Sari has nothing to do with Modi or Hindu nationalism: New York Times does a trashy piece on India

The NYT piece reeks of ignorance of both the rich history of the age-old handloom as well as the recent GST-induced pain for Varanasi’s weavers.

 |   Long-form |   14-11-2017
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A recent New York Times piece, titled “In India, Fashion Has Become a Nationalist Cause”, has been unanimously panned in the Indian social media, a much divided house though it is. Reeking of cartoonesque simplicity and unbelievable ignorance, the piece claims that the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is throwing its weight behind the sari and this makes it a “[Hindu] nationalist cause”.

The piece by Agsar Qadri, published on November 12, 2017, not only claims that BJP government at the Centre has “pressed the Indian fashion industry to aggressively promote traditional attire and bypass Western styles”, but also that “the effort aligns with the party’s broader political program[me]: to project multi-faith India, a country of more than 1.3 billion, as a Hindu nation”.

The article then, after making cursory reference to cow vigilantism, goes on to assert that under the Make in India campaign by PM Modi, the “initiative to encourage local manufacturing” was begun, and party leader Shaina NC introduced in August 2015, the “Banarasi Textiles Revival Movement” at a fashion exhibition. The piece says:

“The exhibition, which brought together the work of some of the country’s leading fashion designers including Anita Dongre and Manish Malhotra, was organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Textiles and intended to promote the Banarasi sari, the traditional garment known for its fine silk and opulent embroidery — and primarily worn by Hindu women. Since then, there have been frequent state-sponsored fashion shows and exhibitions, most recently 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.”

In other words, according to the New York Times, reviving the age-old Banarasi sari cottage industry, a heritage craft of artistry beyond compare, is all about Hindu nationalism, even though the piece itself says the “weavers, who are mostly Muslim and following a family trade, largely live in poverty”, indicating the artisans have no place in Modi’s Hindu nationalist fashion utopia.

Sari isn’t a 'Hindu garment'

While the NYT piece makes the obvious references to Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics, it errs big time by conflating the sari as a Hinduism-specific garment. In fact, the sari is one of the commonest and ubiquitous pieces of clothing worn by women across religion, caste, class, age and language divides in India. From Indian politicians like Congress president Sonia Gandhi - Catholic by birth - to Supreme Court lawyers like Karuna Nundy, to Bollywood actresses like Aishwariya Rai, Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor sporting the “sari look” at Cannes film festival’s red carpet, the sari remains a statement of confident grace that has long had the Indian fashion industry at its service.

Actresses with Muslim names, such as Saira Banu, Waheeda Rahman, or the ones who adopted screen-friendly celluloid names like Madhubala and Meena Kumari, have mostly graced the silver screen in saris, all through their glittering and decades-long career in the Bombay film industry.

In fact, once Bollywood actress Raveena Tandon asked if posing in a sari made her a Sanghi, tweeting a picture of herself in the garment, only to receive massive blowback from women practising other faiths and those who are atheists, seculars or just agnostic, who gave her a piece of their collective minds in solidarity with the secular sari.

Sari is worn by the working Indian woman, the housewife, the female politician, the academic and the intellectual, the journalist, the doctor, the engineer from almost every state barring a few in the northeast of India. There are as many styles of wearing the sari as there are Indian states.

The Banarasi sari itself, an oft-chosen garment at Indian weddings, is draped in many different styles.

The economic illogic of NYT

For designers like Manish Malhotra to Sabyasachi (who loves to dress Vidya Balan up), saris have been the go-to garment of evergreen fashion, and in fact, the elite designer clique of India has long been accused of neglecting the weavers, the artisans who do the actual embroidery work in garments made of heritage textile such as the Banarasi sari.

In fact, over the last few years, the steady decline of the Banarasi sari industry has been documented by a number of reports and think pieces. This 2012 piece published in The Hindu says while “the presence of a Banarasi sari in the trousseau of a lady has been as much a fashion statement as an obeisance to tradition, [while] also informing the couture of fashion aficionados of Europe and the West, as also the big-ticket celebrities closer home”, it has nevertheless been hit by “destitution” and “despondency”.

It notes that “the Banarasi sari industry is impacted by a host of variables in terms of raw material and labour issues, the socio-economic aspects of the region, and, to some extent, the pitfalls of excessive liberalisation and legislation”.

It adds: “The changing economic and market situation has resulted in reduced income for weavers who cannot even meet their basic needs, causing malnutrition and widespread poverty throughout the traditional weaver community. Such destitution and despondency among the weavers has forced them to commit suicide or has precipitated employment shifts, as evidenced by MGNREGA benefits.”

A December 2016 piece published in Mint recorded the “rise and fall of the Banarasi handloom sari”, noting that “removal of trade barriers in 1991 and the coming of the power loom toppled” the fabled Banarasi handloom silk, woven with extraordinary care and beauty by the weavers who received the art and sustained the craft as family heirloom.

The Mint article notes that “Varanasi was home to approximately 5,00,000-odd weavers” in 2013 and the size of the Banaras handloom market was about Rs 4,000 crore in 2009. But, “in the 1990s, the handloom industry was dealt a body blow due to a combination of several factors, including changing tastes of customers as well as trade practices. In 1999-2000, the Indian government allowed duty-free imports of plain Chinese crepe yarn. Saris made from this yarn were easily available and at half the price, leading to a booming market.”

sari_111417092019.jpgPhoto: Indiatoday.in

It is in this context of a dwindling graph of the Banarasi sari market that we need to look at the attempts to revive the iconic industry. Unlike the NYT piece, it was not “protectionist policies” of a once socialist India, but the post-liberalisation lifting of trade barriers that collectively eroded the market dominance of Banarasi sari industry.

That it was given a helping hand from the Modi government, as the NYT article says, was less in the line of Hindu nationalism (of which no one can not accuse the ruling regime) and more in the line of reinvigorating what’s truly a rich Indian tradition of handloom silk and the crowning jewel of our textile industry.

No mention of GST

The sheer ignorance of the massive hit that the Banarasi sari industry has taken post PM Modi’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) was rolled out exposes completely NYT’s cultural racism. Since July 1, a five per cent GST has been added to textiles including the Banarasi saris, so far left out of the tax net.

Report after report in Indian newspapers and websites has documented how GST has negatively impacted the Banarasi handloom sector, noting that weavers have been thrown out of jobs and traders left without sales on saris, chikankari and zardozi after the GST kicked into effect on July 1 this year.

“As a result of pre- and post-implementation impact of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), wholesalers have stopped placing orders for the saris”, notes a report in Hindustan Times. It quotes a weaver, Jamal: “GST will increase the manufacturing cost of saris as the prices of raw material, including yarn, will go up in the new tax regime.” Moreover, it adds that “weavers of Varanasi demand that the government should exempt textile from GST”.

A piece published in October in Scroll.in claims that “Varanasi sari weavers are abandoning their looms as GST rips business by 50 per cent”noting that “the sari business in a city that has a textile tradition dating back to at least the 16th century has been struck a body-blow by two government policies in under a year – demonetisation in November and the introduction in July of the Goods and Services Tax”.

A report in the Economic Times paints a similar gloomy picture: “A 20-day strike in July by handloom workers under the Banarasi Vastra Udyog Sangh, an umbrella organisation of Banarasi sari producers and traders, didn’t help. While the Centre has not considered lifting the GST on handlooms, the shutdown has impacted their business.” The report quotes weavers saying the Banarasi handloom sari/textile industry is an unorganised sector, with 75 per cent illiterate weaver workers labouring for small family-run handloom businesses; they have been hit hard and driven out of work by the GST.

Where in the NYT piece is the mention of the economic havoc wreaked upon India's artisans by Modi?

Moreover, the recklessly superficial piece, while saying that Union textile minister Smriti Irani’s saris have become fashion statements, fails to mention how her hashtag politics to Indianise fashion industry has been criticised as “gimmicky” that has failed to create fresh jobs in the textile sector that currently employs about 105 million people directly or indirectly.   

Ignorance as cultural racism

While NYT has been upping the ante in its criticism of the Modi government, the current piece is one that’s scant in its attention to the rich and multifarious history of the now ailing Banarasi handloom small-scale industry.

In fact, the Banarasi sari is a resilient antidote to Modi’s Hindutva, given its staunchly secular market, multi-faith origin in the hands of many Muslim weavers, who have been left without their livelihood, thanks to the twin decisions of demonetisation and GST.

By equating the Banarasi sari with Modi’s Varanasi-centric Hindutva showmanship intended for electoral gains and optics, the NYT piece has done a gross injustice to the crown jewel of India’s heritage handloom as well as those who sustain it against the grain.

Also read: Award-winning picture of elephant calf on fire highlights the burning issue of man-animal conflict in Bengal

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