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…
Thanu Yakupitiyage is Sri Lankan-born immigrant rights activist, writer, and DJ in New York City. She deejays by the name “Ushka.” Follow her on twitter at @ty_ushka.