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Summer Edition

A Deeper Offense

Anirvan Chatterjee
(San Francisco)

There was media coverage recently on nationwide protests conducted by some American Hindu groups against Sony, the parent company of Columbia Records, for releasing an album by the rock group Aerosmith. Their concern? A cover image featuring a cat wearing Indian women's clothing dancing upon a many-headed snake--allegedly a pointed attack on Hindus around the world. Certainly the reference to Krishna dancing upon the serpent Kalia will be obvious to those with any familiarity with the stories of young Krishna. But is this picture of a female cat a pointed and malicious attack on Hindus, attempting to "defame" Krishna by turning him into a transvestite feline, or just an absurd image meant to complement the name of the album, Nine Lives? Is this something really worth protesting? 

Daab On GhotCertainly the record company itself doesn't argue the existence of a Hindu origin for the cover image; it was designed from the start as a playful take of the style of art found in old ISKCON materials (something that passed very much into American pop culture in the 1970s). But rather than viewing the cover art in this light (Columbia Records had even obtained copyright clearances from the ISKCON-affiliated publishers of a similar work), some chose to charge Sony with grossly prejudicial insensitivity.. Of course it mattered little to these protesters that images from the Christian and Western canon regularly undergo similar types of treatment by Sony-affiliated artists, and as such, it isn't that Hindu imagery is being specifically abused. Apparently, nor is it relevant that there's a long history of playful use of Hindu imagery in popular culture, everywhere from the cover of the New Yorker's recent special issue on Indian fiction (a drawing of two explorers "discovering" a statue of Ganesh engrossed in a book), to the now-classic cover of the Jimi Hendrix album Axis: Bold As Love (which portrayed Hendrix and his bandmates as members of a pantheon of Hindu gods); in fact Hindu imagery has shown up in rock art with everyone from the Beatles to Culture Club to 311. Of course it isn't that Hindu imagery is being targeted in particular; the next time you're in a record store, take a look at the tremendous amounts of Christian imagery present--certainly one does not see thousands of irate Christians demonstrating against these uses, although Christian imagery in rock art is far more prevalent than Hindu imagery, and is certainly overrepresented in the context of religious rock imagery when considering its strength in the general population. Numbers aside, I also find it troubling that there was no particular type of "threat"  emanating from the use of the image to elicit such a fierce response; it appears tremendously unlikely that the single image of the alleged transvestite feline Krishna will lead to any kind of growing public sentiment against Hindus (the way negative media portrayals of Muslims sometimes tend to do, by uniformly painting them as fundamentalists and terrorists). 

At any rate, a great fuss was made about all this, boycotts were threatened, and finally, the company and the band apologized; the cover image was changed. (Needless to say, as with most such attempts at self-righteous censorship, it backfired, and the original album cover artwork is now a collectors item, while the album turned up at the top of the music charts in India, with sales fueled by the controversy.) The crisis may be over but the repercussions remain. I'm concerned that actions like this make the global Hindu community come across as censorious whiners, responding violently to any form of outside criticism or comment in the form of parody or other uses deemed somehow unsuitable by a vocal minority (take the case of M.F. Hussain); competing with the Ayatollah Khomeini for extra gold points in the global censors' club should not be something the Hindu community should aspire to. But the issue of the cover image boycott aside, I'm much more interested in what wasn't boycotted. I strongly suspect that most of those who lobbied Sony to change the album cover had not done any investigation into the matter on their own, choosing, rather, to trust the "head censors" in deciding where to direct their anger. Why so? Because of the lyrics to "Taste of India," a song from Aerosmith's Nine Lives album that I happened upon at the band's web site (while trying to find an image of the infamous album cover, so I could make up my own mind on the affair). Some excerpts: 

    God I love the sweet taste of India 
    Lingers on the tip of my tongue ... 
    When you make love to the sweet tantric priestess 
    You drink in the bliss of delight ... 
    She a friend of mine 
    She a concubine 
    The sweetest wine 
    I gotta make her mine ... 
    Just think of what I'll get tonight 
    She's gonna whet my appetite 
    Just lookin' for a little taste, taste of India 
    She'll steal the smile right off your face 

Suffice it to say that most American Hindu activists (as well as most Indian Americans in general) wouldn't ordinarily be overjoyed at the prospect of having that song be included on a record by a major rock group. I find it puzzling why leading American Hindu activists (most of them Indian American) made no mention of the inclusion of this song on the album (for undoubtedly they must have listened to it, or read the lyrics, before calling a boycott, since surely they know not to judge a book by its cover). We have in this song a continuation of the stereotype of the "exotic" Indian woman, a creature who uses her mystical knowledge of ancient sexual lore to serve her many lovers, bringing them earthly/spiritual pleasure.  While indeed we as a group have every right to proud of our heritage, it is patently demeaning for us to be branded only as purveyors of the "ancient mystical secrets of the East." Many would contend that this song upholds and encourages an unhealthy and unrealistic stereotype that negatively affects the way Indians are publicly viewed and treated. And while perhaps it doesn't prove technically "dangerous" to the community (in that it probably wouldn't stir public sentiments or incite hate crimes), I would contend that the song "Taste of India" is certainly far more "dangerous" to the Indian-American community than an image of a dancing cat might ever be;  we need to get our priorities straight. 

The issue of the exoticization of India is a troubling one. Indians themselves have played an important part in the furthering of this stereotype (take Mira Nair's abysmal Kama Sutra, for example). I find it odd that the Indian American community has not taken a strong stance against having itself trivialized by being turned into the Exotic. I'm not particularly happy about the cover of the Aerosmith album, yet I fail to see a clear relationship between an image of a dancing cat and my own situation. On the other hand, I've experienced being seen through the eyes of the stereotype of the Exotic Indian on many an occasion, ranging from being asked about my "yoga powers" to whether or not I know any snake charmers. I suspect that I'm not alone in this. Such stereotypes of Indian pseudomysticism persist throughout much of American culture, and aren't unique to Aerosmith or other artists signed to Columbia Records. In this respect, we are very often our worst enemies. Indians supporting problematic stereotypes of Indians in the media end up harming their own community's positions. Self-exoticization necessarily turns us into a shadowy Other, unable to integrate or to live out our own traditional cultures without having outside stereotypes thrown upon us. 

Take the case of Deepak Chopra, undoubtedly the most popular writer of South Asian descent in America today. While it isn't Hinduism per se that he sells to his "new age" self-help audience, selling the idea of "exotic" ancient Indian spirituality certainly plays an important role in his work. The "ancient deep truths" he sells portray deeply twisted images of what India and Indians are. While I'm sure he would never willingly want to propagate damaging stereotypes about his community, his works end up doing so anyway by dint of his very mode of action.  While undoubtedly well-meaning, he sells a perverted image of India as a Holy Place and its denizens as Profoundly Spiritual beings. This idea most certainly does not originate with him, but he is a prime carrier of this stereotype, and as such, is doing a grave disservice to the Indian (and more broadly, the South Asian) American community. This perception serves to trivialize the diversity and complexity of our community, and marginalizes us by turning us into the Other. While I suspect that most of those who form their images of what Indians are like primarily from Aerosmith songs are probably unlikely to have been in a position to appreciate the diversity and complexity of our community in the first place (and to have otherwise been influential or useful well-wishers in this nation), many of those that Chopra speaks to would indeed fit into this category. Chopra's audience is intelligent, literate, and open to new ideas and cultures--the kind of people the Indian American community should have as friends and allies. Unfortunately, while they may be open to other cultures and ideas, all many of them see of Indians is a shallow stereotype. Wandering into a Chopra-centered online chat forum under my own name, I was warmly greeted as someone who must undoubtedly have some profound insights into the "nature of body-mind spirituality"  (obviously because of the racial background my name connoted); those who treated me this wat certainly meant well, but many of them were carrying this very problematic stereotype about Indians, preventing them from approaching me in a "normal" fashion (as a control, I also entered using a non-Indian name; I wasn't treated the same way). This isn't an isolated incident. I'm a fan of Bay Area jazz artist Jai Uttal, the leader of a local funky jazz-Indian fusion troupe called the Pagan Love Orchestra. I've maintained a web site on the group for about three years now. In that time, I've received amazing amounts of email from the new age types that Chopra caters to who get into the music because they see the Indian side of it as being Deep and Spiritual. These are people from the “Indians-are-Deeper and more-Spiritually-Minded” school of thought (spiritual descendants of the tripped-out hippies who proclaimed that there were only two types of people in the world--those who had been to India and those who hadn't); obviously I, being someone with an Indian name maintaining a web site on a group that winds Indian influences into its music, should also fit this pattern. They send me regular email asking me about my gurus, my mantras, and my favorite yoga positions. I find it difficult to explain that I like the group for the music, and not because it puts me into ecstatic trances that lead me into a deeper plane of existence (quite a bargain for the price of a CD or a concert ticket, I might add). These people also certainly mean well, but their diet of The Enlightened Teachings of Guru Exploit-gullible-westerners-nanda and "Ayurvedic Spiritual-Cleansing-in-a-Pill" keep them from seeing Indians and Indian Americans as we really are. People like Deepak Chopra end up exploiting and further promoting these tendencies, thus bolstering these problematic stereotypes. And we wonder why Indian American fifth-graders still get asked about all the snake charmers in the family. (Though I have to admit, if I could make that kind of money from selling myself as an Profoundly Enlightened Soul, I might think twice about repurposing my roots to get on the top of the bestseller lists; don't ever let anyone tell you there's no money in (pseudo-) spirituality.) 

The myth of the Exotic Indian has one final negative consequence: the glare of this Western-friendly (pseudo-) spirituality overshadows the inroads that people of Indian heritage have made in this nation. As a group, we have given the America great artists, thinkers, scientists, and leaders. Tolerating exoticization means tolerating overlooking the breadth of Indian America. Perhaps most prominently, we have given America some of our best technical minds--scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs. But again, contrary to stereotypes, we aren't only technically minded. Our forays into the arts range from genre-bending musical wonders like Zakir Hussain to local authors of international renown like Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni. And even in the realm of politics, that oft-neglected part of the Indian American experience, we have started making moves with folks like Peter Mathews moving strongly into the mainstream. I recently met Bharat Shyam, a software engineer at Microsoft who in his spare time, serves on the Board of Directors for Washington State's largest gun control organization, actively leading the campaign to place an important gun safety training initiative on the state ballot; this kind of activism from just another stereotypical Indian engineer, a relatively recent immigrant, but working hard to make his ideas felt in his new home. But the myth of the Exotic Indian has no place for people like Bharat, for his interests apparently lie less towards divine bliss and more towards the far more prosaic, but perhaps equally important, issues of community activism and concern for the safety of those around him. Many Indians bristle at blatant stereotyping that turns all of us into holders of "non-professional" careers like 7-11 clerks or motel owners. But isn't the painting of our community as being divinely inspired (and nothing else) equally false? 

In my mind, the role of a censor isn't one the Indian American community should aspire to. Muffling speech does not change attitudes, but rather only increases the level of anger against the censors (turning the censored into martyrs to boot). However, it is indeed possible to work on changing fundamental attitudes such that others might refrain from engaging in problematic speech or behavior in the first place. We need to recognize that the roots of disrespect against and negative stereotyping of Indians can and sometimes does result from perceptions that we ourselves have in some way helped to create. While unfair outside discrimination is certainly a factor in our position in society, stereotyping ourselves as Others only serves to encourage this type of negative behavior. Attempting to muffle speech may not be nearly so effective in changing public perceptions as altering the way we as a group present ourselves to the outside world.

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