Two advertisements were withdrawn in India last week, each widely commented on. Dabur’s karva chauth commercial, which featured a queer couple and peddled a skin bleaching cream, drew ire from multiple quarters. Progressive people were upset by the appropriation of queer narratives to peddle a festival that is considered anti-feminist. Conservatives were angered by the portrayal of a lesbian couple taking part joyfully in a Hindu festival. As for me: no commercial for complexion whitening will ever have my support. Not even if it involves kittens.
Sabyasachi’s social media campaign for their new mangalsutra line was less all over the place, and its withdrawal was therefore more sobering – in that “another week in eroding India” kind of way. The problem, this time perceived only from conservative quarters, was that it showed the nuptial chain nestled in cleavage. That the model also evidently ticked off certain inclusivity criterion, with her dark skin and voluptuousness, is not without importance. The same ad, had it featured one of the many svelte, Caucasian models working in Mumbai, may not have caught the same intensity of ire. The discomfort experienced by those against the ad cannot be said to be entirely about an object considered sacred. The model’s looks subtly imply caste and class locations that unsettle those who consider themselves arbiters of culture, or indeed of taste and style. The discomfort thus comes from witnessing a sense of empowered sensuality wielded by a woman, that too a woman who doesn’t conform.
The mangalsutra is Indian society’s official license to have sex. All this ad did was put this license on display. A cis-het man once told me that he found the thaali hanging between the breasts of the many married women he’d slept with very titillating. The same person later reacted with shock when I started wearing metti on my firmly-unhusbanded feet because I wanted to, and furiously questioned whether I’d buy myself a thaali if I found that aesthetically pleasing too. The hypocrisies of a repressed society are many, and exist to some extent in us all no matter where on the political spectrum we place ourselves.
Byju’s paused Shah Rukh Khan’s brand ambassadorship when his family became dragged into controversy last month. It was really the brand’s loss; this month, the superstar’s Diwali advertisement for Cadbury’s warmed many hearts. There is widespread perception that Khan was targeted for refusing to toe the line in terms of state propaganda. Whether one is tacit or outspoken, this danger remains. When cricketer Virat Kohli issued a strong statement about religiously motivated attacks on his teammate Mohammed Shami last week, his infant daughter was sent rape threats.
Some would say this is nothing new: wives, partners and girl children of Indian cricketers receive rape threats from “fans” whenever the team loses. But this proves the point again. Self-appointed custodians of culture prize symbols, rituals and figureheads above people and lived realities. How can a healthy, evolving culture then thrive? It can’t. With each of these infringements, however small they may seem, we lose more and more vitality – and we lose conviction in what makes it worth it to keep “tradition” alive.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 6th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.