Exotica shop

Beads of Paradise is a small furnishings shop by Union Square in Manhattan. Earlier this year, it sold random old photos of a Rajasthani family for six hundred bucks as nothing more than visual texture for interior design. This struck me as comical. Now they’re selling Hindica for the same purpose:

The most egregious in this vein is actually ABC Home, a giant imports store down the street (Moroccan lanterns go for thousands) with expensive Krishna and Nataraja icons in its sidewalk displays.

Religion and art are closely linked, of course; churches in Italy feel to me like shared art galleries. But you generally won’t find secular furnishings stores in the U.S. selling pricy Christian icons because of the disrespect that implies. On the flip side, you can get Ganesh idols at many stores in Jackson Heights, but most of those selling anything larger than a keychain are religious artifacts shops. New Jersey has elevated the metallic dashboard Ganesh to an art form.

Those are all ancillary issues. The real question is this: why do high-end import stores in Manhattan prominently feature Hindu iconography when they have very few Hindu customers? One, because after the ’60s, it’s become a shorthand for ‘exotic.’ It’s a quick way to differentiate from mainstream furnishings stores. Two, because it’s colorful and pretty to look at. That’s actually a bit of a compliment.

Nowhere in those commercial and aesthetic calculations does the concern pop up that there actually are Hindus in Manhattan. That’s why they feel comfortable putting Ganesh in the window instead of something secular like an inlaid ivory table. It’s like ’65 never happened.

Related posts: Chinese Idol, Pounding leather, Scene in New York, Hinduism as kitsch, Warmth and Diesel: The selling of Indian kitsch

55 thoughts on “Exotica shop

  1. There has been rampant exoticizing of everything Indian – From the food to the yoga. You should see some of the Yoga studios (in NY) and hear about the prices they charge! Exorbitant.

  2. You should go to one of the Manhattan Yoga ‘workshops’ and hear them blathering on about avatars, Krishna and inner peace.

    I wouldn’t care if they got it right, but even to my Catholic ears, they were spouting the worst sort of sanskrit-peppered horseshit imaginable.

  3. …spouting the worst sort of sanskrit-peppered horseshit imaginable.

    I know what you mean sista! I went to this one class taught by this deep Southerner who had an uber-Indian name (something like Saraswati) and she talked about closing your eyes and imagining that you were in the home town of Krishna sitting under a tree with only green grass around and sweet music playing(in her thick southern drawl she mentioned the soothing sounds of the harp or something)

    I couldnt help but laughing when I was supposed to be using my inner eye to focus. Ha ha ha

  4. I might pay a visit to this store with my mom. She’s been thinking about upgrading the temple from oxidized silver to something more flashy. Always makes for a great conversation topic when those bitchy gossippy aunties come along for dinner. “Oh that lil’ ol’ thang..pfft..its nothing, just got it from some pawnshop in a backalley.” Wait…that can’t be right. You’d probably have to claim it came from Haridwar for an exorbitant price to elicit gasps. Nyaargghhh…..

  5. I’m reminded of the skit in Goodness Gracious Me where the British Antiques dealer is convinced into buying (among other things) cow pats that are supposed to be “coasters” :)

  6. Try going to a drop in yoga session. A brown presence can really intimidate the instructor.

    Not in NY. Loads of browns everywhere, and the instructors are usually well aware of the fact that sanskrit is the Latin of South India. Unfortunately, the dumber ones think this makes it “more spiritual.”

    To be fair, I’ve had some really good instructors…great teachers who notice when your body torques the wrong way or manage to extended your stretch a few more inches jsut by adjusting your back. I’ve noticed that people who get into yoga for the physical benefits are infinitely more bearable than those who want to yammer on about “tantric wisdom.”

  7. But you generally wonÂ’t find secular furnishings stores in the U.S. selling pricy Christian icons because of the disrespect that implies.

    generally, yes, but i’ve found that a number of discount general stores do sell some tacky chrisitan art. i’m thinking of a store in central squre in cambridge, ma., and some of the hispanic owned stores near wicker park in chicago. i’m guessing those stores are more similar to the ones mentioned in jackson heights.

  8. Cicatrix, I’ve been doing yoga for a while now, and although I can practice on my own, I really like the feeling/dicipline of a weekly class. Anyways, I have been in search for a new yoga class in NYC. (The place I used to go to is undergoing rennovation.) There are good classes out there (sivananda.org/ny, http://www.iyiny.org, now-yoga.com) but they are few and far between. Most classes advertise the exotic, tantric, spiritual, blah, blah, blah. Others are more interested in hawking their particular ‘style’ of yoga or the guru that developed the ‘style’.

  9. Anyways, I have been in search for a new yoga class in NYC.

    I like Dana’s class at Laughing Lotus It’s a bit new age – but it is a lot of fun and she is a great teacher. For the more traditional higher level class, I like Zelina’s class at Be Yoga‘s downtown location. She teaches the 7:30 class on Sunday night.

  10. i’ve found that a number of discount general stores do sell some tacky chrisitan art. i’m thinking of a store in central squre in cambridge, ma., and some of the hispanic owned stores near wicker park in chicago.

    Interesting point. Often the Christian art being sold at hispanic stores (the Dominican and Puerto Rican bodegas in NY for example) are sincere expressions of faith.

    Roman Catholicism mixed with indegenous beliefs pretty much everywhere the Portuguese forced people to convert, and it lead to some lurid (by WASP-y western standards) depictions of Christ with a throbbing, anatomically accurate heart half-hanging outof his chest, etc.

    Then the hipsters (at least in NY) invaded these neighbourhoods, found these religious icons (paintings, statues, candles with Christian deities on the glass holders, incense, etc.) gloriously kitschy and decorated their slumming abodes with these items that were meant for christian altars, the way they do now with icons meant for Hindu altars.

    I suppose something could be said here about mainstream American hunger for spirituality, and the way that hunger undermines as it embraces….

    where’s our resident genius when you need him? ;)

  11. Enivhsay, thanks for the recs. Laughing Lotus turned me off a bit with their website; they advertise “early morning SUN CELEBRATIONS” and “[their] most advanced class, COSMIC PLAY.”

    :)

    I might try the class you recommend at Be-Yoga. I am not familiar with the style they teach – ISHTA – but it’s worth a look-see.

    Other thoughts much appreciated.

  12. Rani,

    If you come this Sunday – say hi! :) Laughing Lotus, definitely caters to “that kind” of crowd – but I find their teachers very knowledgeable and approachable – And I saw some fellow desi’s there a couple times. They don’t spew any half-baked tantric knowledge – none that I have heard at least. I’m sorry you weren’t very happy with them.

  13. Then the hipsters (at least in NY) invaded these neighbourhoods, found these religious icons (paintings, statues, candles with Christian deities on the glass holders, incense, etc.) gloriously kitschy and decorated their slumming abodes with these items that were meant for christian altars, the way they do now with icons meant for Hindu altars.

    Wasn’t this in the plot of one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories.

  14. Enivhsay, I haven’t tried Laughing Lotus. As I was looking for classes, I visited their website and was turned off by their marketing. So, I made my own assumptions. It’s nice to know that you’ve liked it there, though. That’s a different perspective.

    If I make it out on Sunday, I will defnitely say HI!

  15. Before 9/11, I had the most amazing yoga class at a NYC Rec center (I know!!). $25 ANNUAL membership, but $55 for the 10 week, hour and a half every week yoga class that wasn’t a drop-in so we actually progressed (rapidly!) from week to week. I’d never been more limber in my life.

    Then of course, the Park dept (that controls the Rec centers) had it’s budget slashed post 9/11 and most of the classes either got cut, or are now as expensive as the studio classes.

    Rani, I like having a teacher too. I’ve tried out a lot, looking for the ideal mix of cost/class and not-annoying teacher.

    I go to this place in Brooklyn now. Mostly cause it’s the closest thing to my apartment. And also? $5 community Hatha classes, which are great if you just need to gently stretch out a bit.

  16. Wasn’t this in the plot of one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories.

    I don’t remember, but all the more reason to like her writing if so.

    I speak from personal experience. When I lived on 125th st in Manhattan, I had a roommate whose friends attended Barnard college…they would love to come over to show her their latest neighbourhood “finds.” Stupid twats.

  17. For pricey Christian icons, see Santa Fe. How exactly do you want your cross to look, how authentically Mexican, how many silver studs, do you want it jeweled or not?

    In America, there is rampant exoticizing of everything that comes before. Did not of you see from Shtetl to Swing? It’s all happened before, many, many, many times.

    Whatever.

  18. And anyway, in all cultures the hipsters like to ignore the larger, majoritarian culture. It’s the default pose of the so-called progressive. I’m against! If Christians were a minority religion in the US, well, you do the math.

    I think it would be hilarious if one of you protested this egregious display of disrespect: especially with big Hindica signs and wearing saffron robes :)

  19. Cicatrix, I believe it’s from Interpreter of Maladies.

    Incidentally, “stupid twats” is such a classic expression

  20. well, yes. Jhumpa has exactly one collection of stories and one novel. So it would have to be “Interpreter” wouldn’t it? I meant that I don’t remember which one you refer to.

    Incidentally, “stupid twats” is such a classic expression

    In what way? I use it in the Portnoy era Phillip Roth sense.

  21. Cicatrix, the place you go to sounds really cool. If only it weren’t so far away from me! I actually have found a few nice places in Brooklyn, but, frankly, I am just too lazy to make it out there on a weeknight when I there are yoga classes closer to home. For those of you who are in Brooklyn, a place I’ve liked is Embora Wellness & Movement.

  22. instructors are usually well aware of the fact that sanskrit is the Latin of South India.

    ???You meant Sanskrit is the Latin of India???

    Anyway, it’s more like…Latin is the Prakrit of the West. There is no equivalent of Sanskrit in the West.

    M. Nam

  23. Rani, Embora looks great, but I’m afraid $15/class is not doable for me :(

    I’m glad you like the look of the place I go to. It’s really low key, the people are nice, and it’s very community-oriented. But yeah, I would never commute to another borrough if I had something more-than-adequate near me!

    Yoga is the only form of exercise I enjoy, but even then I’m too lazy to get to a class most of the the time. I’d love to find a proper class (not drop in kind, more like a session) that’s also affordable. No luck so far. Might scope out the Rec centers again….

  24. <

    blockquote>For pricey Christian icons, see Santa Fe.

    … Usually marketed to Christians.

    Not really Manish. MD can answer this best, (I think. I’ve never been to SF) but those are marketed as a form of regional authenticity to the sort of yuppies who eat that sort of thing up with a spoon. It’s Mexican religious inconography sold to upwardly-mobile, agnostic/searching/lukewarm Americans who are “christian” generally by default in that they’re not anything else and don’t want to consider themselves atheists.

    I think it’s the same thing. Perhaps Hindu deities have more of the foreign/bizarre/exotic patina, but that’s because they’re newer. (in terms of being commodified here)

  25. Cica, Wendy Tremayne runs yoga classes in Union Square and offers a student/starving artist and unemployed Discount. (Not that I am implying that you are any of the above!) But, she may be worth a look-see, too.

  26. Try going to a drop in yoga session. A brown presence can really intimidate the instructor.

    Hmm. Ironically, the state of modern yoga is such that you could easily argue that being brown has nothing to do with the “authenticity” of yogic practice, per se. Modern yoga is a big old mish-mash of subcontinental traditions and influences, and western influences… For instance, the very idea of yoga as an tool for improving one’s health (mentioned in some of the comments above) is most certainly NOT a discourse born of subcontinental yogic traditions, but rather a western interpretation/spin. In other words, the dominance of western discourses about science have led yoga practitioners (in both the west AND India) to “legitimize” yoga by affirming its scientific validity — as a health routine! Think how weird yoga practitioners in 19th century India would have found the numerous ads which promote yoga as a “stress reliever” and a therapeutic non-medicinal treatment for asthma or, say, back pain.

    This is why I find yoga a particularly interesting phenomenon for study: as it stands today, it is very much a product of transnational and transcultural exchanges (though white folks twanging about Krishna beneath the tree clearly haven’t caught on to this fact), and its ambivalent nature — is it a spiritual practice or a health routine, or both? — reflects its roots in both “west and east,” as it were.

  27. It’s Mexican religious inconography sold to upwardly-mobile, agnostic/searching/lukewarm Americans who are “christian” generally by default…

    Seems somewhat less poseur than the Hindica example since it’s selling one strain of Xtianity to another. Like selling Southeast Asian Hindu artifacts in India.

    Think how weird yoga practitioners in 19th century India would have found the numerous ads which promote yoga as a “stress reliever”…

    But hatha yoga is supposed to be the physical path to enlightenment, no? I’ve seen old Indian yoga books which promoted it in exactly this way.

  28. Use of Hindu symbols etc is also exploited in jewelry sold by a number of US designers. It always surprises me how people lap up the idea of buying a chain with the word vedas engraved on it in sanskrit or an om symbol on it and yet these same people have no interest in Hinduism and probably don’t even know any South Asians. It’s white people making money off an “exotic” religion that’s not theirs. And in fact it’s more than that, the whole cultural exploitation bothers me. This same outfit sells a pendant with the Tamil word for “sacred” engraved on it and that bothers me too. It somehow cheapens my culture when it is relegated to a fashion statement.

  29. we have a similar run of things here in Oz – New Age stores flogging african and asian exotica – cushions, furniture, Ganesha and Nataraja statues at exorbitant prices. Ganesha and Durga have appeared on skin-tight T-shirts and even thongs – as in footwear! Since the closest and most familiar Asian cultures are East Asian, Buddhist exotica are far more rampant and Buddha statues appear in garden stores as “decorative pieces” (for that exotic, tropical feel!).

  30. I think my view falls more in line with Ex-lawyer. I ran into some girl who had OM plastered all over her shirt and when I asked her about it she had no idea about anything! I think her exact response was “Oh doesn’t it look cool”.

    While she herself did not bother me the whole concept of people wearing thing for mere fashion sense derogated the whole cultural concept. Perhaps there is some sort of trade off between popularity and cultural significance? Once something starts going mainstream it is hard and hard to maintain orginal meaning?

    Although, I see this trend more with oriental cultures with the ubiquity of t-shirts with some sort of Chinese writing on it For example: http://www.cafepress.com/esangha/

    Then again, what do I know, just thoughts of a tried banker still at work ;-)

  31. From my understanding, there are five (5) types of traditional yoga – karma yoga (work), bhakti yoga (devotion), jynani yoga (knowledge), raja yoga (meditation), and hatha yoga (physical strength). Ideally, a yogic lifestyle includes all these elements and hatha yoga was traditionally practiced with all these parameters. The belief was the physical strength was needed to prepare the body for deep meditation (raja yoga). These days, hatha yoga is practiced in isolation in the west for its health benefits, which, of course it has many. It’s great strength training, for sure.

    For those of you interested in some wonderful meditation, the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organisation has free raja yoga (meditation) classes at it’s 5th Avenue location. Classes start on November 7 and are every Monday and Wednesday from 6:30-8:00PM. I think each session lasts three weeks.

  32. Uh, I lived in Albuquerque for a year and trust me, exotica ain’t only eastern kitsch. Plenty of Mexicana-exotica in that part of the world……..

    PS: I guess this means my upcoming ‘Bollywood party’ makes me a sell-out poseur who is using her ‘heritage’ to cheap effect (or affect? can never tell which). Whatever. It’s just me and my gay male friends anyway. Look, who’s gonna take a girl out to the theater, huh? I am so gonna embarrass the desi tribe, you have no idea.

  33. From my understanding, there are five (5) types of traditional yoga – karma yoga (work), bhakti yoga (devotion), jynani yoga (knowledge), raja yoga (meditation), and hatha yoga (physical strength).

    Yes, hatha yoga is indeed more physically oriented, but its decontextualization and “reincarnation” as a tool of physical fitness basically began in the early 1900s (about the time that western discourses of reason/enlightenment/science started being utilized by certain branches of the burgeoning nationalist movement in order to represent or “re-present” Indian traditions as scientifically legitimate, ie worthy of western respect).

    Sorry if it sounded like I meant it got made up only recently. However, the meaning currently attached to it is definitely a modern phenomenon.

  34. Incidentally, “stupid twats” is such a classic expression In what way? I use it in the Portnoy era Phillip Roth sense.

    Cunt Crazy

  35. I think there’s always a danger of religious iconography being misused when it’s taken out of its indigenous cultural context, certainly if it falls into the hands of people for whom the images have no genuine sanctity or religious significance (it even happens regularly with Sikh images on some of the Indian satellite/cable channels, especially Star Plus).

    Perhaps one possible solution is greater regulation of the sale & distribution of such imagery and icons, in order to prevent its abuse.

  36. on the other hand, if whitefolks weren’t so keen on lite-weight cultural appropriation, there wouldn’t be opportunities anymore for all the excellent spirituality charlatans and hustlers that india has unleashed upon these unsuspecting victims. buddha of suburbia, anyone?

    i think this is a situation where it’s best to keep the marketplace of ideas free. after all, much of hinduism’s resilience stems from its lack of single canon or regulating/dogmatic authority (sorry, saffronists). let folks do whatever they want with the symbols and iconography. there will be aberrations, sometimes offensive, but often harmless and entertaining.

    peace

  37. Perhaps one possible solution is greater regulation of the sale & distribution of such imagery and icons, in order to prevent its abuse.

    Hmm… not so much. That’s why ‘we’ left England in the first place, old chap ;)

  38. “if whitefolks weren’t so keen on lite-weight cultural appropriation”….. Uh, sorry, but this sentence made me laugh out loud. I’m sure that’s what the ‘whitefolks’ are up to, those devious, er, ‘whiteys?’ Goodness, some kid in Ohio thinks the om symbol looks cool and puts it on a t-shirt. Oh, the horror! Go, lame cultural appropriationists, go. Make money. Be happy. Be free. Ignore those that would tell you how you should view the world and what you should find interesting or beautiful or, even, appropriate. Explore the world any damn way you want.

    (Anyway, sidhharth m, nice article about the Coltrane memorial concert, which I also attended, and which rocked).

  39. Ok, the fact that I can’t spell doesn’t excuse me from spelling your name wrong, siddhartha m. Sorry.

    And I definitely agree with your point about hinduism’s reslience.

    peace

    (see, I can learn new things, too. I’m not such an old, cranky, fart).

  40. … some kid in Ohio thinks the om symbol looks cool and puts it on a t-shirt. Oh, the horror!

    We don’t regulate Paris Hilton, but we don’t admire her either.