Beyond Jeans and Bindis: Identity as Healing

When representation becomes a haunting question, can cultural anthropology offer answers?

“Can I wear a bindi?” a friend from France asked me a few years back. She was headed to a music festival, where embellishing your body with glittery tattoos and tiny colourful stickers was the trend. As the fashion rose in popularity, so did the conversation around cultural appropriation. How could white people wear something that had brought contempt to other communities by their own ancestors? That was the general sense of the discourse – and she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t hurt Indian sentiments by blindly following a fashion trend. 

The question about bindis came up later in a seminar on South Asian studies, where we were discussing representation and cultural appropriation. 

“I too wear jeans and pants, which are considered ‘western’ wear, don’t I? Is that cultural appropriation too?” was my response. It came from a space of thinking about the world as one; growing up on John Lennon’s Imagine and USA Africa’s We Are The World; finding acceptance and a life in a new continent; and also, ignorance towards the experience of the diaspora. 

For children of migrants who grew up in different countries, their native cultures were a sensitive topic. I was ostracised for the food I ate, and the way I dressed. Today, those symbols and markers are my identity, and is unfair for the same people who excluded me to now celebrate them, was the general response I received from the diaspora. 

While I empathised with this sentiment, I didn’t understand how this would help us move forward. 

Today, when questions of representation have come back in many ways – with rising crimes against Asians in many countries in the wake of the pandemic, and, at the same time, a global celebration of movies and books that shed light on minority communities – it seems appropriate to come back to some of these debates using the same tools I did then: cultural anthropology. 

Studying Cultures 

Cultural anthropology as a discipline entails the study of various customs and belief systems present in different communities across the world. Though it started as a discipline primarily concerned with the study of ‘others’, there has been an emergence of 'native' anthropologists since the post-colonial era, which has inevitably translated into a dialogue on representation. One the one hand are authors like James Clifford, who argue that the act of anthropology, i.e. recording the cultural experiences of people, may at times involve the ‘invention’ of cultures as opposed to a simple representation. Nicholas Thomas, in his article ‘Against Ethnography’ (1991), writes about the strict (and almost adamant) focus within the practice on difference between people and cultures, which results in exoticizing the community under study.

On the other hand, scholars like Kirin Narayan question the assumption that a native anthropologist would necessarily bring an authentic ‘insider’ perspective to the study, arguing for a more fluid idea of an author’s identity keeping their political, social, educational and other influences in mind. 

These were definitely interesting perspectives, but to get a better sense of how these play out, let us look at one of the most notoriously exoticized topics out there – shamanism – through two distinct media productions on the subject: Robert Desjarlais’s book ‘Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas’ (1992) and Anu Malhotra’s documentary ‘Shamans of the Himalayas’ (2013). 

Book and the author

Desjarlais received a PhD in anthropology from the University of California in 1990, and became a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard University from 1990 to 1992. Following his main scholarly interests in the fields of cultural, psychological and medical anthropology, specifically phenomenological approaches in anthropology, he wrote his book on the healing practices of shamans, which was published in the last year of his post-doctoral research fellowship. As described by him, the book was founded on his apprenticeship with Meme, a shaman in the Helambu valley – traditionally known as Yolmo – in Nepal. It is an exploration of the trance he ‘shared’ with Meme, which inspired him to understand the healing methods used by shamans and how they affect the ‘patients’. 

Being a cultural anthropologist and native of Massachusetts, he was surrounded by theories around healing rituals, but after experiencing the trance for himself, Desjarlais realised that the theories missed an important aspect of the healing – the bodily experiences. He claims to be dissatisfied with the singular focus of the prevalent theories that placed importance on finding meaning behind all actions and visions. Desjarlais says that a determinant factor in the success of the healings is the experience of the mind and body and how that alters the way a person feels. Desjarlais explains this as follows: 

“His (Meme) cacophony of music, taste, sight, touch, and kinesthesia activates a patient's senses. This activation has the potential to ‘wake’ a person, alter the sensory grounds of a spiritless body, and change how a body feels. A successful soul-calling rite recreates the sense of ‘presence’ intrinsic to Yolmo experiences of well-being.” 

In the book, Desjarlais focusses on three individuals to discuss their illnesses and healings in detail. The first is an old man called Mingma, who suffers from srog (rough translation – life force) loss, something that is eventually blamed on his diminishing soul, as he grows older. The second is a young bride named Yeshi, who is described to be melancholic, quiet and reserved. Desjarlais claims that this is a result of the sudden and extreme change in her life conditions after marriage, something that the shaman describes as spirit loss. The third is an older woman who also suffers from spirit loss. In her case, Desjarlais says that she seems to have been affected by sudden deaths of four close relations, both family and friends. This, he claims, affects her more because of the restriction on expressing emotions (including grief) in the Yolmo community. The spirit loss, however, is explained as something that happened when she slipped while crossing a river, which happened on her way to one of the funerals. By tracing the illness, its context and the shamanic divinations carried out for each of the ‘patients’, Desjarlais shows the importance of experienced belief systems in the success of the healing rituals. 

Film and the maker

The documentary presents a broader picture of the shamans and their practices. Anu Malhotra, the director-presenter-narrator of the film, is a pioneer in presenter-based travel shows and is interested in filming “Indian traditions, which are on the verge of extinction.” Based out of New Delhi, she travels to Kullu-Manali in Himachal Pradesh to explore the lives and practices of shamans, or gurs as they are known in the region. She begins her narration, as her airplane lands in the mountainous terrain, saying “Every journey is a search, a quest to unravel the self.” Her journey through Kullu introduces her to five different shamans. Every village in the district has its own god or goddess and all five shamans represents deities from their own villages. The film, over an hour and a half in length, is not focussed only on the healing practices of these shamans, but also presents the religious, social and even ecological context to the practices.  

So how did they differ?

Given the nature and intent of both ethnography and documentary, the approach and themes discussed in the two projects are quite different. Here, the importance of studying the final product keeping in mind the intended audience becomes evident. 

The book has focussed on the healing rituals of the shamans in the Helambu valley in Nepal. Here, the author wants to respond to the theories prevalent in literature on such ‘traditional’ healing practices, and there provides a nuanced and detailed idea about the belief systems of the Yolmo wa. Desjarlais is mindful of the words he uses to describe the events and emotions, in line with this questioning of imposition of Western ideas and notions when studying non-Western cultures, as evidenced by this paragraph:

“The words ‘ghost’, ‘heartache’, and ‘I lost my spirit’ create a world of associations distinct from the ones in which Yolmo live. Likewise, the hunger for personal pronouns (I, you, me) in the English language requires a grammar that would annoy Yolmo ears.”  

The film, on the other hand, starts with Malhotra’s statement on finding oneself through journeys implicitly implying her own exploration of the self through the documentary. Indeed, the documentary shows Malhotra being sceptical towards the idea of gods, shamans and their relationship in the beginning.  For example, on the day of an outdoor religious festival in Kullu, Malhotra is seen discussing with her local guide the possibility of rain spoiling the festivities. The guide claims that the gods would save their festival by preventing rain. After the god, through the shaman, promises a clear day, Malhotra is surprised to see the clouds eventually fade away into sunshine. In this way, the film has been shown as her journey to understanding and warming up to the idea of shamans and divination. 

The difference in their positionalities and approaches makes sense when one thinks of the intended audience for both projects. While Desjarlais’s book primarily speaks to an academic audience, Malhotra’s documentary is meant for a wider audience who may or may not be academics. The latter thus does not go without simplifying the practices and rituals in some way, in order to strike a chord with the larger audience.  By the end of the documentary, having been the subject of two shamanic divinations and shown to practice meditation after meeting with the shaman for nature sprits, the documentary closes by portraying the shamanic belief system as a way of life in touch with nature, “something we in the modern world have forgotten.” 

A nuanced future 

We are increasingly seeing such nostalgia for the past, an obsession with identities and cultural practices as well as a rigid establishment of what entails culture and tradition today.  While identity has become important to hold onto in this multi-cultural world, a tight grasp on the same has led to stagnation and a lack of growth. 

The balance between conservation and evolution is a difficult one to maintain, but perhaps the analysis of Desjarlais’s and Malhotra’s approaches can help us understand a sustainable path – do you change to grow, or to meet a pre-set goal?