Indian Rupee Symbol: Designing Globalized Culture

Considering the large number of OAC members coming from India, I wonder why most of them do not participate in discussions and debates. They play the opposite of Amartya Sen's "The Argumentative Indian." I hope this post can stir them and make them share their views on the new symbol of Indian rupee and the issues of inclusive globalization and of designing globalized culture.


At first glance, the symbol is just an incomplete letter R with the same double horizontal bars found in the peso symbol, but there's quite a lot of cultural meanings and memories behind it. Compared to the dollar sign, the Indian rupee is nationalistic, and has history and identity. The two bars are actually the three stripes of Indian flag with white occupying the center. Linguistically, the symbol is a combination of the Roman script R and Devanagari Ra. It seems to me the Indian rupee is a symbol of symbols.



Considering PM Manmohan Singh, the finance minister in the nineties who opened Indian economy to the world, being the head of the current government that started the symbol, the new Indian rupee symbol itself is the narrative of India's emerging role in the global stage.


Syncretizing symbols and meanings is not new in India. The fat boddhisatvas in draping togas, which are obviously of Indo-Greco art period, are proofs of that.


India has a history of designing confluences of cultures that are either local or global. M.F. Hussain's art works are contemporary representatives of such syncretized cultural confluences in the local art scene. The painting below can be Mother Teresa or a veiled Muslim woman. One can wonder if the artist found a connection between the two when he painted the image. What are Hussain's cultural memories about Mother Teresa and Muslim Women? Is it the culture of suffering that connects the two?



Currently, the known symbols of globalization are mostly Western or American. They are mostly trademarked logos of multinational corporations. Urban cities in Asia are dotted with symbols of Shell, Seven-eleven, Walmart, Mcdonald's, etc. Those symbols do not make sense in those cities culturally. Shell's logo, for example, is neither about a beach nor about a seafood. The locals have been bombarded with foreignness by these foreign corporations. In a sense, there is an importation/exportation of symbolic alienation and cultural disconnection that is going on in those Asian cities.




All of the logos brought by multinational companies to the foreign shores have only one meaning: western economic invasion or exploitation. Globalization, it seems, is one-sided in economic framework and cultural design. People in the West should not wonder why the locals still cry "Imperialism!" and burn their flags.


To redefine globalization and make it truly inclusive, there should be a paradigm shift in its meaning and symbolization. For it to be global, all cultures involved should be included in designing globalization as an economic geography and culture. I don't expect Americans or Japanese or Chinese to lead the way. All of them espouse cultural xenophobia, although their markets are open to the world. They have cultural histories of being supremacists and memories of being colonialists. Our last hope for globalization to be truly global in economy and in culture is India.

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Comment by M Izabel on October 30, 2010 at 10:25pm
For globalization to be fair, cultural and economic exchanges should be both ways. When Baywatch was shown every night in the 90's in the Philippines, Filipinos were bombarded with images of white Americans frolicking in a southern california beach in their swimsuits exposing their fake body parts. I could not help but wonder if our TV show populated by brown men with their nipa leaves hats pole dancing in a rice field and singing love songs could be shown in the US. I doubted. Cultural transfer should be both ways for it to be not an exploitative acculturation.

When I saw Gandhi, the film, I admired how Indians were open to having Ben Kingsley as the actor who portrayed the role of the Mahatma. Can you imagine how the British will react if an Indian actor will portray the character of Winston Churchill? It is clear to me that the globalization of media is one-way-- from the West to the East.

We have fastfood restaurants, too, in the Philippines. The most famous one that can rival Mcdonald's is Jollibee. The only Jollibee in the US I know is in Daly City known as the Little Manila in Northern California. It is the case because there are many Filipinos in the area. There are five Mcdonald's in Davao City alone, although there is no American community in the remote southern city of the Philippines.

Starbucks displace/replace Filipino bakeries that serve coffee and bread and pastry. I do wonder if Americans will allow sari-sari (mixed-mixed) stores on every corner of their cities. Sari-sari stores like the one below are convenient stores that sell almost anything, and where one can buy a tablesoon of soy sauce or a piece of cigarette. Homeless and poor Americans will love these cheap retail stores. It just won't happen because of so many restrictions in America.

Comment by John McCreery on October 30, 2010 at 10:42am
I have a question about the café culture in Philipines. Is it popular to visit coffea houses? Did that institution exist before? What I'm hinting at is that Starbuck is not only the new American thing, but also found a hole it could fill.

Can't say about the Philippines. Here in Japan, Starbuck's and its local imitators are the third wave of coffee houses to hit Japan. The classic first-wave coffee house charges a very high price for a very good cup of coffee, but paying the price entitles the customer to sit as long as he or she likes in a quiet place, often with classical music or modern jazz playing in the background. Coffee houses like these can still be found in university or culture industry neighborhoods where they continue to attract people who want to read, write or hold a quiet business meeting. The second wave is place's like Doutour's. The coffee is cheap. There are few seats and those are hard. These are fundamentally fast-food restaurants that make their money off high turnover. Starbucks and its imitators are positioned as third-space locations (neither work nor home) for people who want to take a break. They are less expensive and intimidating than the first-wave classic coffee shops but more comfortable than the fast-food coffee chains. The pricing is between them. The main difference between a Starbucks and, for example, an Excelsior, a local imitator run by the same company that owns the down-scale Doutours, is the the former prohibits smoking inside the restaurant, while the latter allows it. Both chains are not doing as well as they did before the Lehman shock. Even trendy young people are returning to Doutour or being lured away by McDonald's new McCoffee beverages, a natural enough response to a shaky economy and uncertain job prospects.
Comment by John McCreery on October 30, 2010 at 9:15am
You could, of course, be talking about groceries; but ethnic groceries are also starting to pop up outside of ethnic enclave neighborhoods.
Comment by John McCreery on October 30, 2010 at 9:14am
There are ethnic stores in America, but they are confined within ethnically concentrated ghettoes.

This may once have been so but is no longer remotely true. Older urban centers continue to have ethnic enclaves, but ethnic restaurants are scattered along highways all over the country, many in shopping centers where the food court may offer a choice of Chinese, Indian, Thai and Italian within a few feet of each other. We are starting to see a similar pattern in Yokohama, Japan. A Nepali has opened a restaurant that offers a mix of Asian cuisines, Vietnamese pho and Indonesian nasi goreng along with Indian curries. His restaurant is next door to a Korean take out and delivery place. An upscale Italian pasta place, an Italian and a French wine bar, and two Chinese restaurants are within a hundred meters of the new restaurant's location. This is also the pattern you will find if you travel to major cities in Europe, where world cuisine, like world music, appears to be taking over from the ethnic enclaves.
Comment by M Izabel on October 29, 2010 at 5:08pm
I forgot to inlude the inclusivity of globalization. Using my country again as an example, the latest craze in my country is laughter yoga. It is obviously from India. Laughter is typically Filipino. We are known to laugh even in the midst of danger, embarassment, and problem. When Jai Ho reached the Philippines, the song was half Hindi and half English. Now campare those to the products coming from China, the donuts from Dunkin donuts, and the electronics from Japan. Made in China clothes are purely and typically Chinese-- cheap. mass-produced, and not durable at all. Also you cannot find rice or cassava or yam donuts at Dunkin Donuts. When I was a kid we used to have this hand clapping game as we sang this strange line we did not really understand: "Suki yaki pansit miki mitsubishi susuki."
Comment by M Izabel on October 29, 2010 at 4:45pm
Thanks for reading. Let me cite an American example. There are ethnic stores in America, but they are confined within ethnically concentrated ghettoes. You don’t see their ethnic signs all over America. Even the names of the establishments do not sound or look foreign. There is a sense of assimilation in restaurant names such as “Pho Place” and “Bombay Palace “ In the Philippines, Mcdonalds, 7-Eleven, and Starbucks are all over. They dot the urban and the semi-urban landscapes and disturb the cultural signs and meanings of the Filipinos that used to be in sync.
When Mcdonald’s opened in Manila three decades ago, it became a tourist spot. Filipinos in Manila became aliens in their own place. They visited the fastfood place as if it served the best food in the country. When I moved to the capital, coming from a province, I avoided 7-Eleven thinking all their stuff and wares were priced from seven to eleven pesos. Even the simple signage in front of where I lived gave me stress. Also a year ago, my niece sent me an e-mail recounting about “Starbox,” and how students cut classes just to hang out at Starbucks. She made me think.
In my country, American companies sell foreignness. They shallowly teach Filipinos what are American. They fool the natives or locals using the exploited concept of America. I do not see cultural assimilation in their business transactions and store names and symbols. They exploit the colonial mindedness of the Filipinos. As my niece said in her letter, “They serve coffee at Starbox, but they don’t have pan de sal.” Pan de sal is the bread Filipinos eat with their coffee.

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