Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

On the Runway: Lakme's Protest Song

Written by Mandy Van Deven
 
Art has always been a part of political resistance, but can the same be said about fashion? In India, many popular fashion designers have taken to using their runway shows and collections as forums for political statements. While this is probably not the first thing one imagines when thinking about Indian fashion, the country’s rising status in our ever-shrinking, globalized world should be enough to convince us to take a new look at the way export capitalism (in the form of designer clothing) may reflect Indian designers’ progressive politics, as well as their aesthetic sensibilities.
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Perhaps the title of Narendra Kumar Ahmed’s menswear collection, The Rise of Fascism, gives you an idea of what was unveiled at 2008’s Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. One by one the dapper male models walked down the runway—bloodied, bandaged, and bruised—while equally beautiful men lay “dead” on the ramped stage. All were dressed to kill (pun intended) in skinny jeans and sporty jackets, showing off the designer’s new line. Narendra wanted to make a point about the carnage left in the wake of India’s growing regional intolerance and the increasing violence around the world. It is sadly ironic that, just six months later, Mumbai would make worldwide news as the focal point of a brutal attack.
 
This was the second time Narendra’s antics shocked India’s stylephiles. The first was in 2006 when, as a sign of dissent to his collection’s exclusion from both of the Fashion Design Council of India-supported fashion weeks that year, Narendra nixed the traditional thumpa-thumpa walking music in favor of pin-drop silence as his beautifully dressed, gagged—yes, actually gagged—models strutted his designs down the runway of Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. The symbolism of the show, aptly titled In Protest, pierced the scene and sent a loud message that censorship by omission would not be tolerated by this top designer.
 
 
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Though perhaps the most controversial, Narendra was not the only designer to make overt statements against social unrest with his work, nor was he the first. There are many others who have paved this well-worn path: The frequently gender-bending New Delhi-based Rohit Bal expressed his belief in equality of the sexes by having his male models grace the runway wearing skirts and sindoor, the red vermillion powder worn in the parting of a married Hindu woman’s hair, in 2003. The next year, Rajesh Pratap Singh created clothing to reflect the somber darkness of a post-September 11 world, covering his models’ faces to shield them from the horror of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
At the 2004 Lakme India Fashion Week, Delhi-based designer Nandita Basu demonstrated her grief and fury over the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat that claimed over one thousand (mainly Muslim) lives by creating a T-shirt line with thought-provoking images pertaining to the horrific events that took place and the lack of adequate governmental response. One of the shirts Nandita created was an outright condemnation of Narendra Modi, now the longest running Chief Minister of the state, that depicted the leader dressed as Hitler. Nandita’s blatant gesture was taken one step further when fellow designer Kiran Uttam Ghosh placed the national flag on each audience member’s seat in a sincere patriotic expression of nationalism.
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Continuing the theme of Indian nationalism, Bengali designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee honored Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha (or nonviolent resistance) by using khadi (homespun cloth) to combine tradition with modernity in his designs. Sabyasachi’s Winter 2009 collection is called Neela aur Bagardandi ki Kahani (The Indigo and Burgundy Story), which uses a combination of contemporary and rustic patterns blended into saris, salwar kameez, and dupattas, with chunky bangle accessories, that give a nod to India’s colonial history and indigenous resistance. In the popularly documented Neel Bidroho uprising in 1859, peasant farmers in Bengal staged a revolt to stop the British from growing indigo on their land; the deep blue plant that is used for clothing dye was making the soil uncultivable. The fashion industry in India stands at a similarly precarious point, and designers have to choose where their loyalty lies—with their homeland or their own personal gain.
 
 
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Several top designers use their national and international media presence to popularize a lesser-known yet active political sentiment that pulses throughout the country. In ways both overt and subtle, artistic resistance is highly visible in Indian fashion. One need simply look beyond the glitz and glamour of runway shows and magazine spreads to see the myriad ways designer fashion reflects existing social, cultural, and religious struggles in the developing nation. While a growing middle class has created a market in India for high fashion to adorn the body, only time will tell what effect this cultural activism might have on the body politic of one the world’s most populous countries.

Note: The convention in India is to refer to a person in print by his or her first name because so many people, particularly ones in the public eye, share the same last name. Using the first name is a better way to differentiate individuals; that is why this piece uses first names instead of last.

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