For other uses, see Desi (disambiguation).

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.[1] As "Desi" is a loose term, countries that are considered "Desi" are subjective, however it is often accepted that Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are Desi countries.[2][3] Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka may also be considered "Desi" countries in some usages of the term.[4][5]


The ethnonym belongs in the endonymic category (i.e., it is a self-appellation). Desi is an Indo-Aryan term that ultimately originates in the Sanskrit देश (deśa) "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, (Sanskrit: स्वदेश) svadeśa refers to one's own country or homeland, while (Sanskrit: परदेश) paradeśa refers to another's country or a foreign land.


While the original Sanskrit word meant 'country', 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.[6]

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.).[7]

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.[8] For example, urban desi is a genre of music formed by the fusion of traditional Indian and Western urban music.[9] 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.

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

Main articles: Desi daru and Desi cuisine

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 and Pakistan 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, vodka, etc.

In North America, "Desi cuisine" or "Desi food" most often refers to dishes commonly served in North Indian communities, especially Westernised restaurant dishes such as chicken tikka masala.[10]

Criticism of the term and its usage

The term Desi and its usage to label peoples from the entire subcontinent has been strongly criticised as inaccurate and stereotypical given the vast geography as well as the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and racial diversity of the region.[11]


  1. Steinberg, Shirley R.; Kehler, Michael; Cornish, Lindsay (17 June 2010). Boy Culture: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 86–88. ISBN 978-0-313-35080-1. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
  2. "desi". Oxford University Press. 2016. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  3. Guha, Rohin (12 October 2013). "Is It Time to Kill Off the Word 'Desi'?". The Aerogram. Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  4. Cram101 Textbook Reviews (26 September 2016). Racial and Ethnic Groups 13th Edition, Study Guide. Just the Facts101 Textbook Key Facts. CTI Reviews. ISBN 9781478415145. Retrieved 27 October 2016 via Google Books.  This tertiary source summarizes another source in low detail.
  5. Cram101 Textbook Reviews (16 October 2016). World Music, A Global Journey – Hardback and CD Set Value Pack 3rd Edition, Study Guide. Just the Facts101 Textbook Key Facts. CTI Reviews. ISBN 9781490299389. Retrieved 27 October 2016 via Google Books.  This tertiary source summarizes another source in low detail.
  6. Mughal, Muhammad Aurang Zeb (18 June 2014). "Calendars Tell History: Social Rhythm and Social Change in Rural Pakistan". History and Anthropology. 25 (5): 592–613. doi:10.1080/02757206.2014.930034. Lay summary.
  7. "Desi vilayati -cheekan [search results]". Alphabet Inc. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
  8. Kvetko, Peter (2002). When the East Is in the House: The Emergence of Dance Club Culture among Indian-American Youth (Thesis). University of Texas. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  9. Kurwa, Nishat (15 October 2008). "Urban Desi: A Genre on the Rise". All Things Considered. National Public Radio. Retrieved 27 October 2016 via
  10. Chandra, Sanjeev; Chandra, Smita (7 February 2008). "The story of desi cuisine: Timeless desi dishes". Toronto Star. Retrieved 13 May 2008.
  11. Kim, Helen (2014). Making Diaspora in a Global City: South Asian Youth Cultures in London. New York & London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415716338.
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