If you read the ire-igniting New York Times article, ‘In India Fashion has become a Nationalist Cause’ (November 12) again and then once again, the piece, drafted around a blur of tweaked quotes, misinformation and agenda-led opinion impels you to first bring order to outrage. Overwrought sentiment striving to protect the sari as India’s most secular garment has shaped opinions on social media and is quite valid.
All the same, when you study the statements this article stands upon, it is a great example of poorly researched, unfair journalism that uses unverified findings to zoom into what’s not happening in India. It demonstrates that when it comes to reporting on India, journalistic accountability remains a very different garment. Indian realities do not seem to matter. What matters are the West’s assumptions about us. That’s where the ire should also be directed.
So it is not only our business to ask how unverified assertions escaped the fact-checking desk of one of the world’s most respected newspapers but also to double-check the veracity of these so-called facts. They completely crumble in this case. Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople has put out a Facebook post recounting her experience with Asgar Qadri, the writer of the article. “He came to interview me for this piece and when he found I was saying exactly the opposite of what he wanted to hear, has wiped my views out of his article,” writes Tyabji, calling Qadri’s take totally inaccurate by offering a bunch of well-argued observations.
That’s exactly the sentiment of Varanasi-based designer Hemang Agrawal quoted by Qadri. “My quote about how increase in demand of the handloom sari actually helps all stakeholders has been heavily edited and used completely out of context. Not once was I told that the focus of the article was about the political agenda of the government. I was informed that it was on the resurgence of Indian handlooms with emphasis on the Banarasi sari,” says Agrawal.
Not one person in the fashion industry will agree that designers are “being pressed to promote traditional attires and bypass Western styles,” as the article claims. Designers create merchandise based on business. They often trade originality for commercial viability. The Indian market wants traditional wear. We continue to love saris which have incidentally become the loudest statements of modernity in contemporary fashion. “The return to roots movement inside Indian fashion began much before the BJP government came to power as even young generation buyers and designers are keen on reinventing the sari,” says Sunil Sethi, the president of Fashion Design Council of India.
The NYT article mentions The Symphony of Weaves “a fashion showcase for the country’s textiles, held in July in Gujarat, all with the aim of promoting traditional Indian clothing styles”. This claim too finds rebuttal. “The Symphony of Weaves at Textiles India 2017 was a presentation of Indian craft and textiles for the global audience — the point of any B2B event to facilitate trade and business. It had a mix of established, young and artisanal designers showcasing craft techniques for Indian or western silhouettes. It featured dresses as well as saris and there wasn’t any mandate to push a particular type of garment at all,” says Jaspreet Chandok, head of fashion at IMG Reliance that curated this show for the Ministry of Textiles.
Anyone who attended Textiles India 2017 would also know that it showcased medical textiles, sports fabrics, technological textiles for the use of defence forces among a whole range of other synthetic fabrics made in India.
What’s stirring the pot is perhaps the coincidence between the BJP government’s interest to push the business of handlooms for Indian and international consumption, the struggles of luxury brands (well, McDonald’s too) in India and the nuanced explorations of Indian identity in fashion, academia, literature, music or cinema. The two may not be provoked by each other, but can feed off each other. Why doesn’t NYT analyse that?
“The interest in handlooms and craft was first orchestrated by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and then Pupul Jayakar. It was apolitical and had nothing to do with the present government,” says veteran designer David Abraham who has been quoted in the NYT article. He finds it interesting how the business of Indian identity has become an important issue. “This passion for history and identity is the first coming of age after the post-colonial argument. The present custodians of culture are perhaps co-opting this surge,” he says.
If it’s a coincidence, it’s a great one that we debate this just days before the 100th birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, whose legendary saris inspired style and textile research. Watch out, then, for some forthcoming fashion collections around Gandhi’s saris that clearly have nothing to do with the BJP’s nationalist fashion agenda.