When Queen Marie Antoinette supposedly had said, "if they don't have bread, let them eat cake," about the starving French commoners during that infamous and controversial monarchical reign, she had underestimated the power of people and also, did not think much if her 'creative' quip would backfire that horribly, costing her own life. Legend may have spun this tale into something we all want to believe.
Priya Tanna is no Marie Antoinette and although being in charge of 'creative' aspects of Vogue India is something she is serious about, she is not serious about India's poverty and the way the fashion industry shape the middle class psyche, not legend but reality. She won't be guillotined for sure, but a lot of folks would want that little head of hers to think a little more humanistically.
Fascinating really is while the Indian media, of course those channels and papers that pride themselves as "mainstream", is busy producing oodles of newsprint and tape about the Indo-US Nuclear deal deliberations in Vienna, a handful of journalists are talking about a recent photo series by the fashion magazine Vogue-India. There's even a Facebook protest group.
Since the mainstream media is still dithering, let me cut to the backstory, a report in the New York Times:(http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/business/worldbusiness/01vogue.html)
According to Heather Timmons, the writer, for many in India there are reasons to feel squeamish about the photos as the editorial spread seemed “not just tacky but downright distasteful” according to Kanika Gahlaut, a columnist for the daily newspaper Mail Today. She denounced it as an “example of vulgarity.” There’s nothing “fun or funny” about putting a poor person in a mud hut in clothing designed by Alexander McQueen, according to Gahlaut who spoke in a telephone interview. “There are farmer suicides here, for God’s sake” she said, referring to thousands of Indian farmers who have killed themselves in the last decade because of debt."
Priya Tanna, the editor of the fashion magazine in question, tried dismissing the notes of disapproval. “You have to remember with fashion, you can’t take it that seriously,” Ms. Tanna said. “We weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world.”
Precisely, that's the problem. Ms. Tanna ignored the fact that in a country like India, statements, reports, photos, features, songs -- everything has a political bearing. Every crumb of bread is politically earned by a huge majority. Every slice of cake produced (I presume Ms. Tanna likes her cake) by impoverished underpaid workers translates into social and political ballot. So, to depict a poor villager who perhaps earns less than $2 a day holding a Burberry umbrella or a toothless and clearly poverty-stricken old woman cuddle an infant wearing a designer French bib is nothing but political immaturity and an unpardonable frivolous act.
Do I then say that fashion cannot and shouldn't depict the poor and the underprivileged? Why not. I love fashion, I have my own version of it and I think the established fashion houses only need employ their resources a little better to "democratize" fashion in India.
Let's back up from the pseudo-arty pretension of Vogue/Ms. Tanna and see how else fashion events can make a difference. All of us here know about the UN's recent bid to promote awareness about sanitation and the NYC event where Indian sanitation workers (mostly Dalits) walked with top models (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7489296.stm). Naturally, the intention of that fashion event was to make the society open up its sluggish eyes (Cosmopolitan or Bloody Mary-induced) and look at folks who have barely earned any respect for a service they have been providing to a society divided so comfortably hierarchically...
Lip service? I'd rather have folks do that than turning away from realities as if they never existed. If Vogue had an iota of concern for the people they recruited (were they paid in French bibs and Burberry umbrellas?) -- perhaps a poor farmer like thousands we hear committing suicide, an old homeless woman, her ilk neglected and discarded, a baby representing millions that don't have basic care, a young girl who symbolizes gender imbalance and female foeticide -- I'd have probably looked at their campaign with sympathy in a country where it's cruel to call this photo series anything like 'art'.
Having said that, it's a pity that quite a few people still love a war, a drought, a hungry sad face... Be it fashion or news reportage or community outreach, so many book covers/magazine covers/annual reports (of NGOs too) etc. are full of sordid images meant to sell. If you ask me, one of my favorites is that famous photo of the Afghan girl (Sharbat Gula) looking with her stunned bewildered green eyes clicked by Steve McCurry. But then, here the photographer's mission statement was clear -- exposing the brutality and uselessness of war.
What is Vogue's mission in their caricature of a campaign? Just "lighten up" as Ms. Tanna said? She should probably suggest international Vogue editions to do high-fashion photo-shoots with East European war refugees, Katrina victims, rundown Chicago neighborhoods, jobless US auto workers etc., and see the reaction. Not only lighten up, she'll sober up too. If there has to be a fashion agenda making these folks the cynosure of all eyes, there better be a good reason beyond just selling magazines.
Why boycott Vogue India? They say the circulation figure is 50,000 although I doubt about the magazine's real following. Just march to Priya Tanna's office, bombard her with e-mails and phones, post blogs and messages, so she takes both fashion and poverty seriously hereafter. As a journalist I have seen worse, as an activist I don't want to see more.
My journalist friend Subir has blogged on this issue and as he mobilizes more opinions, I shall draft all that here.