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Culture as competition, not legislation December 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people.

The story so far.

prettybluesalwar puts up what appears to me a half-serious post (and what she claims as not-at-all-serious 🙂 ) trying to sell T-shirts with India related one-liners. Thambi, a commenter on her blog is offended and accuses prettybluesalwar of being “a white person trying to capitalize on some rudimentary knowledge of Indian culture to make a quick buck.” Now this exchange seems to have gone on to the next level with Thambi taking on more pseudo-identities and leaving messages on prettybluesalwar’s blog. He sends her this article by Sunita Puri, while also asking her to refrain from “being an ambassador for all things Indian.”

prettybluesalwar has written a post in reply here. I find prettybluesalwar’s stance to be unnecessarily defensive and that of Sunita’s article astonishingly xenophobic.

From Sunita’s article :

…is cultural imperialism at its worst. Pop icons like Madonna perpetuate a faulty understanding of Indian culture by selecting exotic images from India, such as the bindi, taking them completely out of cultural context and popularizing them in the West. What people like Madonna don’t realize, however, is that appropriating the bindi in such a way has devastating effects on the symbol’s meaning in South Asia.

I have only two points to make and had I been in prettybluesalwar’s place, my reply would have been thus.

Dear Commenter,

I have 2 points to make in reply.

  • Culture is competition, not legislation. If evolution of genes is through process of natural selection (in presence of environmental factors), then progress of culture is through human selection, again not without environmental influences, which Dawkins put it so well to call it a ‘meme’. Bindi is a meme thats lived through a few thousand years and so is the Sari. They must have evolved from different forms and it is fair to say that neither you nor I are aware of the first ever form. So what are we trying to defend and protect -that which we last saw ? For example, the pallu of the Sari is predominantly worn on the woman’s left. Yet in some places (primarily in Northwestern India), its worn on the right. It would be foolish of a Tamilian lady to object to a Gujrati woman wearing the pallu on her right. I am sure there must have been resistance when some woman somewhere first saw her reflection in the water and quite playfully (or maybe mistakenly) decided to switch the pallu. There must have been Thambis then too. Yet that is a meme that has survived.
  • If you believe that everything is getting homogenized, you are failing to see second-order effects. Self-expression, by definition, cannot fall prey to homogenization beyond a point. There will be enough homogenization and standardization to enable the society to function – anything more will be boring, anything less will be inefficient. In geekspeak, the error surface is one with several locally optimal solutions, not one global optimum !

Culturally yours,


P.S: So much for the commenter’s objection – among the things I consider myself to be one among the ambassadors for : Indian, Men, Single men, Mid-twenties youth, blogger, Indians in America, Former Indian Graduate Students, Computer Science Researchers and the almost bald and maybe somewhat overweight.

Any objections anybody ?



1. Blue - December 14, 2007

Thanks for the support, and the response.

And absolutely the t-shirt thing was tongue-in-cheek. Unless, of course, someone had volunteered to purchase one. Then it would have been completely serious. *__^

2. Sharath Rao - December 14, 2007

yeah, that sounds like one of the (million) variants of Murphy’s law – if you asked a question, you are not entitled to know the answer. 🙂

3. Nanga Fakir - December 15, 2007

“…the pallu of the Sari is predominantly worn on the woman’s left. Yet in some places (primarily in Northwestern India), its worn on the right…”

Umm…slightly incorrect. Apart from Gujarat, the only places I know of, where the pallu is worn on the right are Eastern UP (the Bhojpuri heartland) and Bihar. Rajasthan etc have the usual left pallu…

I agree to the rest.

4. Sharath Rao - December 15, 2007

Oh…Rajastan certainly but did not know about its prevalence in eastern-UP/Bihar .. !

5. Nanga Fakir - December 20, 2007

You did not??? See a Rabri Devi picture for evidence!

6. sharath - December 20, 2007

oh yeah….completely missed that !!

7. Harini - December 10, 2009

Loved this piece.
“They must have evolved from different forms and it is fair to say that neither you nor I are aware of the first ever form.” Excellent insight.
In the world of population genetics, inbreeding creates a homogeneous population that soon achieves equilibrium. How do we expect to progress in a static state? Yes, there is a beauty in monopolizing culture; yet, I do believe that we are intelligent enough to retain autonomy even while lending the more tangible trappings of our culture while maintaining a steadfast hold over our basic principles. Why are we so insecure? Is it because we are not convinced of understanding our own culture? Or is because, we know that apart from these visual differences, all cultures practice and preach the same principles at heart?

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