The New York Times has done it again! It has concocted a heady cocktail of delirious fiction mixing half-truth, racist insinuations and plain white lies to come up with a fantastic narrative that fashion in India now has a religion – and that religion is Hinduism!

‘There is a clear connection between the rising Hindu nationalism and the aesthetic production of leading Indian fashion designers’ the article written by Asgar Qadri says quoting some Tereza Kuldova, who is apparently a ‘social anthropologist’. The writer of the article has cleverly tried to reduce PM Modi’s efforts to revive manufacturing in India, under the ‘Make in India’ label to just one point, ‘the effort to restore Indian-ness in Indian fashion’.

The New York Times article takes great pains to emphasize that Indian fashion is somehow now irrevocably linked to Hindu pride, somehow insinuating that it is only the great unwashed uneducated poor natives of India that patronize Indian wear, while the ‘booming middle class and youthful population’ is waiting with baited breath for ‘international luxury brands’ of fashion.’

Fact is, outfits like the sari or the kurta are the choice of millions of Indians, rural and urban, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.  A sari or a Kurta has no connection with religion. Indians of all religious and cultural beliefs wear the sari or the kurta. If you visit the southern states of India, you will find Muslim and Christian men routinely dressed in the same white dhoti as their Hindu counterparts! Indian fashion is Indian, not just Hindu. Any attempt to encourage Indians to be more Indian in their fashion outlook will only benefit the nation.

The New York Times article opens with the line that ‘luxury brands have eyed India’s fast-moving economy… hoping they had discovered their next big market. But it wasn’t to be.’ It then goes on to lament that ‘the rise of Hindu nationalist politics has become a major obstacle to realizing the country’s promise of growth.’ So is the author of the article batting for ‘international luxury brands’ and wants them to cannibalize the thriving indigenous fashion industry?

Truth is, as per a 2013 survey, the handwoven textiles sector in India employed close to 43 lakh weavers, out of whom 77% were women. Almost 37 lakh weavers were based in rural areas. An overwhelming 73% of the weavers belong to socially and economically backward strata of the society and any attempt to revive traditional Indian fabric is going to benefit these weavers the most. Indian textile sector is a powerful tool of economic empowerment for women and the rural economy.

Traditional handloom weaving is the second largest unorganized economic sector In India after agriculture. Handloom weaving constitutes an integral part of the rural and semi-rural livelihood. Traditional handloom weaving of textiles has several advantages for a country like India, as it involves minimal use of power, it is less capital intensive and it is open to innovation and can adapt to changing market requirements easily. It is also a highly skilled sector that constitutes one of the most vibrant aspects of Indian cultural heritage. India has been famous for its textiles and its fashion for thousands of years now.

Several Indian designers have been making an attempt to integrate traditional Indian design elements and western silhouettes to come out with a unique concept of Indo-western fashion. Concepts like stitched dhoti pants, sari inspired gowns, brocade dresses and tie-and-dye shirts are setting not just India, but global fashion stage on fire. If you visit any reputed department store in New York, London or Paris, you will find rows of western attire that is fully inspired by Indian aesthetics. Our weaves, our embroideries, our embellishments are finally finding their rightful space on the global fashion scene.

However, the New York Times article doesn’t mention any of this, and instead tries to concoct a fanciful narrative that has the usual mention words like ‘rising Hindu nationalism’, ‘lynching of minorities’ and ‘Critics of Mr. Modi’ being ‘silenced’.

In 2009-10, India produced 6806 million square meters of handwoven cloth, only 1252 million square meters of which was exported. In 2014-15, 7203 million square meters of handwoven cloth was produced in India, of which 2246 million square meters were exported. Clearly, exports of Indian textiles are on an upswing, and perhaps that is what is bothering the New York Times.

The current Indian government is making conscious efforts to encourage the use of Indian textiles in the fashion industry. In 2015, a national workshop, “Design Sutra” was organized in Bhubaneswar to encourage collaboration between weavers and fashion designers and to bridge the gap between weaving clusters and the market. Such efforts will only help to infuse new life into this sector.

Weavers are being encouraged to avail loans at low interest under the Weaver Mudra Scheme. Pilot project of the scheme is operational in Varanasi, the PM’s constituency and am important weaving cluster. Mr. Qadri makes a passing reference to Varanasi in his article but does not mention this at all. As of December 2015, close to 140 lakh rupees have been disbursed as Mudra loans to weavers in Varanasi. Why the writer of the New York Times article chose to ignore this fact completely, is a question readers must ask.

The writer of the New York Times article does accept grudgingly that ‘Mr. Modi’s call to revive the Banarasi sari’ has certainly had an impact as ‘the demand for the luxury sari has gone up,’ but he makes the clever distinction between weavers and ‘merchants’, mentioning the Hindu names of the merchants, thereby implying that it is the merchants who are being benefitted at the cost of weavers. There is no proof given of anything of course.

An entire paragraph has been devoted to chronicle the previous career of the new Textiles Minister, Smriti Irani, with a special mention of her as a ‘traditional Indian daughter-in-law draped in sari’ in a soap-opera. This is not the first time a sari has been politicized in the current environment of shallow political discourse. A few days ago, a leading Indian media group, had come up with a juvenile video that made the ordinary task of sari-wearing appear like a combination of an Olympic sport and rocket science for the modern Indian woman.

As an Indian woman who is equally comfortable in a sari and a skirt, I found the New York Times article completely shallow and lacking in substance. There is no logic behind the entire article except a rabid Modi hatred and a not-so-opaque motive of subtly denouncing Indian Textiles in favor of ‘international luxury brands’. It is sad that a publication like New York Times would publish such a poorly researched, pathetically argued piece.

(All data sourced from a Ministry of Textiles publication of 2015)

Image Credits: http://www.india.com/sports/live-rio-2016-olympics-opening-ceremony-ist-live-streaming-how-to-watch-and-what-to-expect-1384711/

By. Shefali Vaidya

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