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On Trusting Our Own People To Value & Maintain Our Heritage & Aspects Of Culture…

On Trusting Our Own People To Value & Maintain Our Heritage & Aspects Of Culture...

Wow – I thought this was quite deep. I don’t know if Bhanu Athaiya realizes how her action and words could reflect on Indians in general.

First, the details from a THR report this morning state: 

The first Oscar to be won by an Indian has made its way back to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Mumbai-based Bhanu Athaiya won best costume design for Richard Attenborough’s multiple award-winning Gandhi at the 55th Annual Academy Awards in 1983. But the 86-year-old, who is suffering from a potentially life-threatening brain tumor, has returned her statuette to the Academy for safekeeping.

And why is she returning it to the Academy?

“I do not trust anyone in India to keep it. If [acclaimed Indian writer and poet] Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medal could be stolen from [Tagore’s hometown] Shantiniketan, what is the guarantee my trophy would be safe?” Athaiya said in a statement.

And still further, and I think more damning, she added:

“In India, no one values such things, and we lack a tradition of maintaining our heritage and things pertaining to our culture…”

That’s the line that really struck me. Let me first say that, as the THR report states, she’s not the first Oscar winner to return her award to the Academy for safekeeping, but her reasons for doing so got my attention, and I can only wonder what other Indians think of what she’s said.

I believe I’ve heard similar things said about “African culture” (broadly-speaking), and how black people not only in Africa, but here in the USA as well, don’t value aspects of our culture the way others on the *outside* do. We don’t place as much importance on them, or we avoid them (especially the more painful parts of our culture). For example, I think we’ve all heard/read/been a part of debates that compare how importantly Jews regard the Holocaust, but African Americans don’t hold their own Holocaust (slavery and its aftermath) in a similar regard. 

I recall posts on this site about the number of films made that center on some aspect of the Holocaust (a lot) compared to those made about slavery and/or the fight for civil rights, over the years.

I also remember a story Tambay told me about a friend of his (an American college professor) who went to Ghana to visit the Cape Coast where the slave castles are, for research she was doing for a paper, and being really shocked at how poorly records were being kept, and how genrally uninterested Ghanaians seemed to be about this really significant part of our history.

There are other examples, but I think you get the point, and I think that’s why Bhanu Athaiya’s comments struck me so. Maybe they just resonated as familiar. And then I imagined if a black person (no matter where they are from) said exactly what she said – essentially that they don’t trust black people to keep their Oscar because black people don’t value such things, and we lack a tradition of maintaining our heritage and things pertaining to our culture.

So, in effect, what is being said there, without really being said (by Bhanu Athaiya and really anyone with that mind-set), is that there’s more trust in white people to maintain our histories and legacies, than there is in people who look like us. Does that about sum it up?

And if we have any readers from or in any part of India, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this. Maybe it’s not even that big of a deal.

Thoughts on any of this?

This Article is related to: News


B. Bhaskar

It's rather interesting to read Courtney's views and as a fellow Indian well versed in our cultural practices and their intent, what Bhanu Athaiya may have meant by "In India, no one values such things, and we lack a tradition of maintaining our heritage and things pertaining to our culture…" was historically Indians are poor at treasuring their own history, culture and more specifically in record keeping for posterity & so she did not believe fellow Indians cared as much as her to preserve something historically relevant unless some measure of selfish interest was involved. I as a Scientist for 24 years have experience in dealing with appalling levels of documentations and records of their own observations of incidents, occasions and experimental details. Indians' poor record keeping has a lot to do with their impatience in paying attention to detail in aspect of life & this is forced by the circumstance of having to constatntly wanting to show their friends/peers/colleagues that they're good in what they do. They're constantly striving to make their own lives a success by having to compete with millions of people by finding short cuts to their sphere of influence. This lack of attention to detail and a cultural lethargy to one's own history, tradition, conventions etc. make them very poor in treasuring any kind of historical records or memorabilia. As far as I can see there were no implications of any kind of racial prejudice involved in her statements.


Who knew a post about an Indian woman returning her academy award would generate this much debate on this site? Here's something that the Hollywood Reporter article that this article quotes, didn't say. I got this from the India Today website: "In an interview to Headlines Today, the 85-year-old Athaiya accused the central government of neglecting her contribution. Talking about the government neglect, she said there was no recognition of her contribution… Athaiya, who won the film world's most prestigious award for costume design of cult classic Gandhi in 1982, has already been in talks with the AMPAS to work out the way of returning the award." And then I found this on the Times of India website: "Despite being the first Indian to win an Oscar, Athaiya has never received any state or national recognition for her contribution to Indian cinema. "It is disappointing. This is the state of artistes in our country," added Athaiya dejectedly. Allegedly Athaiya is estranged from her family for many years now. When asked why the family could not take care of her trophy, Athaiya's Kolkata based daughter Radhika Gupta remarked, "I could have but that would be a temporary solution," and added, "Mummy felt she never got the recognition she deserved in the country. She felt the Oscar would lose its meaning if kept here. It's now gone to a good place, where she feels it would be preserved with care, respect and dignity." So from reading both of those site's reports, it looks like it's more about her feeling disrespected and her achievement not being recognized and valued by the powers that be in India, the government especially, than it is about the levels of poverty in India. I think someone here said that the Oscar may not really hold any significance in India because it's really an American thing. And we in America may be shocked to learn that the rest of the world doesn't hold these same things in the same regard as we do. So it makes sense that she hasn't received the recognition in India that she feels she deserves because they just don't care over there like we do. Especially in a country that has its own film industry that rivals America's in a number of ways. So there could be a hint of nationalism by Indians who feel that their own system of recognition is more important than America's. Also I wondered whether she had any family who could take care of the trophy, and this answers that question as well.


As an aspiring actor I agree with the notion that minority groups do not preserve our cultural heritage in a way that properly reflects our history; more specifically African-American contributions within the context of American history. This is where African-American's have to pay homage to what Tyler Perry & Queen Latifah have done for African-American actress's of a certain age in 21st century cinema. Award-winning women such as Cicely Tyson, Lynn Whitfield, Phylicia Rashaad, Alfre Woodard & many other actress's would not have had platform's to showcase their talent & remain relevant in wide released movies if the aforementioned producers had not continued to give them work. Anyone born after the 80's would not know some of these women because their "hey-day" by the year 2000 had surpassed. This is not to say that African-American producers in the 20th century did not showcase our legends & accomplished actors, but as the years progress, the quality of work for African-American's dwindle. Hollywood follows trends & drama is not a selling point in today's society, with that being said, showcasing "our best" becomes harder & harder; this is where Tyler Perry & Queen Latifah come in. The greater conversation is how do we as African-Americans, raise our value system to a place where we nurture our true talents, pay homage to our legends in a respective manner & preserve our most accomplished performers in a way that contributes to their legacy instead of forgetting about them once they reach a certain age in their careers.


First of all, let me make this clear. I am an Indian and to see such a statement from another Indian on global platform is rather bizzare. I think Indians value their culture very highly, and therefore it's still the most culturally rich country in world along with Egypt, Greece and Italy. Any western who has visited India will vouch for this fact.

Now coming to Bhaanu Athaiya's comment, I would argue actually she herself is showing one ugly trait of Indians which is not respecting one's own country when he or she becomes famous on global stage. Secondly keeping her Oscar safe has nothing to do with culture. Yes, there are certain security issues in India, we have 1.2 billion people to look after so her trophy might not get the security she would be demanding for it. But to say, Indians don't respect culture and tradition is a blatant lie. In fact, India is suffering to an extent because they are holding on their archaic age old customs and tradition for far too long.


Your comments are not only highly irresponsible but also completely baseless. India is not dirt cheap country, it's rather one of the fastest developing country right now and hold your seats tight, because India is going to overtake US by 2050. Get your facts straight and then speak.


What does this woman or her comments have to do with African(and diasporan) cinema?


Someone stealing her Oscar is not going to destroy her legacy, only a symbol of it. It wouldn't be like someone stealing a valuable painting or book. Her creation would still be in existence as would the recognition of it.

She's worried about somebody ripping her off because she lives in a country of very poor people. But she masks those thoughts with words about that put it another way. Sure, if I got an award and fell into desperate times, I would sell it or pawn it to feed my family if that were the only way. I certainly wouldn't starve to death over it.

I recall many, many years ago travelling in Egypt and being told by the guide that hundreds of mummies were buried in the grounds. I asked why they hadn't been dug up, given their value. The guide politely responded that people's communities were sitting on those grounds and they were more important.

In any case, I think it's a leap to connect someone's disingenuous comments about their trophy to a group of people not revering their history and culture (and I'm not talking about some Disney made history for The Help). Black unemployment is still in the double digits (though you don't hear much talk about it for some reason, not even by our black news anchors) and wages have declined drastically. People might be a bit more concerned with feeding their families and keeping their homes out of foreclosure at the present.


Speaking of "class"…. I think Bhanu Athaiya's understanding of "culture" is meant to read as "high art" and culture in a more westernized sense of the word. She sounds like someone who has both social and monetary capital – for Indian standards. And she probably doesn't live in a shanty town or slum. India is a very poor country, and even though there are no more "legal" caste systems, there are still social caste practices in play. Is she one of the Indian masses, or is she one of the Indian educated elite? How does she view the people who are poor yet they keep the temples, worship the different traditional Indian deities, and practice Indian customs that are not easily legible or recognized by non-Indians? Just because there are no (or not many) museums, concert halls, or colleges of art, etc. like those we'd find in the US or other Western(ized) countries doesn't mean that there are "no keepers of culture." As for examples of the preservation of African Diaspora culture, I would have to object to the point about "needing to make ends meet" and the fact that "blacks are still struggling." Yes we are still affected by structural racism and discrimination. However, WE STILL preserve our culture and history in different ways both "high culture" and the culture of our various communities. I know that a lot of these forms of "high art" have been accepted by the wider white audiences and that is part of the reason why they have been largely institutionalized. But don't tell me that Alvin Ailey, black visual art, and Black Rep Theaters aren't BLACK forms of high culture! Not everything is "white washed." And those came from different folk traditions of language, religion, dance, song, and art. I hope you see what I'm saying…. We also preserve our history – hello – BHM/Y, Juneteenth Celebrations, Emancipation Day observances, and whoever still observes Kwanzaa. We just don't get media recognition at the level of our Jewish counterparts and other white ethnics. For example: St. Patricks Day. I still don't understand why the entire country observes this holiday????? And the largest space of preservation for Blacks would be in the area of religion. And the spiritualist tradition bleeds into all of our music genres. All I'm saying is that Africans world wide do preserve their culture – both expressive and historical, regardless of their economic status. I think it's problematic to not include a discussion of "space and place" when talking about cultural preservation. Our culture moves, it's not all tangible or things we look at. Our culture is what we do. Black is who we are, what we live, and how we live. Whether Black or Indian, why would "preservation" look the same? Some Indian women wear the Sari on only special occasions b/c they are westernized and "modern," and others wear Sari's all the time. Perhaps b/c that's the few items of clothing they have. So isn't this an issue of what is acceptable in the presence of whites as well? And the fact that what modern is also what is "white." This affects what is "formally" recognized as an "honor" and what is informally recognized as an honor. Trophies like the Oscar are European traditions that may not be easily translated to the Indian masses? They understand $ and that it would buy food. That's why they would melt the trophy down. Having a trophy made of gold in MY own house seems weird to me. I don't think people stop to realize that that's actually NOT normal for many people around the world. Perhaps a statue of gold should be someplace safer than someone's home.


This is incredibly sad but I think she is right and it relates very strongly to what goes on with us. As Bondgirl said many Africans in the Diaspora are too busy trying to make ends meet to think about culture and history, trying to get some interested in the inner cities is an up hill struggle because they can't see how it relates to their everyday. The only thing we who have a mind to can do is preserve what we can however we can. My organisation, although only small and very young, is making a concerted effort to preserve a part of the African Diaspora culture and heritage, come check us out


Only people who have never accomplished anything extraordinary in their own lives, would be upset with her meticulous safeguarding. She has every right to be concerned. India is a dirt poor country, and 90% of the people would melt her Oscar down for money. Her statements are a perfect example why black ppl should stop thinking that only the BC has ills, and every other race is unified with a singular cultural mission. We have to do better in terms of archiving and promoting our culture, but part of it is a class issue. When you feel like you're just surviving out here, things like passing down legacies become last on the list of priorities.


So she's sending her Oscar back to Hollywood because Hollywood maintains Indian heritage and aspects of Indian culture more than actual Indians do…(cue the looooong sigh) Someone stealing than selling an Oscar statuette could probably feed 10 families in India. She should send the Oscar back for more noble reasons like she's boycotting trite racist assed Hollywood. Ghandi is sucking his teeth in heaven right now. She gets the gasface.

Adam Scott Thompson

We treat our history like a raw nerve instead of a learning tool. I saw "The Help" and enjoyed it as a well-told story; it also touched me since my granny (92 going on 93) worked as "the help" for thirty-five years, cleaning up after rich white people (which she was never conflicted about since it provided for her children). People were up in arms about that, but I wondered why. History is history. If you made a film set in 1940, chances are all the black characters would be domestics without political power — that's just how it was. Yes, there were exceptions and even places in which blacks lived affluently, but for the majority this was not the case. I think that the efforts of Jews to keep the Holocaust front and center is not about whining or attention whoring. Rather it helps them to move on, I feel. We as a people can't move on first because many of us don't know our own history and second because we use it as an excuse to stay angry rather than as an opportunity to show the beauty of our culture. I love the movie "Glory" because the Negro soldiers were not homogeneous — some were hot-headed, some were wise, some were highly skilled, some were cowards. We can't hem and haw every time a "Django" or "The Help" comes out; instead we must ask, does this broaden of the palette of us? Does it show us in more degrees, more dimensions? "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was directed by a Jewish white man (so was "The Color Purple") — are those films counterfeit?

Critical Acclaim

Quite sad. Might be more to do with her age and generation, but still sad to read her thoughts on the matter when such great literature, art and activism is coming out of India.

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