representation of indian culture

Indian Culture

Core concepts.

  • Innovativeness
  • Adaptability
  • Light-heartedness

India is home to over a billion people, accommodating incredible cultural diversity between languages, geographic regions, religious traditions and social stratifications. In recognition of this large demographic diversity, the following descriptions are not intended to represent every Indian person. However, there are common themes and principles that contribute to the values, attitudes, beliefs and norms of the dominant society. Generally speaking, Indians tend to have a strong sense of pride in the distinctiveness and diversity of their culture. For example, the country’s agricultural expansions and technological advancements in infrastructure, science and engineering are sources of pride. Moreover, a considerable amount of pride stems from India's rich artistic cultural exports of music, fine arts, literature and spirituality (especially the practice of yoga ).

Geography and Space

India’s geography and climate is incredibly diverse. Northern India is characterised by the snowy mountain range of the Himalayas and the Great Indian (Thar) Desert. Meanwhile, tropical jungles, rainforests, coastal plains, islands and beaches distinguish the south. Nature plays a vital role in India – especially rivers such as the Ganga (or ‘Ganges’) in the north and Godavari in the central and southeast. Both provide irrigation for farmlands, a method of transportation and are considered sacred to many followers of Hinduism.

As India has one of the largest populations in the world, public and private spaces are often densely populated. This influences how the idea of privacy is understood, as it is rarely available, sought after or indulged in. Generally, there is a very large cultural tolerance for crowding. For example, several generations often live under one roof, and it is not uncommon to find animals such as cows or dogs freely roaming public streets and villages.

The buzzing cities of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi contain a melting pot of rapid economic development and technological innovation, with a notable example being the continually expanding telecommunications sector. Such cities demonstrate India's rise as an economic and political powerhouse on the world stage. This is also represented by the diaspora of Indian people throughout the globe. The large metropolitan cities stand in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of villages and small towns, each containing distinctive microsocieties. Indians can often determine where someone is from based on their accent, language, style of dress and mannerisms. Indeed, it is common to find people having a sense of regional pride and identity towards their place of origin.

Ethnic and Linguistic Composition

Although India does not officially recognise racial or ethnic categories in the national census, it continues to be one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Broadly, the ethnicities of India can be broken down into main groups on the basis of their linguistic backgrounds, the two largest being Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. For example, many people belonging to Indo-Aryan ethnicities live in the northern half of the country. Indo-Aryan languages commonly spoken include Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Odia and Punjabi. Meanwhile, people belonging to Dravidian ethnicities generally live in the southern half of the country. Dravidian languages commonly spoken include Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. These labels of ‘Indo-Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ usually serve as a helpful way to categorise the origins of Indian ethnic diversity, although they don’t necessarily reflect people’s personal identity. For example, people are unlikely to describe themselves as ‘Indo-Aryan’ or ‘Dravidian’.

Within these broad language groups, there is vast linguistic diversity accounting for 22 major languages and hundreds of regional or local languages. Most Indians tend to be bilingual or multilingual, speaking an official language along with their regional language(s). English is considered to be a subsidiary official language that is often reserved for governmental and commercial purposes. People who do not share a common first or native language will generally communicate in either Hindi or English. It is important to be considerate of the linguistic diversity of India as many Indians consider their language (particularly their regional or local language) to be a source of identity.

National Identity

The ‘Indian identity’ has evolved continuously over the country’s history as political and religious institutions have changed within and outside of India. For example, the British Raj (1858-1947) brought about vast changes in the country’s economic, political and cultural spheres. India’s independence from the British in 1947 was accompanied by the partition of India and Pakistan into the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan respectively. This led to mass violence that continues to be a source of trauma and sadness for many Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus that reside in the Punjab region in northwestern India.

Partition reflects the complexities in Indian identity with respect to religion. One temptation is to correlate Hindu identity and values with the Indian national identity. This correlation has been made since British colonisation . However, such a view tends to misrepresent the religious and cultural diversity of India. While it may seem like a useful device for describing a unified national identity, such generalisations perpetuate significant tensions among various groups in Indian society.

Earnest efforts have been made throughout the 20th and 21st century to instil a sense of nationhood and move beyond deep tensions and inequalities. Although tensions occasionally surface and at times have resulted in violence, social legislation has sought to empower traditionally disadvantaged segments of society such as ‘Untouchable' castes (see Social Structure and Stratification below), tribal populations, women and people with disabilities through affirmative action programs.

Social Structure and Stratification

India has a highly stratified traditional social structure, often referred to as the ‘caste’ system. The term ‘caste’ comes from the word ‘ casta’, which was used by Portuguese observers to describe the social stratification of India’s Hindu society during the colonial period. The caste system in India has a long history sustained by complex cultural and religious factors. Although often classified under one term, the ‘caste’ system represents various overlapping systems of stratification.

The large-scale caste system is known as the ‘ varna’ system. This classifies society into four broad categories; brahmin (priestly caste), kshatriya (nobility caste), vaishya (merchant caste) and shudra (artisan or labourer caste). The categories of varna were a normative religious (specifically Hindu) ideal of how society ought to be structured, but in reality was complicated by various factors.

Stigma relating to ideas of ‘purity’ was attached to those within particular castes, and interactions between castes were limited, particularly with those on the bottom tier. The idea of the ‘ Dalits ’ (‘Untouchables’) was a modern addition, popularised by B.R. Ambedkar who was himself an untouchable. This category, thought to be outside of the caste system, was understood as the lowest rank in Indian society.

The small-scale caste system, known as the ‘jati' system, comprises over 2,000 jati categories that determine one’s occupation or vocation based on their family of birth. Each jati is associated with one or more hereditary occupations or vocations (although some occupations are considered to be caste-neutral, such as agriculture or non-traditional civil service). The jati system is particularly noticeable in the daily social organisation of Indian culture. For example, it is common to find people following the professions of their parents, grandparents and so on.

Intercaste Interactions

The caste system is no longer legally enforced, and discrimination based on caste is outlawed. In the latter half of the 20th century, Indian governments assigned jati categories into one of four general classes based on economic, social and historical criteria. To address inequalities among jatis, the government has established affirmative action programs, which reserve jobs, education scholarships and other benefits for historically disadvantaged or persecuted castes.

Many people do not explicitly adhere to the caste system, particularly in urban areas and large cities. However, social assumptions of the caste remain influential on certain aspects of Indian life. For example, the caste system continues to inform marriage through the practice of arranged marriages, which are usually carried out through existing (often caste-based) networks (see Relationships and Marriage in Family ). The caste system is more strictly adhered to in rural areas.

Although upward mobility within the caste system remains difficult, efforts have been made by various jatis to alter the social order and challenge the system itself. The social order is continuously under negotiation, and people from ‘lower' jatis have been known to challenge the social structure by adopting certain elements of the lifestyles of those in more ‘pure' castes. Some examples include abstaining from ‘polluting' or ‘demeaning' occupations, following vegetarianism and avoiding alcohol. Meanwhile, some jatis have been known to emphasise that caste position should be determined by other factors such as economic status, land ownership and political power.

Prejudices based on caste tend to persist, both openly and discretely. Many people maintain a subtle awareness of their social position and those around them. Questioning or deviating from one’s expected role is still relatively rare. When interacting with someone from India, it is worth bearing in mind that the caste system still has influence over one’s occupation, social standing and relationships with others. While it is usually inappropriate to inquire into a person’s caste (in the sense of the large-scale varna system), it is socially acceptable to ask about one’s occupation or vocation.

Collectivism and Harmony

Indians generally place a high value on harmony and unity with others, keeping a strong nexus with their community and relatives. A unified and interdependent community or family provides a support system that an individual can rely on daily. Community groups are often informed by one’s jati. Many community groups, especially in rural areas in the north, have their own regulating system of self-imposed rules to help maintain order and harmony . Such systems are often seen as necessary due to economic hardship or the unreliability of official services. The regulation of rules does not necessarily come from the upper caste; in some cases, lower caste members may lead the community depending on the area.

Indians can almost always trust in their social ties for assistance in virtually any activity. Isolation or seclusion can seem daunting, as group loyalty and assurance of inseparability provides security and confidence. Indians tend to be conscious of how their behaviour may reflect on their family or community. Many tend to emphasise humility and the preservation of their own and collective reputation, dignity and honour. For example, Indians may speak indirectly to avoid conflict and maintain social harmony . People are also expected to uphold their duties, responsibilities and obligations. Indeed, it is common to find Indians abroad sending remittances back to their family in India to provide financial support.

Karma, Acceptance and Personal Choice

Many Indians tend to have a sense of acceptance towards one’s life position or a belief that, due to actions in one’s past life, good or bad personal circumstances are deserved. This attitude partly stems from religious ideas such as ‘ karma ’ (the idea that one’s actions will affect their current or future life) and ‘ samsara ’ (the cycle of rebirth).

The interplay of these social, cultural and religious factors allows people to be accepting of life events and trajectories. However, this is not to be interpreted as Indians being unwilling to take responsibility for life circumstances. Many often contemplate how their actions may impact their future and make decisions accordingly. Some of India's youth are challenging a fatalistic perspective by asserting their free will to choose their vocation, spouse and other life factors. Indeed, as social mobility becomes more common, there is a growing belief that one can change their circumstances.

Modesty and Conservativeness

Indians tend to be quite conservative in most aspects of life, particularly in rural areas. This is especially noticeable in people’s behaviour and dress. Many will avoid speaking loudly or using excessive hand gestures, and it is not uncommon for strangers, friends and some family members of opposite genders to avoid physical contact. It is also preferable to wear clothing that covers the arms and legs; very few people wear revealing clothing. Clothing is usually traditional, but it is common to see Western-style clothing throughout the country for men and in urban areas for women.

Adaptability and Light-Heartedness

The large population size of India has not led average Indians to think of themselves as ‘one among many’ and certainly has not diminished their aspirations. Instead, diversity is celebrated alongside an inventive and entrepreneurial spirit. In this sense, many Indians are very adaptive and creative, often visualising big possibilities for themselves, their people and country. Problems are usually managed in a cheerful, cooperative and innovative manner, along with a light-heartedness towards situations that might otherwise be understood as frustrating. For example, strangers readily help others during mundane tasks such as looking for directions or parking a vehicle.

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Screen Rant

15 stereotypes indians are tired of seeing in western movies & tv.


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Indian culture has been more in focus than ever with shows and movies like Indian Matchmaking and Wedding Season going viral on Netflix. The unraveling of harmful stereotypes about brown heritage, their occupations and their roles in the world is a slow process, and Hollywood has given plenty of tropes that inaccurately describe Indians and their lifestyle. With Indians shattering ceilings in every sector, these need to be done away with, for good.

Hollywood productions (and English language films in general) have to go a long way in terms of representation of identities like the so-called 'brown identity'. While brown-skinned characters from India and its neighbors have been featured in English films for a long time, they often fall prey to stereotypes or appropriation. Even though portraying an Indian character and their struggles might seem like 'Oscar bait', some of the elements in these stories hardly feel relatable to local Indians as well as the Indian-American diaspora.

Actors and filmmakers like Aziz Ansari, Gurinder Chadha, Hasan Minhaj, and Dev Patel are changing the perspective to an extent, portraying characters and writing stories beyond the 'curry-eating', 'mystical and exotic' narratives. Otherwise, with popular shows and movies, some stereotypes can, unfortunately, be formed in the heads of non-Indian viewers.

Updated on 25th October by Fawzia Khan:

Cows, dirty roads and a lack of infrastructure.

More often that not, Hollywood tends to juxtapose the beauty of the West with the "dirty" East. Shots of a sterile white country cut to filth, pollution, dusty slums, and bad roads in India, which is not accurate at all. The biggest metros of India are highly modernized, with expressways, skyscrapers, and the like, but this is rarely depicted in the movies.

RELATED: 9 Best Twitter Reactions and Memes To Indian Matchmaking Season 2 For some reason, cows are always part of these visuals. One would be surprised to visit the country and see that cows are mostly found in pastoral lands and rarely in an urban setting. Slumdog Millionaire is the biggest offender.

Everybody Does Not Work In Call Centers Or Medicine

Indians also tend to be boxed into the professions that they can be shown in on the big screen. Whether it was the influence of Outsourced or other external stereotypes, constantly depicting Indians as call center workers just doesn't work anymore. Still, shows like Family Guy make whole episodes about it (like “Road to India,” for example).

Similarly, the second profession that is assigned to the brown man or woman is that of a doctor. As a people, Indians are very intelligent, but they do excel in several other fields too, which is obvious from the Indian actors excelling in Hollywood itself.

Inaccurate Clothing

Every single time an Indian appears on-screen, in India, they are adorned in elaborate saris and heavy jewelry. This was even seen in Never Have I Ever when Nalini visited Chennai, despite the fact that the show aims to undo these kinds of stereotypes. Weighty gold jewels and silk saris are reserved for weddings and festivals, and most Indians dress in casual western wear like jeans, blouses, and dresses at most times.

Netflix's romantic comedy Wedding Season actually provided an accurate picture of wedding wear too, which was not gaudy and outdated like most other brown-depicting movies.

The Shy/ Nerdy Character

A prerequisite to being an Indian character seems to be awkwardness, which is the gross generalization of an entire population. Everyone in the country is not a Raj Koothrapalli or Jamal Malik — there are Kumars and Tom Haverfords (with his brilliant ideas ) too who have more to their personality.

Assigning Indians the role of the nerd is a thinly veiled way to sideline a brown character, and Indians would like to be seen in leading roles which do not reinforce this cookie-cutter stereotype onto them.

The Tour Guide For White People

Another banal trope role which is handed to Indians is that of the token tour guide to a fascinated white character visiting the country. This guide also doubles as a spiritual guru for said character, often showing them how India can cleanse them.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel typecast Dev Patel into this role, and this character archetype has been handed out to many brown actors, often not even named, in several "feel-good" movies.

Hinduism Isn't The Only Religion In India

In many depictions, Indians are equated to Hinduism. Surely, Hinduism is a major religion in the country, but its diverse landscape also harbors Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, and other faiths. Hence, showing all American-Indians as worshipers of the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, complete with Hindu-style offerings and incense sticks, is just generalizing Indians under one category.

Further, even with the Hindu Indians, not all of them are intensely devout believers. Just like the generic and dominant American Christian characters in popular media, some might be of stronger faith while some might hardly worship their deities at all.

Tacky Accents

It has been automatically assumed that all Indian accents are more than often funny-sounding and grammatically incorrect. The root cause of this was racial ignorance and the earlier depictions of Indians by white actors (wearing brownface) like Peter Sellers in The Party and Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit .

Of course, the stereotypical 'Indian accent' reached disastrous heights with the character Apu in The Simpsons . Apu was so offensive to the diaspora that even a documentary called The Problem With Apu was released in 2017, dissecting the stereotypes and racial micro-aggressions the character presented. Actor Kal Penn even revealed on Twitter how some studios wanted him to have an 'authentic Apu accent' in his roles! Recently, Apu's voice actor Hank Azaria apologized on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and stepped down from the role.

Romanticizing Poverty

India has a concerning rate of social inequality and poverty. Some films like Lion have tried showing a financially-troubled protagonist in a realistic and empathetic light. But otherwise, foreign films often tend to romanticize poverty (or show 'poverty porn' as some might say) or paint the entirety of India as a backward nation with no modern infrastructure. The Darjeeling Limited , Million Dollar Arm , and many others mock and generalize Indian cities as having nothing but shoddy shacks of buildings and half-naked children.

Indian directors frame their scenes in the backdrops of ruined buildings, crowded streets, and cows in the middle of traffic, but they paint the context as being from a particular area in India rather than generalizing the entire country as an undeveloped urban jungle.

The White Savior Narrative

Movies that deal with the interaction of foreign and Indian characters evoke pity and sympathy, but maybe they can do better with a more empathetic portrayal rather than a sympathetic one. Lion and Million Dollar Arm both depict white characters changing the fates of poor Indians. Both are based on true stories and do justice to their source material to an extent.

However, Indian representation should also involve portrayals of independent characters who can make it on their own, rather than depending on white people all the time. Colonial cultural hegemony is unfortunately still engrained in India after two centuries of British rule. 'Fair skin' is still glorified even in Indian communities, with fairness being equated to a very desirable quality. Hence, bolder Indian lead characters are needed not just to fight the generic white savior narrative, but the racist biases that some Indians themselves internalize in their thoughts.

Bollywood Isn't The Only Indian Film Industry

Bollywood and Hollywood may share scenes , but the Hindi film industry is not the only mode of filmmaking. India produces films in the rest of its languages too, with some modern gems acquiring critical acclaim at international film festivals as well. These languages range from Assamese to Malayalam to Bengali, and so on. Further, not every Indian film is riddled with Bollywood clichés like musical numbers, grandiose sets, and gestures of romance.

Scenes like the final dance to Jai Ho in Slumdog Millionaire and the wedding scene in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reinforce the notions that Indian celebrations mostly involve grand, choreographed songs and dances like a typical Bollywood film.

Exoticism and Mysticism

Cults like those in Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom , and the spiritual journeys in India as shown in Eat, Pray, Love , paint India as a highly 'exotic' land filled with mysticism and superstitious beliefs.

RELATED: 10 Things From The Indiana Jones Franchise That Haven't Aged Well

The argument against this stereotype can again be explained as the point for India's multi-religious identity. Not all Indians are blind worshipers of bearded mystics and gurus. As of last year, about 2.9 million Indians are atheists (via The Print ), while some consider themselves to be rationalists despite holding onto their religious identity. Otherwise, India is a diverse land of its own, rather than an exotic, archaic, and divine fantasy world of sorts.

There's More To Music Than Just Classical

India does boast of historic classical and folk music styles, having exported maestros like sitarist Ravi Shankar to the rest of the world. Still, such forms of music hardly make their way to the Indian music mainstream in today's times. Film music or independent music usually dominates the playlists of many Indian demographics. Many independent artists are experimenting or reinterpreting foreign genres too, be it hip-hop or electronica.

That's why rather than relying on a 'traditional' sound, films shot in India can feature several new-age Indian artists and their musical styles.

Purposely Complicated Or Inaccurate Names

Indians, Arabs, Koreans, and many other immigrants get mocked for their names that are difficult to pronounce by the dominant citizen groups in the countries they settle. Some even have to Anglicize or shorten their names for the convenience of Westerners. Instead of mispronouncing or changing the names of the people from this diaspora, maybe the Hollywood narrative can make an effort to accurately show some Indian names, as it's not always that difficult.

Even though today, foreign productions do try to accurately portray Indian characters and their names, there used to be Indian characters with names complicated and exaggerated beyond measure. The biggest case yet again is Apu's surname, Nahasapeemapetilon. Older films were even more careless in christening their Indian characters. In Annie (1978), an Indian bodyguard was simply named Punjab (an Indian state, hardly ever used as a person's name).

The Cuisine Doesn't Always Make Non-Indians Sick

Indian food might provide a spicier culinary experience to Americans or English people who are not used to the taste. There's an actual term 'Delhi Belly,' referring to the upset stomach that foreign tourists have when they visit India.

RELATED: No Reservations And 9 Other Delicious Movies Where Food Is The Star

Western portrayals have often reduced Indian food as something heavily spicy or gooey that leads to diarrhea. Such tropes are played around with Jon Hamm and Alan Arkin's characters in Million Dollar Arm . Another done-to-death stereotype is referring to Indian gravy dishes as 'curry'. There are so many diverse meat and vegetable-based dishes from all Indian states that it's hard to categorize any particular Indian dish as a curry. A good alternative to such clichés can be The Hundred-Foot Journey which normalizes the cooking habits of Indians.

Supporting Characters For Comic Relief

Indian-Americans were often shown as shop clerks, drivers, doctors, or any other supporting character. Often reduced to caricatures with the aforementioned accents, they were hardly given any scope for character development or background stories.

However, now, with slightly higher representation, this attitude is changing. Examples like Aziz Ansari's lead role in Master of None and Rahul Kohli in The Haunting Of Bly Manor are helping in giving Indian-origin American and British actors a more nuanced and multi-layered portrayal.

NEXT: 5 Of Owen's Funniest Puns (& 5 Most Memorable Quotes) In Haunting Of Bly Manor

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Hinduism in the American Media

representation of indian culture

They may just be fictional shows, but the often-stereotyped depictions of Indian characters on TV have a real-life impact

By Rutvij Holay

representation of indian culture

For many of the indian community raised in the united states, including myself, it is a rite of passage to see our religion depicted in TV shows and movies. For most of us, this is the first impression of how the average American seems to view our way of life. Depending on the show, we’re depicted as money-grubbing store owners, nerds with no social life or devout pagans following exotic Gods and traditions.

Some of us ignore these stereotypes, some act like the stereotypical characters, and some shun our culture altogether. Given the influence that these shows can have on us, it is essential that we understand them and their influence, so that we may educate ourselves accordingly. To do so, I propose to group their representation of Hindus and Hinduism into three eras: the Apu era, the Ravi era and the Mira era. 

The Apu Era: 1989

The Apu era, named after Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The ­Simpsons cartoon, is well known among those above 30, and may be the most publicized example of Indian representation on a TV show. None of the producers, writers or voice actors is Indian. Apu, with the exotic, long last name (which doesn’t follow any known Hindu naming practice), is portrayed as a devout, hardworking Hindu who runs a Kwik-e-Mart convenience store. From this characterization, the stereotypes flow freely. The workaholic (“I work 22 hours a day”) who just nearly missed work because he was shot, is clearly derived from the “model minority” myth, the idea that all Hindus, and Asians in general, are naturally more hardworking than all others. 

Apu is portrayed as a Hindu vegan devoted to Ganesha, and a believer in reincarnation and karma. In part, this all sets the stage to use stereotypes about Indian culture as plot devices, such as in season 7, episode 22, when Apu goes to a party. After eating some tofu hot dogs, he sees a girl with no ring on her finger, and says, “Ah! No ring, I see, so you are only arranged to be married.” A few moments later, after dancing with her, to quell rumors of any pending affair, he promised that he would tell everyone she was “untouchable.” Through this scene, creators of the show implied that caste, and Untouchability along with it, exists in the United States. This serves to solidify the myth of the wider caste pyramid, often used by missionaries to target certain Indian groups for conversion, and defame Hinduism in the process. 

Furthermore, anyone who has firsthand experience with the Indian system of marriage understands that arranged marriages aren’t an oppressive tradition where the girl is destined to be married to a certain man at birth. Rather, the girl can say no to a match, and even choose her own husband, as long as the rest of the family approves. There’s an entire episode in season eight devoted to Apu’s arranged marriage with a girl he hasn’t seen in twenty years. He first tries to escape, but then upon meeting the girl, falls in love with her and proceeds to have eight children. 

Even though the show is inconsistent in its references to Hindu customs—even the same custom, as we saw with marriage—and even though Indians understand this is a cartoon exaggeration, many of their non-Indian and non-Hindu counterparts may not. In fact, I’ve heard a middle-aged teacher claim to students that Hindus “have a caste system that is so bad you just have to get out.” I have no doubt that, for her and many others, shows like The Simpsons played a role in their ignorance. People who influence millions, and who are expected to be far more educated, have also made such claims. For example, President Joe Biden joked that “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent,” a quip that may have very well been inspired by Apu and his Kwik-e-Mart. 

The Ravi Era: 2007-2015

representation of indian culture

Many people my age grew up with the TV sitcom Jessie , with its Indian-American character Ravi, one of several adopted children under the care of nanny Jessie. By this time, and in contrast to Apu, representation of Hindus was broadening in both the number of shows in which Hindus appeared and the age groups targeted, so other notable characters emerged as well, such as Baljeet from the Phineas and Ferb cartoon.

As more Indians moved into the IT sector, began to win the spelling bees (every national one from 2008 to 2019), and achieved much more in the US, a common theme emerged in their representation: Every single one of the characters in these shows was a nerd. They did very well in school, especially in math and science, and had little to no social life or athletic ability.

One of the first representations of this stereotype was Baljeet. In season two, episode 14, he signs up for a “Summer Rock” class, assuming it is about geology, before learning it is about rock and roll. This makes him so mad he spends the class doing math. In the end, as he performs a rock song, he yells out the lyrics, “Somebody give me a grade—and make it an A.”

The representation of Apu was universally panned as negative, especially in Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem with Apu . Having all Indians as nerds in the Ravi era is, in my opinion, a two-edged sword. On the one hand, this is in many ways a positive stereotype, something that people admire about our community, and I can’t imagine many who mind being called intelligent. Such stereotypes inspire our people to be better, to get better grades. From personal experience, I can certainly tell you that it helped my test scores. 

On the other hand, try as they might, there are students in our community who cannot earn such grades. They may feel inferior, since all Indians are meant to be smart—at least according to these shows. I’ve heard fellow students say, “I’m Indian; of course I’m in all honors,” or something similar. Such stereotypes, especially since they are embraced by our own community, have been known to cause mental health problems, making this an important issue. 

At the same time, it may lead to resentment from other communities, who feel that we are unfairly better off. This leads to discrimination both from individuals, and through systemic programs such as racial preferences which favor non-Asians over Asians in college admissions in the United States. 

In terms of religion, I found the coverage of Hinduism in this era far more confusing. In Phineas and Ferb, Baljeet doesn’t talk about Hindu culture much—which is a problem in and of itself—but Ravi does make extensive mention of it. Perhaps the most interesting incident would be in season one, episode three, which focuses on karma. In it, Ravi’s adopted brother Luke plays a prank on him, and to get revenge, Ravi devises an elaborate plot revolving around karma. He warns Luke of “cosmic payback,” in the form of karma, and sets up a series of pranks to make Luke believe that karma is real, then makes him stand outside in the rain as a sort of penance. 

This idea of karma as some form of “cosmic payback” has always been a flawed understanding of karma in the American mainstream. Rather, karma is better understood as an extension of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. However, rather than governing mundane actions such as throwing a ball in the air, karma also extends to moral and immoral actions. 

representation of indian culture

Towards the end, Ravi’s nanny Jessie learns about the plot and makes Ravi admit that he set up the pranks on his own and they were not some superstitious “cosmic payback.” One wonders what would happen if a similar incident occurred with a central principal of Islam or Christianity—for example, if Jessie made some Rehman or Robert admit that Allah or Jesus wasn’t real. I can imagine that, rightfully so, there would be far more backlash, and the producer of the show, Disney, would be forced to apologize.

Since this show was written seven years ago, much has happened in the US in terms of “political correctness” which has changed the way stereotypes about minority cultures, including Hinduism, are presented in the media, for better and worse. At the same time, during these seven years, in my experience, there has been a distinct rise in hostility towards Hindus and Hinduism for various reasons. 

The Mira Era: 2020

It is perhaps in an attempt at political correctness that the current generation is growing up watching shows remarkable for their increased accuracy and lack of stereotypes. In the kids’ cartoon show Mira, Royal Detective, for example, the characters have Indic names, play sitars and tablas, and celebrate Indian festivals. Compared to Apu, who listened to Middle Eastern music portrayed as “Indian” and celebrated a far more intentional mockery of Indian festivals, it is a wonder how far we have come. 

Unfortunately, the show’s producers have done this is by sidelining Hinduism altogether. In season one, episode 19, on Diwali, there is extensive portrayal of rangoli decorations, divya lamp and other aspects of how the holiday is celebrated. Then at one point, Mira mentions that Diwali isn’t Diwali without ladoos—and her pet mongooses devouring the sweets becomes a recurring motif in the show. But there is not a single mention of Shri Ram and His triumphant return to Ayodhya or any of the other traditions associated with Diwali across India. Delicious as ladoos may be, there’s no doubt that one can honor Diwali without them; yet few Hindus would do observe the festival without Shri Ram, Goddess Lakshmi, or one of the many other Deities worshiped this day. 

This treatment isn’t limited to Diwali. Season one, episode 25, features the spring Holi festival, but there is no mention of the downfall of the demon Holika or of Krishna and Radha. Instead, the episode features a Bollywood-style dance and a parade in which the main activity is the tossing of colors. This includes a dodgeball-like game involving water balloons, something that isn’t even done in India.

representation of indian culture

All this reminds me of a saying in a Sanskrit textbook of mine:  “Without the Vedas, Gitas and Ramayana , and without the poems of Kalidas, India is not India.” When examining the representation of Hindus in the media in its entirety, then, it is important to acknowledge that older shows such as the Simpsons and Jessie attacked our Vedas, Gitas and Ramayana no doubt, but it should be noted that they did keep them. In that sense, it was a heavily flawed representation of our culture, but it was Indian culture nonetheless.

Mira and shows like it, to their credit, don’t bash any of our religious beliefs, but that’s only because they aren’t there at all. They’ve taken away the philosophy and stories of the Vedas, Gita and Ramayana, and in doing so, there is a strong argument that they’ve taken away Indian culture itself. That they do it to appeal to Western tastes is only more hypocritical, given the emphasis that Disney and other television channels have placed on understanding other cultures. 

I’ve talked with many community members on this issue. Some have said they prefer that producers not talk about Hindu culture at all, if the only way they can do so is by attacking it. Others have argued that showing India without Hinduism is just as insulting, if not worse. To me, the question we need to think about is: in public would we as a community prefer a culture that is attacked, or one that is nonexistent?    

  Rutvij Holay , 15, of Irvine, California, an executive-committee member of Americans for Equality PAC and a budding Hindu political activist, is presently working with his local school district and a textbook company to change how Hinduism is depicted in education. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Rini B. Mehta

Rini B. Mehta, a professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois whose research interests include globalization and theories of popular culture, teaches courses on Indian literature and Indian cinema.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

representation of indian culture

Depending on which films, TV shows or magazines they're viewing, Westerners may be left with contradictory impressions of India - as a nation with a thriving information technology industry, as a third-world nation overwhelmed by poverty and famine, or as a spiritual mecca with an exotic, mystical culture frozen in a more primitive time. Rini B. Mehta, a professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois whose research interests include globalization and theories of popular culture, teaches courses on Indian literature and Indian cinema and co-edited "Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation and Diaspora" (Anthem Press, 2010). Mehta spent part of this summer in Calcutta filming a documentary about globalization's impact on India's middle class. Mehta recently spoke with News Bureau arts editor Sharita Forrest about representations of India and its people in Western and Indian media.

How is India portrayed by the Western media?

In 1997, "Seinfeld" broadcast an episode that is known as "The Backwards Episode," because the scenes are shown out of sequence. In it the characters travel to India, and there are shots of an elephant and a storyline about terrible heat and George's fear of using the bathrooms.

"The Simpsons" had an episode called "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bangalore" first broadcast in April 2006 in which Mr. Burns, Homer's boss at the power plant, sent him to India to train some employees. India was portrayed as a very exotic place full of hard-working employees who revered Homer as a god. In return, Homer taught them how to stand up for their rights by forming a union, as if he were imparting culture to the natives in the manner of the colonizers 200 years ago.

A couple of months after "The Simpsons" episode, in June 2006, Time magazine ran a story titled "India Inc.," about India's becoming the next economic superpower. The cover photo showed a woman in ethnic chic finery wearing a telephone headset as if she worked in a call center - and there was a halo coming out of her head. Many Indians found this offensive.

There is a new show on NBC this fall called "Outsourced,," which will be about the culture clash that occurs when an American company transfers its call center and its manager to India.

What reaction do students in your courses have to these images?

When I ask the students in my Indian cinema class - who are part of the post-global generation, born after 1989 - if they think the Time magazine cover is offensive, about half the class think it's not. Among the class are students from India, second-generation Indian Americans and other Americans. A fraction of the students think it's better to be misrepresented than not represented at all.

With the coming of New Age spirituality and industry, people in the West developed a fascination with the spiritual side of India and ideas such as yoga and ethnic chic clothing. But the yoga practiced in the West is not the centuries-old tradition that is practiced in India. They are very different.

The Western media often seem to focus on famines and floods in India or about going to India for spiritual enlightenment, as Julia Roberts does in the film "Eat, Pray, Love."

Are these misrepresentations a new phenomenon?

Historically, in the European imagination, India was a place that existed outside of history. The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wrote that India - with its psychology, religion, caste-system, and holy men - existed in a dream-like state. However, India, like every other place in the world, has never existed outside of history as an exotic dreamland. It has had its own complex economic, social and political things going on regardless of whether the West was aware of it.

Interestingly, in the recent film "Slumdog Millionaire," which won several Academy Awards, and in the "The Simpsons" episode, which are disparate media products intended for different viewers, India is inserted into history through the West - through Homer's imparting ideas of unionization to the workers and the Slumdog's escape from his predicament through the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" TV show.

I teach a course, "Introduction to South Asian Literatures and Cultures,," which focuses on the ancient and medieval period of Indian literature. I begin that course with an essay titled "Ideology and Interpretation of Indian History," which shows that all the things the students are reading about ancient India are read in this way because that's the way Europeans have viewed things for the past 300 years.

Even if we're talking about the ancient Indian past, it is important for us to realize that it has been interpreted in a certain way that influences our way of seeing, and we cannot see ancient India accurately without this awareness.

The Indian epic poem "Ramayana," whose interpretation played a major role in the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s, is sometimes viewed as having a destructive effect on Indian politics, encouraging fundamentalism and leading to violence in real life. But even "Ramayana" has been rewritten over and over throughout history, evolving with the changing ideals of the listening or reading Indian public. It is important to read a text like the "Ramayana" with an awareness of this history.

What role does the Indian film industry, often called Bollywood, play in this? Are Hindi-language films changing these stereotypes or perpetuating them?

Previously, Indian popular films had a huge market in the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East but it has only been in the last 10 years that Indian films have reached theaters in North America and the United Kingdom.

Bollywood has never mirrored reality or been mimetic. It has always been an industry of fantasy, hopes and romantic desires.

Post-global Indian films represent a changed India to Westerners, with images that are very different from the ideologies that were seen in films of the 1970s and 1980s. First of all, Bollywood films have a target audience in the West now. And there is, of course, the post-global nouveau bourgeoisie in India that has a different self-representation in mind.

The India that these films depict is often "cured" of its socio-economic problems, which continue to plague the majority of the population in spite of the record growth advertised by the government. Certain problems like casteism, gender oppression, and the continued disenfranchisement of the poor are often bypassed. There has been a conscious attempt on the part of Bollywood to identify with the dominant paradigms of the West, by picking up issues like Islamic terrorism in the post-Sept. 11 era.

Bollywood also presents a picture of the West back to Indian audiences, and there is a new set of characters called nonresident Indians or NRIs that appear in quite a few films every year. The NRIs are Indians who live in the West and are considered part of the extended national family. They show that you don't have to live in India to be Indian. You can be Indian at heart no matter where you live.

Things have been changing but there are a lot of regressive images from the past there, too, that are packaged in a different way. Many regressive practices and ideologies are articulated and sometimes even justified in post-global Bollywood films and Indian television.

A number of soaps that ran on post-global Indian television for years, and had a significant viewership in the Indian diaspora, have been patriarchal and oppressive in an open, unflinching manner. And these images and ideas co-exist almost seamlessly with the representation of a fast growing technological and economic power, often dubbed as the "shining India." Whether this "mixed," paradoxical representation is inseparable from post-global modernity or is going to evolve toward a more progressive paradigm remains to be seen.


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Indian culture: Customs and traditions

Indian culture is built upon centuries of history and heritage, making it one of the oldest in the world.

Taj Mahal

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Languages of India

Religion in india, indian food, indian architecture and art, indian fashion, doing business in india.

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Indian culture is among the world's oldest as the people of India can track their civilization back as far as 4,500 years ago. Many sources describe it as "Sa Prathama Sanskrati Vishvavara" — the first and the supreme culture in the world, according to the All World Gayatri Pariwar (AWGP) organization.

Western societies did not always see the culture of India very favorably, according to Christina De Rossi, an anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College in London. Early anthropologists once considered culture as an evolutionary process, and "every aspect of human development was seen as driven by evolution," she told Live Science. "In this view, societies outside of Europe or North America, or societies that did not follow the European or Western way of life, were considered primitive and culturally inferior. Essentially this included all the colonized countries and people, such as African countries, India, and the Far East."

However, Indians made significant advances in architecture ( Taj Mahal ), mathematics ( the invention of zero ) and medicine ( Ayurveda ) well in advance of many western civilizations. 

Population of India

Today, India is a very diverse country, with more than 1.3 billion people, according to the CIA World Factbook , making it the second most populous nation in the world after China . Some estimates, such as those by Statista , place the population at very nearly 1.4 billion. The ethnic makeup of India, according to the CIA is 72 percent Indo-Aryan (a coverall term for people of largely Central Asian descent) and 25 percent are Dravidian (being largely of South Asian descent). 

About 35 percent of the population lives in urban areas with an estimated annual rate of a little over 2 percent moving to cities each year. New Delhi is the most populous city in India with a population of 31.18 million people, according to the CIA, second only to Tokyo, Japan for its population size. Mumbai is the second largest city in India with 20.67 million people, followed by Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, all with more than 10 million people.

According to Statista, 26.16 percent of India population was under 14-years-old as of 2020, 67.27 were aged 15 to 64 and 6.57 percent were 65 or older. 

India has 28 states and seven territories, according to the World Health Organization . There is no official language in India, according to a Gujarat High Court ruling in 2010 , though Hindi is the official language of the government and English is considered a subsidiary official language. The Constitution of India officially recognizes 23 official languages. 

Many people living in India write in Devanagari script. In fact, it is a misconception that the majority of people in India speak Hindi. Though many people speak Hindi in India, at least 56 percent of Indian residents speak something other than Hindi, according to the CIA. Bengali,, Marathi, Telugu Tamil, Gujarati and Urdu are some other languages spoken in the country.  

Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language, came from Northern India. How the language started has been a point of argument amongst linguists. It shares many similarities with English, French, Farsi and Russian languages. 

New DNA research in 2017 found that an Aryan migration may have introduced the beginnings of Sanskrit. "People have been debating the arrival of the Indo-European languages in India for hundreds of years," said study co-author Martin Richards, an archaeogeneticist at the University of Huddersfield in England. "There's been a very long-running debate about whether the Indo-European languages were brought from migrations from outside, which is what most linguists would accept, or if they evolved indigenously."

India is identified as the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism, the third and fourth largest religions in the world. About 84 percent of the population identifies as Hindu, according to the " Handbook of Research on Development and Religion ," edited by Matthew Clarke (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013). 

There are many variations of Hinduism, and four predominant sects — Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakteya and Smarta.

About 13 percent of Indians are Muslim, making it one of the largest Islamic nations in the world. Christians and Sikhs make up a small percentage of the population, and there are even fewer Buddhists and Jains, according to the "Handbook."

The CIA cited similar figures. According to its World Factbook, around 80 percent of the population is Hindu, 14.2 percent is Muslim, 2.3 percent is Christian, 1.7 percent is Sikh and 2 percent is unspecified.

Indian spices

When the Mughul Empire invaded during the sixteenth century, they left a significant mark on Indian cuisine. "The influence of the Mughal rulers who ruled India is distinctly perceptible in the style of cooking made famous by them. This cuisine is a fusion of Turkish and Persian cuisine, where mostly ground spices are used in the preparation of unique flavor and taste," wrote Krishna Gopal Dubey in " The Indian Cuisine " (PHI Publisher, 2010). Indian cuisine is also influenced by many other countries. It is known for its large assortment of dishes and its liberal use of herbs and spices. Cooking styles vary from region to region.

Wheat, Basmati rice and pulses with chana (Bengal gram) are important staples of the Indian diet. The food is rich with curries and spices, including ginger, coriander, cardamom, turmeric , dried hot peppers, and cinnamon, among others. Chutneys — thick condiments and spreads made from assorted fruits and vegetables such as tamarind and tomatoes and mint, cilantro and other herbs — are used generously in Indian cooking.

Many Hindus are vegetarian, but lamb and chicken are common in main dishes for non-vegetarians. " The Guardian " reports that between 20 percent and 40 percent of India's population is vegetarian. A tradition of vegetarianism appears to go back to the ancient past. "India may have been vegetarian during the Mohenjodaro and Harappan civilizations. We do not know for sure as its script has not been unlocked, but it has been proven that the ancient Dravidian civilization was truly vegetarian," wrote Dubey.

Much of Indian food is eaten with fingers or bread used as utensils. There are a wide array of breads served with meals, including naan, a leavened, oven-baked flatbread; and bhatoora, a fried, fluffy flatbread common in North India and eaten with chickpea curry.

The most well-known example of Indian architecture is the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to honor his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It combines elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles. India also has many ancient temples.

India is well known for its film industry, which is commonly referred to as Bollywood. The country's movie history began in 1896 when the Lumière brothers demonstrated the art of cinema in Mumbai, according to the Golden Globes . Today, the films are known for their elaborate singing and dancing as well as their elaborate action sequences. 

Indian dance, music and theater traditions span back more than 2,000 years, according to Nilima Bhadbhade, author of " Contract Law in India " (Wolters Kluwer, 2016). The major classical dance traditions — Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam and Kathakali — draw on themes from mythology and literature and have rigid presentation rules.

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A study published in April 2016 in the Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology found that some Indian horns have many similarities with horns made in Ireland. This research may suggest that the two countries may have exchanged ideas and techniques in making musical instruments during the Bronze Age. 

"Some horns are frankly shockingly similar, to the point where it is like witnessing time travel," study author Billy Ó Foghlú, an archaeologist and doctoral student at the Australian National University in Canberra, told Live Science . "If I were to find one of these modern Indian instruments in an Irish archaeological excavation and I didn't know what I was looking at, I would likely assume it was a Late Bronze Age Irish artifact." 

Women wearing saris in India

Indian clothing is closely identified with the colorful silk saris worn by many of the country's women. The origins of this garment go back to Ancient India and evolved over time to include more expensive fabrics and adornments as they came to the country, according to " The Times of India ". A traditional piece of clothing for men is the dhoti, an unstitched piece of cloth that is tied around the waist and legs. Men also wear a kurta, a loose shirt that is worn about knee-length. 

For special occasions, men wear a sherwani or achkan, which is a long coat with a collar having no lapel. It is buttoned up to the collar and down to the knees. A shorter version of a sherwani is called a Nehru jacket. It is named after Jawaharlal Nehru, India's prime minister from 1947 to 1964. He actually preferred the achkan, according to Tehelka , an Indian newspaper. The Nehru jacket was primarily marketed to Westerners and made famous by The Beatles and The Monkees as well as being worn by a number of James Bond villains.

India's currency is the rupee. Almost 62 percent of the country's GDP comes from the service sector with industry making up 23 percent and agriculture contributing 15.4 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. Its primary agricultural products are sugar cane, rice, wheat, buffalo milk, milk, potatoes, vegetables, bananas, maize, and mangoes.

Indian business culture places emphasis on strong hierarchies and formalities, according to Santander , with decisions, particularly important ones, being considered for a length of time and ultimately made by those at the top of a company.

Indian holidays and celebrations

Diwali is the largest and most important holiday to India. It is a five-day festival known as the festival of lights because of the lights lit during the celebration to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness. 

Holi, the festival of colors , also called the festival of love, is popular in the spring. The country also celebrates Republic Day (Jan. 26), Independence Day (Aug. 15) and Mahatma Gandhi 's birthday (Oct. 2).

For a deep dive into another element of Indian culture, learn when yoga originated and more about the ancient practice.

For a closer look at an important cultural artifact, you can read all about the golf-ball sized Star of India sapphire that was once stolen in a heist.

  • "Indian Culture" All World Gayatri Pariwar
  • "India " CIA World Factbook
  • "India - Statistics & Facts" Statista
  • " Handbook of Research on Development and Religion ," edited by Matthew Clarke (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013)
  • " The Indian Cuisine " by Krishna Gopal Dubey (PHI Publisher, 2010)
  • "The best countries in the world for vegetarians" " The Guardian "
  • " Contract Law in India " by Nilima Bhadbhade (Wolters Kluwer, 2016)
  • "Ancient Irish musical history found in modern India" Australian National University
  • "The history of sari: The nine yard wonder," " The Times of India "
  • "Nehru’s style statement" Tehelka

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Jonathan is the Editor of All About History magazine, running the day to day operations of the brand. He has a Bachelor's degree in History from the University of Leeds . He has previously worked as Editor of video game magazines games™ and X-ONE and tech magazines iCreate and Apps. He is currently based in Bournemouth, UK.

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representation of indian culture


Revista do Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia

Início Números vol. 21 (1) Dossiê "India’s other sites: repr... Introduction: representations of ...

Introduction: representations of India at home and abroad

This dossier makes an original contribution to the semantic analysis of the representations on India. It aims to broaden the academic debate on South Asian studies by focusing on the cultural practices of both Indians and migrants and on their representations of India, a much neglected subject in the literature. The five articles it comprises examine three dimensions of representations about India. One concerns the connection between tourism and religion, and the transformation of representations of Portuguese presence in Goa. Another dimension addresses the representations of the lifestyle migrants in India and the population in Portugal, notably regarding the consumption of an Indian and Bollywood lifestyle. A third dimension focuses on South Asian migrants in Portugal embeddedness, through economic processes. The main finding that brings these papers together is that the importance given by the different actors to the cultural representations about India is so strong that it defines decisions for their life experiences. These cultural representations are heterogeneous, circulating with divergent meanings in India and abroad, grounded on different images of past and present. The articles explore their production and uses in various settings.

Este dossiê temático oferece um contributo original para a análise semântica das representações sobre a Índia. Tenciona alargar o debate académico no domínio dos estudos sul-asiáticos, focando-se nas práticas culturais de indianos e de migrantes e suas representações sobre a Índia, até agora menos conhecidas na literatura. O dossiê é composto por cinco artigos, que abordam três dimensões das representações. A primeira explora a relação entre turismo e religião, e a transformação das representações sobre a presença portuguesa em Goa. Uma outra aborda os imigrantes ocidentais na Índia e o seu consumo de um estilo de vida indiano e, por outro lado, a criação de identidades alternativas da população em Portugal através da influência de Bollywood. Por último, uma dimensão que narra o enraizamento de populações sul-asiáticas imigrantes em Portugal, através de processos económicos. A conclusão comum é a centralidade dada pelos diferentes atores às representações culturais sobre a Índia, de forma tão marcada que define decisões para as suas opções na vida quotidiana. Estas representações culturais são heterogéneas: circulam com significados divergentes na Índia e no estrangeiro, baseadas em diferentes imagens do passado e do presente. O dossiê explora a sua produção e usos em vários espaços.

Entradas no índice

Keywords: , palavras-chave: , texto integral.

  • 1 The initial idea for this dossier came from the contributions presented at the panel “India’s Other (...)

1 This dossier explores processes of cultural and social representations in which India is the central reference. 1 It analyses memories and imaginations of India used by individuals and groups as key elements in their identity construction processes (cf. Hall 2003 [1997]; Appadurai 1996). The first aim is to fill gaps in the knowledge on representations about India. Secondly, it proposes to deconstruct the role these representations play in the practices of everyday life. It examines them in differentiated contexts, among Indians and migrants both at home and abroad, as well as among tourists, pilgrims and consumers of Indian cinema and dance, thus broadening the debate in South Asian studies.

2 Our main finding is that the contents of the representations are heterogeneous. They are produced and consumed both within and outside of India and based on diverse perceptions of past and present time. These representations of India converge in that they are key mechanisms used by the different actors to define choices in everyday life and therefore their identity.

3 The Portuguese context is scarcely acknowledged by the international literature on South Asian diaspora, despite the remarkable group of researchers in this field in Portugal. Anthropological and historical studies on India tend to limit research to Anglo-Saxon perspectives, mainly due to their prevalence in Indian studies and to the importance of South Asians in the migrant population of the United Kingdom and USA. There is a considerable volume of scientific production on South Asian studies from Portuguese researchers; nevertheless, this literature is almost unknown internationally. This may be explained not only by the seniority of Anglo-Saxon production in the field, but also by the fact that the South Asian diaspora to the United Kingdom and USA is larger and older than that to Portugal. However, many Portuguese social scientists, and particularly anthropologists, conduct research in Indian studies, in part because the Portuguese administration held colonial territories in India. Portuguese post-colonial anthropological production is therefore abundant but, as already noted, is scarcely acknowledged in the related international literature.

4 This dossier includes articles by both Portuguese and non-Portuguese authors. All have done ethnographic fieldwork in post-colonial settings such as Goa, Diu, Lisbon – areas within countries inhabited by thousands of families with origins in former Portuguese colonies in India. The ethnographic descriptions and contexts presented by the authors contribute to widen the knowledge of the international academic production, and to highlight the Portuguese research on South Asian studies.

5 In this dossier, Rita Cachado examines South Asians in Portugal from the perspective of entrepreneurship in Lisbon. Hindu-Gujaratis came to Portugal in the early 1980s and are therefore deeply embedded in Portuguese society. Well-established shops owned by Hindus illustrate an important branch of the Gujarati diaspora. The author therefore analyses representations in relation to the Indian migrants’ embeddedness through economic processes.

6 The representations about India by the lifestyle migrants in India and the Portuguese consumers of Indian popular culture is another strand of the research. Two papers challenge these hegemonic representations by deepening images of India through their role in daily life. Mari Korpela studies lifestyle immigrants in India and compares what it means to them to adopt Indian social habits in their everyday life, in Varanasi (north) and in Goa (south). Moreover, she explores the heterogeneity among them. Inês Lourenço provides insights into the importance of India as a reference when filling leisure time in Portugal. Furthermore, she contrasts the meanings attributed to India by the Portuguese who are practitioners of Bollywood dance with those of regular spectators of Bollywood movies.

7 A third less known perspective concerns the contemporary changes in representations about Goa and the former Portuguese administration through tourism and religion. Two papers discuss both producers and consumers of tourism, articulating it with religion. Pamila Gupta focuses on the religious exposition of the corpse of the catholic Saint Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary in Goa in the 16 th century, when the territory first came under Portuguese administration. In this public display, the huge number of tourists and pilgrims consume “religion” and “history”, but strikingly they also take part in producing a new image of Goa’s colonial past and disseminating it for future generations. Cláudia Pereira examines the reshaping of the perception of a “tribe” that is currently promoted to tourists as representative of the Goan identity; it represents “traditional Goa” through religious dances that have been socially constructed as vernaculars of the state, for dating back to prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16 th century.

8 The papers in this dossier strive to contribute to scientific knowledge about Indians from former Portuguese colonies in India, at home and abroad; to provide new data about Indian migrant populations; and to explore emerging realities such as the immigrants in India, thus giving rise to the social construction of “other” Indias. Considering cultural representations and migration subjects, at first glance South Asian studies already seem well established in anthropological literature. However, we note that while the usual ethnographic contexts in this area are improving theoretical debates, they neglect the heterogeneity of the populations, and this ultimately impairs the debate. Simultaneously, we find a great variety of research from different scientific domains around the world, concerning South Asian studies produced by Portuguese researchers or on former Indian territories under Portuguese administration or on representations about India (e.g. Newman 2001; Bastos and Bastos 2001; Fruzzetti and Perez 2002; Roy 2002; Ashutosh 2008; Safran, Kumar and Lal 2008; ­Cardoso 2010; Chaturvedula 2010; Knott and McLoughlin 2010; Mapril 2010; Marques 2010; Mehta and Pandharipand 2011; Kumar 2011; Lourenço and Cachado 2012; Rosales 2012; Vicente 2012; Bauman and Young 2014; Frenz 2014; Oliveira, Dias and Padmadas 2014). We believe that the research of these authors, among others, should be developed to encompass less known cultural representations of Indian migrants and settlers.

9 Indians and their descendants, both within and outside of India, shape their lives and places in a distinct fashion and they negotiate representations that are, firstly, modelled by different historical and colonial pathways. As described in this dossier, the use of history must be seen in relation to the individual memory and daily life in terms of religion, symbols and localities, through social, cultural and historical approaches that transform imagination. Multiple processes of localisation, driven by migration dynamics, reflect ambivalent emotions of belonging vis-à-vis different national sites. Diverse life experiences, itineraries and memories contribute to the construction of real and imaginary spaces that act as strong features of identity in the present. The everyday pathways of South Asians show that India and Asian societies act as a permanent inspiration, nourished by the media and the contemporary consumption society.

Representations of India and their role in identity construction

10 Cultural representations associated with India are explored through different analytic and ethnographic perspectives: they have a central role not only in South Asians’ lives but also in the identity construction processes of lifestyle immigrants. Representation is a central feature of the process of meaning production. It is through representation that the members of a culture use language to produce meaning (see Hall 2003 [1997]). In this context, language should be interpreted broadly to include different kinds of visual images, performances and other kinds of language such as gestures, fashion or clothes; or even the human body, central in the process of representation and also easily representable (see Featherstone and Wernick 1995: 3). Moreover, meanings change over time and from one culture to another. In this sense, the meaning of things is never fixed, final or true (Hall 2003 [1997]: 61).

11 On the other hand, as the representation of “others” always implies interpretation, representations are never completely realistic (see Spivak and ­Harasym 1990). As can be seen in the papers that discuss the western relationship with Indian cultural representations, orientalist interpretations (cf. Saïd 2003 [1978]; Inden 1986) coexist with cosmopolitan perspectives (cf. Clifford 1992; Novak 2010) about cultural Indian references. In these processes, individuals articulate orientalist elements in accordance with their own perspectives on India and the way they fit into their lifestyles. Representations thus pervade the various topics of this dossier, described below.

Outline of the dossier

12 All the papers in this dossier are grounded in ethnography. The scientific core lies in anthropology, but history, cultural studies and sociology also support the theoretical backgrounds from an interdisciplinary perspective advocated by the editors. The papers, written by authors from Portugal, Finland, and South Africa, combine ethnographic methods, historical discourse analysis, and the examination of testimonials.

13 The dossier opens with two articles that address transformations in the contemporary representations of Goa, bridging past and present. Pamila Gupta illustrates the widespread representation in the decennial Exposition of Saint Francis Xavier among both Goan Catholic visitors and tourists: the cultural difference of Goa in India, which promotes the state as a tourist destination. The paper follows her ethnography on the social, religious, and touristic event. Readers can understand what it means to be in Goa during the Exposition of Saint Francis Xavier’s corpse and how participants represent their singular experiences in heterogeneous modes. Gupta argues that, by disseminating a hegemonic value to the fragile corpse through their visual consumption, the pilgrims and tourists are making history by being part of a postcolonial identity of the state under construction. This identity is based on a selected colonial representation.

14 Cláudia Pereira explores a less known aspect stimulated by tourism: the image of Goans who were previously thought of as “tribal” but are currently valued as Goa’s repository of the traditional. This state follows international tourism trends. Tourists look for specific Goan populations that live in an idealised past, and search for the experience of knowing the “tribal populations”. Therefore, identity construction and identity policies are part of what is shown to and told to tourists. Pereira concludes that the change in the “tribal” image, acknowledged by tourists, further modified the group’s representation of itself by giving it an awareness of its own identitary value.

15 The next two papers connect India and the “West” through cultural representations of India made by two kinds of consumers. Mari Korpela compares the notions of lifestyle held by immigrants in India from diverse areas of the world, such as Israel, North America, Australia and a number of European countries. They spend long periods in Varanasi and in Goa. In Varanasi, the search is for an “authentic” India. In Goa, they seem to look for a particular type of freedom, so they can develop a social construction of “other” Indias. In this paper, the reader will learn about the lifestyles of these immigrants in India, their activities and their Indian representations in light of what they have left in their home countries and what they find in two distinct emblematic settings within India. Korpela shows that they construct their own representations of “Incredible India”, in the search for a more meaningful lifestyle in the country, although the images attributed to it are themselves heterogeneous.

16 Inês Lourenço analyses the consumption of Bollywood in Portugal and its implications in the creation of new cosmopolitan identities through cultural alternatives originating from India. Her analysis of audiences of popular Indian cinema as well as those who practice Bollywood dance in Portugal examines how references to Indian popular culture are selected and how they contribute to the construction of these two different groups as alternative and creative cultural identities. The empirical data presented provide a reflection on the commodification processes of India to which old orientalist ideas still make a vigorous contribution. Critically rethinking the concept of cosmopolitanism, the author intends to show that the representation processes largely ignore the real life of individuals and societies upon which those representations are constructed, but continuously please the exotic Asian cool imagination.

17 The last paper portrays South Asians in Portugal. Rita Cachado studies South Asian merchants in Lisbon and their professional trajectories, following old Hindu shops and their owners’ narratives on the Portuguese economic ­crisis. Though the majority prefer to remain where they settled over 30 years ago, some consider remigration. What was unexpected in her ethnography was that even though other countries, such as India and Mozambique, were experiencing economic growth during the Portuguese financial crisis, her interlocutors were very cautious in their discourses and in their choices for the near future. Ethnography also provided data that implies an analysis of the ethnic cluster concept. This article tends to agree with the mix-embeddedness approach more than that of the ethnic cluster, and the author explains this through an original overview of the urban areas where Hindu-Gujarati shopkeepers work and live.

18 As a whole, this dossier makes a critical analysis of the formation and recontextualisation of contemporary identities through the cultural representations of not only Indian migrants and settlers, but also lifestyle immigrants in India. It also addresses the role of colonial history and imagination and of the Indian migration and diaspora in less known contexts. All the contributions provide new arenas where cultural identity practices can be reconceptualised by incorporating cultural features and places that hitherto have scarcely been acknowledged.


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ASHUTOSH, Ishan, 2008, “(Re-)creating the community: South Asian transnationalism on Chicago’s Devon Avenue”, Urban Geography , 29 (3): 224-245.

BASTOS, Susana Trovão, and José Gabriel Pereira BASTOS, 2001, De Moçambique a Portugal: Reinterpretações Identitárias do Hinduísmo em Viagem . Lisbon, Fundação Oriente.

BAUMAN, Chad M., and Richard Fox YOUNG, 2014, Constructing Indian Christianities : Culture, Conversion and Caste . Delhi, Routledge India.

CARDOSO, Hugo, 2010, “The African slave population of Portuguese India: demographics and impact on Indo-Portuguese”, Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages , 25 (1): 95-119.

CHATURVEDULA, Nandini, 2010, “Preserving purity: cultural exchange and contamination in late seventeenth century Portuguese India”, Ler História , 58: 99-112.

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FRUZZETTI, Lina, and Rosa PEREZ, 2002, “The gender of the nation: allegoric feminity and women’s statues in Bengal and Goa”, Etnográfica , VI (1): 41-58.

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1 The initial idea for this dossier came from the contributions presented at the panel “India’s Other Sites: Social and Cultural Pathways at Home and Abroad” in the 9th SIEF (Société Internationale de Ethnologie et Folklore) Conference in Lisbon, in 2011, coordinated by the editors of this publication. Acknowledgement is due to Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia (CIES-IUL), Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), for funding the proofreading of this introduction.

Para citar este artigo

Referência do documento impresso.

Cláudia Pereira , Inês Lourenço e Rita Cachado , « Introduction: representations of India at home and abroad » ,  Etnográfica , vol. 21 (1) | 2017, 99-106.

Referência eletrónica

Cláudia Pereira , Inês Lourenço e Rita Cachado , « Introduction: representations of India at home and abroad » ,  Etnográfica [Online], vol. 21 (1) | 2017, posto online no dia 11 março 2017 , consultado o 17 maio 2024 . URL :; DOI :

Cláudia Pereira

Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia (CIES-IUL), Lisbon, Portugal [email protected]

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