Cultural appropriation or appreciation?

Thru’ the Looking Glass

Growing globalisation and migration have spurred the spread, and adoption, of many elements of cultural identity -- things such as music, food, attire, yoga, and spirituality.

The first time I saw a swastika in India, I was shocked and uncomfortable. Being unfamiliar with such religious symbols, I knew it only as the symbol used by the Nazis in Germany. Indeed, to uninformed westerners, the swastika represents the face of fascism and hatred. I couldn’t help wondering what it was doing in India. Although I was relieved to learn of its ancient existence and use as a positive symbol of well-being by various communities around the world, it still disturbs me how this sacred symbol has been twisted and tainted in the worst possible way.  

Growing globalisation and migration have spurred the spread, and adoption, of many elements of cultural identity -- things such as music, food, attire, yoga, and spirituality. In western countries, bindis and mehendi are flaunted at music festivals, huge crowds gather to throw coloured powder at Holi-themed events, and Sikh turbans have accessorised white heads on fashion show runways. Not surprisingly, allegations of “cultural appropriation” are flowing thick and fast. But does it always have merit?

My friend Perry Garfinkel, a Caucasian of Eastern European descent, who is a respected journalist and author, recently told me he’d been accused of cultural appropriation. I couldn’t believe it. What exactly would he have appropriated? As it turns out, Gandhi’s moral values. He’s writing a book called Being Gandhi. It’s about his attempt to live like Gandhi for a year, in particular his attempt to “follow the Mahatma’s moral principles in these immoral times”. Great idea (albeit quite audacious), right? After all, the world is, undeniably, troubled by a dysfunctional moral compass.

The problem is that while he has travelled in and written about India for 30-odd years, people doubt that he, a Jew who practices Buddhist meditation, could bring enough understanding and credibility to the subject. Among some of his Indian friends, he was deemed condescending for thinking he knows enough about Indian culture to “write a book on Gandhi”. Never mind that it’s not actually a book on Gandhi, but a book on what it would be like to follow, on a daily basis, the moral principles espoused by Gandhi for everyone (not just Hindus, or Indians).

What’s important is whether there is really anything wrong with adopting someone’s moral values. Perry isn’t being disrespectful to Gandhi but, rather, is experiencing and sharing Gandhi’s principles to help improve the world. The more encouragement the better for people to live truthfully, simply, and non-violently. No doubt Perry’s publisher in India must feel Indians need to hear what he’s doing, since Gandhi is often taken for granted, rejected politically, or revered without knowing why.

It’s all too easy for overly sensitive people to get offended about something or the other these days. Cultures are going to keep on mingling though. A “hands-off my culture” reaction will only make people wary and reluctant to connect with and explore, unfamiliar cultures. It’s better that they be enabled to embrace such cultures in meaningful and thoughtful ways.

Indians increasingly celebrate Christmas without following Christianity. Some people have Christmas trees but say they are celebrating Winter Solstice. Celebrating the American Thanksgiving festival is now a trend in India, too. Does it matter if Indians don’t grasp the history of it? These festivals may be commercialised, but adopting them promotes cultural integration and harmony.

When I visited a remote tribal market in Odisha earlier this year, Bonda women were assertively selling their traditional long-beaded necklaces to foreign tourists for hefty prices. They didn’t care who’d be wearing them. The necklaces were beautiful and distinctive -- a real talking point that deserved to be shown off. Yet, I didn’t buy any. The sight of me wearing a bindi periodically raises the ire of woke people online. I hate to think what a rare tribal necklace would do.

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