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Orientalism and Representation of the 'Other' in 'Coldplay: Hymn for the Weekend'

According to Edward Said, Orientalism refers to a "systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage and even produce the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period". This hegemony of power dynamics between the Occident and the Orient was soon reflected in popular representations of art, literature, visual media, etc., as well as other forms of cultural/ political modes of appropriation. 'Coldplay's Hymn for the Weekend' perpetuates the portrayal of Orientalism and furthers the representations of the 'Other' in several subtle ways.

The song touches upon the representation of the 'Other' by showing India (once the land of the colonized) as 'exotic', 'mystic' and 'religious'. For instance, the frequent depiction of the saffron and blue colours, which have religious significance for the Hindus; plus, the featuring of yogis (Hindu ascetics) engaged in their worship, e.g. two yogis (Hindu ascetics) shown walking beside each other with their saffron-coloured robes loosely hanging in the wind; besides, the portrayal of the Hindu deities including Lord Shiva, Lord Hanuman as well as other Hindu female gods shown dancing, e.g. the young boy painted all blue, with a snake in his neck, wearing a leopard-printed cloth and holding a trident in the guise of the Hindu deity, i.e. Lord Shiva; as well as an attempt to depict the Hindu religious festival of Holi, e.g. by showing three men on a bike all draped up in the holy colours. Interestingly, although the White people have tried their best to 'accurately' depict Lord Shiva, they have failed to corroborate it with evident historical data. Shiva is known to be 'ash-white' in colour, though the video features him as a blue-coloured god. In this way, the West has misrepresented and failed to understand the 'true' history and culture of the Orient; instead, imposing their understanding of their religion, history and culture on the Indians (or Eastern people). Other than that, the lyrics that form the overarching narrative of the song also strongly fit in with the overall characterization of India as a 'mystic', 'religious' and 'exotic' land. In the beginning, the narrator describes himself as feeling 'down', 'heavy', 'low', 'hurt' and 'dried up'; however, this changes over time, and he later feels 'drunk' and 'high'. As one tries to unpack this, we can note that something is acting behind the sudden change in the emotionality of the narrator. Perhaps it is because Beyoncé acts as an 'angel' or a 'celestial being' who “puts her wings” on him by asking him to "drink from me" and then inviting him to "pour on a symphony". Symbolically, this could translate into Divine healing for the narrator in the form of 'rain' (Beyoncé) when she says, "Drink from me". Hence, rain acts as holy water pouring down from the sky, ultimately healing the narrator from his despair and grief. Instead, it makes him feel intoxicated with Divine Love, as he expresses feeling "drunk and high" and to "shoot across the sky". This intoxication with Divine Love also makes him understand that "life is a drink and your love's about, " thus showing a stark shift from his gloomy and low-spirited mood to someone infected with 'high' energy and intense emotions. Hence, this lends credence to the claim that the music video attempts to feature India as a land that only belongs to the Hindus with their 'exotic' religious and mystical practices (i.e. the portrayal of 'Hindu yogis' instead of also showing 'Muslim Sufi saints' side by side, or the depiction of the 'saffron' and 'blue' colours instead of also depicting 'green' or 'white' colours, or even showing the festival of Holi instead of also showing the celebrations of Eid or Christmas, etc.).

In addition, the song also reflects the overt sexualization of women in the Indian culture by portraying Beyoncé in the Bollywood guise. She is seen wearing an Indian attire, known as a 'ghagra-choli' (typical to Indian culture to some extent as it disregards the regional/ ethnic differences within India); however, the way that she has decked herself with heavy jewellery on her face, head and neck could be regarded as an exaggeration. Plus, she is shown wearing the red bindi on her forehead, the kajal (kohl) in her eyes, and heavy bangles and henna on her hands. Interestingly, the two-second depiction of Sonam Kapoor in the video is also tied in with this directly as she is also shown wearing heavy earrings, a tikka, nose-ring and on top of that, her head is also shown covered with a dupatta (veil). This element of 'covered head' or 'maintenance of purdah' also sheds light on the representation of the 'Other' as backward, primitive and in need of being 'rescued' from the modern and civilized West. Tied into this, the hand gestures of Beyoncé during the music video also come across as a misrepresentation since these are not exemplified in any Indian dance. On top of that, these overly-sexualized females in the video (such as the one played by Beyoncé as well as the Indian women shown dancing later in the video) are shown as greatly desired by the Indian men and are reduced to no more than objects for the sexual gratification of the males. The fact that Beyoncé's posters are shown to have been put up in the streets and that she features as a stand-alone character in the movie theatre, as well as the flirtatious and seductive gaze of the man who plays the film of Beyoncé in the theatre, all attest to the way that Indian (or Eastern) women are shown as desirable because of their sexuality. This also engenders a representational trope of the Indian females as it reduces their desirability to their body or their sexuality and disregards their other roles, such as intellectuals, etc.

Moreover, the song also reflects the 'exoticism' of India in many ways, perpetuating representational tropes of the 'Other'. For instance, it accentuates the liveliness and vibrancy of India by showing the singer gazing excitedly at the children dancing at Holi, scenes of pigeons fluttering in the sky, street dances and musical performances, puppet shows, etc. Throughout the music video, the East or 'India' in this case, seems like a recreational spot for the white singer; i.e. seeing the simplicity and exuberant nature of the brown people there amuses the White person to the extent that he feels peaceful and at solace there; thus, making him feel "drunk and high" and inspires him of Divine intoxication and Love. Other than that, the fact that the opening scene of the song features a white peacock (has religious significance in Hinduism as it symbolizes the 'vahna' of Lord Vishnu) and also fetishizes the exotic nature of Hinduism in India (e.g. by the frequent depiction of saffron-coloured robes, the attempt to replicate Lord Shiva and Hanuman, the portrayal of Hindu yogis as well as the stone idols covering the garlands) generates a specific understanding of the orientalist notion of the 'Other' as 'exotic' in character; hence, creating another representational trope of the East. On top of that, the fact that the entire video portrays the Indians as a homogenous group also explicitly makes a representational trope of the Indians. It showcases all Indians as brown-skinned, poor, and lively; however, it shows them miserable and helpless at the same time, as the White singer presumes that they need to be 'rescued' from the primitive state they are keeping themselves in. In this way, it fails to consider the diversity or pluralism entrenched in Indian society.

Lastly, the song fails to consider India's religious and cultural pluralism and only entrenches the 'real' image of India on certain cultural or religious symbols viewed in isolation by 'Coldplay'. Instead, by using these symbols as tropes for the 'Other', the singer zoomed into a four-minute and twenty-second video by employing a simplistic and reductionist approach to showing the 'true' culture of India (the 'East). In its flawed attempt to accurately represent the land of India, it resorts to showing only one-half of India (i.e. Hindu India). It fails to show the other half (i.e., India, which is constituted by other religious minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, etc., as well as the other ethnic groups within India). For instance, while the music video features a Hindu temple, it fails to depict the places of worship for several other religious minorities in India, such as mosques for Indian Muslims or churches for Indian Christians. In addition, while depicting the sheer 'lively', 'vibrant', 'exuberant', and 'mystic' spirit of India, it also disregards the underlying realities there, for instance, the rigid caste system practised there, the increasing nationalism, elitist notions, conflict with religious minorities, etc. In this way, instead of depicting a pluralistic India, the music video aims to depict a Hindu-centred India, thus viewing the 'Other' as a homogenous and rigid entity that is neither subject to change nor variation. One has no flexibility or autonomy to interpret this 'rigid' lens in any way one wants; instead, it is set, predetermined, and fixed. In other words, the picture of India as a place of 'exuberance', 'exoticism', 'mysticism', and 'sexualization' has been predetermined and fixed by the White people (or, in this case, the White singer). The White audience who watches this four-minute twenty-second video and is unaware of the 'true' Indian culture or has never actually been to India, unlike this White singer who comes here as part of a tourist trip, would, in turn, internalize these flawed portrayals of India. Unbeknownst to them, these representations of the Indian culture would perpetuate the age-old dichotomy between the Occident and the Orient, i.e. it would be self-serving for the Whites as it would be an ego-boost for them and make them feel superior over their once-colonized subjects and reinforce their previous identity as the 'colonizers'; on the other hand, it would narrow down the picture of India to a Hindu-centric version and depict the Indians as a homogenous group by reinforcing the idea that all Indians are Hindus, brown-skinned, and poor people. Additionally, the video furthers the idea that despite having inadequate resources to sustain themselves (portrayed through the element of 'poverty' and 'child labour' in the video), the Indians remain peaceful and contented with themselves, which is another representational trope of India as a 'mystic' and 'primitive' land. On top of that, the video further enhances the modern/primitive dichotomy by showing the widespread poverty and child labour prevalent in India; it also shows the 'helpless' gazes of the Indian children, as if asking the Whites to 'rescue' them from their poverty. In this way, it also misconstrues the reality of Indian culture as it assumes that all Indian children have no other work to do than indulging in child labour on the streets or participating in 'joyful' activities such as street dances or musical performances. This is starkly different from the actual reality as children in India go to schools, and Asian children are known to be the most hardworking students worldwide, even more than Western ones.

In general, the music video shows a fetishized portrayal of the 'other' as a 'mystic' or 'religious' land, the over-emphasis on the sexualization of women in the East, the general 'exoticism' in the Indian culture as well as the failure to show the cultural and religious pluralism within India. All of these factors perpetuate the representational tropes of the Orient as a primitive/savage/overly sexualised place as compared to the Occident, which is modern/civilized/honourable.

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