With so many Aum signs everywhere, it was hard to believe that I wasn’t back home in my grandmother’s prayer room, waiting for her to light the lamp. But then the high pitched shrieks of teenage girls in flower crowns and teensy crop tops passed by and reminded me that this wasn’t my amma’s house in Phoenix, Durban. If she was anywhere near, even a sari that didn’t properly cover your belly would be deemed inappropriate.
This was the National Arts Festival, revered as 11 days of amazing by some and slammed by others for being a space of incredible privilege, only accessible to mostly rich white people. And yet the products been sold at the Village Green, the main trading hub of the Festival, could have easily been mistaken for your local Gorimas or Memsaab store.
This was a weird experience for me because after attending the past four Festivals, it was clear that there was a serious lack of representation of Indian culture at the Festival. When there was actually a production that involved Indian people, it was either a Bollywood style song and dance or it was poking fun at Indian people in tired stereotypes.
In 2013, I watched a show called Those Indian Guys which was marketed as an “exploration of Indian identity and culture”. It portrayed a variety of characters, from the Indian single man obsessed with cars and ‘stekkies’ to the Bollywood director with his clichéd romance films, to the bearded Muslim air host making 9/11 jokes.
“If these sound familiar, it’s because they’re some of the most perpetuated Indian stereotypes in the media.”
At least, that’s how I felt when I ranted about it in the Festival newspaper in the hopes that over time, Indian culture AND Indian people would be represented in the Arts Festival programme.
So four years later, I should have been pleased that the products of my people were finally here and that everyone was sporting colourful, shiny bindis and rocking sequinned elephants, right?
No, not really.
Firstly, it was all of the culture and none of the actual people being included.
There were so many stalls with incense sticks, Aum symbol jewellery and clothing, and household items adorned with Hindu gods… and not a single person standing behind the stall and benefiting from these sales was actually Indian.
I decided to take my mother (it was her first Fest) to the Hare Krishna tent, promising her authentic temple food by humble Hare Krishna devotees. We were met by a white man from Cape Town, offering us his chickpea fudge (chana magaj) while also attempting to flatter and flirt with both my mother and my very young sister. Random French phrases were also thrown in.
We eventually bought some dhal curry and rice. The food was okay but the experience left a bad taste in our mouths.
In addition to that strange experience, it felt like our culture and religious symbols had evolved to suit your typical vegan yoga fanatic who believes “namaste” is how you greet your Instagram followers every morning and who preaches the importance of aligning of your chakras.
It was all very weird.
Sometimes I would go near a stall selling something with Hindu symbols on it and the salesman would give me that conspiratorial look as if to say, “Hey you’re Indian, this is totally your thing!”
Except it’s really not.
The other thing that unsettled me, apart from the obvious cultural appropriation, was the fact that most of the items on offer, and the whole Fest experience in fact, was not at all accessible to your average working class Indian family. The prices of most of the products were beyond our budget and as a result, the majority of the people buying and wearing the products was not Indian.
While Think!Fest, the public lecture series of the National Arts Festival, included conversations on privilege, whiteness, issues of representation in theatre, and the decolonisation of the arts, I don’t think anyone gave much thought to how other aspects of the Festival operate.
The Village Green is not the only market (there’s also Church Square and Fiddler’s Green) but it is prioritised, both by the Festival organisers and by those who attend Fest. The Village Green is on Rhodes University property which is quite a distance away from the townships, so it remains inaccessible to the greater Grahamstown community. While I managed to find some bargains, the majority of products on offer were sold at exorbitant prices. Aphiwe Ngalo, a Grahamstown local, reflected on the class divide between the Village Green and the rest of town during the Festival.
She notes that:
“Transformation is visible in the visual arts, music and dramas showcased during these 11 days. Transformation continues to grow in those spaces, but it is time that it hit the streets and became more visible in places of trade.”
I couldn’t agree more. We need to look at places of trade, which remain a huge part of the Festival programme, and see how it privileges some and excludes others. But in addition to the location of the markets and the prices of the products, I think we also need to look at what is consumed and by who.
I’m always going to feel uncomfortable when people who have no understanding of my culture walk around decorated in my cultural symbols, mostly because I will get interrogated if I do the same (Why are you wearing that? Are you having a prayer? Are you getting married?) whereas if anyone else wears it, they will just be seen as super cool and trendy.
But a part of me feels like if you’re going to go ahead and wear this stuff anyway, at least buy it from an actual Indian trader and support a person whose culture you’re benefiting from. Trust me, it’ll probably be cheaper too.