On October 18, when I looked at FabIndia s Jashn-e-Riwaz advertisement – which Tejasvi Surya, the BJP MP from Bengaluru South, had communalised on Twitter, calling it abrahamisation of Hindu festivals” – my first thought was that the commercial was a celebration of Nabi Dinam, the birthday of Prophet Mohammed, which fell on the following day, October 19. In the vitriolic, exclusive focus on the Hindu festival of Diwali by both the pro- and anti-ad groups, there was hardly any cognizance of a Muslim festival around the corner. Between me, who would immediately and wrongly associate even fake-sounding Urdu with Muslim identity in India, and Surya, who would want to sanitise the public space of anything that remotely looks Islamic, Muslim representation is being increasingly straight-jacketed and marginalised.
FabIndias was just one of the ads that were targeted by the cohort of right wingers on social media as well as by BJP leaders such as Surya and Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra in the last couple of weeks – and were subsequently withdrawn. While discussing the attack on the commercials of FabIndia, Dabur s Fem and Sabyasachi s mangalsutra, excessive attention was given to the brands – its benefit or loss in terms of sales and publicity and its wokeism, misplaced or otherwise. But what is also at work in this string of incidents is a strident male articulation of a “model Hindu”, specifically the model Hindu woman, in the very public and popular visual space of advertisements.
The right wing, which opposes Fab-Fem-Sabya, demands sanskari women in advertisements revolving around a Hindu festival or ritual, and she is crudely constructed on the fly by throwing together some definite but outdated cues: bindi-wearing, heterosexual, marrying into the same faith and, after marriage, fully clothed while wearing the mangalsutra. At the end of the day, this obsoleteness, this obscene patriarchy at work, is allowed to win – by the government and the industry.
There is simultaneously a regulation, bordering on erasure, of Muslim identity and voice from these visuals of Hindu festivities. A Hindu woman s baby shower being hosted by her Muslim in-laws in a Tanishq ad was met with Hindutva outrage last October and was pulled down. It is not just Muslim characters in a godh bharai ad that get slammed, but even a Muslim actor in a Diwali commercial is censured. When Aamir Khan asked children not to burst crackers on the streets in a Ceat ad recently, the BJP MP from Uttara Kannada, Anantkumar Hegde, took exception and wrote to the CEO, Anant Vardhan Goenka, about how anti-Hindu actors always hurt the Hindu sentiments and why the company should address the noise pollution caused by azaan and the blocking of roads in the name of namaz by Muslims.
While a barrage of terms is used against such visual representation of Muslims – from love jihad to minority appeasement to the latest, abrahamisation of Hindu festivals -- the womans image is disciplined in the name of “tradition”.
Traditions – even in print advertisements -- change, as ad man Ambi Parameswaran found out. Studying 500 advertisements in Femina across five decades, he saw that while 55% of women in the 1960s ads were in a sari, it was down to 9% in the 2000s, and the bindi slid from 45% to 5% in the same period.
When patriarchy speaks of tradition, it refers to a time immemorial that it can fashion according to its biases and bigotry. But what is the Diwali tradition of an independent, democratic India? How was it represented in newspaper advertisements and how was it celebrated by the founders of a free nation? Independent Indias first Diwali fell on November 12, 1947 – halfway between Independence Day and Gandhis assassination.
There were a multitude of images in advertisements in the days leading to Diwali in the Times of India. There was Patanwala Perfumes & Cosmetics, featuring a bottle of Afghan Snow and a small image of a woman in a hijab holding a diya, wishing A Happy & Prosperous Divali . There was Kanan Devi, wearing a small bindi and a half-smile in a Lux Toilet Soap ad, without bothering to wish anyone Happy Diwali. On her right was a bindi-less woman in a wide grin for Phillips Milk of Magnesia, the ideal antacid-laxative. There was a woman wearing a bindi for Ruby Jewellers. There was Parle s ad -- a goddess flanked by lights -- as Indias premier biscuit manufacturers wish you every happiness and prosperity in this New Year of Freedom".
The headlines, meanwhile, were of a young nation being riven apart and coming together. A report, with the dateline Srinagar, November 10, said, Indian troops have advanced many miles beyond Baramulla and shot a number of raiders On an inside page, a column says tens of thousands of Muslim refugees were travelling to Pakistan on foot. The next day, Nehru made a triumphal entry into Srinagar and pledged Indias support to the people of Kashmir in defence of their freedom in the future”. When he returned to Delhi on Diwali, he presented Mahatma Gandhi with a bunch of flowers which he brought from Baramulla.
Gandhi gave a Diwali message at his prayer meeting in Delhi. He said that what people most needed was the light of love – love for the thousands of the suffering Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, whom they should consider their brothers and sisters”.
India was soldered on this Diwali call for pluralism. At a time when the vitriol against a minority community goes beyond ads and into the real world where a Muslim cricketer is abused online, anti-conversion laws are passed and Muslims offering namaz are heckled, India should remember its first Diwali — the flowers of Baramulla and the call for the light of love between people of different faiths. It is a candle, a talisman, for the Republic to hold this dark night.
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