Desi (; Hindustani: [d?e:si]) is a word used to describe the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora, derived from Sanskrit (de?á), meaning "land, country". Desi traces its origin specifically to the people of the countries India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The ethnonym belongs in the endonymic category (i.e., it is a self-appellation). Desi is borrowed from the Hindustani des? (?, ?) 'national', ultimately from Sanskrit deya, derived from de?a () 'region, province, country'. The first known usage of the Sanskrit word 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, svade?a (Sanskrit: ) refers to one's own country or homeland, while parade?a (Sanskrit: ) refers to another's country or a foreign land.
The word "Desi" comes from the Sanskrit word "Desh" meaning "country". The word "Desi" is used to refer to something "from the country" and with time its usage shifted more towards referring to people, cultures, and products of a specific region; for example, desi food, desi calendars, and desi dress.
Desi contrasts with the Hindustani language word vil?yati (Anglicised as "Blighty"), which originally referred to Afghanistan and Central Asia, over time it came to refer to Britain (during the British rule vil?yat, 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 vil?yat (Britain) or in other Western countries refer to themselves and their ethnic culture as desi. The desi/vil?yati pair of antonyms is widely used in subcontinent languages (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali etc.).
After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States dramatically increased immigration from the subcontinent. As increasing numbers of students from the subcontinent arrived in the U.S. and UK, their countries of origin were colloquially referred to as de?. For example, all things Indian including Indian expatriates were referred to as "desi".
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 to 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.
In regions of South Asia, desi in the context of food, implies "native" or "traditional". Common examples are "desi ghee", which is the traditional clarified butter used in South Asia 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 (Indo-Aryan) 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, or vodka.
But as South Asians have built up diasporic communities around the world, 'desi' has traveled with them, used not as a put-down but as an expression of ethnic pride. Make that pan-ethnic: Anyone with heritage from the subcontinent--India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh--can identify as a 'desi' and partake in 'desi' culture.
The lives of South Asians in America, or desis--a term meaning "of the land" from the Hindi/Urdu word desh, or country--are both historically constituted and circumscribed by global processes and the limitations of what is possible today.