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Desi 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 country.[1] "Desi" countries include Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives.[2]

Aside from the subcontinent, there are also large Desi populations in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Guyana, Suriname, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, New Zealand, and the Middle East among other regions.


  • Etymology 1
  • History 2
    • Nepal 2.1
  • Culture 3
    • Performing arts 3.1
    • Food and drink 3.2
  • Criticism of the term and its usage 4
  • References 5


Assamese: দেশী, Bengali: দেশি, Gujarati: દેશી, Hindi: देसी, Kannada: ದೇಶಿ , Malayalam: ദേശി, Marathi: देशी, Sinhalese: දේශිය, Nepali: देशी, Odia: ଦେଶୀ, Punjabi: ਦੇਸੀ, Tamil: தேசி, Telugu: దేశీయుడు-desiyudu not as commonly used as Bharatyeeudu, Urdu: دیسی‎, Malay: desa

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) deśha- ("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 BC), 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 'desha', 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.).[3]

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.


The Nepalese term desi usually refers to Indians. Not to be confused with mades(h)i (मधेसी, मधेशी) which refer to people from the Terai (Madhesh) region of Nepal who are and culturally like people in adjacent India.


In the U.S. some diaspora desis are creating what can be called 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.[4] For example, urban desi is a new genre of music formed by the fusion of traditional Indian and Western urban music.[5] The growing demand of popular programming for South Asians caused MTV to launch the Desi-targeted television channel MTV Desi.

Performing arts

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 sharaab" 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.

In the U.S., "Desi food" (Desi cuisine) most often refers to dishes commonly served in North Indian communities, especially westernized restaurant dishes such as chicken tikka masala.[6]

Criticism of the term and its usage

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.[7][8]


  1. ^ Shirley R. Steinberg; Michael Kehler; Lindsay Cornish (17 June 2010). Boy culture: an encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 87–.  
  2. ^ Steinberg, S.R.; Kehler, M.; Cornish, L. (2010). Boy Culture: An Encyclopedia [2 volumes]: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 87.  
  3. ^ "desi vilayati -cheekan - Google Search". Retrieved 2014-12-07. 
  4. ^ Kvetko, Peter. When the East is in the House: The Emergence of Dance Club Culture among Indian-American Youth. September 4, 2006.
  5. ^ Urban Desi: A Genre On The Rise
  6. ^ Chandra, Sanjeev; Smita Chandra (February 7, 2008). "The story of desi cuisine: Timeless desi dishes". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  7. ^ Making Diaspora in a Global City: South Asian Youth Cultures in London by Helen Kim
  8. ^
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