Da Vinci was Indian
by Nash Croker
Well, not exactly...
As a British Indian it is not surprising that I love the BBC sketch comedy show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ (1998-2001). What is surprising is that I have only just started binging it. This Blair-era show created by and starring Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, set a new standard for subversive comedy, turning racist caricatures on their head to tell a much needed tale about British life.
I have normally thought of comedy as fundamentally cathartic. The compulsion to laugh at an observational joke serving as means to dissipate one’s anger and frustration. Sure, it cheers us up, but politically it is never going to change the world. Too often even political satire offers a politically harmless outlet for our very real world frustrations. The revolution won’t happen on SNL.
If you are looking to make a political point through comedy, then getting a laugh needs to be your ambition. It is in this way that comedy can be a highly effective means of changing political culture, even if it fails to create any direct political change. ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ and its ability to get us to laugh at what its sketches are saying is precisely how it enacts its cultural political intervention. That of representing British Indians as a constitutive part of British society.
What the sketch comedy of ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ performs is a sort of ‘brownface’. These second-generation immigrant comedians put on the racial stereotypes applied to their parents. Contextually this is no surprise. As the largest minority in Britain, many Indians migrated to the metropole during colonisation, most significantly, following Britain's post-WWII drive for immigrant labour from the Commonwealth. A generation later, Tony Blair’s New Labour government came to power in 1997 riding a wave of multicultural optimism based on a boom period for the economy’s financial sector. For a brief period, people of color didn’t have to blamed for the nation’s economic stagnation. And for the first real time on public television, people of colour could have their own comedy show, even if it was still limited to making jokes about being brown.
Recurring sketches include the Coopers and the Robinsons - two British Indian couples competing to see who can appear most Anglicised, the superhero ‘Bhangraman’ or the pair of competitive Indian mothers. All of these sketches play on the integration of British Indians into British society. Fronting commonly recognised Indian stereotypes to highlight their inaccuracies by poking fun at their implications. ‘Bhangra man’s’ arch-enemy is the ‘Morris Dancer’, invoking a clash of civilisations so ludicrous so as to ridicule any fear of cultural invasion.
My favourite sketch is the “Everything comes from India” man. Here, an excited college age son tries to tell his father about the British history and culture he is learning, only for his father to nonchalantly retort that of course his son is enthralled, because “it’s Indian!”. These seemingly laughable assertions attest to first generation immigrants fear of their children losing their own cultural heritage. The father’s reasoning is based on racial stereotypes - Jesus is Indian because he worked for his dad and managed to feed 5,000 people with a small amount of food. Yet beyond just pointing out stereotypes and attesting to generational differences in immigrant households, by defining traditional British cultures as Indian the sketch acts to educate on Indian cultural influence in seemingly accidental truths (many English words come from Indian languages).
The best of these is when the son takes his dad to a Renaissance art gallery. Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is actually a portrait of Mina Losa, a Gujarati washer-woman by a painter in Faridabad. It’s obviously ridiculous, but it’s not a cheap joke. When the son describes her expression as “asking us whether we are observers or voyeurs” the father rubishes his claims, “she’s asking how much does this painter change because my brother can get cheap paint”. Implicit here is a Marxist critique of Western art criticism itself, amplifying the economic relations inherent in the production of artworks.
Up next is Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. Indian, of course, because it depicts twelve men sat around a table for dinner - “where are the women?”. On one level it is playing up to Britain's moralising perspective of Indian society as more patriarchal and thus unenlightened. And yet, here is a principle artifact of the cultural precedent for the Enlightenment ironically being shown to be just as patriarchal and seemingly primitive.
The son then moves through as many big names of European art that he can muster - Donatello, Rafael, Tischen, Picasso, Lowry, Reuben, Botticelli, Michelangelo. His father’s silly claims to Indian-ness are once again only half the story. Here the show is highlighting how Eurocentric the canon itself is as well as the developments of artistic form made by and presented in Indian art.
The sketch concludes with “the representation of the physical male perfection”; Michelangelo’s ‘Statue of David’. Crucially, however, according to the father, it’s not Indian. Why? Because of David’s small penis. The colonised subaltern was seen as emasculated by the imperial white man. Here, however, white Western masculinity is emasculated by its highest art. It is a slight break from the racial stereotypes of the sketch, but this little truth serves to ridicule the caricatures themselves.
It is then how this comedy can evoke laughs from racists and British Indians alike that makes it so effective. On one level it seems as if brown people are making fun of their own otherness, yet on another British society’s racist attitudes are ridiculed by employing the ‘brownface’ mask of racial stereotypes. It is in this subversion of the racial caricature that ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ managed to make some of the most pointed critiques of British society. All while representing British Indians in a public broadcast comedy show. For one like myself, it is the show’s ability to highlight just how Indian Britain really is, reclaiming British identity, that makes it unequivocally some the nation’s greatest ever culture.
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