January 29th saw the release of Coldplay’s music video for their song Hymn for the Weekend. The backlash and praise was quick to come- how could it not be? Stunning visuals of “Indian life”, Coldplay members covered in Holi powder, and Beyonce decked out in Indian attire. On paper the video sounds like a dream come true. On screen, it screams of cultural appropriation, exoticism, and the limiting view of India that the world is constantly exposed to.
Cultural Appropriation is when one culture takes elements from another culture. The definition becomes further nuanced when you incorporate different aspects of history, and positions of power in the world. This has a lot to do with imperialism and colonization. When Western cultures take aspects of other cultures that they have colonized and belittled for centuries, it is considered cultural appropriation. It is not appropriation when a young Indian boy wears a t-shirt and jeans. Indeed, British colonialists wanted to assimilate and force Indians to be more like them:
A young Indian boy wearing a pair of jeans is just a part of a system that has served to put him, his ancestors, and his predecessors down for years. He’s part of the same system that lets Coldplay create videos of India, and paint it with one broad brush.
Hymn for the Weekend exoticizes India in extreme ways. Sadhus walk through lush green forestry, little Indian children run through the colourful alleys of slums with large smiles on their faces. People dressed as Hindu Gods are on every corner, and Chris Martin takes colourful taxis as he looks on in wonder at a land so different, so magical, so spiritual.
Give me a break.
India is so much more than a Hindu country. We’re Muslim. We’re Christian. We’re black, brown, yellow, white. With over a billion people, India is a land of diversity. There is agriculture, there is business, there is an Indian tech scene that is absolutely booming. There are also many negative things to deal with like corruption, pollution, caste and race issues, and even patriarchal issues. These images don’t fit with the Western stereotype of India as a land to “find yourself” (think Eat, Love, Pray), and thus are never represented in Western portrayals of India. You can see the romanticism of India in the words used to describe the video:
Hymn for the Weekend makes it seem as if Indian people have all the time in the world to coddle Western travellers and cater to their needs, which is not the case. Yes, visit India if you want to see what it is about, but don’t expect this one-sided look at the country. If there is anything to learn about any culture or peoples, it is the individualism in all of them. We don’t all live in slums and celebrate Holi every second of the day- it actually happens once a year!
Beyonce and Coldplay are those that we see in the video, but there is an entire team at fault for not recognizing the way this video might be portrayed. Beyonce wears Indian attire in a stereotypical manner, and uses mudras, Bharatnatyam hand formations, in order to convey “Indian-ness”. Her costume goes further with a headdress, and mehndi on her hands. With many different cultures in India, we dress differently in each one. We also have multiple dances! Beyonce, while basically Queen of the world, is still appropriating. She doesn’t get a pass if someone like Miley Cyrus doesn’t. With all the wrongs committed against black culture in terms of appropriation, and Beyonce’s self titled feminist position, it’s sad to see her disrespect another culture in this way.
Appreciation vs. Appropriation
There is a lot that could have been done to make this a better video. Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor made a cameo for two seconds, and could have been in the scenes with Beyonce. If both were dressed in South Asian gear, Beyonce would be in a place of appreciation. There would be noted invitation because of Sonam Kapoor’s presence. Sonam could have even played the Bollywood actress Beyonce was meant to represent to truly pay homage to Indian cinema. When people start putting down Indian culture in order to bring Beyonce up, you know something is wrong with the way the culture is being displayed.
Scenes of Indian life could have been more versatile, rather than displaying the one tired image of Hinduism and Holi. Again, India is more than a magical Hindu land where Westerners can attain spiritual awakening. Hymn for the Weekend works like a poorly made tourism video that showcases one aspect of the country.
I get it though. I really get it. The song is bomb. The video is well made. Beyonce is basically my Queen and she can almost do no wrong. This doesn’t make it any less upsetting though. A lot of people are reacting poorly, and others see no fault in the video. Many of these people are actual Indian citizens, and others are Non-resident Indians. As an NRI, I’ve had to deal with the oppression and racism of white privilege all of my life. Knowing that this video will make the people in my life see India in a one dimensional view is hard to deal with. I’m not a stereotype. Neither is my culture.
The racism and oppression of Indians from India is different- it’s deep rooted in Indian psyche, things that make Indian people feel like their skin and culture isn’t good enough. They don’t have to deal with white people and Western ignorance on frequent occasions. Finally seeing what is meant to be a positive portrayal makes Indians feel good. I get that too. Neither view is incorrect, but some may experience the negative end of the spectrum a bit more.