If you’re an Australian resident who has consumed any visual media in the last 15 years, it’s likely that you’ve been seduced by one of the advertisements artfully conceived by the team at Incredible India—an award-winning international tourism campaign set up by the Government of India in 2002.
Their most recent campaign, which appears to target worn-down, anxiety-ridden white women living in the west (think Eat Pray Love) is called The Maharani of Manhattan. Like any good tourism campaign, the ad traffics in the promise that a jaunt to an ‘exotic’ overseas will free you of the endless cycle of your 70-hour work week, that idiot co-worker Rhonda and an ever-rising existential dread. The hope is that a return flight to Mumbai will revitalise and transform tired western souls; returning them home brand new.
When it comes to an international tourism campaign, a certain degree of artistic license is to be expected. But what if that the way that that country is represented is distorted beyond any recognisable reality?
Admittedly, The Maharani of Manhattan is a beautiful piece of advertising. But perhaps its most glaring oddity is its relative absence of, well, Indian people themselves.
When Indians do fleetingly appear in the ad, they are what researchers Lee Edwards and Anandi Ramamurthy refer to as “never fully present”. As unknown characters whose sole purpose is to welcome, dance with or even sew (a very questionable-looking peacock jacket, by the way) for the white woman at the centre of the story, their presence is almost ornamental. They exist only to enrich the life of the white tourist at the centre of the story.
You could argue that this is an ad steeped in the great Western tradition of cultural appropriation; specifically, the fantasy of being able to consume Indian things without having to deal with the agency (and possible pushback) from actual Indian people. British rapper and writer Akala pithily summed up this phenomenon when discussing the gentrification of London’s Notting Hill festival, remarking that “some people would like to enjoy African-Caribbean culture, just without African-Caribbean people”.
A key part of appropriation is sidestepping a culture’s people, in all of their complexity, agency and desires, and going straight for the stuff—their land, their clothing, their dance moves and their food.
The legendary American writer bell hooks has written that when ‘the other’ is commodified, “ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”. By sidelining Indian people, The Maharani of Manhattan ensures that that India is made to appear available for full and unhindered Western consumption.
The ad also orientalises India as a mystical and timeless land that is able to heal the wounds of bored, anxiety-ridden white women living in New York. While this is a popular way that India is conceived by people in the west, it’s not one that is particularly accurate. India in 2018 is anything but timeless—it’s a site of rising global power and innovation-based growth; Indians themselves are tired and overworked.
Of course, to accuse The Maharani of Manhattan of capitalising on orientalist depictions of India and cultural appropriation may be far-fetched given that it is an Indian-run campaign. Can a country really orientalise itself? Encourage its own appropriation?
Probably. Because of the power that Western desires carry in the global marketplace, it makes sense that India would exoticise itself to pander to its own imagined identity. It’s advertising after all, and representing a place as vast and complex as India in a fast developing economy is probably not the job of the tourism industry.
There’s also a great deal of power in Incredible India branding itself in line with Western stereotypes. So often, the cultural appropriation and exoticisation of Indian culture in the west is of literally no benefit to India or Indian people. The beauty of Incredible India campaign is that it harnesses the power of these enduring stereotypes for their own ends. A report released by the World Economic Forum noted that the Incredible India brand has established the country as a high-end tourist destination, giving rise to a 16% increase in tourism in its first year.
The branding of India as a land of timeless exotic mystique, offering up culture and commodities ripe for the taking may not be a particularly new idea, but in this case, it’s India itself that’s serving up those stereotypes; and India who is reaping the benefits.