Immigrant Cultural Acculturation- A study of Tibetan Clothing in India

Note: This is the abstract of the full paper accepted for presentation at the ‘Design Cultures’ conference organized by Cumulus in Rome in June 2021.

Owing to the Tibetan uprising in 1959, about 1,50,000 Tibetan refugees, followed in the footsteps of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and fled to India. A second wave of Tibetan exodus took place in the 1980s due to increasing political repression. Even today, 3000-4500 Tibetans arrive in India every year in pursuit of cultural education and a peaceful life. All are given refuge in the little Himalayan town of McLeod Ganj- the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Today, about 1,20,000 Tibetan refugees remain in India, spread across various settlements in Dharamsala, Karnataka, Odisha, Darjeeling and Sikkim.

These people brought with them their culture, costume, cuisine and traditions. A walk through any of these settlements leaves you with rich visuals of Tibetan women in their chuba (long dress), pangden (striped apron), Buddhist monks in their chogo (red and yellow robes) and colourful prayer flags fluttering at every corner. The streets are lined with stores selling Tibetan jewellery and souvenirs and dotted with fabric stores and tailoring shops to cater to the needs of the community.

These people upon their arrival struggled to adapt to the dominant Indian culture, due to the vast cultural difference in religion, rituals, language, clothing and food habits. Their willingness to assimilate was low as they were introduced to India as asylum seekers rather than free willed migrants, leading to negative inter-cultural sensitivity and culture shock. So, they preferred to be clustered together. The Tibetan people’s desire to assimilate is also disrupted by negative intercultural communication, institutional and interpersonal roadblocks that manifest from racism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

However, the second and third generation migrants engage more freely in the process of acculturation in order to reduce social friction. The new generation Tibetans develop better socio-cultural skills, move out of their settlement to attend school/ university in various parts of India, get jobs and try to blend in with the existing fabric of the society. But this is difficult as they are culturally and visually distinguishable from those culturally native to India. They are also afraid that of losing aspects or all of their heritage due to immigrant assimilation.

The past few years has seen a surge of tourists in these settlements, as a result of more awareness of different cultures, more disposable income and a desire to explore new places. Symbols of visual identification of these cultures- prayer flags, prayer wheels, thangkha paintings, singing bowls and cuisine like momo dumplings and thukpa soup- have made inroads into popular Indian culture.

However, there has been little or no cross-cultural adaptation of clothing cultures between the dominant Indian clothing styles and immigrant Tibetan clothing styles. Tibetan clothing is not available in markets outside their settlement. Even though the Tibetans disperse to the Indian plains for trading, their costume vocabulary remains untouched. Fashion and accessory designers have overlooked the rich inspiration offered by these beautiful wool and brocade clothing and silver and lapis lazuli jewellery.

This research paper is an attempt to present a new perspective on the complex acculturation process of the Tibetans-in exile in India and its relationship to the clothing and visual culture. I hope to present the potential offered by Tibetan costumes as inspiration to be exploited creatively in a responsible way without offending anyone, with an awareness of crossing cross-cultural boundaries. This, I do, in a pursuit of positive cross-cultural adaptation between the two cultures.

Anahita Suri, Assistant Professor, School of Fashion Design, Unitedworld Institute of Design (UID)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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