Category Archives: Culture

Culturally Appropriate or Cultural Appropriation? A Few Thoughts

by Priya Chhaya

In early April, pop star Selena Gomez incited media buzz when she appeared in public wearing a bindi. She is not the first celebrity to wear something Indian, but I have to ask:

Should I feel offended that someone has chosen to appropriate a piece of Indian cultural identity for entertainment? Or is it another sign of how elements of my heritage have trickled into the American subconscious? If she “meant well,” is it OK? Or is it never OK for someone who is not Indian to wear such a symbol without preserving its meaning? And, at what point does something go from being culturally appropriate to cultural appropriation?

Selena Gomez image

Let’s consider three scenarios.

Scenario 1: So You Think You Can Dance contestants perform a Bollywood-style dance number. The performance includes elements of hip-hop and classical Indian styles.

Scenario 2: Selena Gomez hires a composer to add tabla and sitar to a song to give it a strong beat. She attends performances wearing Indian clothing, and composes a video that includes elements of Indian dancing.

Scenario 3: Akon, an American hip-hop artist is asked by a Bollywood producer to sing on a major Bollywood movie track. That song, Chammak Challo, becomes a global hit, with the hip-hop artist singing all the Hindi lyrics himself.

As I consider these scenarios, I realize: it’s complicated.

So You Think You Can Dance performances include forms from many cultures. Here, dance is like a language — without boundaries, with different dialects but easily understandable as a form of expression. I consider this to be culturally appropriate because the compositions and choreography pays due respect to the dance forms as a form of expression-without reducing its origins to a stereotype.

Chammak Challo is a little grayer. On one hand, its melds two musical forms from two different countries, but he’s a non-native speaker singing in Hindi. As a publicity/marketing piece for Ra.One, it worked really well but there is a potential for misunderstanding—did he understand what he was singing, or was it a form of mimicry? I think it was culturally appropriate, because while he was singing in a foreign language, he didn’t try and change his image or try to fit his persona into what someone-singing-in-Hindi should look like.

Which brings me back to Selena Gomez. The song has a catchy hook, but the music video places the tabla players with turbans around a fire in a desert and her dancers perform the stereotypical snake-charmer head movement that has come to represent Indian dancing. This seems like appropriation to me because it reinforces age-old stereotypes of exoticisms and the “other.”  This re-enforcement continues through her attire and performances where she tried to ‘become’ Indian in a way that rings false.

Today, Indians and Indian-Americans defy stereotypes. We are authors, congressional representatives, and CEO’s of major American corporations, and I still get excited when I see barriers being broken in the entertainment industry such as Mindy Kaling on the Mindy Project or Amitabh Bachchan in the Great Gatsby.  As such, Indians and India should not been seen or presented through one specific lens or a single caricature.

What do you think?


Diwali in the U.S.

Happy Diwali from the Indian American Heritage Project! Diwali is an auspicious and vibrant holiday for Indian Americans, marking the New Year and reminding us of the philosophical triumph of light over darkness. Here is a selection of images commemorating Diwali in the US. Some will be featured in our upcoming exhibition, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.

— Masum Momaya

Indian Americans – especially those of Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Sikh faith – have been celebrating diwali, the festival of lights, since the first communities settled here in the late 1800s. Photograph by Roup Hardowar.

The spiritual underpinnings of Diwali – which honor the triumph of light over darkness – were introduced to American audiences in 1893. That year, three men from the Indian subcontinent – Virchand Gandhi (a Jain), Anagarika Dharmapala (a Buddhist) and Swami Vivekananda (a Hindu) – introduced their respective philosophies at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

The US’ first gurudwara, built in Stockton, California in 1912, has served as a gathering place to celebrate many Indian holidays, including diwali, for 100 years. Photograph courtesy of Amelia Singh Neterwala.

Diwali commemorates the New Year for Indian Americans. Here, members of the Hindu Temple of Maple Grove, Minnesota mark the occasion in 2010 with a puja, or ritual offering to deities. Photograph by Baskar Gopalan.

In Jainism, the flame of the diya, or lamp, marks the liberation of the human soul after it has accounted for all its karma, or the consequences of thoughts and actions. Photograph courtesy of the Jain Center of Northern California.

In Buddhism, lighting the candle honors the path of the Buddha in attaining enlightenment. Here, Indian American Buddhists in Fremont, California, honor the Buddha in the presence of monks and nuns of the sangha, or congregation. Photograph by Brenda Walsh.

Indian Americans – especially those of Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Sikh faith – have been celebrating diwali, the festival of lights, since the first communities settled here in the late 1800s. Photograph by Roup Hardowar.

Indian Americans – especially those of Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Sikh faith – have been celebrating diwali, the festival of lights, since the first communities settled here in the late 1800s. Photograph by Roup Hardowar.

During Diwali, the homes of Indian Americans are adorned to welcome the New Year with rangoli of flowers, rice and diyas, or small lamps. Photograph by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier.


My Silver Gods Come to America

We are excited to announce that Lavina Melwani is a new blogger for the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project.

Lavina's silver Gods

The Silver Gods Come to America  (Photo: Lavina Melwani)

By Lavina Melwani

For many Indians living in America, India is the talisman, the sacred thread around their wrists, which connects them to the past and their changing tomorrows. Visit any Indian American family and there are bound to be keepsakes that link them to their lost homeland.

For some, it may be a frayed album of photographs frozen in time. For others, it may be a much-loved folk painting or a pair of tablas (percussion drums). For me, it is my silver icons of Krishna and Radha, on their own carved throne, which sits is in my home in Long Island, NY.

I look at it and I am transported back to my home in New Delhi in the India of decades ago. My mother would bathe the many Gods in her home shrine and carefully put new clothing on these mini figurines, cutting holes in silken cloth with a small pair of scissors. This was followed by prayers and sweet prasadam, a part of the rhythm and ritual of the house.

As a new immigrant to America in the 80’s, when markers of India seemed to be few and far between, this little silver talisman became my connection to the homeland. If we happened to see Indians on the streets of New York, we would run to chat with them, to connect with a disappeared world. Sometimes these new roadside friends, equally happy to see us, would impulsively invite us home to have a cup of chai and samosas. I would see their little bits and pieces of India—wall hangings and crafts—all lovingly hand-carried to a new world, and I would know I was not alone.

In the old days the connection with India was static, painful, and almost one way—a link kept alive by expensive phone calls where the line crackled and voices seemed faint and far away. There was a feeling of foreboding that the world you left would get realigned and your place in it would be gone forever.

Now, India is as near as the typing on your keyboard via email, a chat via Skype, or a Facebook status update. You can talk forever on the phone with loved ones across oceans, for pennies. The changing world and a changing India have made the road between the two countries a Yellow Brick Road to be merrily skipped across. New York has become an outpost of India and New Delhi an outpost of America. You can live in two worlds—and be the richer for it.

My silver Gods now preside over a large closet in my mango-colored writing room, surrounded by books, magazines, and family pictures. Red Delicious apples from Waldbaum’s are the prasad I offer them, and the fragrance of gulab incense sticks from the Patel Brothers grocery store permeates the air.

My Gods seem very at home in America, and so am I.


Lavina Melwani is an award-winning journalist who has written for several international publications including: India Today, Newsday, The Week, WSJ, Travel Plus and The Hindu. She lives in New York. Her online magazine, Lassi with Lavina, is about Indian art and culture. Click here to visit her website, Lassi with Lavina.

In the following essays, she explores Indian-American life, journeys to India, America and the emerging self.


The Salad Bowl

HomeSpun is proud to offer another guest blog, this time from the Bay Area. Shefali Razdan Duggal is a highly recognized member of the Indian American and broader American political landscape. Here, she shares personal thoughts on the potential within the South Asian American community.

Shefali Razdan Duggal

Shefali Razdan Duggal

by Shefali Razdan Duggal

As I have progressed in years and hopeful maturity, I have more earnestly discovered the concept of working together, working as a team towards a larger goal.  There are some instances when singular focus is necessary, although in many cases, the individual contribution to a larger group effort is often very beneficial towards a task or targeted goal.  This holds true for all folks, especially those within ethnic communities in the United States.  To broadly want to see our South Asian community excel, in all aspects of life and career, will benefit all sectors of our community, as well as current and future generations.  The elders who came to this country so many years back did so for a thoughtful, selfless reason—to accelerate the conditions, on all levels, of our community.  While the historic culture which we cherish and maintain, to the best of our ability, could oft teach a few thoughtful lessons about old, revered ways of living and worship, any community can learn and benefit from the advances of another.

The blending of  old and new, into a beautiful collage of diverse ways of thought and action, will create a colourful new landscape of perception, culture and practice.  And, this will occur most seamlessly when we, within our culture, work as a team, for a greater purpose…the betterment of our circumstance and that of our children’s future.  And, this can be done when we permit different ways of thought to trickle into our minds and hearts, thoughts which seem and feel beneficial for the greater humanity, and then institute these thought processes into our current perspectives.  The end result is an emerging thought-process, which benefits both of the original landscapes.  How beautiful that God created such a structure for all of us to learn from—a classroom of 6 billion spread across the globe.

Shefali Razdan Duggal is a member of the National Finance Committee for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. She was Executive Director of Indus Women Leaders, a national South Asian women’s organization. Shefali was born in India and has lived in Cincinnati, Chicago, New York and Boston.


Happy Diwali!

Diwali at the Mandir by Amyn Kassam

Above: Diwali celebrations at the Mandir (Hindu temple) in Missouri City, Texas. Photo by Amyn Kassam (Flickr).

Diwali, the festival of lights, was celebrated by more than 2 million American Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs on October 26, 2011.  It’s observed on the last day of the lunar calendar to celebrate the beginning of a new year. A traditional candle or “diya” is lit to symbolize victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.

From the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program (APAP), we wish you and your family a Happy Diwali and a prosperous New Year!

HomeSpun is a national initiative of the APAP chronicling the stories of immigrants from India and later generations in the US.  Share your favorite Diwali memories on HomeSpun’s Facebook page.

Note: Photo above is from Flickr, a photo sharing website, within the photographer’s specified creative commons license conditions of use. 


Culture Sampling: South Asian Hip-Hop Concert Celebrates Desi Artists

Painting by Art Under Pressure

Painting by Art Under Pressure, commissioned by Subcontinental Drift and acquired by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program for "Drift Elemental," D.C.'s first South Asian hip-hop show, 9-23-11.

by Aditya Desai

The District’s cultural nerve center in the U Street corridor was host to a South Asian hip-hop concert last month, showcasing performances by Indian American MCs, rappers, beat-boxers, and dancers.

The concert, dubbed Drift Elemental and hosted by local South Asian arts organization Subcontinental Drift, drew a heavy crowd on Friday, both Desi and non-Desi, all present to support art and bust a few dance moves.

As they took the stage, the MCs paid tribute to the old school hip-hop that they grew up listening to, each song set an emphatic homage to the culture of back-door hip-hop clubs. That night, New York’s DJ Insomnia and his crew of turntable maestros backed up the vocalists. In between acts, they took center stage and mixed a live dance set, allowing the crowd to not just witness, but in a sense “re-live” the same experience the artists were paying homage to. Filled out by a performance from breakdancers, the night overall stayed very much in the world of one-mic MCs, scratching vinyls, heavy bass beats, and subliminal lyrics.

Vocal acts from Raja Wilco, Ko the Timeless, and Navi & The Whole Damme Delegation set the tone for the night, with lurid rhymes that didn’t wax too poetic about the usual immigrant strife, but still carried the weight of cultural tensions.

And really, why make a big deal of it? It was a South-Asian event, the crowd was mostly populated by brown faces. The show was full-on embrace not of the Indian ancestry, but rather the heritage that these Desi MCs have created in the States.

Just as these MCs grew up with Run DMC, Notorious BIG, and Doug E. Fresh, other Desi kids across the country are striving to be rock legends, pop divas, or symphony stars. Though offhand it would seem that there was too much emphasis on the “Western” aspect, artists would engage with the audience between songs to give background and perspective on encountering these musical styles. For example, an R&B-influenced ballad was always framed in response to Bollywood romance numbers.

The hope is always, of course, that the Indian background is able to bring a fresh spin to the art – not only to keep the Eastern traditions alive, but also to bring a new vibrancy to the Western. Such collaborations aren’t uncommon – Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, Jay-Z and Punjabi MC, Snoop Dogg and Pritam – but perhaps to think of the new horizon: the two musical styles embedded into the single artists.

Perhaps symbolic of the notion was the live-painted mural done by graffiti artists in the concert venue. Though the subcontinent looms in the background, the hijab-donning woman is looks out at us, spray-can in hand, ready to make her mark on the rest of the world.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Culture, Entertainment


You Can Take It With You

by Priya Chhaya


A room once full of books, electronics, posters, and photographs now bare. Each item packed away into cardboard boxes that all look the same. Boxes, filled with nearly everything you own in two cars.

Moving Out.

Two words that mean so much more than just the act of packing up your belongings and transporting them into a new living situation. Here in the United States the traditional path is that kids leave home after college (or even earlier, after high school) either because a parent wants the kids to learn responsibility, and other times because the kid wants some independence. To feel more like an adult.

For Indian American children moving out, while more commonplace than years past, is connected to jobs and opportunities that are in areas not close to where they grew up. And having said that, for many female Indian American’s moving out is an even tougher decision—and much of that has to do with the belief that the daughter stays in her father’s house until marriage.

It’s hard to tell how many girls today are bound by that belief, in my case the rationalization for staying at home had a lot to do with saving up rather than any restrictions by my parents, but as I took that leap from home to apartment a few weeks ago I found myself wondering: How much of my “Indianness” is based on where I lived? I know for some Indian American kids that tug of war can be strong and combative, while for others remains a gentle pull. And as a friend recently reminded me, where you stand depends on how much of the ritual, the traditions, you actually understand.

In my case, after five years post-graduate school, I wanted to try to live a version of the American dream. I wanted to take care of myself, to be independent, to make a space my own. So as I put my books, clothes and posters in boxes, as I bought furniture, and cooking supplies, and took an inventory of clothes to take, and what to give to the Salvation Army, I also began to pack up my life lessons from my parents: doing aarthi before going on a long trip, actually making roti and daal on my own, calling India to talk to my grandmother—instead of waiting for my turn when my parents called. Habits and ways of life that I wanted to take with me without the prompting and encouragement of my mom.

As for things I’ll leave behind? I think dependency is one of them.  Living at home was never terrible—but I think it unconsciously limited me from taking risks and being spontaneous—staying in the city to meet up with friends for example. Sometimes being comfortable means that there isn’t room to grow, room to stretch, room to become what you want to be.

While it has only been two weeks, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve taken and what I’ve left behind, but I know that it has been a definite learning experience. Not to mention moments when you miss the two people who have given you all the encouragement and support in the world.

For those intrepid Indian Americans thinking of moving out here are a few things to add to the “To Do” list: Check to make sure you are within an auspicious month. Then if you are Hindu like me, be armed with statues of Ganesh (I now have at least three in my bedroom) to bless the house. My roommate who is from Chennai boiled some milk (a ceremony known as pal kachal, which is symbolic of the first domestic act in the house/literally a house warming), while my mother (we are from Gujarat) did a short prayer and left a booklet of prayers in the house so it would be there before I actually spent the night. Finally, when setting up your furniture bring a compass to make sure your bed is facing in the right direction—North/South is best.

Remember, while moving out is for all a way of “cutting the chord” that tethers you to where you grew up, not everything has to stay behind. That culture, that history, those lessons are parts of your identity that you can take with you into the future.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on September 9, 2011 in Culture, Family, Identity


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