A Frenchman in a Bengali bar

There’s something about this video on Youtube, a mere two minutes or so probably filmed on someone’s phone, that fills me with joy:

Now, normally, I wouldn’t dream of posting a private video on this blog without permission, but since this has been on Youtube, a public forum, for many years now, I guess I am quite safe sharing this. And if the makers of this video, or any of the participants in it, should object, I will most certainly take it down.

Since videos do come and go on YouTube, let me describe what is captured here. The scene is, presumably, a bar somewhere in Bengal. The people here all appear to be local, except for one person, who is clearly a Westerner (the notes accompanying this video tell us he is French). And, to the delight of everyone in the bar, this Westerner starts singing a Rabindrasangeet (a song by Rabindranath Tagore). His Bengali pronunciation is very good: it is not an easy language for Westerners to master, containing as it does various sounds not used in European languages. And although I doubt his singing will have music companies rushing to his door with recording contracts, it is nonetheless rather impressive. This man has obviously absorbed Bengali culture, learnt the language, learnt the songs. He has adopted all of this as his own.

And the reaction of the others is interesting. No-one seems at all put out by this Frenchman “appropriating” their culture: quite the contrary – they seem delighted. A cheer goes up when he starts singing; the ladies at the next table start singing along with him; and there are approving cheers and enthusiastic applause when he finishes. There is something joyous in all this.

This is what those puritan killjoys who moan about “cultural appropriation” seem unable to appreciate: sharing each other’s cultures, adopting aspects of other cultures as one’s own, is a joyous thing. “Appropriation”? No-one has any exclusive proprietorial rights over any culture; so how is it possible to “appropriate” what doesn’t belong to anyone?

Feasts of various kinds are laid out all around us, and they are rich feasts. We only have to look. So let us leave those killjoys who disapprove of this kind of thing festering in their narrow and resentful little cultural ghettoes, while the rest of us get on with the business of sharing and partaking of each other’s cultures, and adopting as our own whatever appeals to us. For this sharing is indeed joyous.

5 responses to this post.

  1. I agree – as long as there is no element of mockery involved, why cannot we not share and celebrate our cultures?? I’m a Scot and happy for anyone who likes them to wear a kilt…

    Reply

    • Well, if anyone wants to mock, they’ll mock. After all, there are aspects of all cultures that fully deserve mockery and derision. And if anyone chooses to mock or to deride that which doesn’t deserve mockery or derision, then that really is their freedom: if I am free to respect as I choose, others must, by the same token, be free to disrespect as they choose. As with freedom of speech, we can’t allow it only when we agree with what is said.

      In short, adopting elements of other cultures (I refuse to use the term “cultural appropriation”) may be done well, or it may be done badly; but the fact that it may be done badly is not, I think, sufficient reason for decreeing that it mustn’t be done at all.

      (PS having grown up in Scotland, I am, I guess, an adopted Scot, but I really don’t look good in a kilt at all. In any case, they don’t have a McChatterjee tartan…)

      Reply

  2. Incidentally, if anyone is wondering what the words are to the song that is being sung, a translation (with a few very slight liberties) goes like this:

    I know you, I know who you are,
    Oh lady from distant climes,
    You live across waters far,
    Oh lady from distant climes.
    I’ve seen you in autumn’s morning light,
    I’ve seen you in softest moonlit night,
    I’ve seen you in the midst of my very heart.
    Oh lady from distant climes.

    I’ve heard your singing in the skies,
    I’ve heard your voice in breezes’ sighs,
    I’ve gifted you my very heart,
    Oh lady from distant climes.
    I have travelled the wide world o’er,
    Now I’m come to a new found shore,
    I’m a traveller here at your door,
    Oh lady from distant climes.

    (The translation is a poor thing, but my own.)

    Reply

  3. Posted by Linda on October 4, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    The Bengali version of great craic!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Charley Brady on October 4, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    Well, since I am from Scotland, look really great in a kilt and have wonderful legs — admittedly in no one’s opinion but my own — I’m happy out.

    Leaving aside the kidding, though…. your piece reminded me of Robert Fisk some years back talking about seeing that most under-rated of films, Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in the Middle East.

    By his own admission, Fisk is a political writer, not a movie reviewer. Yet I found it so moving when he writes about seeing ‘Kingdom’ in an almost all-Muslim theatre. The closing scene, where basically the Christians have been beaten and a Muslim regards the destruction, before setting the overturned crucifix back upright again…. he reports that gradually the whole audience rose to their feet and began giving that single act an ovation.

    Their way of saying that they had met an honourable enemy and wanted to show respect.

    We should hear more of that. We have become so conditioned (myself included) that we just see things in black & white ‘Us Vs Them’ terms. If you haven’t seen ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ then check it out.

    Apart from anything else, it includes one of my all-time favourite macho lines from Liam Neeson, something like ‘I once fought on for three days with an arrow through my testilcle’.

    Now there’s Sam Peckinpah tough and there’s John Wayne tough and there’s Chuck Norris tough…but did any of them ever fight on with an arrow through their testicle?

    I think not.

    Yet it is a deeply serious film. I think that everyone wanted another ‘Gladiator’ at the time, which may explain why it was largely ignored.

    And go ahead and wear that kilt, Himadri. My surname is Brady, but my grandfather was Donald McDonald McComb. If that doesn’t give me the right to show off my great legs at a wedding, then I don’t know what does!

    As you put it yourself, this sharing is indeed joyous — and, I would add — it’s not unhealthy for us to laugh at ourselves. That can be joyous too.

    Reply

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