When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong In India
Image India Today/via YouTube
Australian couple Matthew Gordon and Emily Kassianou have been travelling across India and were accosted by an angry group of men outside the restaurant they were dining, in the city of Bengaluru. The men allegedly threatened to skin Gordon’s leg off for brandishing a sacred Hindu tattoo. He was also reportedly chastised by a police officer, detained at a police station and made to write a letter of apology. The tattoo in question is that of Yellamma, a popular Hindu deity of the poor and downtrodden. Yellamma is associated significantly as the protector of sex workers, revered in parts of, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu Maharashtra, and Karnataka. Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore) is located in Karnataka.
Gordon’s apology later. He later recounted on Facebook the letter was forced, and that he ‘should not have to apologize for what is on my skin’.
As far as our histories go, tattoos have existed within the Hindu culture for a very long time. Women used to tattoo the names of their husbands on their forearms, some people would place a small Aum symbol on their arms while others tattooed dots on their foreheads to signify the third eye. My paternal aunt had many religious tattoos. In fact, the paternal side of my family has had a long lineage of Hindu priests and was taught about the religion from a very young age. In other words, I know the religion I was born into very well.
I am an ardent admirer of tattoos and got myself inked for the very first time on my birthday last year. It is placed right where I want it to be – a barcode on my upper back that states Human on top and my date of birth at the bottom. I appreciate tattoo culture and understand the depth of symbolism. What I cannot appreciate in this case is the lack of common sense displayed by the tourist – if you get a blatant religious tattoo below the waist and parade it in the very country where that image is revered, you’re asking for trouble. Stating that Yellamma is a ‘lower rung’ Goddess makes it worse. There is a hierarchy within the Gods the Hindus worship, but we do not categorise them in the manner he casually mentioned. There is no such thing as a lower rung Goddess. What did he assume he was achieving by saying this? How would that make it less upsetting to a Hindu? It is extremely disrespectful to place an image of a Hindu God or Goddess on the leg and ‘getting it on the last piece of naked skin left on my body’ (in his own words).
I will be the first to admit that there is a lot that is wrong with my homeland. The fact that they took issue with this when there are more pressing issues to deal with reeks of religious politics. I do not condone the level of hostility displayed by the mob or actions taken by local police. Want to persecute the mob and police for their behaviour? By all means, please do so.
My frustration stems from the tourists’ lack of understanding-the root of cultural appropriation. While Gordon did not deserve to be threatened or harassed, he isn’t an innocent bystander either. Indian culture is one of the most appropriated cultures, and as an Indian, I can tell you it does not feel like a compliment. When you wear an Indian ‘costume’ for Halloween or bindis to a peace festival, I feel like the butt of a joke that isn’t funny. Being targeted by people for being a certain race? I know that feeling all too well. Reading about fellow South Asians being beaten to a pulp for wearing turbans? Where was the religious understanding and tolerance then?
Was it okay for me to be derided when wearing a bindi in Australia when I sorely missed my culture just like it is okay when Caucasian celebrities wear it to Coachella? Sure, culture is organic by nature but there are much better ways to show some appreciation. And if you really want to get a religious tattoo, don’t be ignorant about where it should be placed. Don’t put my God on your damn leg.