commentary

the dangers of dolls

This past December, some fantastic people had me join the dancing crew for their friend’s wedding – in Bangladeshi weddings, both the groom and the bride have the equivalent of bride’s maids and groom’s men, and each group choreographs a number of dances to perform at its respective gaye holud, the turmeric ceremony that happens a couple days before the wedding itself.

Over the course of the three weeks of practices, I got a pretty stellar crash course in some of the top Bollywood tunes of the day.  Most of them I had never heard of, although a couple were surprisingly familiar – one being the hit song from last year’s Bollywood box office topper, Love Aaj Kal (translates from Hinglish to Love These Days).  I saw the film during a flight from Germany, and while I think one’s perception of a movie’s worth is directly proportional to the height at which it’s viewed, I was pretty thoroughly involved in Jai and Meera’s romance by the end.

Its top song – “Twist” – is the biggest dance number of the film (and that’s saying something in a Bollywood flick), marking the hero’s move to a new city and his discovery of the various temptations and frivolities London has to offer.  It progresses from him dancing in the streets, to dancing in a club, to dancing with (spoiler alert!) what is soon to be his romantic interest for a significant portion of the film.

It’s a dreadfully catchy tune that was a hit at the gaye holud, with eight of us fairly successfully reenacting most of the moves (I’ve still luckily managed to avoid getting any footage from that night, so sorry – no clips!).  But one thing that occurred to me, as I was watching and re-watching the clip, trying to figure out which way your hands go when your feet twist left, was that all of the female backup dancers are, well, white.

Okay, he’s in London, so it makes some sort of sense that the girls would be caucasian (putting aside the vast diversity of London proper for the time being).  But check out the dudes in the back.  They’re not.  White, that is.  The majority of them are South Asian, or at least look to be.

I didn’t think too much of it – that is, until I started seeing the same pattern again and again in other Bollywood music videos.  For example, take the one for “Love Mera.”  Set in some sort of bizarre futuristic space ship, it even features half naked white girls (well, their torsos at least) gyrating blearily in the foreground of the scene at one point.

And “Dil Hara,” with the leading lady chastely running away from the man’s advances, albeit at the last moment possible, while the white gals (literally) throw their legs in the air.

And one more, a personal favorite of mine (Denise Richards, what are you doing there?), with a hoard of white girls dressed up as Indian brides throwing themselves at the male lead for a significant chunk of the video.

As you’re watching these, you may notice that a number of themes carry through from video to video.  There’s always a huge pack of backup dancers (white), which are generally less-clad than the South Asian leading lady; both usually sport some sort of sari blouse, but the latter with a long skirt and the former with something resembling short-shorts or bikini bottoms.  The girls in the back always stay there, in the back, never interacting with leading lady.  Occasionally they do, well, brush up against the male star, but they’re not given a passing glance.  The shots never focus on their faces, with any close-ups there may be centering on their bodies.  And, while this is an editorialization on my part, they tend to look pretty dumb – their dance moves are always a little sloppy, their outfits absurd, and they even look a little uncomfortable – out of place.  But there they are, pumping out the subcontinental dance moves to Bollywood beats in the background of each of these videos.

So, what’s the reason for their presence here?  I’m sorry to say caucasian ladies, but it’s likely not for your dancing prowess – the backup ladies (and men, in some cases) are clearly outshone by the South Asian stars in each video.  Well, yesterday a friend forwarded this article along to me, which speaks about the “white skin industry” of India.  In it, tales of white girls on extended stays to the subcontinent recount getting paid – significant amounts – to act as sorts of hostesses/hustlers in bars, to make appearances at parties in skimpy outfits, or even to simply pose for photographs at important events.  The article reads,

The white skin fetish has created its own cottage industry. Sai Hospitality India’s proprietor Rahul (no last name) says blithely, “I provide white girls for parties, business conferences, weddings: tequila girls, Arabian night dancers, pole dancers, bartenders girls and girls who only stand around at parties. My charges range from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 1.5 lakh for a girl per night. Whichever country you want, I can provide.”

Richa Singh, who works at Delhi’s KamaKazi wedding planners, raises the snobbery stakes. “We provide authentic English girls, not Lebanese, Chinese or Indian. Many companies colour the hair of Indian girls and pose them as foreigners. We’re not into such things. We charge Rs. 5,000 per girl for only standing at parties. They’re only eye candy for the guests. They’re like dolls…” she says.

This is a leaping off point for quite a few topics of conversation, one of the first being – why, exactly does this happen?  Theories of internalized racism of inferiority complexes spring to mind, but neither are by any means my specialty, so I’ll leave that to a later post, perhaps after consulting someone who knows more about these issues than I.  But the question that strikes closer to home, and that I think about on a near daily basis, is – what influence do these sorts of images have on perceptions of white women in the subcontinent?  And specifically, in Bangladesh?

In a country where the number of foreign visitors is relatively low and the number of television sets is sky-high, I think it’s fair to say that most Bangladeshis interact with caucasians much more through the screen than they do in real life.  And now, they don’t have to turn to ‘Western’ media to receive images of barely-clad white chicks.  As they begin to populate these roles as backup dancers, a new image of white women in South Asia is emerging.

Furthermore, while I have no idea what part Denise Richards plays in that other film above, the white girl that (temporarily) steals Jai’s heart in Love Aaj Kal is also played as inarticulate and unintelligent   Dumb as dirt, in fact.  So it’s not just that they’re are shown mostly nude – they’re played as easier, in both a physical and mental sense.  Meera, the Indian female lead, is depicted as a sharp and driven girl, clever and funny throughout the entire film, while White Girl barely speaks English, more often than not on screen in silent mode.  Which actually might be for the best, considering that she sounds like an airhead whenever she opens her mouth.

What with the pervasiveness of American films in the subcontinent, one might think this wouldn’t add up to very much – there are a number of movies from the U.S that could counterbalance this image, providing a much more positive, or at the very least stronger image of caucasian women.  But these are not the stereotypes, by and large, that make it across the globe.  Friends have confided, and leers and stares have reinforced, that white women are perceived by a number of Bangladeshi men as looser and more forward.  Admittedly, I am far more assertive and confrontational than a traditional Bangladeshi woman is expected to be.  But the danger of these images is that assertive, professional behavior is interpreted as an invitation for advances.  Nods and enthusiastic remarks at business meetings can be read as being ‘interested’ in the man rather than in the topic of conversation.  And when one’s work centers entirely around making contacts and connecting with individuals to conduct research and do your job, the feeling that you need to edit yourself and your behavior – to make yourself seem less interested in what you are speaking about and doing – can be deeply frustrating.

This post surely sparks a number of other questions – questions that have been at the forefront of my mind since beginning work in Bangladesh, ones that I have spoken about at length with women of all colors here, as many of the negative perceptions about working women extend beyond race and ethnicity.  These are questions on which I’m searching to hear others’ thoughts.  Questions that are currently being raised in the press, with the detention and subsequent sexual abuse of Lynsey Addario in Libya and the sexual assault of Lara Logan in Tahrir Square.  This is only just the beginning of this examination.  Where will we take it next?

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photography, research

the last village

The Last Village – Images by Elizabeth Herman

This piece was written and photos taken during the [EXPOSURE]/Aftermath Project Workshop in Ajmer, India, August 2009. Co-led by Sara Terry and Asim Rafiqui.


The Last Village
by Elizabeth Herman

The drought had begun the transformation of the village of Kankarda, sucking its lands of their productivity and people of their livelihoods.  Yet it was the railway project cutting through the center of the community that sealed its fate.  The notice came in 2004, an edict not a request, with rate fixed and an order for a signature on the dotted line: a railway is to be built through your property, please relinquish control to the government.  Options nonexistent, in 2007 families handed over multi-generational farmlands in exchange for a lump sum that wouldn’t even cover the cost of a lawyer to dispute the situation.  Progress came knocking down the door, splitting the lands and the culture of the village with the path of a train.

Kankarda has always been defined by its physical elements; the people have lived off the land for centuries, set off from city life by a winding road that weaves its way through hills and pastures on the outskirts of Ajmer, Rajasthan.  When the rains slowed nearly two decades ago, residents hoped it would pass.  They held out hope for years and years, only to have the door to their rural heritage slammed firmly closed by the oncoming railway.  And now this new, artificial physical element stands poised to redefine the way of life in the village, accelerating the generational divide that has been developing since the start of the drought.

Babu Singh, an eloquent yet soft-spoken twenty-eight year old social worker, has grown up as the influcence of modernity within Kankarda has.  He is a sort of bridge between the past and the present; his ancestors were the patriarchs of Kankarda and he feels deeply connected to the spirit of the community and ways of the old, yet he is at the forefront of progress as one of the village’s two university graduates.

In his youth, life centered on community; the physical proximity of families working together on farms, of residents sharing their lands and their days provided a cohesion and sense of belonging to an often-backbreaking existence.  But the drought, which began in Babu’s tenth year, meant little hope for future generations of farmers. Even though they held out hope that the children would one day return to the lands their grandparents cultivated, parents began to see sending kids to school, rather than keeping them home to work the fields, as the more worthwhile investment. This dual mentality was reflected in Babu’s childhood who, like that of most of his peers, split his time between the fields and school, learning both skills in order to keep his options open.

But then the railway line arrived, and with it the stark realization that Kankarda would no longer be responsible for its destiny or the future of its new generation. It was the first indicator of new India emerging around them, an India impatient for an industrial and capitalist modernity, daring its citizens to either catch up or get out of its way.  Families were forced to sell off productive lands and lost the ability to graze their cattle, which impelled Kankarda residents to seek work and education outside the village limits.  Now, Babu laments, “the village – what used to be a village, with all its connections and interconnections and social networks – is finished.”  After pausing and collecting his thoughts, he continues, “The whole closeness and culture of the farming community, of people who farm the land, of the bond – that’s pretty much done.  The family unit has been torn apart with people having to go to different places to work.”

These new livelihoods have redefined the interests of the youth; the ways of the old, of the land, do not concern them anymore. Instead city life beckons, alluring in its novelty and opportunity to define one’s own space.  While the youth spend a majority of their waking hours in the city, the connections of the village are still strong enough, or the benefits of bunking with their parents alluring enough to keep youth living in the village.  As such, city culture has begun to span the 5 kilometer commute between Ajmer and Kankarda, outfitting the youth in jeans and polos and a new sense of entitlement that leaves elders disheartened and exasperated.

Thus Kankarda finds itself at the intersection of the old and the new, with currents clashing within the confines of the town. This once tight-knit community is maintaining a precarious coexistence, with modernity gradually squeezing into the narrow pathways of the farming village.  One can see the transformation daily – in the cellphones that dot a nighttime prayer session, the motorbikes that skid past goats heading to pasture.  The contrast of the male elders’ turbans to the youth’s carefully oiled and slicked-back hair.

Expectations vary, Babu explains.  “The older generation expects reverence, expects honor from the young generation, but the younger generation is arrogant, confident, they have no time for these old people.  They are now focused on getting ahead and not on these old, traditional things.  So it’s come to the point where if the older generation shared their wisdom with the younger generation, they just dismiss it.  There is no respect, there is no value for wisdom of the old in the new generation of the modern era.”

Assuredly, there are positive aspects to such expansion.  In a mere ten years, the village has gone from three hours of electricity daily to access twenty-four-seven.  Waterlines are soon to be expanded from the city system.  Land values are rising as the city expands outward, crossing into the village limits.

Yet these material gains run the risk of overwhelming Kankarda’s ideas of home.  Those of a place where children have the freedom to roam from home to home, playing in the streets and fields with their distant cousins.  A community that welcomes a complete stranger into their world as an honored guest for two weeks, no questions asked.  A place where evening skies are met with the smell of fresh chipatis cooking over small fires in open courtyards, where mugs of chai zigzag their way through narrow streets during intimate gatherings.  In another ten years time will locks on fences have become as prevalent as the televisions that already peek out from behind wood paneled doors in virtually every residence?

Few understand how best to respond to these changes. While opinion for the railway has not been entirely negative thus far, as individuals who were forced to sell already unproductive lands were fairly happy to trade them in for a cash payment, such a sightline may not be far enough; little thought has been given to what will happen when the lump sum runs out.  Few have saved any part of their payment, with many spending on transient, material objects like food and motorbikes that hold little value over time.

But change they must. The railway line is only the tip of the wider tectonic shifts taking place in India’s economic, political, and cultural landscape; these shifts, as the nation lurches into a globalized capitalist modernity, will shake the very social and cultural foundations that have defined her society, history and heritage for centuries. And it is in places like Kankarda where these tremors are most being felt. How the residents of India’s small towns, which represent 71% of her population, survive these decades of change may well determine the success or failure of India’s march towards modernity, and what is left behind along the way.

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To view entire photoessay in a separate window, please click the above image.

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commentary

musings

ajmer, rajasthan, india; august 2009.

ajmer, rajasthan, india; august 2009.

I find myself titling many documents, many pages in my journal this way these days. It’s been a musing sort of few weeks for me.

Because you see, the workshop provided much more than tehcnical photographic lessons (though not to lessen the value of those skills – learned so much in so little time!);  it provide a significant period of time during to just focus on one thing, write and think and write some more on it.  Immerse myself it in.

Furthermore, beyond the actual intended purpose of the workshop – telling a story through photos and words – it made me pause, take a break from the hectic existence I had created for myself this summer, working on far too many projects at once, bouncing back and forth between the assignments on my seemingly never-ending to-do list.  And while I like to think I thrive on fast-paced environments, no one can thrive on juggling seven tasks at once.  As a result, I ended up shortcutting them all.

So here was this beautiful break built into my summer, full of excitement, certainly, but also of long, hot afternoons to be filled with naps and journal entries and poetic musings (that word again!).  There’s something about the midday Indian sun that makes one want to curl up in a chair behind a brightly-colored curtain and just take down the random thoughts scurrying through your head.  Or I found it so, at least.

And it was wonderful.  I loved the time to breathe, to examine what I was doing, question why I was doing it, and see how everything in my life was fitting together, or not.  This past year I had worked myself into working overdrive, always with a baseline of stress that I felt in the pit of my stomach, nearly on a day-to-day basis.   And believe it or not, that’s not entirely pleasant.

So what does this all mean for the start of senior year?  I have no idea.  But there’s little things from India that I don’t want to let slip away, the feeling, the moments that I experienced there that I’m loath to let go of.  We’ll see if these are things that I can maintain back in the go-go-go schedule of school life.  Or, if maybe, I can lessen the go-go-go-ness of it all.

I rarely use this forum for personal introspection, mainly because I feel a little strange thinking out loud in such a public space. But I’m hoping to change that, at least a bit. Not to turn this little blog into a site where I spew out day-to-day banalities that I doubt would interest anyone, but rather to just get myself to question what I’m doing more often, to pause for reflection instead of just checking one task off and moving onto the next one.  To put up unfinished ideas, let them stew and develop.  And maybe even (if I’m lucky!), start conversations.

If you’ve not taken a few days to pause and reflect and re-evaluate lately, I highly recommend doing so.  And fall just so happens to be an excellent time to do so!  Find some beautiful late-afternoon light, a pretty journal, and pen that makes you want to write with it, settle yourself into a cozy chair and go at it.  And let me know what you find.

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commentary, research

a quick update

ajmer, rajasthan, india; august 2009.

ajmer, rajasthan, india; august 2009.

it’s wild here. completely overwhelming, but that was to be expected. Delhi was unbelievable – you take some hair raising car rides, and we took a train down to Ajmer that let us see the Rajasthani countryside. the colors are incredible – all the women, no matter if they’re rich or poor, wear these brightly colored saris – orange, neon yellow, florescent pink – and look so beautiful and ethereal in them. i think the internet is too slow to upload pictures, but i may try to let some load overnight. we’ll see.

there was this huge electrical storm tonight in which it didn’t rain for a long while – just lightning skipping between the clouds. but then, all of a sudden, the skies opened up and it just poured. a literal monsoon. we were about to eat dinner outside, and had to quickly dart in! but made sure to stop on the porch and watch the sheets of rain coming down for a while.

besides that, the jet lag still lingers and afternoon naps beckon when the temperature hits 100F. luckily, that’s when the light’s the worst for photographs! Jess and i have a lovely room that overlooks the courtyard and has a duck for a doorkeep, and we’re both pretty tired right now and are going to hit the sack. i’m still working on building my hindi vocabulary, but for now, namaste!

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commentary, photography, research

just arrived in Delhi!

A quick post – Jess and I just got to the Ananda Hotel in Delhi, where we have a mere few hours before we have to head out again.  It’s midnight and we’re not tired at all, so we’re taking care of computer tidings while we have the internets.  And watching “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Check in at this site from time to time  – I’ll try to post whenever I find wifi.  For now, a quick shot to express our general sentiment.

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