The primary influencers of popular culture in India have been the USA and the UK, a legacy certainly of century-old colonial associations. As a result, we have never been a part of a larger Asian identity, in terms of entertainment, literature or food habits. This is poised to change rapidly, courtesy the proliferation of South-East-Asian eateries attractive to us for reasons of style and health; language no longer a valid barrier. Welcome to the Sushi Evolution, the rapid merger of India with mainstream Asia in key aspects of popular culture, way beyond food.
Our legacy of a defining association with the West emanates strongly from the English language, the reason why we fell in love with literature, movies and music from those lands. This is a pattern from the pre-independence days cemented by the easy access to such stimuli over the early years of free India. It was also the era of middle-class Indians travelling abroad for higher education and wishing to recreate the experiences they had enjoyed. Legacy restaurants and clubs in the metropolitan cities ensured the aspirational access to Continental cuisine, further bridging our instinctive colonial ties with the West.
In the early years of liberalisation, this association was further strengthened with the easy access to further modes of Western â€˜civilisationâ€™, Mcdonaldâ€™s and its friends arriving rapidly in cahoots with TV shows, the predecessor to Netflix. Fashion was certainly not to be left behind with trendy Indians rapidly absorbing latest trends and with greater cash flows; many more went abroad to study. Predictably local traditions started to merge deliberately with Western products, the Indian fillings and toppings in burgers and pizzas and the popularity of the tunic, Western top meets Eastern kurta. Then came the Internet eraâ€“ once again navigated influentially by the Westâ€“ which further cemented our ties with the ethnically foreign region. Nothing clearly was poised to change till the first signs of the Sushi Evolution was apparent, the love affair of influential India with South-East Asian food.
Importantly and notably this was not the boring association with the Sino-Indian heritage restaurants, a fine example of skewed cultural amalgamation, where deep-fried India bullied the steamed origins to submission. This wave came from a greater consciousness of both stylish dining and healthy living as well as the popularity of new-age Asian eateries in Western capitals, attracting well-heeled global diners, epitomised perfectly by the Sushi, a pleasant-looking easy-on-the tongue, conversation-aiding perfect dining companion, approachable by both the finest wines as well as the smoothest beers. The Indian premium eater, soon to be followed by his middle-class compatriot, lapped this up eagerly, opening the doors to an unprecedented wave of â€˜softâ€™ influence from the Asian Tigers.
To evaluate the merging potential of this association, do consider the dominance of Japanese, Korean and Chinese brands in the mobile phone and consumer electronics space. Oppo is the official sponsor of the Indian cricket team, a true insider, while Samsung is certainly the most-influential brand in this space, overtaking every Western peer excepting the unique Apple. What these brands have not done so far is to aggressively drive content from these regions to cement the technological trust with the even-more-abiding dimension of cultural alignment, in English of course â€“ thus taking advantage of the increasing curiosity of Indians about people and societies that they so far viewed at a distance, driven initially but significantly by the culinary affections.
Two other clear observations will also help South-East-Asia strengthen its link with Indian consumers and both are connected to the behaviour of Indian audiences. Firstly, in the digital world there is a voracious appetite for consumption and currently the two sources are ethnic origin and traditional English-language sources, both unable to keep up with the soaring demand. There is, in fact, a definite fatigue with the sameness of â€˜Westernâ€™ content, which is a fine opportunity for a newer and more distinctive origin taking shape. If the rich repertoire of original entertainment from the region can be homologated, to borrow a car analogy, then the drama-loving Indian customer will certainly benefit.
The second is a proven Indian desire and competence to blend our tastes with that of the foreigner, as proven by the tandoori toppings on a pizza or the tikka patty in a burger. Indian imagination can happily co-create a whole series of experiences combining South-East-Asian design in fashion, food, entertainment and so much more. Dumplings with various traditional fillings, sushi with seasonal local vegetables, clothes and hair-styles blending East and Far East, B2B e-commerce novelties are just some of the innovations easily imaginable, including the adoption of some healthy best practices from races rooted in wellness.
It is thus time for businesses to spot this brand-new opportunity of cultural assimilation leading to fabulous opportunities for businesses and brands. A nation-wide chain of popular sushi bars and dumpling eateries based loosely on the Dominoâ€™s model, in partnership with a regional expert in tandem with tea houses, filled with jasmine and herbal options, competing vigorously with the unhealthier coffee shops. Fashion chains from Korea and Japan locking horns with C&A and Zara by offering design sensitivities that are more colourful and inspirational than the staid West. Doraemon, Pokemon and their many peers taking on the Disney monopoly with greater vigour by setting their characters in Indian contexts, instead of just blindly translating their wares. Mobile phone brands bundling attractive content from the nation of origin while TV dramas combining our characters with theirs to build Pan-Asian productions. B2B and B2C e-commerce intellectually and operationally aligned with Asian successes to build valuable businesses while educational collaborations build genetically appropriate modules. A great new repository of literature opening up initially with translations and, subsequently, the strategic infusion of Chinese and Japanese as third language in schools, instead of the academic and romantic German and French.
The next wave of socio-cultural collaboration will certainly be with South-East-Asia leading initially to the development of innovative brand experiences that will change our traditional dependence on the West, rapidly diminishing as a meaningful superpower. It will help India integrate sharper with the mainstream Asian power-centres, leading to a convergence of geo-economic strengths that can only enhance our global stature, freed finally from post-colonial apron strings. Sushi Evolution will be an appropriate term for this movement as mainstream bonding with the Far East clearly began with the dining table, captivating our imagination and appetite with attractive delights.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at:Â firstname.lastname@example.org)
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