On Saris, Dance, and Cultural Appropriation

One thing that surprised the children about me when first I arrived in India was that I knew some Hindi songs. Granted–I didn’t know the words–but the fact that I–an American–was aware of a few of the songs they loved and loved them too, was mind-blowing. A few days ago one of the second grade girls asked me if I could nod my head the way Indians do–from side to side for yes, instead of up and down. The movement seemed so strange to me when I first arrived, but now I do it without thinking. The girls dressed me up for Diwali, adorning me with bangles and henna while wrapping my sari and telling me every single detail about their festivals (all while poking my stomach and saying ‘so white these American bellies!’). And a few days ago we celebrated Holi, a festival I knew nothing about other than that it involved lots of colors. So many colors – on my clothes, in my hair, and up my nose – that I sneezed the next morning and it was purple. DSC_0867     The kids simultaneously make fun of me and love it when I adapt to anything from their culture: the Indian way of nodding, certain phrases, clothing, dance. But what does it mean for me–a ‘westerner’–to adopt these customs? Shanti Bhavan does not use the word ‘foreigner’, believing that we are all global citizens and everyone here is family. But I am foreign. I will leave this place eventually and, when I do, can I bring my kurtas with me? Some here may find it respectful (or, at the very least, humorous) when I dress and behave a certain way, but would it be considered offensive or inappropriate if I brought those things home? Do I have any special claim to these customs because I will have lived here for a year before going back to the states? What if my skin were a different color? What if I had Indian ancestors? Colors I thought about writing a post like this a very long time ago, when I first started listening to Hindi songs. About a year ago,  an extremely talented girl who worked on the floor below me at Carnegie asked if I would be interested in learning Bollywood dance. I immediately said yes, imagining myself and my co-workers spontaneously breaking into the dance routine at the end of Slumdog Millionare (because that was the closest Bollywood reference I had). I went and, lo and behold, it took me all of five minutes to fall in love with the energy, the instant camaraderie among our small group, and the joy of learning something new. The actual name of the type of dance we were doing is “garba” and it originates from the state Gujarat, traditionally performed during the Hindu festival Navratri. Dancers dress in traditional costume and concentrically circumambulate a lamp or a murti (physical representation) of the Goddess Durga. The entire process is symbolic of life—the lamp or Durga representing gestation/birth/the giving of life and the circles signifying the cyclical passage of time. JMR_1987 This class was one of the highlights of my week (and by “class” I mean a group of 4-8 girls–and occasionally a dude–who gathered together to bounce around in an empty conference room after work). Now, while I love dancing, I never said I was good at it. Sure I have a basic sense of rhythm and have been told that my hips move in a very “Cuban” way, but coordinating rapid, sharp movements and doing it in a way such that it appears effortless, is not natural to me. But a handful of times in the past 7 months, I have found myself on stage in front of 300 students, dancing away. The kids said I did all right, but they are incredibly polite. The most accurate way I can think to describe the way I must have looked  is something like a cross between a robot and velociraptor with a really big smile. DSC_0873 Does the meaning behind these dance forms erode once adopted by those who are unaware of its significance? I experienced something similar when I went to a place called Corepower Yoga near my house in D.C. Now, I am by no means a ‘yoga purist’. I do it every once in awhile when I am in the mood for it, but yoga has never been something I have been able to get that into. The first time I went we listened to Disney music the whole class (which was awesome–honestly the first time I’ve come the closest to feeling any kind of union between my body and mind in a yoga class was when we listened to Circle of Life) and the next time I went to a high level class that involved weights and dub-step. Purist or not….it is hard to think that you could ever call something yoga if you do it to dubstep. DSC_0952 What about things like zumba? Or my beloved Tex-Mex? What does it mean for something to be culturally appropriated (…she types as she stares at the picture of the volunteers covered in colors, posing like Charlie’s Angels per the childrens’ request)? Religious customs, art forms, languages, dress, music, food…all are things we consider part of our “culture”, yet most things that we may consider unique, original, or inherent to “us” came from somewhere else, whether they journeyed across vast steppes on the back of a horse, across oceans in the hull of a ship, or through the tubes of the internet. These things (I can’t think of a better word to describe such broad, elusive concepts) have intermarried, adopted, adapted, and transformed….turning into something new while leaving trace elements behind. DSC_0914 It is not controversial to say that while participating in customs that are not your own, you should do what you can to fit in, to understand. While taking a class called ‘Religions of South Asia’ in college, we visited a few temples and gurdwaras. I covered my hair and removed my shoes when told. I sat, stood, spoke, and moved when told. I took food with my right hand and circled clockwise around sacred shrines. But what about events that are less obvious in their cultural association like color runs? Can I run around while being doused with colored water and powder without second thought just because I was invited to participate by Indians? Does that make my belonging any more authentic? It certainly didn’t stop me from feeling sheepish when the man I bought the packets of color from gave me a quizzical look and said, “So what are you going to do with those? Play with them?” DSC_0945 One of the volunteers was born in Ohio, but has family in Pune and has been visiting India in small spurts for most of his life. Still, at this point, I have spent as much time – if not more- in India than he has. Does that mean I have equal claim to this culture? My mother was born in Cuba, but I have never been. My father’s ancestry and my surname (Smogard – once spelled Smaagaard) are Norwegian, but I have never been. I eat plantains and lefse, but can’t cook them any better than I can make masala dosa. Last night I started reading a book by a Pakistani man who has spent the majority of his life in London and New York, but even though he felt a distinct belonging to each place, Pakistan was home. Can only those with roots to a certain place- however many generations removed those roots may be- carry cultural traditions with them? I have never felt more American than I have this past year – oh the nostalgia and perspective distance brings – and yet I also feel quite borderless. The other day we were discussing Indian weddings and although I picture myself in a white dress at my own, I also see my hands painted with mahindi. Appropriation? Maybe. I don’t know. Perhaps, with attention to and understanding of cultural sensitivities, I can carry these things with me as I go and proudly display the collage of colors that have shaped me. DSC_0941

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  1. Good post Danielle. Thought-provoking as usual!

  2. m98george says:

    Loved your way of interpreting things;

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