Indian Puppets & Wooden Carvings

I love looking at random, quirky pieces of art from other cultures, and Indian art is one which has always fascinated me, particularly because of the overlaps it has with my own culture. This is a antique, wood sculpture (or perhaps toys, they remind me of puppets in a way) of a scene from history – I’m thinking a meeting between powerful Indian figures and British delegates (I see a top hat on the table!), but it’s likely that I could be wrong!

Even so, I like the earthy, warm colours here, and the quirky styles of these little men – they remind me a little of some of the folk stories I read as a child, and immediately make you feel as if they’re part of a puppet show that have just frozen for a little while, and will start moving again when you look away : )

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Fruity Kookiness

I went to a mehndi ceremony for a close friend a few days ago, and thought these were fabulous – fruit trays with carved fruit which were cleverly and intricately made into pretty flowers, animals and heart shapes. I did think the flowers made of peppers were a bit different, I’ve seen a lot of fruit carved into flowers, swans and cute designs before, but I really liked these because of how different they looked – the swan in a watermelon cage is a fab idea!

And what’s great about it is that it’s all home-made – the different fruit trays were all made by women who brought them to the ceremony. Now that’s something to try my hand at, apple-penguins, anyone? Maybe not :/

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Fairy Tales & Long Tails: Why Disney films could have been written by Asians

Disney films – the origins of every Star Plus drama. Or perhaps, it’s really vice versa, maybe Hans Christian Anderson travelled to India one day (or had access to some Indian cable) and saw a young beautiful girl being victimised by her family. Add a few pretty dresses, fairy godmothers and a ball – and she’s getting married to a man she met the night before. No hanky panky there!

Okay, okay, I know that the fairy tales came first, but here’s a look at how Disney films are similar to the clichéd Bollywood films and serial dramas (or should it be sari-al dramas?), and how the Disney-fied versions may have been peppered with desi culture.

1. Sleeping Beauty
Starting off with an arranged marriage which is fixed at birth (okay, Asian parents don’t do that anymore, but think of older generations pairing up their kids with cousins etc). As for the ‘evil witch’ who makes trouble – just think of the jealous ‘aunt’ who causes a drama and a kicks up a massive fuss when not invited to family occasion – is this not almost every Asian wedding you’ve ever been to? Not to mention the three god-fairies who are meant to be looking after the Princess but end up telling her to dress, eat and clean the house – replace this with interfering aunts or mother-in-laws, and you have a Bollywood family drama. Not to mention, only in a serial drama would the happy ending be a wedding with a blinged out ballgown (i.e. dress that goes blue-pink-blue-pink).

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2. Beauty and the Beast
Let me start off, first, with the fact that in Beauty and the Beast, reading is seen as bad. Forget the fact that my parents used to hate my sisters and I reading books (a separate post in itself!) – EVERYONE who has seen a Bollywood film in the 90s will know that a heroine can never be beautiful while she wears glasses because it makes her ugly and geeky, which comes from reading too many books and not being a good marriage prospect. That is, until she takes the glasses off and transforms into a immaculately made-up supermodel with perfect hair.
(Props to Beauty and the Beast, though, for giving Belle a whole library to accept her inner nerd.)
Add to this the fact that Belle’s only purpose (and worth) in life is to be a potential wife to the village bachelor, since he’s such a catch, and you’ve got your average Bollywood movie in which any girl, no matter how much of a rebel, career woman or lost-cause she is, becomes a cosy home-maker once she’s snagged herself a man who’s willing to wife her up.

Another Bollywoodification in this film – when Belle goes to live with the Beast, she’s seen as endangered, or even a subject of scandal…until everyone finds out he’s a prince with a castle, in which case all is forgiven and she can marry him because of his giant 42-inch plasma tv and his Beemer in the drive…er, I mean gold-gilded chariot wheels.

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3. Jungle Book
Mowgli. ‘Nuff said.
(Not to mention the fact that most of us had the same bowl-haircut as Mowgli when we were kids.)

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4. Cinderella
If Indian serial dramas could be epitomised in one Disney film it would be this one – the pretty, luxurious dresses (in the dramas everyone is dressed up to the nines as if they are about to attend their own wedding, but instead just sit around at home lurking around in corridors and stuff); the rivalry between sisters/in-laws/aunts/mothers/grannies; the race to get married, and of course, the comic ‘ugly’ sisters (i.e. fat aunties) trying to squeeze themselves into flouncy dresses.

Not only does Cinderella end up marrying a man she met once before her marriage (arranged marriages have less dancing involved, but still), but she manages to do so in a beautiful dress which conveniently cost nothing because of a ‘fairy godmother’ (if only, eh?) – and us Asian girls will all know about having to be home from the ball in time for curfew.

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5. Snow White
Replace Snow White’s evil stepmother with a mother in law, and you have almost every Asian woman’s dynamic relationship with her MIL (particularly the ones on tv). Not to mention trying to kill her with food – jealous much?

Oh, and those heigh-ho-singing dwarves? Just promoting the ethics of hard work, just like a good A-grade Asian (Not to mention how those dwarves are just symbolism for hairy, Asian men, i.e. potential haasbands. ) Just like Cindy-poo and Sleeping Beauty, Snow White marries a man she saw once, then falls in love with him AFTER shaadi like a good girl.

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6. Dumbo
It may be about an elephant, but the ear jokes are all Asian.

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7. Mulan
Okay, a different type of Asian, but still emphasises boys are more important than girls. What do they know, hey?

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8. Aladdin
They didn’t even try to hide anything in this one – big-nosed Asians, arranged marriages (to rich princes – isn’t every Desi mother’s son a Prince after all?) and brown people wishing for things they can’t afford – and expecting them for free (i.e. cutting corners).
And Jasmine herself has got the classic long black hair in a (albeit poof-y) good-girl plait, brown eyes with extravagant eyeliner (just look outside on the streets of East London to see proof of a dodgy combination of young girls and too much eyeliner) and as if it’s not racist enough, she has a pet tiger.

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*All memes have been made by myself, but feel free to re-use them, just as I ‘borrowed’ the Disney images from the internetz.*

The Kathakali Exhibition – the art of South Indian classical dance

I visited the Redbridge Kathakali exhibition yesterday, which was a small exhibition about a mainly male-classical dance, which originates from Kerala in South India. I thought it was quite an interesting exhibition, as I have heard of ‘kathak‘ dance which is a classical dance from India which is popular amongst men and women, but wanted to see how the South Indian Kathakali is related to this.

Kathakali (like kathak itself) is not just dancing – but about telling stories. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the classical dance incorporates sign language to express emotions (such as fingers opening outwards to signify a flower), which I think adds layers of complexities to the dance and the stories.

And of course the costumes were amazingly decorated. In my own culture, we have our own traditional styles of dress, accessories and even other adornments like mehndi – so it’s interesting to see the extravagantly and richly coloured layers of dress worn by these dancers – from the full on bright make-up, the intricate head-gear and to the several layers of robes and jewellery.

Definitely worth a look if you’re in the area – the exhibition’s free and there’s videos, costumes and models to look at.

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The ‘Tea-Trolly’ Culture and what it means today

There appears to have been some backlash amongst critics and journalists about a recent advert which has been aired in Pakistan by tea company Tapal, which depicts a traditional ‘tea-trolley’ culture – that is, the procedure in which a girl meets a potential marriage partner when he comes to her house by bringing in tea for the guests. I wasn’t aware that some journalists in Pakistan have apparently been campaigning against this ‘tea trolley’ process, but this advert has certain sparked some indignant responses, such as this writer, who questions the message being portrayed to young women, and the idea of “a fairy tale romance” being borne from a single meeting in which the potential ‘bride’ meekly hands tea to her potential in-laws and converses with them about her lifestyle:

For only a fraction of Pakistan’s female population does marriage follow education. For others, it is a long and dreaded journey of carrying tea trays and pushing tea trolleys, having to answer awkward and downright insulting questions, being looked up and down rather obviously and then, a long string of rejections that destroy self-esteem and lead to depression.

So is this an unrealistic take on the rishta (proposal) process? Admittedly, this is a (I assume!) well-intentioned advert, cleverly glamorised in a rich setting, glitzy outfits and a soft, romantic view, yet the reality is far from this scene, which may only happen in Bollywood films (picture, for example the girl shyly hiding behind in the kitchen. Does that sound like something you can relate to? Exactly.) As someone who has had to see her sisters and several friends go through this process, the ‘tea-trolley’ anger is, in my opinion, at least partly justified. Where for some women, this is an embarrassing process where potential guys and their families file into their homes and judge them purely on superficial aspects, it’s easy to see why this is seen as an outdated process which enforces certain roles on women and perpetuates expectations on women’s roles in the household, and how they are ‘supposed’ to be.

Another point of contention is how modernised society is becoming, both in the West and in Asian areas. While this is largely a process which has been handed down from earlier generations, in which marriages for some were decided for young couples by their parents, wer are now in an age of technology, where ‘meeting’ the right guy can happen over the internet without ever meeting him, or where women are afforded more opportunities to meet a potential life partner through work, social gatherings or even through the ‘match-maker’ figure.

So why, then, do we still see this ‘tea-trolley’ process amongst the Asian population?

Admittedly, this process is dwindling somewhat compared to the various outlets that are available for women to meet their potential partners. There are also some who have argued in favour of this process, suggesting that in a Pakistani, and largely, Islamic culture, it is just one halal way to interact with your potential spouse, protecting both parties, as well as their emotions if the meeting doesn’t lead to a successful match.

Also, while this advert is may not be a true representation of Asian society and women’s feelings about meeting prospective in-laws, it can be argued that it does (unintentionally) show the reality of the situation – where some girls may come home from work or school and be shoved into a situation where they serve chai to strangers. Also, it’s an unsettling fact that although women’s education is certainly progressing in places like Pakistan, there may be some cases both in the East and the West, where young women may leave their work or education due to family pressure, in order to get married and please their families.

What then, if the girl doesn’t go through this tea-giving process, can she do? Due to the nature of rishtey processes (and it’s limits), there doesn’t seem to be many accepted venues for a man’s family to meet his prospective bride, and whether the marriage is an arranged one or not, there are bound to be awkward moments like these at the initial beginnings. Additionally, it has been argued that the girls don’t need to go through this ‘tea-trolley’ debacle to still be judged by the guy’s family in order for them to assess her – there are stories from all sides of the spectrum in which Asian women have their own opinions on the archtypal Mother-in-Law figure!

Yet don’t think that this is a male-bashing article – both parties get judged in this situation, and more often than not, the guys in these situations and their feelings often go unvoiced as they are expected to sit quietly with their families. I’m sure for many men who  have had to go through this same procedure but on the other side of the fence feel just as awkward and embarassed as the women do – first impressions do count for some (imagine his worry about spilling crumbs or tea on himself, trying to pretend he can’t hear the girls in the kitchen giggling about him…!)

In all seriousness, my opinions about this process are mixed – while I can see that some parents may view this as a tried-and-tested procedure which allows them to meet prospective families without getting too emotionally attached, I also very much sympathise for the girls (and guys) who feel ristricted or self-conscious with this process. I suppose the real gripe in all of this is the actual tea-serving which takes place, which seems to be incumbant on the girl being expected to submissively busy herself with serving tea so that she can appear as a ‘traditional’ good girl who is happy being a feeder of mouths in the household.

I’m sure the creators of this ad didn’t have any agenda (except to sell tea!) behind this ad, and I do like the fact that it is making people question the role of women in the rishta process, as well as their rights, particularly in countries like Pakistan where this is such a changing process. I  would like to hope that changing attitudes in today’s society, and the newer generations’ willingness to merge their Islamic beliefs with their family values will make this less of a problem, and that they are able to reconcile the two fields successfully.

You can see the ‘Tapal Tea’ advert which is being debated below:

Mona Lisa the Asian Bride

I love this twist on the famous da Vinci Mona Lisa portrait – and let’s face it, there’s a hundred versions of the famous portrait floating around on the net with lots of little quirks and imitations. I love this one because of the classic Asian bridal look, it just goes so well with the portrait, right down to the mehndi pattern on her hands.

I wonder who the lucky groom was?

The What-Chya-Call-It about Names

I’ve always noticed how I (and most if not all members of my family) follow the (I’m assuming) largely Asian tradition of calling people, places and even things by every other description except their proper name. There is a large population of “so-and-so’s Mum” and “The Auntie-Next-Door”s and of course the generic “Uncle” and “Auntie” title for just about every Asian member of the community, whether they are related to you or not. And this doesn’t just apply to names, we have a whole vocabulary of phrases and descriptions for places and objects. We all do it, of course, when talking about “Oh that Thai place we went to last time on so-and-so’s birthday and where you spilt coke on yourself” to pinpoint an exact memory, rather than just give the actual place name. I can think of several instances where I have described the corner grocery shop  using the name it used to have about ten years ago: we all know the name has changed and yet my family and I still continue to call it the ‘B.B Cash & Carry’ (which got sold years ago and has had it name changed at least four times since). Or even the cheap-and-cheerful fabric shop near my house which literally used to be called “The Fabric Centre” and now goes by the names of “Fusion” to make it sound more funky and up-to-date, but that hasn’t stopped any of us using the original name when referring to it.
Similarly this time warp applies when talking about an obscure member of the family or family friend, we tend to describe them in relation to other people that we know, and even by things that have happened to them. I’m sure that I am not the only one who has heard a statement along the lines of  “Oh yes that Auntie R whose daughter ran away but then came home and married a nice sensible boy – his brother?” or something along the lines of that. And the person on the other side often don’t help with this – they will often adress themselves in a certain way which avoids names being given. I imagine this is something that may be restricted more to the Asian culture – the amount of times that some Auntie has rang my home telepone and expected me to know instantly who they are (Smee? Who is Smee?) is surely testimony to this.

So what is this stubborn refusal to make our own lives easier by using the simple concept of names as they are properly meant to be used? Surely it must be more than a just a technique to  give a colourful description to aid our dodgy memories. I think we can all agree that there must be more to it than just a simple memory-loss problem or even a question of using this method to add a little gossip!

I’ll try not to stray from the beaten path here too much, to avoid this topic becoming to broad and obscure, as this is a vague topic and it is something I would say that although us Asians are very familiar with, it is also pretty much a universal trait. In regards to people’s names, there are a whole range of reasonings and psychology behind this whole issue, much of it related to various aspects of culture, personality and general quirkness. One reason given here could be the fact that in today’s society, the sheer volume of people that we meet and interact with makes it harder to keep names in our head. Thus we use a process of association to identify places, people and dates so that we can keep it in order in our heads. I used to know a guy friend once who used to adress all the women he knew as “hey you…” in a certain tone, which he justified as making it easier to adress everyone without being required remembering their name, which made the women feel special with minimal effort from him. Ignoring the extremely sexist (and ignorant) side of this, I could argue that this was his way of avoiding getting himself in trouble by using the simplist terms he could think of. It was also pure laziness but let’s not get into that.

Another strand of this (especially with people’s names) is the whole politeness culture which we have honed for so long. Of course, this is nothing new to any of us, it’s considered polite to address people (especially our elders) by a title, rather than coming across as forward and even a bit bold (and not in a good way) to address someone by their name. I have heard a whole barrage of ‘reasons’ for this, some being that it is seen as a sign of respect, another being that it encourages solidarity and close-ties, to even other beliefs such as saying that it is actually forbidden to adress your parents/husband/elders by name.This leads more into the whole aspect of culture and propriety: what is considered acceptable amongst community and unspoken rules. With the risk of restricting this topic too much to Asian culture and discriminating, I feel as if this is an issue which points to the socialisation that we undergo, and also the way we follow the behaviours of those around us. Perhaps we enforce this issue by mirroring our elders who have had this culture handed down to them.

Simiarly, this process of identifying by way of association is an easy way to help us remember things. I think we all remember things from our earlier years and prefer to use techniques where we make places and things more memorable, and also more identifiable. Perhaps we like to use good memories to make things easier to remember. “That dress I went dancing in at the lake” sounds a lot better than “the red Oasis dress in size 10”. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that that this is the way we speak in this time and age, we rarely use the straightforward language that might be expected. It could be argued that we use a longwinded style of description in this era where information is everywhere, and something personalised is required to seperate the wheat from the chaff.

But no matter how we reason it, I think we could agree that it is a strange quirkiness which is just a way of our lives. I hope that I have not tried to pin it too much on Asian culture here, as there is much more than just the stigmas of society and our upbringing which underlies this.

What are your views on this idea of naming (or rather not naming)? Is it something that you recognise in your everyday patterns?

Harlequin Oddities Found About Town: Disney Desi

Every time I go past this shop I have to laugh at the blatant thievery of the famous Disney font. Just like Bollywood films rip of Hollywood storylines, I do love seeing bit of this same blatant disregard in everyday life. The next time you go down to Green Street (Upton Park), keep an eye out for the ‘Desi’ Shop!

‘Desi’: The newfangled Rudeboy

DEFINITION : Paki [noun] ˈpaki/:

  • Short for “Pakistani”  (offensive, racial slur)
  • Referring to “Pakistani” , or, more generally and incorrectly used, a person who is perceived to be from South Asian or the  “Indian”  subcontinent origin which is still considered offensive.
  • “It ain’t necessary for u 2 b a Pakistani to call a Pakistani a paki…But u gots 2 b call’d a paki yourself. U gots 2 b, like, an honorary paki or someshit. An dat’s da rule. You can’t call someone a paki less u also call’d a paki, innit.” [Londonstani, p.6]

And so begins Gautam Malkani’s tumultuous but promising debut novel, Londonstani, which follows the journey of the protagonist Jas as he searches for acceptance amongst his peers. Cleverly reworking the backdrop of middle-class Hounslow to transform it into a Bronx-style ’hood and interspersing it with economy and business, Malkani provides a comical commentary on Asian culture and assimilation. It is this which captures the essence of what it is to be an ethnic minority; attempting to fit in and cling to your own roots all at once.

Acting as ringleader of Jas’ friends is ‘Hardjit’, a bigoted and often violent Sikh, whose obsession with bodybuilding and racial purity reflects a mania for maintaining cultural and racial divisions which borders on urban tribalism. Also in the gang is tactless sheep Ravi, whose wannabe-hardcore image is undermined by his lilac Beemer and the embarrassing demands of his mother. Equally, Amit, like the others, is as tied to his tradition-bound family as the boys are bound to their brand-name goods. Also thrown into the mix is the cross-cultural ‘chirpsing’ with sexy femme-fatale Samira, a Muslim girl acting as the proverbial forbidden fruit, which only heightens racial tensions. Yet Malkani is careful to handle race issues well, asserting that the problem at hand is not their ethnicity, but a more universal concept of social identity.

The changing labels which categorise the boys; “Pakis. Rajamuffins. Britasians. Rudeboys”, are overturned and inverted through the boys’ own stereotypes of ‘gora’ (white boy) and ‘coconut’. Guided by the unspoken ‘Rudeboy Rules’ (including such gems as “Having the blingiest mobile phone in the house is a rudeboy’s right”), the boys create their own norms through these pretexts which assert their underlying codes of aggressive masculinity. Thus the boys demonstrate their unwillingness to assimilate, maintaining their high-profiles, unlike their deferential immigrant parents. The theories of ‘bling-bling economics’, which may appear absurd at first, reveals to be a shrewd tactic applied by Jas to an urban scene seeping into the mainstream. Also ever-resounding through the novel is the concept of “complicated family-related shit”, best epitomising diverse family relationships.

Filled with indications to American pop-culture (bling, P. Diddy, J. Lo); South-Asian traditions (bhangra, Bollywood, samosas, bhanchod); and British street slang (safe, innit, ponce, batty), Malkani shows a fascinating experimentation with language. By creating a dialect that combines street-slang, business-speak, Punjabi and text-speak, the boys are able to articulate their own interpretation of a ‘desi’ identity. Although this technique may be off-putting to some, the author successfully paces the slang to make it comprehensible to the readers, allowing the novel to capture the authentic urban youth-culture of the region its set in, whilst remaining relevant to both Asians and non-Asians.

Admittedly, the allocation of women in the novel are limited either to the seemingly caricatured mothers or the exaggerated femme fatale figure of Samira. It is almost as if the women are characterised only in terms of their relationships to the boys in the novel. In contrast, Malkani in this way indicates an emphasis on a macho, exaggerated masculinity and the idea of aspiring to an unrealistic male ideal. Further manipulating this idea, the author uses his protagonist’s imagination to distort these aspirations; such as exaggerating an ordinary schoolyard scuffle into an elaborate  ‘jujitsu’ battle to rival Bruce Lee’s own moves, using a technique to show how immature, almost child-like their notions of being a ‘man’ are.

The twist at the end of the novel jolts the reader out of their notions of race and identity, urging us to “wake up and smell the garam masala tea”, to think out of the box regarding norms of cultural identity and masculinity. Some may find the ‘accent’ of the novel a little irksome; at times the reader may feel like they are listening to aimless banter overheard behind the bike shed in their local comprehensive school. But there are sparks of genuine wit which are cleverly hidden in the scenes, softly making fun out of itself but ultimately celebrating the diversity that we see around us in today’s east London.
And if you’re too much of a batty poncey pendhu to relate, then you’re gonna get bruck up, innit.

Gautam Malkani, Londonstani (Harper Perennial: London 2007) pp.362 £7.99