‘Cultural appropriation’ is something we all are, or should be familiar with, as it is a global phenomenon, that has a great deal of interest heaped upon the very notion, thereby making more people learn, and educate themselves on what is and what is not ‘apropos.’ We live in times where we are expected to have self-awareness, with a sense of how those around us can interpret, and re-interpret, our actions. Rightly, so I might add. Unfortunately, self-awareness, let alone any form of ‘awareness’ is sadly lacking, and in many instances, we see huge cultural ‘snafus’ which shows, and highlights the massive divide between simply ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’
There were times of blatant illiteracy and absolute arrogance where it was seen as ok to imitate another culture, another race, or another faith, simply for one’s own base entertainments. Eras which, thankfully gone, where one could and would dress up, wear ‘black face,’ pretend to speak in a culturally unique accent or badly derived version of a dialect, and ‘acquire’ the symbols of other faiths, purely for amusements. These horrible times, where the lack of any sensitivity towards other’s feelings, marched alongside one’ very own inflated ego, that permitted one to simply think that doing, “what we want, and how we want,” is simply a right, regardless of consequences. Much to my, and am sure many others’ delight, this is now as unacceptable as ‘trophy hunting’ where one would go out and massacre some poor animal, simply to boost one’s miniscule bravado. Now with knowledge and awareness at or very fingertips, there is really no reason to behave like colonizers in the 16th century, with a ‘Me Myself, and I’ attitude of inflated self.
So why is it, that I see so many instances, that are supremely cringe-worthy, with folks who should know better, behaving like the ‘know’ in ‘know-better’ does not even exist? We see this happen the most at celebratory events and soirees, where the entire cohort seem to have left their dignity, sense of self, and intelligence at the entrance with the valet! Let us begin with the most obvious and ‘in your face’ offenders, who are the ‘desperate housewives.’ These brash and bored women, whose very purpose for existing, is simply to throw parties for their tasteless, tacky friends, do not even attempt to find an excuse to dress like streetwalkers in 1950s Havana, when they entertain (and this they certainly do!) with some mind-bogglingly crass party. With hosts and guests matching the décor, in a bile inducing palette of horror, balloons, and flowers, dresses and faces, all take on the same senseless hues. Taking all this to the next level of madness is when these hostesses decide that they will take on a whole new race, faith, and identity when they throw a party. Suddenly we have grown women dressed as the girl on the ‘milkmaid’ can, women who are closing in on a century of existence deciding that they are teenage damsels in Kashmir, and some taking it upon themselves to play the bashful tribal beauties in pre-revolutionary Iran! Now just as a side note, these are not ‘fancy dress’ parties, or ‘masquerade balls’ where this would be somewhat acceptable. These are simply bored ‘socially unaware’ socialites, and their completely ‘unaware’ and talentless ‘party-planners.’
Weddings, and the overly zealous participants are the next group that seems to fly in the face of propriety. Until quite recently Poruwa ceremonies, Church ceremonies, Hindu marriage ceremonies etc. were relegated to the area of revered sacred beliefs steeped in deeply rooted traditions and symbolisms that all held profound spiritual meaning for those participating. Usually, at least one half of the couple belonged to the faith that was solemnizing the marriage, and it was a celebration of spiritual blessings on the union.
The attire, the décor etc. were also in keeping with the core values of the belief systems, and this was greatly honored and respected. Those seem to be the good old days. Many weddings we see around us today are such a riotous ‘mish-mash’ of anything and everything that catches anyones fancy, that we are left with more than a slight quizzical look on our faces. Thrown out are any significant parameters of respect for being appropriate, with a splashy over the top headline grabbing ‘show how much money we have’ themed events being de-rigueur.
Considering the wedding couple’s attire, the fiascos only fast-track, as the simple waive of a magic wand, reminiscent of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, changes a bride and groom into a whole other race, faith, and culture. We have Sinhalese couples doing multiple ceremonies from Sangeeth’s and Mehendi’s which are usually for those descended or directly from our Northern neighbor to statuary of Hindu deities used for decoration, etc. We have the same with couples deciding that they will have a poruwa ceremony, simply because they love the drummers and dancers accompanying them in, and the beauty of the setting, along with attempts at having church solemnizations when neither party belongs to the delegated faith. It could be the obsessions with escapism and wanting to be ensconced in Bollywood, Kollywood etc. that makes entire families decide that for the ‘special day’ they are going to be a whole other nationality! Drawing inspiration is one thing, but becoming another completely different faith, and race, and just ‘playing the part’ because it looks ‘pretty’ is just completely beyond comprehension.
Part of this frightful ‘role-playing’ also includes attire, and that sees the most inappropriate culturally polar-opposite looks being splashed around. Speaking of ‘splashing around’ a saree jacket is supposed to be a ‘saree jacket’ and not a bikini for swimming. Brides walk into churches, get to the poruwa, etc. looking like they are either coming from, or going directly to a strip club for the next shift! Suddenly we also behold top to toe, ‘Rajasthani brides and grooms,’ ‘Bengali brides and grooms,’ ‘Assamese brides and grooms,’ etc. when neither the couple nor any relative have any connection, geographically or spiritually to any of those regions, traditions, or belief systems!
We all loved taking on characters we saw in the movies, when we were kids, and there is nothing wrong, whatever one’s age, with having a vibrant and vivid imagination. The only place where lines can be crossed into the murky mire, is when it involves other cultures, beliefs, and spiritual ideologies. While I truly believe that showing appreciation for another culture is awesome, the way we show that appreciation is crucial in not creating a situation that changes what could be joyous, into absolutely revolting. As a person who respects all faiths, and appreciates the nuances of varied cultures, I am thrilled to see authenticity shine, and true beliefs honored. Let us, as we now live in times when we are surrounded by knowledge, look at embracing the world around us, while keeping traditions alive and respecting unique values and beliefs. Living in the now means living in a collective society where we make the best of who we are while appropriately highlighting the best of those around us as well.