“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.
1) When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?
Typically, I respond with the straightforward “Religions of India, like Hinduism and Islam” or “Religions of Asia.” While the answer prompts some people to talk about whomever they know who is from India or has visited India, the perceived exotic nature of India, Hinduism, and Islam means that fewer people are confident to start a lengthy discourse about India, as some people do if I simply answer “religion.”
2) How do questions of identity manifest in your research?
My initial intention was to study the difference between strict religious identifications and the fluidity of practice, as many in India participate in practices that we commonly identify with competing religions. Self-identified Hindus not only celebrate festivals with their co-workers and friends who identify as Muslim, but they also often pray for healing or assistance at Sufi shrines. Similarly, self-identified Muslims have cooperated with Hindus in both ritual and non-ritual practices, even serving as sponsors and performers in particular festivals. And the same dynamics play out among people who identify as Sikh, Jain, or Christian in many parts of India. Continue reading “On the Spot with Steven Ramey”
Accusations of cultural appropriation have been especially prevalent recently. The depiction of Jeff Bezos as Vishnu on the cover of Fortune magazine elicited complaints from some people who identify with Hinduism, as did the Krewe of Galatea parading their court as Hindu deities during Mardi Gras festivities. The recent Coldplay/Beyoncé music video release “Hymn for the Weekend” also has generated complaints about its depiction of India and the ways some artists profit off of these images.
Images of India have been used for decades, from the 007 film Octopussy to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the complaints that they have spawned have basis in the colonialism and neocolonialism of India and the global inequality that such images — in their construction of India as some place totally different — reinforce. One critique of the Coldplay/Beyoncé music video expressed concern for artists profiting from images of Indians always throwing colors, as if everyday was Holi. However, the author’s own discussion actually suggests one limitation of claims of cultural appropriation. Continue reading “Cultural Entrepreneurs”
Constructing and maintaining a group, a community, requires significant effort, and at times that effort generates disagreements. In India, an organization announced this week that they were restricting admission to Garba, a traditional dance that is a major component of Navratri, a nine-night festival honoring the goddess. Only people recognized as Hindus can participate, banning specifically those identified as Muslim. A local leader of the VHP, an organization associated with Hindu nationalism, asserted, “Incidents of love jihad where Muslim boys lure and marry our Hindu girls happen at Garba. Our only aim is to protect our girls.” Continue reading “Love, Community, and Cow Urine”
Are Muslims taking over India? Recently released data from the 2011 Census of India generated various headlines, from the alarmist assertion that the percentage of the population identifying as Hindu has declined to the calmer emphasis on the slowing growth in communities identified as Muslim. One Hindu nationalist organization provocatively asked in response to the data, “Is there a larger conspiracy to Islamise Bharat [India]?” These reactions to demographic shifts look familiar, like responses to demographic change in the US concerning religious affiliation or ethnic identity. Analyzing the dynamics underneath the numbers reveals that these instruments are not simply describing changes in our world but constructing our world in particular ways. Continue reading “When the Census Creates Fear”
“Look! . . . Up in the sky. . . . It’s a bird. . . . It’s a plane. . . . No, it’s Superman!” When someone points out something in the distance, like an object flying through the sky, it can be hard to recognize just what it is. We attempt to name it, place it in a clear category, but sometimes our categories don’t fit, especially when working with complex societies, and the category that we attempt to force it into often influences what we actually see.
Arkotong Longkumer, in Reform, Identity and Narrative of Belonging (a 2010 book on the Heraka movement in northeast India), analyzes an intriguing community and movement that engaged politics, economics, social change, ritual shifts, and ethnicity, to name a few areas of interest. The context of the movement was the increasing imposition of British rule in the region in the early twentieth century, including the British encouragement of immigration to the area that disrupted the traditional migration cycle and the agricultural system that required it. The simultaneous opportunity for education and government jobs combined with the necessity of alternative forms of labor in the wake of declining agricultural production. All of this required a revision in ritual practices and social restrictions to reduce the expense of animal sacrifices and the limitations on mobility and individual independence from the community, as they adapted to the changing environment. The contexts also fostered interest in uniting different groups politically in opposition to, at times, the British and other communities. In fact, the image above of one of the leaders is entitled “Indian Freedom Fighter”. Continue reading “Freedom Fighter or Prophet”
Prompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously…, and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.
Race, as many have pointed out for years, is not biological. This point raises questions about the basis on which it is determined. Is it ancestry, appearance, cultural practice, or something else? That complicated question has come to greater prominence in light of the media circus around Rachel Dolezal and her assertion of an African-American identification. While discussions of Dolezal often focus on the process of self-identification and strategic choices made in relation to that self-identification, I want to focus, instead, on the strategic nature of the act of ascribing identification to someone else. Continue reading “Strategic Ideologies”
Almost exactly two years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to accompany a group of my students to India for a course designed to specifically examine how notions of “justice” operate in an Indian context. As you might imagine, we saw literally hundreds of noteworthy things. With time, though, I have mentally sifted through some of these memories of what went on during our travels and realized that the most poignant moments of analysis came from events that no one had planned. Continue reading “It’s Not the Taj, It’s the Tour Guide: Some Musings on a Trip to India”
During the ongoing campaign for India’s Parliament, a leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati, reportedly asserted that Dalits are not Hindu. The BSP, whose name itself identifies those outside the upper castes as the majority of the population, receives its primary support from Dalit communities and advocates for policies that promote the interests of the disempowered, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that Mayawati was criticizing is generally connected with Hindutva movements commonly associated with upper castes. Continue reading “The Politics of Representation”
A recent news story from India, and the way many here seem to be celebrating it as a victory over stifling binaries, prompted me to comment on Facebook:
Continue reading “The Wild Profusion of Things”
The Huffington Post has a new article that opens with:
Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka may have been divided through political strife over the years, but they have one important thing in common. Her name is Pattini to Sinhala Buddhists and Kannaki to Tamil Hindus, but she is one and the same goddess shared in religious practices by the two faiths.
And it closes with the following:
Most importantly, in her shared worship among Hindus and Buddhists Pattini-Kannaki is an ironic reminder of the parallel cultural traditions that may exist between groups divided along ethnic or political lines… Continue reading “What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 1”