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

Hymn For The Weekend: India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyoncé's Not One

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyonc\u00e9'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 afterthinkpiece 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 beendone before. AsJamilah 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, aDalit-American transmedia artistwhose 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 andplaces of worship like mosques and churches,forcing Muslims to convert to Hinduism, andeven murder over the consumption of beef--has been on the rise...

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyonc\u00e9's Not One

...and with Hindu fundamentalism at anall time high in India, caste discrimination remains rampant, from thedeliberate burning of Dalit children last yearto the recent death ofDalit PhD student Rohith Vemula, who took his own life after being discriminated against by the University of Hyderabad.

While the world focuses on the art direction of a Coldplay video,students across India are protesting caste apartheidas universitiescontinue to discriminate against lower caste studentsPrachi Patankar, awriter and activist in New York City, sums up the irony this way:

"I don't give a damn about appropriation in a music video; that is the least of the problems facing our people over there. None of the people who are raising a stink about this whole Coldplay and Beyoncé video have once pointed out what is actually going on in India - where people are being threatened and murdered for speaking out against Hindu fundamentalists, where Dalit kids continue to commit suicide and drop out of school because being a part of extremely caste-ist school systems makes life unbearable. Dalit women's and men's bodies are dehumanized and violated on a daily basis, sadhus and yoga gurus are sexually exploiting women in unspeakable ways. Why are they not angry about that?"

Thenmozhi Soundararajan continues to contextualize the Coldplay video’s exotic tropes in juxtaposition to the situation on the ground.

I think that when you are choosing to engage and make content in a country in a socially networked age, you can’t make content without being aware of what’s happening. I just felt like it was not respectful. It was not the time for that kind of a release. It’s both content and the timing.”

Even when it comes to the religious tropes evoked in Coldplay’s video – from the saffron-robed Sadhus in a forest, levitating holy men and a blue-skinned child Krishna smack in the middle of bustling Mumbai – the exoticism of this particular imagery replicates a dangerous monolithic picture of all of India as “Hindu.”

Soundararajan says, “I think there’s this idea of presenting these Hindu deities and spiritual practices of Hinduism as being primarily linked to what it means to be “Indian”--but in fact India is religiously diverse. The fight to keep its diversity and to keep its secularity is actually core to the resistance of many of the people’s movements who are actively fighting for a secular space in the country today. The homogenization of what happens in our regions simply to be able to be easily consumed as a tourist package is really disrespectful and is not what we need to be seeing in 2016.”

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyonc\u00e9's Not One

Finally, there is the specific critique aimed at Beyoncé. Many online South Asian voices argued that Beyoncé is complicit in “cultural appropriation” because of her dress, her headpiece, and her mehendi-covered hands, stating thatSonam Kapoor, the actual Bollywood actress who has a cameo in the video,should have had a larger role. Others say these criticisms of Bey in particular are justanother form of anti-black racism and that ultimately the outcry isbecause she is a black woman posing as a Bollywood star.

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyonc\u00e9's Not One

The reality is that Chris Martin’s colonial stance throughout the video has a starkly different historical baggage than Beyoncé’s role in it.  After all, let us not forget that the entire Indian Subcontinent was under British rule for 200 years. Martin in essence depicts the ever-present remnants of colonial India, while Beyoncé--a vision on a movie screen, a goddess-like, albeit appropriative, figure--seems to depict the British colonial fantasy of Mother India, inappropriately sexualized and gazed upon by the colonizer. It is that very same white gaze that marks the West’s relationship to Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America.

While Beyoncé’s “character” is a troubling depiction, my concern is less with her individual presence in the video than the message it sends about Western and White power over brown and black bodies. The critiques aimed at Bey have become an unfortunate brown vs. black "who is appropriating who" narrative that misses the point, as Patankar explains:

"We should not be pointing fingers at our Black friends for not calling out Bey. I think this is anti-black racism. Our communities are so deeply anti-black, whether in the U.S or in South Asia. Just days ago, we saw thebrutal beating of a Tanzanian woman in Bangalore. It’s shameful! Given this, we need to think twice when we wag our finger at black people for something that is already exoticized and appropriated by our own diasporic community.I feel that suddenly South Asians are jumping on this because they feel like they now have a pass to say something -- like ‘see, you do it too.’  I am deeply offended by it."

While representation is important, we must also spend some time thinking about what representation we are talking about. For many dark-skinned South Asians, myself included,  you won’t see us represented in Bollywood, where light-skinned beauty is upheld above all else. In a region where theuse of skin-lightening creams is encouraged and where you'll rarely see anactress darker than a paper bag, Beyonce playing the part of a Bollywood actress is not my concern.

Yes, it’s appropriation. And no it’s not South Asia’s biggest problem.

In this reductive "Hands Off My Bindi" war against Western stereotyping of Indian "culture," are we suggesting that Bollywood - a billion dollar industry that has on multiple occasionsperpetuated blackface and other stereotypes and on a daily basis sends a message to millions of South Asians that beauty equals light skin – is the “culture” we are defending?  

India's Got 99 Problems...But Beyonc\u00e9's Not One

Should we not, at the same time as we rightfully point out recurring Western Orientalism in pop culture, interrogate our own defense of Bollywood as it stands? Are we willing to challenge the Desi film industry to better represent the millions of people who don't in fact see themselves (nor their skin tones) in theMadhuri Dixits andAishwarya Rais andSonam Kapoorsof actual Bollywood movies? Will we critique Beyoncé's appearance in this altogether forgettable Coldplay video and not also tweet about why Bollywood welcomeswhite women as back up dancers in many Bollywood movies?  

Only when we are simultaneously doing these things as South Asians--when our tweets are not just about representation in a Coldplay video but also about changing the very "cultures" we are defending--will I start paying attention.

In a complex political time for India and South Asia as a whole, we must be careful not to fall into the very traps that we are attempting to expose. Western representations of non-Western cultures are deeply exotifying and inherently problematic, and this video is no exception. And yet, in our critiques, we must be wary of the very nationalisms and forms of anti-black racism that we are trying to fight.

In an email exchange I had with Sharmin Hossain, aBangladeshi organizerfrom Queens, NY, she put it perfectly: "The dialogue around the overwhelming Savarna [upper caste] and Brahmin imagery in the video is most important in my opinion... this video does what most media, including Bollywood, does - it creates a picturesque “Incredible India” in the wake of Rohith Vemula's death, and some jarring cases of young Dalit women being brutally raped and burned alive." In a Facebook post responding to criticism of Beyonce in the video, Hossain added:  

“I'm not here for your shallow aesthetic politics. Your mehendi, sarees and bindis will not liberate you.”

She calls for a more nuanced discussion of representation in the context of contemporary South Asia. I’m calling for that too.

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.