*Pardon My Hindi On Indian-Americans, American Indians, And New American Art

December 17, 2014 | Prachi Gupta

You’ve likely seen his collaboration with Das Racist or his Internet hashtag and blog #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, but it was this is the image by Chiraag Bhakta, who goes by moniker *Pardon My Hindi, that recently caught ANIMAL’s attention:

How is Columbus Day still a thing?

A photo posted by Chiraag B. (@pardonmyhindi) on

Bhakta’s work is largely concerned with identity, race, and what it means to be American — specifically for people of South Asian origin. #WhitePeopleDoingYoga is heading to Marin’s Headlands Center for the Arts mid-January after a run at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum — the largest Asian art museum outside of Asia. On the East Coast, his work is on display at the Smithsonian as part of its “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit. “The Arch Motel Project” is a photo series with Mark Hewko inspired by Bhatka’s own personal experiences living in and around motels, coupled with the observation that more than 50 percent of American motels are run by Indians. The series, which opened in February, is on display until August 2015. And you can expect to see even more *PMH art on upcoming album from former Das Racist member Himanshu Suri.

Bhakta recently spoke to ANIMAL about identity, racial appropriation, and New American art.

What inspired this image?
It’s one of those embroidered Cleveland Indians logos that’s on the hats and their uniform. I just cut out the eyes and put it over Indian imagery trying to create this conversation of race from my perspective growing up, being born and raised in New Jersey and the States and having this background of Indian culture, where my parents are from.

As you probably know, one of the first things that people asked when I was a kid was, “What are you?” and it was like, “Indian.” The second question that follows is, “What kind of Indian?”

It still blows my mind that we’re still using a name [for Indians] that was given to a group of people that are native to this land, and we’re giving [natives] a name that this one white guy thought was where he was at. It just shows you how strong the dominant voice is.

At first, I thought that I was supposed to be offended by it. But you’re just illustrating how white people conflated and stereotyped two distinct identities.
I think somebody else commented on Facebook and said that image was really shocking. But I think it should make you think. We’re just so conditioned to think that using terminology like “Indians” for natives is okay.

Photo: Chiraag Bhakta

What are aspects of identity that you haven’t yet explored but want to?
I’m exploring a couple of things right now that I haven’t yet put out, covering different topics that don’t really get discussed or get overseen. How we nod to a lot of things that we’re so conditioned to think…through simple marketing aspects to even abstract theories like cartography.

Abstract theories on cartography meaning how we look at the world itself and who created these maps — the way that we’re looking at these maps is from one perspective. Essentially, why is “north” north? Why is “south” south? From things like that to obvious marketing things, from childhood to an adult perspective, [looking at] what images we’re bashed with and what we’re okay with but don’t really thinking back. It goes back to that logo and the conversation.

The maps were drawn, originally, because explorers from Europe were traveling to the Americas so a lot of things were exaggerated for them — and it hasn’t really evolved. Real small things, but there’s a psychological effect of that, I think.

PMH_stockton_CAArt Direction, Chiraag Bhakta, Photographer, Mark Hewko

It seems Indians in the former generation embraced exoticism of the culture in order to survive, and now that we’ve benefited from that, we’re also rejecting it. Have you noticed that?
Sure. That generation went through a totally different battle on how to blend in. A lot of them changed their names and had American names. I feel like it’s the next generation’s duty to sift through all of that and go back and recycle it and figure out what you want to take out of that.

Have you received any backlash or criticism from that generation saying that you’re being too angry or ungrateful?
Oh yeah, yeah. For sure. I hear it from my generation. Everyone has their own way — it’s interesting. I try to step back and look at how people figure out their identity or how much they want to take and keep. That motel project, a ton of the photos are in D.C., that’s an ongoing project and a lot of that conversation is shown through that project as well.

That stuff that you’re talking about happens a lot in spaces in that motel. You’re in the middle of Kansas, you’re in the middle of Texas, and this office space is really interesting place of that identity is being explored. There are certain images that we captured that shows how much that person wants to hold on to themselves as well as give away and not take with them. The front desk space is interesting — you have their living space in the background, which they just go full force. They cook, all the smells are there, and then you have all these images of gods and Indian ephemera that’s around. And then the lobby, it’s mostly all customer-based. It’s catered to the customers. But the front desk space, where the person stands, is a really interesting point where both of those merge. People are all different, right, and it depends on how comfortable that person is. And it also depends on where they are — Texas, California — what city they’re at.

130904_Hewko 001Art Direction, Chiraag Bhakta, Photographer, Mark Hewko

There’s one image that we shot that I always refer to: It’s the bottom of the front desk, so we’re shooting from the front desk, looking at the customer. There’s no people in the shot, but under the desk you see a Hindu shrine with agarbatti (incense) and the owner, the person running it, is including that on purpose. That’s their identity. And then on the top right, you have the crucifix and you have the American flag. It’s a really interesting space across America, that shows this group’s conversation of identity. Some people will put it up on the wall because maybe they’re more confident in their identity or how they want to show it, or you might be in a liberal city.

I have a new respect for the older generation who was able to do that because I have always kept those two parts of my life very separated, and have always found it weird to combine them.
Yeah, yeah. I think we have a unique voice.

You know, when I was talking to the curators at the Smithsonian, what they wanted to build around the photos and they were building this lobby. And I was having this conversation and that show made me think of what they were trying to show and what our voice, as Indian-Americans, is pretty unique. When people look at my work, it depends on what I’m showing them, but — it’s not Indian, it’s American. It’s just a new layer of American culture that people are trying to put in its own bucket. But, you know, the motel project — that’s quintessential American art. That’s New American. It’s not Indian. I show it to my friends in India and they don’t think it’s Indian. But people like to put you in buckets.

#WPDY-installationPhoto: Chiraag Bhakta

Do you feel that, when having these public conversations, you’re being asked to speak for your entire race and culture?
I try to avoid that. The yoga stuff I had on exhibit earlier this year, there were parts of me where I wondered how much do I really be myself, and there was a conversation with myself and I asked a couple friends and that project really helped explore that question.

That installation is in San Francisco, in the most “liberal” part of the country that’s also the epicenter of western yoga. But that installation caught a lot of slack. You rarely get to hear an Indian person or a South Asian person’s perspective on yoga, let alone in an art museum. It’s the largest museum dedicated to the Asian arts outside of Asia. It’s bigger than any institution in Europe, and bigger than any place in the states for that Asian voice outside of Asia. So I talked about the commercialization and the commodification of a culture and I was just sharing my perspective, and this is how I feel: I feel suffocated at times. I used a hashtag #WhitePeopleDoingYoga to represent the marketing stuff as an observation statement. This is what I see: I see a lot of white people doing yoga. They market the fuck out of it. They remove a face, and it’s just totally commodified at that point. When I was really engulfed in the installation, putting it up and dealing with the press…this isn’t even about yoga. Yoga is just the vehicle that I’m using. It’s really about colonization, because you see the same pattern with everything else.

And when you point it out, it’s perceived as angry.
Yeah! There were people within the institution who were against it and had issues with it because they said it was negative. I was like, “This is my observation.”

“Why are you being so negative?” is the phrase you hear a lot when you talk about issues like this. If you want to bring up that conversation, it’s like, “Yo why you being so negative man?” Like…no, I’m not. This is it, this is how it is. I’m bringing in my perspective. But that’s a phrase that gets used a lot to wash over the topic. I had that experience doing that project.

But I also had a lot of positive from South Asians as well as white people. That conversation doesn’t really happen. It’s pretty annoying.

wpdy-cardsetPhoto: Chiraag Bhakta

It is.
I’ve gotten anger from the Indian side as well. Like, “people are just trying to celebrate our culture, man!” At that point you either get it or you don’t. It’s tough when I hear that perspective, another South Asian-American perspective fighting for that.

Considering Questlove’s comments on how hip-hop is no longer exclusive to black culture, how do you feel about appropriation of yoga — is it an inevitability that Indian people need to accept?
I don’t know. I’m not against…everyone should do yoga. It’s great. It’s a hard thing. I don’t know how it should be handled overall. I agree with what [Questlove] is saying. It’s just going to get run over because the industry has that dominant voice. So I mean, he’s playing it really smart, which he usually does, he’s a really intelligent guy. I don’t know! What do you think?

I have conflicted feelings about it. I think, to an extent, it’s inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing– in many ways, this is how cultures are introduced to each other and learn about each other. But we need to be cognizant of the origins and the context of the things we partake in and society, the media, has to do a better job of providing that and helping us do it in a respectful way and not exoticize it.
Right, and [not] commodify it. Banking on this thing, where it’s removing the face and it becomes this costume for a lot of people. It’s a gimmick for that one video or whatever, making a joke of it. Did you see that Urban Outfitters party [invitation], by the way?

Yeah, that was crazy.
There must be South Asians that work there. I would have gone and taken in a lot of pictures, taken in the experience and then written about it. That’s so crazy.

(Photo: *Pardon My Hindi/Chiraag Bhakta)