On Bindis and Cultural Appropriation
There’s a lot of conversation about cultural appropriation versus appreciation. Where's the line? When is it an exchange versus when is it offensive? These are difficult questions that don't have a clear answer. And why does it matter anyway? Appreciation is when we seek to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden our perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. It is taking the time to understand the struggles and hardships of a culture and its history and traditions to become more open in understanding and respectful. Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest. It's adopting or adapting an aspect of another's culture and making it your own. This is can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.
Today we will look at this in the context of bindis and American Tribal Style®. So what is a bindi? The term “bindi” stems from the Sanskrit word bindu, which means drop or particle. Bindis are also known by many other names, including kumkum, sindoor, teep, tikli and bottu. Traditionally, it is a bright red dot applied to the center of the forehead
close to the eyebrows (the sixth one chakra, called the ajna chakra, the “brow chakra” or “third eye chakra”), originally by Hindus and Jains from the Indian subcontinent. The bindi’s purpose is to enhance the powers of this chakra, specifically by facilitating one’s ability to access their inner wisdom or guru. They've also been used to mark that an Indian woman is married. The bindi is believed to usher in prosperity and grant the bride a place as the family's newest guardian. In modern times, however, the bindi’s symbolism is no longer strictly adhered to, and it is largely used as a beauty accessory or a part of women’s fashion, coming in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Now we come to appropriation. We have established that cultural appropriation means the adoption of a minority’s culture (generally one aspect of it) by the dominant culture. When the new adoption is void of the significance that it was supposed to have — it strips the religious, historical and cultural context of something and makes it mass-marketable, that's when it becomes offensive. We can argue that those who wear the bindi who are not of South Asian descent and not as part of a culturally significant event who were invited to wear one are participating in appropriation.
From the article "Everything You Should Know Before Sticking A Bindi On Your Head" by Vidya Ramachandran, she address appropriation by visiting the complexity of culture stating that cultural groups have long borrowed customs, practices and dress from one another but that issues arise when the cultural groups in question do not have an egalitarian relationship.
"The nature of this relationship can transform a seemingly innocent act of cultural borrowing into more sinister one of exploitation."
She also explores the context of borrowing part of a culture. She gives the example of someone without Native American heritage wearing a headdress to a festival or a Halloween party. By doing so, they claim ownership of this symbol for themselves and detach it from its historical context and simultaneously erasing its cultural significance. I often give the example of young women wearing bindis to music festivals. The wearing of the bindi is unfortunately not quite as straightforward as a Native American headdress:
"... not everyone agrees on what the bindi symbolises. In India, bindis are widely worn by women from many different religious and cultural communities, including Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and Catholics. Some believe it is linked to the third eye, or ajna chakra, a site of wisdom and power said to be situated between the eyebrows (this is why I’m also uncomfortable with third eye face paint). Others associate it with married women, though it is also commonly worn by children and single women. Parents may also mark their babies’ faces with bindis to ward off the evil eye."
Some also argue that the religious significance of the bindi is lost on many South Asians today, meaning that it’s not such a big deal if other people wear it without understanding its cultural significance too.
The article “Why “Bindis” Should Not Be a Fashion Trend” by Fatima Farha, explores fashion trends and when there is a limit on what is fashion and what is culture. She speaks of the upward trend of bindis at music festivals and on celebrities because it’s “exotic” and pretty. However the history of the bindi is much more than simply an adornment.
“The bindi can symbolize many aspects of the Hindu culture, but from the beginning it has always been a red dot worn on the forehead, most commonly to represent a married woman. The bindi is also said to be the third eye in Hindu religion, and it can be used to ward off bad luck. The women who wear it in India wear it with some representation of their own culture, whether it’s because they’re married, or if they have another cultural tie to it.”
As times progressed, the bindi acquired more designs, and became more fashionable however the cultural significance still remains. One can argue that South Asians were the first to bring the bindi into the world of fashion. We do see that culture evolves and the spiritual aspect becomes less influential.
Are we appropriating when we wear the bindi as part of our ATS® uniform? The simple answer is maybe. Our dance style is a mix of dances from Egypt, North Africa, India, and Spain. Many of our moves have a direct lineage to India. For example, Sunanda Nair is a classical Indian dancer from which the Sunanda comes from. The Resham-Ka comes from Rajasthani folk dance. Our costuming borrows from many of these areas, of which the bindi is one part of this. You could make the argument then that no, we are not appropriating.
The argument can also be made that yes, we are appropriating. Since our dance style is a fusion and the moves were molded to fit within the ATS® framework, is it still appropriate to take a part of the culture and use it for our costuming? In ATS®, we typically wear large, decorative bindis that look more like large pieces of jewelry. Most dancers will make their bindis themselves or purchase from specific vendors and they do not look like the traditional bindis worn by South Asians. Have we then taken a part of the culture and molded it for our own use or have we created something new which shouldn't be called a bindi at all and is simply forehead jewelry?
Wherever you stand, it is vital we educate ourselves on where our costuming comes from and that we also support those cultures and not contribute to erasing their significance. I, personally, have been spoken to by non-South Asians (bindis are worn not only in India, but also Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Mauritius) about appropriating by wearing a bindi in ATS® performances. The interesting thing is that never has a person of South Asian descent spoken to me about it negatively nor have they expressed concern about me wearing one when I have asked or engaged them in conversation. I have performed at South Asian restaurants and have been complimented on my bindis by many South Asians. Now, this doesn't mean it's not wrong, nor wrong to be called out. People from the non-effected culture have the right to call out or call in what is or appears offensive, and even though the effected culture has not spoken up does not mean it is not appropriating. I believe that context and respect is key. Now, just because you can doesn't mean you always should. It's also important to note that some may not know the context of your photos or videos or anywhere they may see you wearing the bindi so even though you may not feel like you are appropriating, someone else may take it out of context.
The most important thing is doing the research and understanding the context and the impact. Understand the history, the culture and make a respectful decision for yourself. Ask yourself if what you are doing is the result of a stereotype, if you are using something sacred to another culture in a flippant or "fun" way. Are you engaging with a piece of ancient culture as if it's new? Be aware that if you are white or of another dominant group, there may be a history of colonization and oppression and it’s important to take this into account. 200 years of British colonization should not be erased for an exotic fashion trend that you think is pretty. Wearing a bindi at a Hindu wedding is different than for our performances and is different than wearing one at a music festival. There's a fine line between appreciation and appropriation and the line bends and twists and loops but the starting point is respect. The change in the meaning of the bindi over time is also important to consider here.
I wanted to also touch upon a post on Facebook from Kat Murti, an Indian woman, regarding burlesque star Diva von Teese wearing a sari:
"Context is Key: Are you mocking Indian women (or others) for wearing their clothing but treating them as high-fashion when you wear them? Are you treating it as a joke or a costume — or are you genuinely appreciating it? There’s a difference and that difference is a genuine appreciation vs using someone else’s culture to mock and deride them, or otherwise benefit from their social capital while holding them to be lesser humans than you. It’s about respect."