More than the celebrities themselves, the interaction between the Indian Paparazzi and Gigi Hadid, Tom Holland, Zendaya and Nick Jonas at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre inauguration made waves on the internet. For weeks all we saw was reel after reel of 'Jhandeya', 'Gigi didi', 'Tomya'' and 'Nickwa' circulating on Instagram. And while the comments were full of laughter, it was less celebratory and more embarrassing in tone, which opened up a discussion on 'cultural cringe'.
Cultural cringe is a phenomenon where individuals or groups from a particular country or culture feel inadequate in comparison to other cultures, especially the West. In India, cultural cringe has been a pervasive issue for many years as an aftermath of colonialism. During the British Raj, our colonizers imposed their language, culture, and values on India and portrayed Indian culture and people as primitive and uncivilized. This mindset has continued to influence us even after independence, leading to a sense of inferiority about our identity.
I remember feeling particularly good about myself as a teenager because I got access to internet early in life and was exposed to limitless English music and movies. This pulled me away from the homegrown music and film scene. In school, I would chill with kids who were listening to Linkin Park and Eminem and watched Fast and Furious, avoiding girls who discussed the latest Bollywood films and songs. My mother would try to get me in a salwar kurta which I hated her for. I preferred T-shirts, hoodies and jeans. It could be argued that all of my choices were just a part of my identity but years later I can look back and confirm that there has always been an underlying current of cultural cringe under those choices.
The line is hard to draw in this generation where internet has created a globalized world with a mish-mash of cultures. But those who have moved to cities from smaller places for education will know, there seems to be a hierarchy when it comes to the English language and it is based on class. You have your regional accents that influence the spoken English and you have the well-to-do internet kid English. And the code-switching only happens one way. Because we have subconsciously accepted that the more westernized our English sounds the more educated we seem.
However there's another side to it. Accents are fetishized in pop culture. French is romantic, Irish is hot, British is sophisticated, even Russian's cool because, well, Bond villains. But India draws the short straw on this one. The Indian accent has been reduced to a joke like Apu in The Simpsons. Our accent is ridiculed even though after the US, India has the biggest number of English speakers. Most of the time it's this internalized shame and the colonial hangover of Western supremacy hidden deep in our psyche that makes us change the way we sound.
Even when it comes to aesthetics, there's only a Westernized gaze through which we look at our culture to appreciate it. Brown skin wasn't cool until it was cool in the West. At home, we were dealing with colourist remarks from our relatives, who've been subscribing to the fair-skin narrative for years. And then White people fetishized brown skin which trickled down through the internet and representation in media here at home. The visual trends of the internet will tell you how late we were to the 'brown is beautiful' party. And this is still only true for the educated and priviledged upper class. Everywhere else women are being rejected for jobs and marriages for their skin colour, to this day.
The class divide is a direct example of cultural cringe. Before colonialism, the rich would live in palaces and hire artisans and architects from different parts of India to build monument-like homes that were replete with Indian motifs. The present is the total opposite, with some exceptions. Today, the higher you go up the social ladder, the less Indian you want to be perceived as especially with younger generations. Except for food and cuisines, some of us can't wait to go abroad and detach from our roots for the good in the name of a glow-up.
White countries are known to only tolerate other cultures to a limit, after which they start getting uncomfortable. Sadly, we are not too different. We like India when it's Indian in moderation. We like South Delhi and South Mumbai. We love sarees and traditional Indian attire but only on 'traditional day' at work. What are just clothes for our parents and grandparents are costumes for us. As photographers, we love rural India but we have the same outsider and borderline superior gaze a white photographer would have. We love our native cultures, food and traditions a few times a year around festivals and then we're back to cafe lattes and aglio olio (that we know how to pronounce perfectly).
Cultural cringe for me, is, in essence, hating a traditional Indian tune until it's a sample in a techno track. It's the second-hand embarrassment for the creators of RRR singing out of joy at the Oscars. And it's convulsing at the idea of touching someone's feet in the family as a greeting. It's one thing to critically acknowledge our faults as a society, like the violence against women and religious minorities and a completely different thing to have an aversion to facets that are just part of the Indian canon.
What we miss out on when we hold on to our ingrained sense of cultural cringe without question is the quintessential experience as an Indian person, one that is rich in endearing stories and memories. It's the inherent beauty in recognizing your mom by the sound of her bangles, or the smell of home-cooked food, or the summers of mango and Rooh Afza or wedding dance parties or simply the satisfaction of swearing in your native language. What we often get nostalgic for is present in everything if we can find it; either by ourselves, or through art and forms of representation that subvert the Westernized gaze; bringing us closer to our identities.