Javaid Beigh

Adoption of Kashmir’s culture: Appropriation or Appreciation?

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Recently I came across the news of a widespread outrage expressed by elite upper caste English speaking Kashmiri Muslim influencers on social media platforms criticizing a short song and dance video posted by Shehnaz Kaur Gill, a Punjabi Sikh entertainer, singer and actress, where she can be seen dancing in snow in some place in Kashmir valley over an old Bollywood movie’s very popular “Bumbroo” song,  wearing a stylized version of traditional female pheran (a Kashmiri robe like attire worn during winter in Kashmir valley). Her video was primarily criticized for what was called a “cultural appropriation” by non-Kashmiri people of Kashmiri culture for their own interests. But the question that arises is that, do we the people of Kashmir really have a right to lecture others on “cultural appropriation”, when we Kae’sher people have ourselves either abandoned authentic Koshur culture long time back or modified the same according to changing modern trends and tastes?

At the root of this hypocrisy laden outrage lies the fact that a non-Muslim and a non-Kashmiri artist had posted her video of a song and dance item from a Hindi language Bollywood movie – “Mission Kashmir”, which was released nearly 20 years back. It appears that our collective outrage as a Kashmiri community was more because of the fact that the same was done by a non-Kashmiri (and perhaps a non-Muslim).

The original “Bumbroo” song is actually of fairly recent origin and was composed by Kashmiri Pandit composer Mohan Lal Aima for Dinanath Nadim’s first Koshur language opera performed in 1953 according to a Kashmiri culture enthusiast Vinayak Razdan. The song’s initial lines even though part of a Bollywood movie are actually part and parcel of modern Koshur music, literature and theatrical culture. The song, since its release two decades ago has actually become the symbol of Kashmiri culture for non- Kashmiri communities, who tend to have their first understanding of Kashmiri culture through this very popular Bollywood song. Ironically the song has since then also become a celebratory wedding song among the younger generation of both Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandit diaspora and thereby integrating itself as part of the evolving modern day Koshur culture. Bollywood, since the days of “Kashmir ki Kali” movie, has unwittingly been part of shaping up the understanding of Kashmir for non-Kashmiri audience and its significance cannot be therefore undermined.

There have been many more pop versions of “Bhumbroo” song in last few years, wherein many Kashmiri Muslim, Kashmiri Pandit and even non-Kashmiri singers and composers have used this song and interpreted the same in their own modern style. It would be unfair to call this as an “appropriation”. If anything, this is actually an “appreciation” and the “crossover” of a small cultural entity of Kashmiri people into larger cultural entity of Hindi and English-speaking audience, which has helped in the mainstreaming of Koshur as language, music and songs.

Coming on to the next aspect of Koshur cultural identity – our attire. Was Shehnaz Kaur Gill, who posted her now controversial video wearing a true and authentic Koshur Muslim female pheran or not is a genuine critique only if most of the upper caste elite Kashmiri Muslim social media influencers who criticized Shehnaz were in their own real lives been propagating the same, otherwise it’s just a hypocrisy.

The sad fact is that modern day Kashmiri community has long abandoned Kashmir’s original Pheran for a non-Kashmiri attire like Punjabi Shalwar Kameez and Saris (among Kashmiri Pandits) and western attire like jeans, pants, shirts etc.  There is nothing wrong in wearing non-traditional clothes as the same are part of the evolution of the costume culture, which is also influenced by the requirements of work, comfort and fashion trends. The same however becomes a hypocrisy when we Kashmiris criticize non-Kashmiris for their interpretation and adoption of our Kashmiri cultural icons, while ignoring our own.

The non-Kashmiri community is not bound to propagate Kashmiri attire in its old traditional avatar, when we Kashmiri people have ourselves created many modern versions of trendy and innovative male and female Pherans. There are many so called “designer Pherans”, created by Kashmiri designers, which do not adhere to traditional way of crafting Kashmiri Pherans but have in fact adopted many modern innovative styles to make it more appealing, trendy and contemporary for younger generation of Kashmiri people.

Also, those cultural puritans who criticize Shehnaz Kaur Gill’s so called “non-Kashmiri” attire for being passed off as a Kashmiri dress, must also answer as to what is Arabic and Iranian Hijab and Abayas and Punjabi Shalwar Kameez and dupatta doing in Kashmir in modern times? Are these part of original authentic Koshur culture? By looking at black and white photographs of Kashmir of early 20th century, one can see that people here dressed very differently from how they dress in contemporary times. The quintessential Kashmiri Pheran, which used to be a complete dress in itself has now been reduced to an accessory like a coat and jacket. While the Kashmiri Pandit diaspora has long abandoned Kashmiri Pherans (including the distinctive Kashmiri Pandit female Pheran), the old traditional floral motif carrying Pherans and scarf covering of scalp by Kashmiri Muslim women is now only restricted to older and dying generation of Kashmiri Muslim women, even as younger generation of Kashmiri Muslim women now adorn hijabs, dupattas and abayas, which have become a part of Kashmiri costume culture only in last two decades.

We Kashmiri people must appreciate the fact that cultural aspects of our otherwise small Kashmiri community are being adopted by non-Kashmiri people in their own ways. We must not be stubborn, rigid and intolerant towards the modified versions or contrary interpretation of our language, songs, dance and attire by non-Kashmiris. That would not amount to “cultural appropriation” but would rather constitute, a cultural evolution, which cannot be stopped in any case. Our unnecessary criticism becomes even more hollow when we Kashmiri people have ourselves diluted almost all of our cultural treasures by adopting many foreign cultural influences. It should be a matter of celebration that a small cultural and ethnic entity as that of Kashmiri people is finally asserting its influence and charm over others and thereby showcasing our distinct culture to the collective pride of the entire Kashmiri community.

  • Writer is affiliated with Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Front. He Can be reached @Javedbeigh across Social Media Platforms.

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