scenarios, the people adorning themselves in the cultural garb of “the other” have the option to take those things off, to fit in to mainstream society as they please, to stop the “othering” at any time they choose. It’s the not so distant cousin of putting on blackface.

So when is it homage, or honouring, or sharing? Part of the problem is that there’s no hard and fast guide. If you’re at an Indian friend’s place, and she/he says “hey! I’ve got a bunch of saris and jewellery and cute bindis that never get worn, we should dress up in them!”, you go knock yourselves out. Dress up, have fun, eat, drink, be merry. If you’ve been invited to an Indian wedding and someone in either the bride’s or groom’s family suggests you dress in Indian clothes and wear a bindi, you should totally dress in Indian clothes and wear a bindi. If your whacky Indian sister-in-law decides to have a birthday party at an Indian restaurant and wants everyone to dress up in saris an the like, that’s cool, and fun. When you’re being mindful and empathetic, when you understand that it is a momentary glimpse into a culture, a fleeting experience, when it’s respectful and amplifying rather than accessorising “the other”, that’s generally a good sign that you’re doing it right.

So, is it appropriative when Indian women wear jeans, or Nikes, when they go to nightclubs, or lighten their skin? It is my considered opinion that it is not. Which sounds like a double standard, but let me explain. Appropriation implies a power dynamic — the more powerful taking what they want from the less powerful. In that paradigm, Indian women are not the more powerful. The wearing of jeans and lightening of skin, in no way diminishes a white woman’s cultural identity, earning power, or ability to develop a community. I think skin lightening is actually mass psychosis, and smacks of a hideous inferiority complex, but you do you, boo. You want to bleach your skin in the hopes of attracting a better job, better marriage, or whatever, I’m going to cry for you, but I’m also going to stand by your right to do it.

If, on the other hand, you’re not Indian and you’re going to wear a sari or bindi to perform on a music video not remotely related to Indian culture, and you’re going to directly profit from it, I’m going to be irritated, offended, and probably dismissive of you.

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