Who is that man in a white shirt, black necktie and what appear to be blue plaid pajama pants? And why is he running around a village tasting and drinking all kinds of food?
That’s Wilbur Sargunaraj. He calls himself “India’s first YouTube star.” His videos about life in India have drawn more than a million views. And now he’s made some very first-class videos for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog: “Dunk-A-Chicken: The Village Way” and “The Village Way: Food.” (Well, he says they’re first-class and who are we to argue?)
A drummer in various bands, he began dabbling in videography in 2009. He wrote a song and filmed a video called “Love Marriage,” about his desire to marry for love rather than settle for a matchmaker’s choice. He’s gone on to film videos about everything from how to use a latrine to how to have English tea. And he explored the world of India’s poor in his series “Why Poverty,” which was presented by Oxfam at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam in 2012.
Wilbur — like Madonna, he really doesn’t need a last name — also does public speaking, talking to groups of children around the world about how to be a “simple superstar,” how to shine in life no matter who you are or where you’re from.
Wilbur filmed the NPR videos in his dad’s home village in the Tirunelveli district, where he spent a lot of his childhood.
People in India — and really everywhere — judge you by where you come from, Wilbur says. In India and other low-income countries, 70 percent of people live in rural settings. City dwellers tend to look down on them. But Wilbur finds great joy in the simple village life. “The village is a beautiful thing,” he says. “This is where I grew up, and I’m proud of it.”
In case you’re wondering about the music video — set to an original song by Wilbur — here’s the backstory:
Why are you singing about dunking a chicken and then plunging that bird in water?
Like musicians around the world, folks in India will sometimes “vocalize” the beat of a song with nonsense syllables, Wilbur says. They’ll repeat the phrase “dunkachick” over and over — and it kind of sounds like “dunk-a-chicken.” So that’s what Wilbur decided to call his video. “It’s really easy to sing,” he explains. And if you’re going to sing “dunk-a-chicken,” then you really do have to dunk a chicken. It’s not a village tradition, he says, but the chicken was “totally fine” afterward. His aunt, who owns the chicken, said that the bird had been through so much that she’s never going to turn it into chicken stew.
Who’s that woman dancing in the video?
That’s the wife of a pastor in the village. Even though some traditional women in India might frown upon dancing in public, that didn’t bother her, Wilbur says. “She doesn’t care what people think..”
He calls the pastor wife’s “dark and beautiful” — and he celebrates all skin tones in his video. Wilbur can’t stand the “shadism” that caused one of his aunts to once say to him, “You’ve spent too much time in the sun” and then slap some powder on him.
And what about those pants? Why are they so baggy?
They’re “lungi pants,” Wilbur says. Lungi is the Indian word for a sarong. Wilbur thought the sarong needed a makeover. “I know Western men do not enjoying wearing a skirt,” he says. Wilbur is very happy with his pants. “They’re so comfortable, perfect for the heat. They breathe. They’re 100 percent cotton,” he says.
Lungi pants aren’t just a fashion statement. They carry a message, Wilbur says: “People look at me and go, ‘That guy’s wearing his pajamas.’ But I love wearing lungi pants. I’m trying to tell people, ‘Be comfortable with who you are.’ ”
That, to Wilbur, is the essence of the Village Way.