Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Soulan Zee, a Melbourne based fashion label famous for creating custom pieces for American singer and actress Miley Cyrus, came under fire from the Hindu community because of their ‘bootys’ (hip-wear or underwear) which carried images of the Hindu deity Lord Ganesha. They had to withdraw the underwear in less than 24 hours after it was called “highly inappropriate” by the furious community.
In an email to Rajan Zed, President of Universal Society of Hinduism who led the protests against the product, the designer Leyla Raif of Soulan Zee said: “I have since removed all items entailing the Ganesha print from my website. I had no intention to offend anyone by producing these printed garments and have now stopped production of them, all items are removed from the website.”
While Zed thanked the label for understanding the concerns of the community, he opined that they are still waiting for a formal apology from the company and its CEO. He continued that Lord Ganesha is highly revered in Hinduism and is meant to be worshipped and ‘not used to clothe buttock’s and crotch’. He went on to suggest that fashion labels should send their employees for training in religious and cultural sensitivity when introducing new products.
Ganesha underwear, priced at AU$40.00, was described as “sexy high waisted bootys” which was “perfect for festivals, events”.
Controversies Over Misuse of Cultural Symbols
This is not the first time when products with objectionable content had been pulled back. As recently as this January, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj threatened to rescind visas of Amazon employees for selling a doormat resembling the Indian tricolour. The doormat was being sold by a third party on Amazon’s Canadian portal. The product was pulled down soon after.
Images of Gods and Goddesses being used is not a first either. In 2010, popular fantasy show Supernatural was pulled up for their episode Hammer of the Gods which showed Kali and Ganesh kidnapping the lead characters. Katy Perry walked into controversy when she posted a picture of Kali on instagram with caption: “Current mood.” She received a lot of abuse online and many attempted to make her understand the context of the image. The most famous of these controversies is when supermodel Heidi Klum dressed up as Kali for Halloween, infuriating many Hindu groups abroad. At that time, Rajan Zed had said: “Goddess Kali is highly revered in Hinduism and she is meant to be worshipped in temples and not to be used in clubs for publicity stunts or thrown around loosely for dramatic effect. Hindus welcome Hollywood and other entertainment industries to immerse themselves in Hinduism, but they should take it seriously and respectfully and not just use the religion for decorating or to advance their selfish agenda,” speaking to Times of India.
Devdutt Patnaik, mythologist and author, has a more placating stand. He tells Times of India “Those who get outraged need to remember that images often travel across cultures and acquire new meaning. What Kali means to a feminist in America will be different from what she means to a feminist in India…”
Zed, however, vehemently disagrees, “Hinduism was the oldest and third largest religion of the world with about 1.1 billion adherents and a rich philosophical thought and it should not be taken frivolously. Symbols of any faith, larger or smaller, should not be mishandled.” He had also spoken out against white women wearing a bindi in the music festival Coachella.
However, there is a growing number of Indians who believe these matters do not deserve much outrage. Argues a piece in Huffington Post, “Culture evolves. Indians appreciated the beauty of a bindi and brought it into the world of fashion several decades ago. The single red dot that once was, transformed into a multitude of colors and shapes embellished with all the glitz and glamor that is inherent in Bollywood. I don’t recall an uproar when Indian actress Madhuri Dixit‘s bindi was no longer a traditional one. Hindus accepted the evolution of this cultural symbol then. And, as bindi makes its way to the foreheads of non-South Asians, we should accept — even celebrate — the continued evolution of this cultural symbol.”
The piece further argues that in an increasingly global world, where does the ownership of culture really stop? And yet, in 2015 when Empire State Building in New York lit up with the image of fierce Kali to create awareness of the trials of mother earth, Indians took to it positively. So, where does the ownership begin and end?