Real People: Hands off our culture

If it's been in this year, it's probably been Asian. But has the appropriation of all things Eastern gone too far? By Hettie Judah

If there's one identifiable trend this year, it's got to be the Asian thing, right? Madonna, the most famous woman in the world, spent most of this year in henna paint and floaty stuff; she even got a VH1 fashion award for it, and what was she wearing when she went to collect it? A sari, of course. Demi Moore did her spiritual phase all decked out in sandles and a little sticker thing in the middle of her forehead. So did Geri Halliwell, so did David Beckham.

Half the streets in Britain seem to be squatted by kids selling mehndi tattoos, the clubs full of kids wearing Bindis over their third eye. David Wainright has been doing a roaring trade in Asian antiques and the whole interior decor thing has gone very Indian subcontinent. David Holmes has just remixed Ananda Shankar for his new CD. Even Cornershop, bless 'em, got to number one with a little help from Norman Cook. It's all just so ... Jemima Khan.

While all this has been happening, a couple of seriously good records have come out from Asian artists like Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation, Badmarsh & Shri, Ges-E and Usman, Mo Magic and Niraj Chag. There is, as any music mag will tell you, a right little Asian Underground scene going on at the moment. Except that it's not really, erm, underground; and they don't sit about together much at all, so it isn't really a scene either. And beyond the fact that, yes, they are all Asian, (albeit many of them second generation) the music in question spans drum 'n' bass, jazz, indy, dance, film soundtracks as well as some pieces of classical Indian music. Indeed, these musicians have little to tie them together, bar the fact that they are not too keen on being categorised as the Asian Underground, and that they feel a little uneasy about "the white Bindi posse" jumping about waving their mehndis and shouting about spiritual enlightenment.

The message seems to be clear; when white people adopt Asian fashions, deck their houses out in Asian fabrics and furniture and mix samples of Asian instruments into their music, they embody mainstream fashion. When Asians make music, theatre or film, their work is classified as underground or fringe. That Time Out's film critic Tom Charity felt impelled to "stress" that the Indian film Fire "is a perfectly approachable, warm, vivid melodrama for non-Indian audiences" speaks volumes about mainstream opinion. And Asian artists are starting to get just a little peeved about it.

The composer Nitin Sawhney is convinced that there is still some kind of colonial arrogance operating in Western attitudes towards Asia. "Madonna got the fashion award for wearing these clothes that people have been wearing for hundreds of years and, because she's white, it's suddenly innovative. I haven't got anything against Madonna; I have a problem with people who don't respect other people and their culture and their ideas and their values. It's that great White Saviours thing again - like it takes a white person to rescue the poor Asian people, to represent them in the right way so that everyone can understand it and it's accessible. It's the Kula Shaker thing, it's the Beatles thing. Why do we have to be represented by white people to be made accessible to the rest of the world?"

Madonna's adoption of Asian-influenced fashion has raised a number of hackles, and she provoked something of an uproar when she inadvertently sported priest's makeup on her forehead to the MTV awards. While her intentions may be well meaning (her change in style is meant to illustrate her spiritual rebirth), this gaffe demonstrated that she had no clear understanding of the culture or symbolism she was playing with. In light of this, it is well to remember that where Madonna goes, the world follows. When I was in the Czech Republic this year researching racist attacks on the Romanies, many of which involved the taunt "Tahni zpt do Indii" - "f- --k off back to India" - the cover story of the popular teen magazine Bravo Girl was a guide to how to make your own henna tattoos.

For Nitin Sawhney, the problem isn't that other people are incorporating aspects of Asian culture into their work; it's that, when they do, it's backed up by such a superficial level of understanding which takes only what is convenient and ignores the rest. It is an attitude embodied by the just-add-water approach to spiritual enlightenment of New Ageism and the back packer trail. "A lot of people think they can go over and absorb this culture instantly - it's almost psychological residue from the Empire, thinking, 'We can absorb this, they are not as good as us really so we can take in their culture in 10 minutes, and use it in our culture'. It is never truly learning about it. If people ran around shouting about Hare Krishna in India they'd be laughed at; you couldn't do that in the way people do in the West End here. You can't appropriate someone else's culture in one generation even, let alone in the space of a year or less."

Sawhney's anger at the trivialisation of Asian culture is shared by Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy. In The God of Small Things she lashes into the tourist trade within India which bastardises kathakali to make pool-side entertainment for mocking audiences with imported attention spans. The man whose dance is his soul ends up becoming "Regional Flavour".

The pick-and-mix attitude to Asian culture invariably gives rise to some embarrassing incidents. "There was one occasion when I was down at the Notting Hill Arts Club and there was a DJ playing before me," says dance DJ Ges-E. "Before I went on, he played this music which is a call to prayer in Islam. He was drunk and he was playing it in a club. I said, 'Do you know what that is?' and he thought I meant I really liked his record. I explained to him what it was, and he was shocked. He didn't realise that he was using something religious, the words of the Koran."

Ges-E has memories of his mother being taunted in the street for wearing a sari. Now that saris have become a fashion statement, isn't it a good thing that his mum is no longer laughed at? Ges-E is infuriated by the idea. "Something shouldn't be OK just because a white person has done it; that's just tokenism." Accusations of tokenism, of course, are easy to make, but more difficult to pin down. Coronation Street is, after 35 years, about to welcome its first Asian family. They will, naturally, be moving into the cornershop. Tokenism? Stereotyping? Or are the writers just moving with the times? The shop is, after all, central to the soap and has featured some of the best loved characters. Meanwhile, EastEnders has taken a drop in verisimilitude by booting out Gita and Sanjay. Should producers consider the ethnicity of a character before killing them off? Or is it just about ratings?

Fashion and pop music, of course, have always made vast and cringe-worthy mistakes; they have always played about with mixed references and, by their nature, tend to read culture at surface level. That, after all, is the difference between pop culture and the world of highbrow. In a way, these mistakes and embarrassments are just the inevitable result of different cultures starting to explore each other's possibilities. "I don't want to judge white people for using Asian samples, what's wrong with that?" shrugs producer Niraj Chag. "I use Gregorian chants in my stuff. I don't understand the latin, but I like the sound, it touches me; am I not entitled to use it because of the colour of my skin?"

But there are two major differences between Niraj's use of Gregorian chant and, for instance, Kula Shaker's use of samples in their work. Firstly, Niraj is unlikely to provoke a wave of complaint from irate monks, or christians in general for using religious text in his dance music. Secondly, he makes no pretensions towards spirituality or deeper significance; he just likes it as music.

Perhaps these differences lie at the root of some of the problems of cultural misunderstanding that are currently going on. In the increasingly secular West, the idea of a culture or cultures where young people do care about religious and spiritual references seems strangely attractive. England in particular seems to be the nation without personality at the moment and inevitably the fascination exerted by any group of people who have a strong cultural identity is considerable. Hence, perhaps, the current fetishisation of all things Asian; sold, as it is, as off-the- peg profundity; a panacea to the aspirituality of Western capitalism.

The irony to this is that, as Niraj Chag says, "As a British Asian, I know how big a culture is and I won't understand everything within a lifetime." He and other musicians are concerned also that the success of artists such as Talvin Singh is fashion-based, as opposed to the start of a proper acceptance of high- achieving British Asians. That their careers seem so dependent on the vagaries of fashion is understandably depressing, particularly since so many of the British Asian musicians working at the moment have the kind of heavyweight musical credentials that would make most Indy bands weep with shame.

"I have this idea for a video," Nitin Sawhney tells me. "This Asian kid walks into an underground club, he's kind of got the spiky hair and the rest of it. There's this Talvin Singh type drum 'n' bass music going on and there's all these underground DJs getting into their stuff.

"The camera goes behind the wall and you see this control room full of these old, old, white people dressed in Victorian gear from the days of the Raj, and they are all controlling the turntables and the lighting. You go back to the kid dancing and the queues of people having mehndis painted on their hands by these old people. They are confused and shocked, but they go out and say to their friends 'check out my mehndi' and stuff. Anyway, at the end, the wall collapses and the white people are staring at the Asian kids and they are all staring at each other, and all the DJs are made of cardboard and collapse. What I'm trying to say is, it's still the same; we are still controlled by the British Empire, no matter what you think you've got. The whole 'cool Asian underground' thing means nothing."

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