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India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyoncé's Not One

Yes, We Can Talk About Bey’s Mehendi. But We Need To Go Deeper.

If you are where I’m at, you’re pretty tired of hearing about Coldplay’s vapid, godawful “Hymn for the Weekend” video. I hadn’t even been paying attention until social media starting ringing with criticism of the video’s cultural appropriation and stereotyping of India. Amongst all the online conversations calling out Coldplay for perpetuating age-old stereotypes of India, there was also a backlash against Beyoncé’s “Bollywood” aesthetic during her appearance in the video.  

Thinkpiece after thinkpiece and tweet after tumblr post discussed why the Coldplay video’s stereotypical depictions of India are harmful representations of South Asia. On a surface level, I agree. But I’m also feeling really irked by the lack of nuance of some of the representation-politics arguments.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, roll my eyes at the formulaic “famous white people do India” routine of over-saturated video filters, holy men, the white male gaze at a woman of color and slum children joyfully throwing colorful Holi powder (as if they just carry it year-round in case white tourists like Chris Martin show up).

But this has been done before. As Jamilah King points out in Mic, “Beyoncé and Coldplay are two of world’s most powerful entertainers” who have once again shown how the West sees India. These orientalist tropes have been systematically entrenched in the Western psyche for decades, if not centuries. Edward Said’s Orientalism – a deep-rooted structure of generalizing and ‘othering’ the non-West is alive and well, and Western infatuations with a monolithic “holy India” don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. One can only hope that this cheesy “exotic India” theme that Coldplay and Beyoncé’s tastemakers seem to be running with doesn’t continue into their Superbowl Half Time Show.

While some are focusing on the material – what Beyoncé is wearing – what seems more dangerous to me than the shallow representation politics is how a video like this, already viewed over 23 million times on youtube, actually aids in masking the realities of present day India.

In an interview I conducted with Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit-American transmedia artist whose work focuses on resisting the effects of the caste apartheid system across South Asia, she said:

“I just feel like we must look beyond this trope of ‘white explorers discovering India’ and India being presented as the land of spice and Bollywood and children playing in Holi powder. It’s a national geographic narrative, it’s a colonial narrative – but it’s also a narrative that’s used to sell India to investors and these gaudy, fuzzy images really don’t depict the reality that India is one of the biggest human rights offending states in the world–and it’s now one of the largest Hindu fundamentalist countries in the world.”

Today’s India, governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a known Hindu nationalist and leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are responsible for terrorizing religious minorities across the country. Religiously motivated violence–including the burning of homes and places of worship like mosques and churches, forcing Muslims to convert to Hinduism, and even murder over the consumption of beef–has been on the rise…

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  • Cara Eastcott


  • fruve

    I am repeatedly seeing the NRI-left-radical voice BJP bash and constantly talk about secularism in India. I think their rhetoric is outdated and not considering the current situation in India as a whole. Theirs is such a polarized view. Here’s what I don’t understand:
    1) Why do they think the BJP was elected in the last election? Why the hell is no one talking about dynasty politics?
    2) What about the broken reservation system that excludes hundreds of thousands of middle class kids with the best scores?

    I just think that this article is only taking into consideration a symptom and not the problem beneath it all. The political system, the media, the new india vs the old. There is a lot going on. Also, please remember that every government that wasn’t backed by the Gandhi family has been accused to communal violence. Is that just a coincidence?

    • Eddie STATS

      The BJP was popularly elected, true, but while I cannot speak for the author, the fact that Indian voters expressed their frustration with the corruption of the Cong/Gandhi cartel by voting for Modi (or rather some part of his coalition–it’s probably important to note here that he was not elected as an individual candidate in the same sense that a US president is) is hardly an answer to any of the issues addressed above.

      The op-ed is actually addressed to online commenters–NRI or otherwise–who are obsessing over the appropriation of “Indian culture” rather than questioning why the version of “Indian culture” which gets a global spotlight is so sanitized/Sanskritized. “Because Congress” is not a satisfactory answer.

      …and while we’re up, accused or not “every gov’t not backed by the Gandhi family” has not been involved in sectarian violence on the scale of Modi’s role in the anti-muslim pogroms of 2002 while he was governor of Gujrat. That’s not a spurious accusation–it’s a widely documented atrocity he’s managed to escape accountability for…at least so far.

  • Vivianna Kouwenhoven

    I’m a Canadian of Indian heritage. Life’s nuanced + the present stand of boundaries is often exhausting. India needs to introspect with it’s challenges + really step into an enlightened 21st century–the divides of caste, religion, gender et al prevail at incredible abhorrent levels.
    Perhaps the Cold Play video, beautiful as I see it, has provoked questions. That’s a good thing, but cultural appropriation is hyperbole! It’s a creative piece. Your article raises critical, persistent Indian issues. Indians need to introspect, take responsibility, find positive solutions to a better Bharat! Peace!

  • Manjeet Singh

    Hey, hey! Hold! What’s you gabbing up ‘n ’bout, eh? Cultural misappropriation? Who’s complaining? At this rate the Greeks would want the drama back. And democracy. Germans, the burger, Jews, the sandwich.(Passover was celebrated by a dish of lamb stuffed between matzoh.) Most of modern medicine was invented by Jews and Christians – they want it back. They invented automobiles (Siegfried Marcus) and airplanes – they want you to renounce them. Japs want the sushi back. The church wants you to stop playing diatonic music. The Italians hate when you eat their Pizza, and the Orient detests that you wear toe rings and learn yoga. Since olive oil has strong liturgical roots – its downright blasphemy to consume it.
    Most of the diaspora’s whining about dalit torture in India is wild fantasy – played up in no less measure by a rapacious media (presstitutes) and political circus.
    Let Coldplay and Beyonce be. Stop trumping up nonsensical verse. Stop getting so touchy, folks, you got one life. Let art prevail, let poetic license thrive, let creativity abound.

  • Shreya

    Would it be possible to link to Hossain’s Facebook post? I would love to read the rest of it