From music festivals to popular Instagram pics of the celebrities we love and look upto – avoiding seeing the bindi is becoming less and less avoidable. What was once something that adorned the foreheads of South Asian women, is now a symbol in Western culture that is depicted as ‘hipster’ or ‘gypsy’.
But where do you draw the line between being ‘indie’ and culturally appropriating?
Cultural appropriation is about taking a specific aspect of one culture and incorporating it into another through changing its meaning and context to suit an individual or groups’ needs. Historically and traditionally, the bindi has been said to conserve energy within the body as well as to aid in concentration, not being limited to just representing marriage and spirituality. As most people might already say, the bindi has been commodified into a fashion accessory, coming in a vast array of colours and designs to match any saree you wear.
Now you might be thinking, everyone culturally appropriates and it is pretty much unavoidable. Yeah, you’re right to a certain extent but the problem arises when wearing the bindi, for example, becomes intertwined with ideas of exoticism and hipster culture. This is where the bindi comes to represent a whole new culture, thereby losing its spiritual meaning and cultural context. It becomes a decorative item to make a fashion statement that loses its South Asian heritage.
Another aspect of South Asian culture that has hit off in the Western world is mehndi, often referred to as henna tattoos. The cultural significance of these so called “henna tattoos” is that within the South Asian culture, it represents religion, marriage and spiritual connection. While Western culture sees this as being trendy rather than traditional, the mainstream use of mehndi is diminishing these strong cultural connections that it holds. From what used to be sacred to South Asian culture and considered highly auspicious in wedding ceremonies, is now highly commodified.
Raveena Grover, 19, feels that although the bindi and mehndi has been commodified, it should not be used mockingly out of context. “I don't feel the commodification of the bindi reduces its cultural or religious significance. South Asian people engaging with this cultural practice can still honour its religious significance while maintaining its cultural significance. I believe the bindi, as a cultural symbol, has also been a commodification in parallel, but perhaps it has become increasingly commodified with culture evolving. When people outside this, often diasporic cultural group, wear bindis or henna I see it as a mockery of my culture.”
Arguably, there are two sides to these trends. It has been found that the middle-aged to older generation are more accepting of the bindi and mehndi being bought into the mainstream through Western culture.
Anjali Joshi addresses this claim in her Huffington Post piece as she states that the bindi is not a form of cultural appropriation because “most South Asians won't be able to tell you the religious significance of a bindi”.
She however also addresses that: “Culture evolves. Indians appreciated the beauty of a bindi and brought it into the world of fashion several decades ago. The single red dot that once was, transformed into a multitude of colors and shapes embellished with all the glitz and glamor that is inherent in Bollywood…Hindus accepted the evolution of this cultural symbol then. And, as the bindi makes it's way to the foreheads of non-South Asians, we should accept - even celebrate - the continued evolution of this cultural symbol…”
What’s interesting is that the distaste of these trends are highly visible in the younger South Asian community through the hashtag #ReclaimTheBindi in an effort to take back their culture.
Raveena expresses that, “A cultural symbol only remains a cultural symbol if it is exclusively used by the particular culture. When symbols or practices are white washed and shared among dominant cultures who use them without roots or any knowledge of the culture, it does remove their significance as a cultural symbol. For hundreds of years South Asian people have been subject to violence and discrimination from majority racial groups and today, are still seen as inferior when participating in cultural behaviours by white people. Thus it is cultural appropriation.”
The argument that is surrounding this whole issue is that when celebrities wear bindis or apply mehndi for fashion purposes, they are complimented for taking bold steps in their style. However, when a South Asian person wears their bindi or mehndi in public for religious reasons, they receive odd looks and passer-by comments.
So, this then leads us to the overarching question of whether this is indeed cultural appropriation or “just another trend”? Well, that is up to you to decide.
Image via: pinterest.com