When model Thanuska Subramaniam posed upon a majestic flowery throne adorning a beautiful Tamilian saree little did she know that social media would lose its mind, so to speak. Over the last few days the latest cover of Toronto-based Jodi magazine has ruffled feathers of the culture police all around the world. A magazine meant to cater to Tamil-Canadians seems to have offended them more than anything. Why you ask? A simple drape of the saree, that let Thanuska’s (beautiful) legs be visible to the eye, has hurt people’s sentiments because “this is not our culture.”
The line between culture, art and cultural appropriation seems to have become contentious over the last few years, making it even more difficult for artists to showcase their work without negativity. This highly debated cover has split opinions among the Tamil community as well. People feel the inappropriate representation of a bride in a traditional Kancheepuram silk saree paints Tamilians in a negative light, while others state the obvious - it’s just a cover of a magazine.
Where does artistic freedom hold a position in todays world? Why does this offend people but not Zeenat Aman’s attire in the title song of Satyam Shivam Sundaram (she’s wearing a saree, without a blouse, that too in a temple)? A hyper-sexualised Katrina Kaif wearing a saree with basically a bikini top seems to be alright - is the saree itself not an essential part of Indian culture?
We seem to be becoming more picky with what is ‘offensive’ and what’s acceptable, or just plain titillating. We argue for female empowerment, yet sexualise females in Bollywood, all while holding culture and tradition at the core of our being. There are many arguments to be made here, Deeptha Vivekanand, a Tamilian herself, too took to Medium to puth for her own. She prepared herself for the “social-media trouble” she’d be in as she posted her article on Facebook, and with her permission we’ve republished her piece for you to read.
“A few days ago, this image popped up on my Facebook newsfeed:
I had no idea why Facebook decided I should see this. Neither was I in the throes of getting married nor had I subscribed to this page. “Whatever,” I said to myself and scrolled to the next story. A few more scrolls and the same image popped up again as part of an article on The NewsMinute. And then again from The Quint and then The Indian Express. Hello! What’s going on? Why am I being bombarded with this picture of a woman, who seems like she had to stop for a bridal shoot on the way to the beach? Or was she going to a beach wedding? I couldn’t be bothered, so I move on to more cerebral things.
Today, this popped up on my newsfeed, again, with a link to yet another article. Today was an easy day, so I stopped to read this and the various articles about the picture. All of them discussed the battle that the social media culture police and art and photography aficionados locked horns over. This cover photo on the latest issue of Toronto-based Jodi Bridal Magazine seems to have divided many of the world’s Tamils over whether it is art or cultural erosion.
I looked at the picture long and hard. The model is gorgeous, no doubt. Those legs! Wait. Why are the Tamilians getting riled up? She’s not wearing a traditional Tamil nose ring. The head gear is not entirely Tamil, either. So what about her is Tamil? Only her Kanjeevaram saree and a few pieces of jewellery? Oh, the model and photographer are of Tamil origin. Now, that’s enough reason for people to start spewing venom.
In all my scouring of the internet, I couldn’t find a single sentence where the magazine has suggested Tamil brides should dress this way, as dissenters have made it out to be. Funnily, the magazine does not seem to even have a story to go with the cover photo. So all the outrage is based on just looking at the image. As a Tamilian, I’m confused, so I ask on the post, “It’s just a cover picture for a fashion magazine. I, for one, don’t think the outrage is required. When Tamilians can include mehendi and sangeet in their weddings and make a mish-mash of customs, why should this cause such a stir?” That was enough to set off a land-mine. I was told that “Tamil culture cannot be dragged into this” and that the model could’ve worn a Paithani instead. Or Kanjeevaram shorts. Puzzled even more, I asked, “I don’t understand how the model being dressed in a Paithani would make it more acceptable? Is Maharashtrian culture any less than Tamil?” I was asked to read the article and figure it out myself. Clearly, there was no logic in the response. Only raw emotion. And a complete disregard for anything other than one’s own.
What about the suggestive, provocative images of Tamil heroines and item girls on Tamil magazines? What about the cheap lyrics that objectify women in film songs? Why no outrage here, I ask. I’m told sarcastically that those women are mostly North Indian or non-Tamils and that films are influenced by the West, so sex and sleaze are a part of the industry. I’m told not to extend the logic to traditional affairs like marriages. The goal post shifts. I don’t know what to say anymore; I take a lunch break.
I come back and ask, “How do you see this as ‘dragging Tamil culture?’ Who decides what is Tamil culture?…And how are shorts acceptable and not this? The answer is vague: so if the model wanted to show her legs, the suggestion is there are umpteen ways to do it, but not this way. On a ‘lighter’ note, why not try this with a Christian wedding dress, is the response. After all, the 9-yards and the Kandagi drapes also show off the legs ever so subtly and that’s acceptable, it appears. Sarees are meant to be worn in luxurious abundance, according to Tamil culture, apparently. I make a mental note to find this text book on Tamil culture.
What is Tamil culture, anyway? Is it only about wearing a Kanjeevaram saree the ‘right’ way, going to temples, blurting out shlokas, attending religious discourses, listening to Carnatic music, eating idli and dosa, watching a Rajinikanth film and talking in Tamil, while taking selfies, by the way? S. Ramakrishnan, Economist & Social Scientist, in this 1984 (dated, but still relevant) essay titled ‘The Living Culture of the Tamils’ in The UNESCO Courier, has this to say about what constitutes Tamil culture: “In their own land Tamils have been subject to significant foreign influences and, today, the admixture of these influences is so complex that it is difficult to talk about ‘typical’ or ‘native’ Tamil culture. Today’s fashions, food habits, life-styles, values are all products of this long history of interaction.”
Culture is nebulous. It is shifting and evolving. It is fluid. No culture in the world can claim to be untouched by outside influences. Yes, there are outward markers and indicators, but that’s all they are - just indicators. Tamil culture is no exception to this. A Tamil woman, can therefore choose to wear a saree however she sees fit. I’m pretty sure not many Tamil brides will choose to dress like the model on their wedding day, but even if someone does, who is anyone to stop her? I’d admire the woman’s guts. That to me is an empowered woman. As Tamil poet Subramania Bharati might call her, a ‘Pudhumai Penn’.
The problem occurs when ‘tradition’ comes into the equation. Traditions are, by definition, a set of customs and beliefs that have been handed down from generation to generation, often coloured with a religious brush. It is traditional belief that dictates how a saree must be worn by a Tamil Hindu bride. Self-styled custodians of Tamil ‘culture’ in India and elsewhere are tightly chained by patriarchal, religious diktats that were laid down centuries ago and have come to associate it with the term ‘culture’. Anything that is remotely offensive to their religious sensibilities is a degradation of culture; it must be saved from ruin. Which is why, according to them, there is no way a Tamil Hindu bride can be seen showing her legs in as much as a magazine cover, leave alone during her wedding. I mean, how on Earth can ‘Tamil minds’ dream up a photo-shoot of this nature? The blasphemy! But somehow, it is alright for them to wear clothes with images of Gods and Goddesses running around all over the body. I wonder how the Buddhas and the Krishnas feel about it.
S. Ramakrishnan adds in his essay, “Was the traditional culture of the Tamils merely the culture of a particular class? Whether in literature, music or philosophy, was the thinking that of the dominant group? It is said that Sangam literature does not mention caste differences, but the majority of people have had little access to the cultivated arts and the conceptual levels of religion.”
The conversations I had today smacked of sweeping generalizations, bigotry and hypocrisy. I’m glad I took the time out for this because today also happens to be a day of the week that I dedicate to calling out bigots and hypocrites lurking around on social media. They are in every Facebook group. They are in your ‘Friends’ list. They’re among your friends in the real world, who don a different avatar offline. They’re in your family. They disguise themselves as intellectuals but when you scratch the surface, you’ll smell the putridity of their thoughts. When you question their thoughts consistently, they will try to diffuse the situation with an off-handed remark or a ‘winkey’ smiley.
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” says Bansky. That is exactly what this photo has done. While the magazine team may have never imagined this situation, it has challenged peoples’ assumptions and deeply held prejudices. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and recalibrate our notions of tradition, culture and identity. The deeper we dig, the quieter we will become. Not to mention, more accepting.
Now, may the vitriol run free.”
You can read people’s reaction to the cover here on Jodi magazine’s Facebook post.