Kali-ma at Seder Dinner

Twenty-five years ago (jeez…has it been that long?) many of our parents were up in arms over the portrayal of Hindus in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. They talked on the phone to their friends ahout it, wrote letters of complaint, etc. Now, scenes from that film are regularly referenced in pop culture. Even a Jewish Seder dinner can be an occasion for a good “Kali Ma” joke:

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And Manish asked me by email the other day (to paraphrase), “couldn’t they have picked someone less Temple-of-Doomish to invite to the White House Diwali ceremony?” Compare here.

It would definitely have been some sight if the Hindu Priest, Narayanachar Digalakote, had gone “Kali Ma” on Obama. Some probably expected it. Here is Fox News’ picture of the day from that day. Fox News viewers enjoy pictures of Obama bowing.

41 thoughts on “Kali-ma at Seder Dinner

  1. couldn’t they have picked someone less Temple-of-Doomish to invite to the White House Diwali ceremony?

    the priest is pretty run of the mill as far as south indian priests go.

  2. This is why, even as a child, I knew not to dignify that movie with a viewing. Looks like a dignified Shri Vaishnav priest to me. And pranams and congratulations to him, for conducting the ceremony.

  3. And Manish asked me by email the other day (to paraphrase), “couldn’t they have picked someone less Temple-of-Doomish to invite to the White House Diwali ceremony?” Compare here.

    I hope there was a joke involved in this conversation. As bytewords said above, this is a standard issue Hindu priest that’s with the O-man.

  4. he is not extremely tall, and does not wield oddly squarish facial features. i don’t see the temple of doom resemblance.

    on another note, i thought i had scene (and enjoyed)all the indian jones movies… then recently temple of doom was on, and I realised i had never actually seen that one… talk about an awful movie! it didn’t make any sense and had the cheesiest storyline and special effects of them all.. ouff.

  5. inquirer… the caste system not based on skin color…it just so happens that brahmins TEND to be lighter, but also north indians tend to be lighter than south indians…

    region plays a much more important part in skin tone in south asia than caste, i would guess (Bengalis vs. kashmiris? malayalis vs. rajasthanis?). variations within a region might be correlated with caste more clearly… or with poverty, as well. What’s up with that, anyways?

    p.s… Obama is technically only half African-American.. is it really surprising that a south indian priest could be darker than a white and african-american mixed person?

  6. priest looks intense. reminds me of miles davis. the first state dinner in the obama white house is for india, btw.

  7. obama made a big mistake. as a real american hindu, i am offended on behalf of rajan zed, the greatest, bestest, hinduest hindu in all the world and all the americas. aint no hindu thang unless the zed makes it so.

  8. Obama is technically only half African-American.. is it really surprising that a south indian priest could be darker than a white and african-american mixed person?

    But the brahmin priest is as black as Obama’s 100% subsaharan african father. The indian-american Nobel Laureate looks blacker than the average african-american who is nowhere near half-white.

    I thought white-skinned people from the North introduced hinduism to the black natives of India. How did these blacks become the highest caste?

  9. “couldn’t they have picked someone less Temple-of-Doomish to invite to the White House Diwali ceremony?”

    I’m pretty sure I was not the only one who went WTF at this comment. This would have been expected from a redneck, not from someone acquainted with temples and with Iyengars.

    The Kali ma joke was’nt funny either.

  10. Have a heart for those of us not in the US – the video you link to is not viewable in Europe….

  11. ‘m pretty sure I was not the only one who went WTF at this comment. No you weren’t – I can’t believe this comparison was even made.

    Inquirer – color has nothing to do with caste. According to Razib some sample of genetic testing shows that higher caste people on average tend to be lighter, but on an individual basis you can’t tell what caste someone is b/c of their color. Indians come in all colors. You know how white people have different colored hair, sometimes red, brown, black, dirty blonde, etc.? – well, South Asians, (including Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans) come in different colors within a family. It’s part of our population’s genetic variety. I wasn’t even sure if your question was being serious.

  12. I thought white-skinned people from the North introduced hinduism to the black natives of India. How did these blacks become the highest caste?

    LMAO!

  13. We have the President of the United States showing respect to Hindu Americans and religious diversity in general by partaking in Diwali, and this post is talking about a movie done twenty years ago? You made the link to Kali Ma.

    If you had shown this picture I would have thought how wonderful it is to see this. Kali Ma would not have come to mind. I wonder how uncomfortable you are with a dark skinned priest. You sound shadist to me.

    It would be nice if you showed the same level of respect to that priest as our President Obama.

  14. im too with dizzydesi, this post seemed to be purposfully stretched to moke the priest via. unnecessary re-call to the stupid movieline.

  15. ATTN: National Socialists and non-Linguistic Based Migration Experts

    You are needed in the rumpus room. The ghost of Savitri Devi is giving a lecture on “white browns” and rejecting Brahmin guilt. David Frawley will be doing jyotish readings while signing his new book “Goras in the Mist: How the Aryan Invasion Theory Became My Favorite Coffeetable Topic”. Pakoras and borscht will be served in the faculty hall.

  16. Manish asked me by email the other day (to paraphrase), “couldn’t they have picked someone less Temple-of-Doomish

    Manish, I too would have preferred the priest look more like Rajesh Khanna. But then can Rajesh Khanna recite the vedas, tend the fire and marry people off? I mean he couldn’t even marry himself off properly.

  17. Rajesh Khanna was a gurkha with mongoloid blood. He did not look like the stereotypical hindu priest as this guy does.

  18. “couldn’t they have picked someone less Temple-of-Doomish to invite to the White House Diwali ceremony?”

    I think that characterization is immature and regrettable; he looks like other Pujaris I’ve seen. Additionally, what are we expressing when we ask this question, even if humorously? To me, the implication is a fear of seeming different, weird or ugly. Having grown up in an almost all-white world where I was made to feel that way constantly as a child and then as a teen, I empathize with that fear, but it’s not twenty-five years ago. It’s okay if the people who get invited to the WH aren’t as pretty as Sanjay Gupta.

    I’m also struck that if it had been a non-Desi who said this, we’d be all over them like brown on rice. Obvious thought, but…yeah.

  19. According to Razib some sample of genetic testing shows that higher caste people on average tend to be lighter, but on an individual basis you can’t tell what caste someone is b/c of their color.

    i haven’t seen any data on skin color by caste which is quantitative. brown folk have told me that such a correlation exists. in my post here i review an article which examines which genes control color variation in south asians, and they use british pakistanis, bangladeshis and sri lankans as their samples. this table has the number among these groups who are in the 20th percentile or beyond in both darkness (L = low reflectance) and lightness (H = high reflectance) in the whole pooled sample. i assume this aligns with intuition? (bangladeshis and pakistanis are inverted in ratio, while sri lankans had hardly any people with high reflectance)

    what i did say is that there are two independent components which can predict genetic variation for south asians. 1) region and 2) caste. i think this aligns with the physical characteristics which people judge as stereotypical for castes and regions.

  20. According to Razib some sample of genetic testing shows that higher caste people on average tend to be lighter, but on an individual basis you can’t tell what caste someone is b/c of their color.

    i haven’t seen any data on skin color by caste which is quantitative. brown folk have told me that such a correlation exists. in my post here http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2007/09/why_brown_people_are_different.php i review an article which examines which genes control color variation in south asians, and they use british pakistanis, bangladeshis and sri lankans as their samples. this table: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2276347/table/TB1/ has the number among these groups who are in the 20th percentile or beyond in both darkness (L = low reflectance) and lightness (H = high reflectance) in the whole pooled sample. i assume this aligns with intuition? (bangladeshis and pakistanis are inverted in ratio, while sri lankans had hardly any people with high reflectance)

    what i did say is that there are two independent components which can predict genetic variation for south asians. 1) region and 2) caste. i think this aligns with the physical characteristics which people judge as stereotypical for castes and regions.

  21. “I’m also struck that if it had been a non-Desi who said this, we’d be all over them like brown on rice.”

    ahem. true dat.

  22. First off, my apologies to Manish for taking a single line from his email and paraphrasing it out of context. I had no idea a minority of people would over-react to it so badly and unfairly.

    The reason I wrote this post was because in the span of one week I heard two references to the same scene from a movie that all desis know well. In my opinion, both references were in good taste. Saying that the priest looks too “Temple of Doomish” was my attempt at showing our readers how the scene was being framed in conservative circles. That picture had a prominent place on the conservative Drudge Report (the website that drives all right wing media) for several days this past week. It was also the “Picture of the Day” on FoxNews. In both instances the picture was being used to comment on Obama’s embrace of “otherness” and his”foreigness.” Both are well-established memes. A picture viewed by us as a proud moment was being used by others as a smear. That is why I included that picture and took “ownership” of the smear through sarcasm. I (and probably Manish) knew what was going to happen the minute we saw that picture. My first thought was “cool.” My second thought was “I know an attempt is going to be made to use this picture for slimy means.”

    Oh and FYI, my parents worship at the temple that this priest is from.

    So relax folks and lets back off with the circular firing squad.

  23. Um…can we please start deleting threads on skin color/shade etc.unless directly relevant to the post (e.g. some crappy Fair and Lovely ad campaign)? It seems like everything devolves into this lately, and honestly even after growing up seeing desis of every shade, region and ethnic group imaginable, I never even thought about color this much until the last few weeks of reading SM…I can’t believe that most other people do.

  24. To me, the implication is a fear of seeming different, weird or ugly. Having grown up in an almost all-white world where I was made to feel that way constantly as a child and then as a teen, I empathize with that fear, but it’s not twenty-five years ago. It’s okay if the people who get invited to the WH aren’t as pretty as Sanjay Gupta.

    There is nothing “ugly” about the priest. He looks quite handsome and imposing, and more importantly comfortable in his skin. Sanjay Gupta on the other hand has a donkey face, bad posture and weird facial tics. ;) His hunched posture and facial contortions betray his insecurities.

  25. That picture had a prominent place on the conservative Drudge Report (the website that drives all right wing media) for several days this past week. It was also the “Picture of the Day” on FoxNews. In both instances the picture was being used to comment on Obama’s embrace of “otherness” and his”foreigness.” Both are well-established memes. A picture viewed by us as a proud moment was being used by others as a smear. That is why I included that picture and took “ownership” of the smear through sarcasm. I (and probably Manish) knew what was going to happen the minute we saw that picture. My first thought was “cool.” My second thought was “I know an attempt is going to be made to use this picture for slimy means.”

    Do you and Manish really think that if the priest had been brown-skinned like a bollywood star instead of black-skinned that the racist, xenophobic conservatives would not see him as representing “otherness” and “foreignness”???

  26. Rajesh Khanna was a gurkha with mongoloid blood. He did not look like the stereotypical hindu priest as this guy does.

    What does a ‘stereotypical hindu priest’ look like, particularly in the American diaspora? The guy that does pujas at my mom’s house looks like a stereotypical engineer who has changed into a dhoti 10 minutes earlier and will change back into his street clothes after the puja.

    In that sense, he is a lot like Superman, like many of our parents :)

  27. Do you and Manish really think that if the priest had been brown-skinned like a bollywood star instead of black-skinned that the racist, xenophobic conservatives would not see him as representing “otherness” and “foreignness”???

    it has wider ramifications than that. The stereotyping goes far beyond the crude racists, though in less obvious different forms (e.g. institutional discrimination or subtle comments that are couched in ‘polite’ language). the closer you get to the image of ‘the other’ as its been created in films like Indiana Jones, the easier it is to evoke that image in more Americans and in the sentiment that is more widespread in American pop culture. The closer you get to the sanitised corporate Americanised desi (i.e. sanjay gupta), the easier it is to invoke the same level of fear and awareness of difference in larger swathes of the population, and the only ones left are the crude racists (@20%?).

    what you want to think of these realities is your call, but i think this is the basic reality, whether we like it or not, unless we do something about it.

  28. whoops. this should have read:

    “The closer you get to the sanitised corporate Americanised desi (i.e. sanjay gupta), the more difficult it is to invoke the same level of fear and awareness of difference in larger swathes of the population, and the only ones left are the crude racists (@20%?).”

  29. Do you and Manish really think that if the priest had been brown-skinned like a bollywood star instead of black-skinned that the racist, xenophobic conservatives would not see him as representing “otherness” and “foreignness”???

    I am still at a loss as to how skin color entered this conversation in the first place. What the heck does the shade of his skin have to do with any of this?

  30. you people are misreading the racial zeitgiest. far from otherizing us, these intense looking priests give us street cred. they’re freaky and exotic no doubt, but also cool, like miles and hendrix. if next year Bam invites a dreadlocked one, don’t be surprised to see khoofi in a hottub with j. lo and megan fox.

    the CV prior to the Bam revolution was a non-white candidate had to whitewash oneself, whatever that means. But Bam saw things differently. He saw black had become cool, and thus took to the stage with hiphop music playing before deploying his blaccent at strategic times to great effect, something oprah has been doing for a while.

    Learn from the master.

  31. I really don’t understand everyone’s comments about “other” and so forth to begin with.. it all seems like faulty logic to me.

    1.) Everybody seems pretty excited that Diwali was celebrated by the Pres on t.v. 2.) At the same time, people were upset by the priest, because he could easily be “otherized” or “exoticized” by the right-wing media. ( I still don’t understand why seeing him reminded anyone of a bad Indiana Jones movie in the first place.. is it his skin tone, his “exotic” priest clothes, or what?)

    News flash: the other is only the other (and exotic) when it is unknown and mysterious. once it becomes commonplace (like seeing a Hindu priest of t.v.), it doesn’t really catch people’s attention or seem weird anymore. So what gives? Shouldn’t we all be happy that the often far-too-ignorant-about-other-cultures Americans are getting exposed to something they should already be exposed to. And the (crappy) news media is always going to try to manipulate its viewers.. we can’t let them government all our actions.

    I saw, light the diya, my friend. And share that box of mithai.

  32. Abhi (and Manish) – this is a great moment. You have very succinctly represented the thinking of most self-loathing desis like yourselves. The reality is that you looked at the priest and were thinking “shit! not this guy – oh my god! this conjures up yet another weird image of Indians in the white world we live in. I hope peeps realize that not all Indians look like this guy”.

    Anna nailed it on the head – most desis who agree with you are the ones that distance themselves from other Indians who look a little different for the very reason she mentioned.

    And an FYI to you Abhi “Oh and FYI, my parents worship at the temple that this priest is from” does sounds like “I have many friends who are black”.

    I am sure your intention was different, but some introspection will help. You said: “I am still at a loss as to how skin color entered this conversation in the first place. What the heck does the shade of his skin have to do with any of this?” This basically has to do with how you want the world to look at Indians.

    Regarding the reference to Kali Ma, you said “In my opinion, both references were in good taste”. If you, a so-called proud desi, regular contributor to this blog, thought any such references could be in good taste, then your outlook is no diff from rednecks

  33. For those of you wondering how shadism was brought in, if that priest was lighter skinned than Obama and everything else about him was the same, I doubt the Kali Ma scene from an old movie would have come to mind on this post. Dark=Kali Ma scene, Light=Good PR. I think Desi introspection is a good thing in this case like Just Saying said.

  34. urggh.. sorry I wrote that last night when I was sleepy… full of typos!

    we can’t let them government all our actions. (ha!)= GOVERN all our actions.

    There are some more too, but hopefully they were clear enough that I don’t need to correct them…. sometimes my fingers just type a different word than I am thinking, anyone else have that problem? (I guess the answer is that I should proofread better, eh?)

  35. “For those of you wondering how shadism was brought in, if that priest was lighter skinned than Obama and everything else about him was the same, I doubt the Kali Ma scene from an old movie would have come to mind on this post. Dark=Kali Ma scene, Light=Good PR”

    And the irony is…. (http://www.imdb.com/media/rm809933056/tt0087469) Mr. “Kali Ma” himself isn’t half as dark as the priest on t.v.!

  36. I think the real problem, which we are not discussing here– as yet– is that this was NOT the best performance by Pt. Narayanachar Digalakote’s backup band, Penn Masala, who have been known to do much better. For next Diwali, I recommend Raagapella from Stanford with Stanford Noopur (bharatnatyam) and Stanford Dil Se (movie dance). Kal Penn, are you listening?

  37. I think the real problem, which we are not discussing here– as yet– is that this was NOT the best performance by Pt. Narayanachar Digalakote’s backup band, Penn Masala, who have been known to do much better. For next Diwali, I recommend Raagapella from Stanford with Stanford Noopur (bharatnatyam) and Stanford Dil Se (movie dance). Kal Penn, are you listening?

  38. Problem: A ridiculous interpretation of a Hindu priest (Temple of Doom/popular tv shows).

    Solution1: Ignore the characterisation and continue as before (clothes, religious marking, incantation etc.).

    Solution2: Change culture in response to characterisation.

    Choosing 1 implies we disagree on the characterisation; 2 implies we agree with characterisation.

  39. Does anyone realize that this was started by a TROLL? who is now gone about his business? I swear, I’ve been reading Sepia since 2005 where the discussions where witty, thought provoking and hella intelligent. But lately man, every bloody thread gets jacked with the same shadism conversation. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s being discussed, colour seems to creep in somehow. I’m half Indian and half black, and should probably be more concerned with colour than most, both sides of the coin and all, but to be honest, I don’t think about it as much in a month as it comes up in a thread on this site. I miss the old Sepia. I miss the witticisms of Sid, Vin Et al ( and frequency of ANNA and Ahbi). No offense to current contributors.

  40. Anjali, I agree. I loved sepia when I first started reading it, but the comment section (and some of the posts) make me want to stop reading. Everything is so incendiary and there are far too many trolls or otherwise who don’t want to listen, just make up some controversy to talk about.