The Sabyasachi mangalsutra campaign is just one of a couple recent advertisements that has offended a section of Hindus in India.
Scenario One: A voluptuous, dark-skinned woman in lingerie rests her head on a bare-chested man and stares unapologetically at the camera. She wears the age-old symbol of marital fidelity: a mangalsutra.
Scenario Two: A well-dressed family enjoy a Diwali and use the disputed term "Jashn-e-Riwaaz" (as opposed to "Jashn-e-Riwaaj"), which translates to ‘celebration of tradition’. What’s missing? The bindi, a coloured dot worn in the middle of the forehead by Indian women.
Scenario Three: Two young women discuss the importance of karwachauth - fasting observed by married Hindu women from sunrise to moonrise - while getting ready for the event. In the evening they stand on a terrace and stare at one another through the channi (ceremonial sieve), confirming they are a couple.
Result: Copious social-media trolling. By offending Indian/Hindu sensibilities, there have been ensuing allegations of nudity, of ‘festival jihad,’ and threats of legal action.
Welcome to an altered reality where a simple advertisement can result in calls for a total boycott and ostracisation. All the three brands — Sabyasachi Jewellery, Fabindia, and Dabur — cowed to public pressure and withdrew their campaign within a couple of days. They then issued an ‘unconditional apology for unintentionally hurting sensibilities.’
But how does an advertisement that promotes tradition, espouses inclusivity and embraces cultural diversity hurt sensibilities? Celebrated ad-man Piyush Pandey says it is difficult for advertisers to continue with their campaigns “unless the law and order situation protects the people. Advertisers don’t want people to get hurt, so they withdrew the ad not because it was wrong but because it was a threat to their people,” he said, adding that the government and legal system have to “wake up to this.”
The self-proclaimed custodians of Indian/Hindu culture have collectively raised their voice against ads that they deem improper. Never mind that it is probably only a handful of fringe elements responsible for the outcry, and who probably have no understanding of the real cultural significance of their own religion. Ironically, it is this same Hindu culture that saw a woman (Sita) choose her own husband, and another (Draupadi) lived with five men. The story of Arjuna cursed to spend time as a hermaphrodite is also well-known.
But many, including BJP-Maharashtra Palghar district legal advisor Ashutosh Dubey; Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra; Right-Wing journalist Anand Ranganathan; Lok Sabha MP and president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha Tajsvi Surya; and others were up in arms at the way Indian/Hindu traditions and culture were being portrayed by such advertisements.
After withdrawing his ad, fashion designer Sabyasachi said in a statement, “In the context of making heritage and culture a dynamic conversation, the mangalsutra campaign aimed to talk about inclusivity and empowerment. The campaign was intended as a celebration, and we are deeply saddened that it has instead offended a section of our society.”
In a country where scantily clad women ('half-nude' as Dubey and Mishra term the Sabyasachi ad) are happily used to sell anything and everything — from cars to deodorant to even paan masala — zeroing in on the same concept to sell jewellery (even if it is a Sacred Cow like the mangalsutra) should not have been such an issue.
Where then does the problem lie?
Body positivity influencer Maanya Sindhwani tells TRT World, “It is strange how men have this God-ordained right to decide how and what a woman should wear. Mangalsutra is okay, but add lingerie to it and their petty minds go haywire. No bindi gives them the right to liken a woman’s forehead to ‘sambar without drumsticks or mysorepak without ghee.’ It’s such a joke, and in extremely poor taste at that. To top it all, if you have a woman confident in her skin (be it ungainly fat or dark-skinned), the custodians are shaken to the core. Their idea of womanhood is like the age-old matrimonial ads: a convent-educated, traditional, fair-skinned, slim, beautiful woman who can be a good homemaker.”
Prakhar Rao, Founder and Creative Director of fashion brand Zero Tolerance, tells TRT World, “One of the most important fundamental rights ensured by the Constitution of India is ‘Freedom of expression.’ A renowned Indian designer expresses his thoughts on how intimate and private marriages are and launches his version of the widely worn jewellery piece. Artists and brands know that their products will not be liked or understood by all and that is completely fine, but that does not mean we have the right to limit people’s freedom of expression. If this continues all the creators living in India will never be able to express themselves in the true unfiltered form which is a must in a progressive society.”
While Sindhwani and Rao were open with their views, a lot of designers and body positivity influencers that this journalist spoke with refused to stand by their peers and profession, claiming they have “not researched much into the topic to comment on it”.
This is the very reason that allows fringe elements to get away with trolling and threats. They know that it’s a win-win situation for them. They get eyeballs, political mileage and the satisfaction of bullying a big brand into submission. And it is a tried and tested theory, occurring almost on auto-repeat. Brands cannot afford to take on a social boycott, which leaves them vulnerable to such petty minds. It’s all a beautiful and creative world till someone dares to upset the applecart.