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Sabyasachi, and defining appropriation

Leher Kala writes: Suggesting Sabyasachi cashed in on the intellectual property of a community disregards a fundamental truth, that all art is appropriation of some kind.

Written by Leher Kala |
Updated: September 6, 2021 10:25:03 am
An open letter to Sabyasachi signed by 15 artisan cooperatives raises an important point: should ‘inclusion’ be limited to consumers only? (Source: APH images/file)

Iconic fashion designer Sabyasachi’s first collection for H&M, ‘Wanderlust’, sold out online within minutes of launching. Priced under Rs 9,999, Sabyasachi was quoted as saying his H&M range was for aspirational buyers who otherwise find him unaffordable. However, the clothes were lampooned for being cheap, digital recreations of ancient Indian craftsmanship. Several artisan cooperatives like the Delhi Crafts Council and Crafts Council of India expressed their displeasure, pointing to real inequality of power that lets the worldly Sabyasachi collaborate with a global brand, while the humble artisans who have kept the craft alive lack options to monetise their skills.

An open letter to Sabyasachi signed by 15 artisan cooperatives raises an important point: should ‘inclusion’ be limited to consumers only? Seen from the side of the karigars, it seems patently unfair that Sabyasachi can tap into India’s glorious textile heritage perfected by artisans toiling in obscurity —whose painstaking workmanship is then bastardized by H&M’s conveyor belt, mass production technology — for which they receive no credit or compensation. Meanwhile, Sabyasachi becomes a global name and has an annual turnover of 11 million dollars, the equivalent of approximately Rs 80 crore. Earlier this year, the Aditya Birla Group acquired a 51% stake in the Sabyasachi brand for Rs 398 crore.

Certainly, the history of the world suggests artistic success doesn’t emerge from a level playing field. European music, art, fashion and fiction have flourished for thousands of years, while writers and artists from Asia and Africa still struggle to break through. Finally, there is a tacit acknowledgement that the dice is loaded in favour of some, and this needs to change. In the case of Sabyasachi, it’s a question with no easy answers: who, exactly, holds proprietory rights to historical symbols and motifs? Nobody owns a culture. We inhabit one and are entitled to our independent interpretations of it. At the same time there is no denying that it is ironically problematic when someone making an easy replica earns significantly more money than the people who have slaved over the original.

The millennial buzz-term ‘cultural appropriation’ is endlessly confusing since no one knows what creative boundaries we are expected to live within. If a designer uses a chintz pattern first seen in Hyderabad in the 16th century, is the inspiration necessarily suspect? Suggesting Sabyasachi cashed in on the intellectual property of a community disregards a fundamental truth, that all art is appropriation of some kind. I am writing in a language that isn’t my own. My opinions are influenced by the books I read, the movies I watch and my experiences with the people I meet. Besides, it must be said, in the digital age, access to information has made it impossible to be truly original. We have no choice but to abandon notions of singular ownership of any aesthetic or style; the role of the artist is to find something new to say, after sifting through the reams available already.

In the long run, censoring the exploration of myriad cultures by outsiders won’t promote social justice but it will stifle creativity. There are countless examples of how some of the greatest works of art came about as a result of messy interactions. Take the Beatles track Norwegian Wood. The songwriting duo John Lennon and Paul McCartney acknowledge the influence of Bob Dylan’s introspective lyrics, while George Harrison incorporated a sitar part, giving it a mystical edge. This was the first appearance of the Indian instrument in a Western rock recording, raising interest in folksy sounds, that eventually led to the genre known as world music. Art is never created in a vacuum. A better way to think about it is that when disparate people collaborate and create something beautiful, it’s not always stealing. It can be a heartening reminder, we really are in this together.

The writer is director, Hutkay Films.

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