Last month, Parul Sehgal penned a provocation for readers of The New York Times Magazine that asked whether cultural appropriation could ever be a productive space. Could it ever encourage alterative forms of exchange and dialogue? Sehgal treads carefully here, however, aware that the line between borrowing and stealing is stained by a power asymmetry. That’s why we’re still seeing ethnic minorities scrawl diatribes like “A Cultural History of White Girls Wearing Bindis.” Their view that those in power not touch or use cultural artifacts that don’t belong to them represents both a political and emotional indignation.
On what grounds, however, can we ever claim a cultural practice belongs to us? Sehgal, therefore, invites imaginative transgressions as a project that doesn’t assume cultural practices are intrinsically proprietary or boundaries inherently inviolable. As she concludes, “What conversations about appropriation make clear is that our imaginations are unruly kingdoms governed by fears and fantasies.”
On Saturday in Delhi, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, of Devdas-fame, released the song “Deewani Mastani” from his highly-anticipated film Bajirao Mastani. It features the incomparable actress Deepika Padukone, as historical figure Mastani, performing in the darbar (court) of the Maratha warrior-ruler Bhaji Rao (1700–1740).
What immediately strikes us is the opulent set, which Bhansali has named “Aaina Mahal” (Palace of Mirrors). The darbar, bathed in champagne-colored grandeur, imagines court life of 18th-century India. (In fact, Bhansali designed the song channeling Sheesh Mahal, the mirrored set in which Madhubala performed a mujra in Mughal-e-Azam.) But this sumptuousness shouldn’t surprise filmgoers who by now expect Bhansali’s characteristic flair for decadence.
Perhaps more extraordinary is our first jhalak (glimpse) of Deepika, who enters Bajirao’s darbar pretty placidly. She wears a highly stylized, disc-shaped turban with brooches and strums a lute. Where a more classic presentation to a male royal would be a mujra, this performance is something Bollywood audiences haven’t seen before. Deepika opens by invoking the role a European troubadour would have played at court in the Middle Ages, and concludes it by evoking the whirling dervishes of Sufism.
The diverse imagery conjured up within this 18th-century Maratha court demonstrates the fearful and fantastical influence of cultural cross-fertilization.
Power can obscure when cultural appropriation looks like plagiarism, perhaps in the case of white hip hop artists rocking bindis in music videos. But even a cursory examination of history shows that centuries of exchange transformed cultural traditions that today we take for granted.
Western Europe and South Asia have both profited from an artistic and cultural relationship since Muslim invasions connected the two regions across a wide empire in the year 711.
In fact, the troubadour tradition is less European than we might think. As Muslims expanded into Andalusia, vernacular Arabic poetry called muwashahat heavily influenced court life in Moorish Spain, which eventually carried into France and Italy. As Rabah Saoud notes, these medieval musicians and singers borrowed local themes such as chaste love into European poetry, themes uncommon in Western verse before the Arabs’ arrival. Troubadours were either traveling minstrels who performed for a living or nobles who entertained upper-class audiences. Male troubadours praised and idealized their female lover. According to Said Abdelwahed, “The troubadour remains a symbol of faith, loyalty and unconditional submission to the beloved [and] represents a splendid witness to the high age of Arabic and Islamic culture in medieval Spain.”
It’s also possible that the troubadours’ union with their beloved is what the Sufi tradition, a sort of Islamic mysticism, would call union with the divine. Urdu poetry in India, for example, characteristically obscures the distinction between lover and god. The subtext between sexuality and spirituality is intentionally ambiguous. The theme of mysticism finds rich expression in Sufi poetry, often set to qawwalis, a musical genre that spread from Afghanistan to medieval Delhi with the advent of Islam, or is credited to the 13th-century poet Amir Khusrau, who blended Arabic and Persian musical elements with Hindustani ragas. As emotionally heightened tours-de-force, qawwalis build to a feverish crescendo in their proclamation of ishq’s ecstatic power.
Yes, ishq is typically understood as “love” in Hindi cinema. But it’s love that carries a very specific inflection, and Deepika pronounces its qualities. It’s (a love that makes one) “ruhani” (spiritual)… “rawani” (flowing in waves)… “mashoor” (renowned)… and above all, “deewani” (self-effacing).
Skip forward a few centuries, when Portuguese explorers were setting out to expand their mercantile empire. In 1498, Vasco da Gama landed in what is today Kerala, beginning a long period of cultural interaction, religious pressure, and colonial violence with the Maratha and Mughal empires. Governors ruled from their seat in Goa, established settlements along the western coast of India, and irrevocably changing the course of history. While North Indian musicians were adopting Islamic artistic traditions, writes historian Vinay Lal, “in the 18th century South Indian musicians were to show themselves as being quite adept in adopting foreign instruments.” The Portuguese began to carry overseas the musical tradition of troubadour poetry that had been cultivated within European court life.
As instruments were exchanged, so too were new ideas about dress and taste. Evidenced in a historical portrait of Mastani, Deepika’s turban, gold fabric wrapped into a flat disc, bears a striking resemblance to the hats worn by European troubadours.
“Deewani Mastani” eventually embodies Deepika’s own intoxication, in which she’s blinded to everything but her love for Bajirao. In classic Sufi fashion, words and syllables are repeated until they lose all meaning. As Deepika twirls, the folds of her anarkali catching the air, I can’t tell whether she’s worshipping her lord or her god.
A Hindu ruler like Bajirao would’ve understood that the sight of him, in all his splendor, conferred darshan — the auspicious act of seeing and being seen by one in power, whether a god or a king.
Deepika begins by softly plucking her lute. She finishes by devolving into frenetic whirls, her tresses open and arms raised to the ceiling.
As I watch Bhansali’s treatment of ishq’s supreme power, I’m struck by how little I recognize Deepika’s presentation. Most captivating is that Bhansali’s imagination isn’t only drawing from the fantasy of the West — which few would argue the last seven-plus decades of Hindi cinema have actively done. He’s also incorporating a real musical tradition into a historical reconstruction of Hindu-Muslim court life that made it from the Middle East to Moorish Spain to France and Portugal, only to arrive back in the East during the era of European expansion.
Whichever direction cultural traditions have flown across Eurasia matters less for Bhansali than how they can be reinterpreted and reimagined. Here, Deepika even moves beyond the limits of a mujra, traditionally the aesthetic vehicle for a woman to proclaim love to an aristocrat. She professes her devotion by subverting norms and assuming the role of a troubadour, typically the part played by a white nobleman. Bhansali may have designed the set to recall Madhubala’s iconic performance as the ill-fated Anarkali enamored by Prince Salim. But Deepika’s rendition of a besotted lover steals from the West at the same that it borrows from the East. Arabic muwashahat and Sufi poetry, which took shape in lands closer to the subcontinent, find artistic renewal in Bhansali’s hands.
I’m not entirely sure that this wasn’t intentional on his part. Edward Said and Salman Rushdie have both cautioned that Islam has long hovered at the shadows of the formation of Europe and its consciousness. Bhansali reminds us that in South Asia, cultures lifted styles from others both less and more powerful than them — centuries before white pop stars started donning bindis.
At the historical moment Bajirao Mastani spotlights, the Maratha Empire was deep in the throes of war with Mughal, British, and Portuguese armies. At the height of their rule in 1790, Marathas had stolen large territories of the subcontinent from a crumbling Mughal Empire, only to lose much of them to European imperialists in the century to come. How, then, can we expect any of these factions’ cultural or artistic borders to remain sacrosanct and impermeable?