Recently, Buzzfeed India reported on a couple that have gone viral for their fantastic travel photos, particularly in India. You may have already heard of them as ‘the guy who follows his girlfriend around the world’ (not the official title). Murad Osmann and his now wife, Natalia Zakharova travel the world and take stunning photos of Natalia in iconic places that end up looking like this:
It’s a beautiful series, and since part of his India segment was done in conjunction with Harper’s Bazaar magazine for a bridal edition, the outfits used are nothing short of stunning. As an Indian woman myself, I’m quite taken up by the series. It captures a real beauty in India (despite the Photoshop) through the people, locations and clothes.
What a misery it was then to scroll through Buzfeed comments and see a whole lot of people (Indian and not) bleat about ‘cultural appropriation’. I have to admit, I have a lot of issues with that term. I feel people tend to over-dramatize and overreact, especially on the internet. Usually this ends with them creating an issue when there was none in the first place. I’m not trying to speak for everyone; of course every culture is different and I won’t know enough about other cultures to make a judgement on what’s appropriating them, but I feel I can speak with some authority on the comments I see about Indian cultural appropriation.
Wearing Indian clothes does not make Natalia Zarkharova an offender of cultural appropriation. Murad Osmann’s photos of Indian locals on elephants does not make him an offender either (for the sake of focus, let’s dwell on the animal rights subject another day). I look at their photos and only see appreciation. I see stereotypes, true, but find them acceptable to the situation. I see beauty. I see vibrant pictures, energy, a thriving ancient culture that makes its way into the modern world. But yet the overwhelming response (mainly from the Indian community) is of anger and annoyance at the couple. I’m not sure I understand it.
It’s not the first time I’ve been confused by an accusation of cultural appropriation. This one time (at band camp- I kid, I kid!) on Facebook, I saw a ‘rant’ in the comments section regarding a photo of henna on a girl’s hands.
(Not the actual photo)
It was from an Indian girl who was annoyed that there were so many non-Indians commenting on how beautiful the picture was, as she felt they didn’t understand the meaning and concept behind henna, and the situations it was used in. To her, wearing henna because it was ‘pretty’ was not a good enough reason for wearing it, and it should only be worn at the appropriate celebrations. Underneath her rage she had a valid point about what appropriation is, and there was lots of others supporting her argument. But what I had an issue with was the argument that we cannot use henna for fun.
As an Indian, I’ve always seen henna being worn because it’s pretty. Yes of course it’s worn at traditional (mostly interwoven with religion) affairs, but I’m Catholic: when it comes to occasions I’ve attended where henna is traditionally and officially worn, I can count them on one hand. So although religion and culture is separate, they more often than not reflect each other. I only wear henna when I feel like beautifying my hands. Does that mean I’m appropriating my own culture?
So no, I don’t always understand the cultural appropriation argument. It would seem right to me that a person ‘inspired’ by another’s culture is appreciating it. If they understand the value, and seek to bring out its beauty, then I see no reason for backlash- case in point, Zarkharova and Osmann. If they use elements of a culture out of ignorance (and often vanity, if the number of examples on the internet are anything to go by) then you are appropriating another culture and using it wrongly- as the argument for Coachella fashion often mentions.
So let’s not hate, but celebrate. As Russell Peters said, the world is so integrated now, we’re all going to end up beige at some point, so we might as well appreciate the differences while we can!