Another year, another Coachella, another trend mired in cultural appropriation. It's the true circle of life. You can almost watch the fixed gears of hipster logic grind: Now that Native American headdresses are offensive, we need to snatch some cool novelty from another culture. And so it came to be that bindis were a hit at Coachella.
Selena Gomez was wearing one. The Jenner-Kardashians sported them. Vanessa Hudgens, Duchess of Coachella herself, was wearing one.
Okay, let's just nip this one right in the bud right now.
The bindi is not your music festival fashion accessory. It's not something to be integrated into a tribal fringe mosaic of a get-up. Taking a symbol from a culture that is thousands of years old and divorcing it from its meaning — or even embracing its meaning for the express purpose of looking cool (bro, do you even chataranga?) — does not lend you any cred — street, worldly, or otherwise. And wearing a bindi to Coachella certainly is not a genuine celebration of Hindu culture, so please don't even start with that.
For those who are overcome with déjà vu, yes, we have already talked about this. Selena Gomez already came under fire when Hindu activists told her what was up regarding her Bollywood-inspired MTV Movie Awards performance. But I guess at Coachella, cultural awareness goes out the window and everyone's a free bird, pecking at the decontextualized chops of other cultures.
The whole point of appropriation is to neutralize fragments of cultures and level them so they can easily be assimilated. (Because apparently that's what equality means now: everybody gets a patch on the denim crop vest!) And in a way, the bindi has already traveled across borders as a sort of export, incorporated into trends across South and Southeast Asia. In modern times and in emigrant populations, its spiritual meaning has already been deemphasized—today some merely consider it another traditional but fashionable accessory to wear with a sari.
Anjali Joshi addresses this at Huffington Post in her piece arguing that bindis are not actually a form of cultural appropriation because "most South Asians won't be able to tell you the religious significance of a bindi." Questionable accuracy of that claim (which plenty of South Asians including myself can rebut) aside, she does speak to a reality of how cultures develop over time:
Culture evolves. Indians appreciated the beauty of a bindi and brought it into the world of fashion several decades ago. The single red dot that once was, transformed into a multitude of colors and shapes embellished with all the glitz and glamor that is inherent in Bollywood…Hindus accepted the evolution of this cultural symbol then. And, as the bindi makes it's way to the foreheads of non-South Asians, we should accept — even celebrate — the continued evolution of this cultural symbol.
While I can certainly recognize the celebration of a cultural symbol, this is the exact fine line that separates appreciation and appropriation. The issue that so many people have with the recent bindi summer festival trend is that it doesn't take from Hindu culture on Hindu culture's terms. It takes from Hindu culture on American terms and negates the Hindu aspect through ignorance and exoticism of an "alluring foreign culture." Bindi trend-sporters aren't celebrating a cultural symbol. They're celebrating themselves and the thought-of-it-first appeal of disposable fashion.
As a Hindu, it definitely feels a bit silly if not hypocritical to get so attached to the mere material representation of far more significant abstractions. It is, after all, just a dot. But if we wanted to get really Hindu about it, so to speak, the bindi is merely a physical symbol of the concept of wisdom, spiritual development, the third eye, and the ajna chakra which addresses universal dualisms like potential/kinetic energy or subject/object (and that's just for starters).
But while the meaning of the bindi and its relation to what it represents will continue to shift and evolve within Hindu culture, that doesn't make its appearance at Coachella of all places any less degrading. Rest assured, Vanessa Hudgens was not wearing a bindi in homage to another culture and what it stands for.
While I hardly think a bunch of American twenty-somethings sporting the equivalent of a WWJD bracelet for a season is really going to debase a culture that's maintained relevance since ancient times, the Coachella bindi trend remains a testament the romantic fetishized lack of respect for a culture.
So once again, please stop making half-assed attempts at a whimsical boho-chic fashion statement by stripping some cultural object of its significance and sticking it on your face. To call it a celebration of that culture is just embarrassing. And people still look a damn fool sporting the very dots that (in a beautiful twist of soul-shrugging irony) they themselves poked fun at 6-10 years ago. Trust me on that one.
Image via Getty.