Watching Shaktimaan is uncool, while bingeing on Game of Thrones is cool

Coolness, Indianness, And The Cultural Hegemony Of The West

December 7, 2020

For long, we Indians have been obsessed with the Western ideas of what is 'cool' and what is 'uncool'. It is common knowledge that coolness lies at watching Game of Thrones while bingeing on the episodes of Shaktimaan is not cool.

Hanging out in KFC is cool, but having a cup of tea and snacks at a roadside stall is not cool. The list goes on and on.

However, this article is not an attempt at curating activities that are deemed cool and uncool among the hipsters of today’s generation, but rather a study on what the word originally meant and how its meaning has undergone changes with the ushering in of technology- especially the internet.

According to many recent studies, the origin of the word cool can be traced back to the Yoruba language- spoken in West Africa- most prominently in South-Western Nigeria.

According to Yoruba religious traditions, “when a person has successfully cultivated a greater vision of the world (Ashe), and if they have the inner will and strength of good character (Iwa) to bring that vision into being, their actions, their visage, their comportment and behaviour will begin to express an immutable nobility. They will carry themselves with dignity and modesty. They will be honest and neither unnecessarily nor excessively humble or proud.

Holding to their greater, inspired vision, they will be untroubled by irritations, large or small. These are remarkable external qualities that can be observed by the community at large. They are described as Itutu.” (The Roots of Coolness: Ancient Yoruba Aesthetics in the New World by Scott Ainslie).

The literal translation of the word itutu is cool.

Now, to understand this transfusion of an African origin idea with the American culture, I suggest you read a bit about the history of French colonialism in Africa, and of the history of slavery in Africa as a whole.

To make it simple, after the formation of the independent nation of Haiti in 1804 and with the exodus of the French imperialists from the island, the Black Yoruba musicians found themselves jobless. So, they decided to move to the city of New Orleans (California, US), where they were introduced to the harsh realities of the American form of slavery.

They were disheartened and started to develop their form of music, drawing in elements from their native Yoruba religion, especially their cultural idea of itutu, meaning cool. The result was the invention of a calm, cool, soothing genre of music, something that we today know as Jazz music. The whole idea of the itutu found a musical manifestation at the hands of these musicians who gave birth to the first cool form of musical art.

As slavery was abolished and the process of the dehumanisation of the Black population came to an end, the cultural amalgamation started and, bound by their hegemonic nature, the Americans started associating themselves with the idea of the Yoruba coolness. (This is a very basic and condensed description of the entire episode.)

This idea of coolness was widely circulated via various means, but it was only with the ushering in of the internet that shaped the Indian idea of the cool. Although the word still retains some of its original Yoruba connotations (for instance, a short-tempered individual is not cool but a level-headed one is cool), the hipsters of today use this word primarily from its Western understanding.

A luxurious car, an expensive phone, a Gucci dress, a Louis Vuitton bag- these are what are examples of cool stuff. Pizza, Burger, Fries are cool food. The Avengers are cool.

It is this very process of forced understanding of an idea that has prevented us from trying to understand the cultures of the other and has led to the construction of oppositional ideas: culture and anti-culture.

This is a classic example of the influence that language has our understanding of any culture that is not ours.

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