Desi [d̪eːsi] is a loose term for the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent or South Asia and their diaspora, derived from the Ancient Sanskrit देश (deśá or deshi), meaning Land or Country. "Desi" countries include Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Aside from the subcontinent, there are also large Desi populations in Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, Canada, Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Mauritius, the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular), New Zealand, Singapore, Suriname, the United Kingdom, Caribbean, and the United States, among other regions.
The ethnonym belongs in the endonymic category (i.e. it is a self-appellation). Desi is an Indo-Aryan term that originates from the Sanskrit word (Sanskrit: देश) deśh- ("region, province, country"). Indo-Aryan Sanskrit is the root of more than 25 Indo-Aryan languages and the first known usage of the Sanskrit root is found in the Natya Shastra (~200 BCE), where it defines the regional varieties of folk performing arts, as opposed to the classical, pan-Indian margi. Thus, (Sanskrit: स्वदेश) swadeś refers to one's own country or homeland, while (Sanskrit: परदेश) paradeś refers to another's country or a foreign land.
The word 'desi' evolved from the Sanskrit term 'desh', meaning country. With time its usage shifted more towards referring to people, cultures, and products of a specific region.
Desi contrasts with the Hindustani language word vilāyati, which originally referred only to Britain (during the British rule 'vilāyat', an Arabic origin word meaning 'state', signified Britain) but may also refer more generally to anything that is European or Western. People from the subcontinent living in 'vilāyat' (Britain) or in other Western countries refer to themselves and their ethnic culture as 'desi'. The desi/vilāyati pair of antonyms is widely used in subcontinent languages (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, etc.).
After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States dramatically increased immigration from the Subcontinent. As increasing number of students from the subcontinent arrived in the U.S. and UK, their countries of origin were colloquially referred to as deś. For example, all things Indian including Indian expatriates were referred to as "desi".
Some second or third generation immigrants do not think of themselves as belonging to a particular nation, sub-culture, or caste, but as just plain South Asians or desis, especially as intermarriage between different South Asian diaspora communities increases.
In the U.S., as in other countries, some diaspora desis are creating a "fusion" culture, in which foods, fashions, music, and the like from many areas of South Asia are "fused" both with each other and with elements from Western culture. For example, urban desi is a genre of music formed by the fusion of traditional Indian and Western urban music. The growing demand of popular programming for South Asians caused MTV to launch the Desi-targeted television channel MTV Desi.
In the UK, desi communities have continued the fusion culture which first emerged during the rule of the British Raj, influencing music, art, fashion and food. There are now dedicated radio stations catering for British-South Asians such as the BBC Asian Network.
The Natya Shastra refers to the regional varieties of folk dance and music elements as "Desi", and states that these are meant as pure entertainment for common people, while the pan-Indian "margi" elements are to spiritually enlighten the audience. The medieval developments of the classical Indian dance and music led to the introduction of Desi gharanas, in addition to the classical gharanas codified in Natya Shastra. The Desi gharanas further developed into the present-day adavus. There is raga in Indian classical music known as Desi.
Food and drink
In India and parts of Pakistan, "desi" in the context of food, implies "native" or "traditional". Common examples are "desi ghee", which is the traditional clarified butter used in India, as opposed to more processed fats such as vegetable oils. "Desi chicken" may mean a native breed of chicken. This word is also usually restricted to Sanskrit derived languages.
Heritage varieties of vegetables and other produce can also be qualified as "desi". "Desi diet" refers to a diet and food choices followed by Indians around the world. "Desi daru" refers to "country liquor", such as fenny, toddy and arrack. It is differentiated from Indian Made Foreign Liquor such as Indian made whisky, rum, vodka, etc.
Criticism of the term and its usage
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The term "Desi" and its usage to label peoples from the entire subcontinent has been strongly criticized as inaccurate and stereotypical given the vast geography as well as the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and racial diversity of the region.
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- Urban Desi: A Genre On The Rise
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- Making Diaspora in a Global City: South Asian Youth Cultures in London by Helen Kim