What is Indian? An open letter to BuzzFeed Videos on what it means when you call something Indian.

Dear BuzzFeed Videos,

It’s a rainy evening in my part of the world. It’s cold on this Sunday evening and Im doing the obvious: searching to watch something that will make me laugh, think or intrigue me enough to decompress the weight of the week just passed.

I happen on this video. No clue why I clicked on it, but perhaps my ascending age, Indian heritage, gender-based social programming will account for an answer to that.

Im writing to you because of the claims made in the video. Sure you know what happens, but for those who don’t, and since this is an open letter, let me break it down:

It starts off with a model in a red lehenga-choli and a diaphanous dupatta twirling to the beats of ODESZA’s Say My Name and this text appears on the screen:

Red and gold are traditional colours for Indian bridal outfits.

Yes, perhaps. This follows soon after:

Bridal dresses are often adorned with jewels and can often be other eye-catching colours depending on the region or culture.

VERY NICE. Im liking the bend towards inclusivity and the use of the word ‘often’.

All the while the model is seen in different configurations of bridal clothes ranging in the colour scheme of red, scarlet, maroon and magenta.

Then this visual and text appears: Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 6.06.12 pm

Alright.

Next, a golden Ganesha statuette appears on screen followed by the model (bride) being garlanded with flowers and this text appears with it:

The jaimala is the exchange of flower garlands, symbolising the union of partners.

Cut to the Ganesha statuette again and shortly after, this:

Brides adorn themselves in gold to invoke the goddess Lakshmi and her blessings of prosperity.

Right. OK.

And just as this shot below appears, I know that it’s no longer a video about “Iconic” “Indian” Bridal Styles.
Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 6.16.51 pm.png

I say this because the video equates Indian to mean one thing. One cultural belief. It enforces one kind of story about what Indian means. I can’t support that.

It implies that weddings in India have a fire around which the couple take vows, all brides wear Mehendi and the exchange of flower garlands is common practice in these weddings. All of this is partly true. And this is where I take issue with this video.

What bothers me is the claim this video makes that THESE here are the ICONIC and INDIAN bridal styles (and Indian wedding practices). The only Indian bridal styles, in a sense. It doesn’t say so, but the implication is loud and clear.

It started off quite nicely by suggesting that styles may differ because of the difference in region and culture, but stopped just at that.

It excludes so many Indian bridal wedding styles. For example what about the Syrian Christian bride from Kerala, or the Khasi bride from Meghalaya? Is their bridal couture not haut enough to be “Iconic Indian”?

Why am I bothering with this?

Because representation matters.

When people start producing content which categorises and in effect portrays a particular culture/group of people to mean one thing it sets stereotypes, it sets the narrative, which basically sets like cement does.

It fixes the narrative of what ‘Iconic’ and ‘Indian’ bridal styles can mean. Sure there are people who are smart enough to take all this with several pinches of salt, and just enjoy it for what it is. But the problem arises when this happens too many times.

The growing and sustained narrative in India about culture or beliefs is set by the majority. And that’s not ok. Because it is exclusive and seeks to further one type of story about what being Indian means.

Videos such as these reach a large audience, who may or may not be affected or influenced by its content. Hoping it’s more of the latter. But the video adds to the majority narrative, of what a default “Indian” bride is. In its narrow portrayal, it does not seek to include, or even attempt to state that there are other kinds of Indian bridal styles. Instead, it seeks to portray not only bridal couture of a particular group of people, but also presents their wedding rituals as “Indian” without ever suggesting that these are Hindu customs, which are PART of the larger cultural group (s) that live in India and identify as Indian.

This video says Indian = Hindu. This is true.

Although the implication comes across as Indian = (only) Hindu. And this isn’t true.

And before people identifying themselves as Hindus jump at me for pointing this out, let me say I have nothing against you as people practicing their cultural beliefs. But I have a problem when content creators, creatives, producers & directors envision “Indian” as meaning only one particular kind or culture. It is incorrect and unfair.

BuzzFeed Videos, I don’t think this will reach your creatives in the meaningful way I want it to and certainly will not affect their creative processes for the next “Indian” “Iconic” video they make, but I had to say what I did.

I live overseas currently. I am constantly battling what being Indian means when I meet non-Indian people who are at times surprised by me being an Indian (for various reasons like language, appearance, food choices etc).

When I talk to such people I tell them that Indians are diverse. Indians live and thrive within their communities with people from different cultures, faiths and backgrounds. Of course they do so with their own individual struggles (gender, cast, class – I don’t intend to prettify that) – but all in all never presenting one type of India.

So, why do such creative outputs come to be? Outputs which are forever pander to the narrative of the majority, the mainstream, the single story of what Indian means?

Majority is authority, right?

 

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