“From the visuals on TV, those setting the fire can be identified by their clothes,” said Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in December 2019, in the wake of widespread protests following his government’s controversial citizenship law.
His oblique remark against the country’s minority Muslim population is yet another reminder of how what we wear is not just about the clothes we put on everyday. And few Indian designers acknowledge that in their works and in their lives as Kallol Datta does.
“When you have people who occupy the highest political office singling out a particular community based on how they dress, fashion becomes political,” Datta told VICE.
One of the rare Indians artists – he prefers calling himself a “clothes-maker” over a “designer” – who are unafraid of talking politics, Datta recently got shortlisted for the prestigious Jameel Prize, an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition.
At the ongoing exhibition of his clothes in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, one of his creations has the hijab draped on a man.
While the majority of India’s population may be indifferent to the many fashion shows lighting up its metros, the weaponisation of clothes remains a palpable reality. Only two weeks ago, in the south Indian city of Bengaluru, a Hindu man was beaten by two strangers on the road for giving a lift to his burqa-clad Muslim colleague.
“I usually wear the kind of native wear that might seem Islamic, and my friends warn me that airport authorities will stop me for a secondary security check,” said Datta. “And they have.”
Across the Indian subcontinent, the politics surrounding the veil have been mostly bitter and divisive. Just a few months ago, the Sri Lankan cabinet cleared a proposal to ban the burqa, after which an Indian leader from the ruling party announced that India planned to do the same.
For Datta, this rise of “design nationalism” in India is equal parts frightening and alarming – something he believes not many people call out and examine for what it is. To challenge the perceptions at the root of this problem, he is examining a quintessential piece of clothing laden with a lot of cultural baggage: the veil.
His works include experimental, layered hijabs and chadors, and he frequently experiments with what he calls “the politics and form of shrouding and veiling,” showcasing a range of techniques from innovative pattern-cutting to abstract silhouettes.
Datta was raised in the Middle East where fashion is at the crux of political boundaries, native wear and religious convention, and he credits those early years for defining the ideas behind his works.
The way he sees it, the act of veiling isn’t necessarily religious, as it in fact predates Islam. “The earliest evidence of veiling can be found in the Middle Assyrian empire, almost 2,000 years before the birth of Islam,” he said. In fact, article 40 of the Assyrian Law Code spells out clearly who should and should not veil: “Married women, widows and Assyrian women must not have their heads uncovered when they go out into the street.”
Datta thus considers associating veiling with all things Muslim as ignorant. “In India itself, not many are aware that lower-caste women in Southern India had to pay a ‘breast tax’ (discontinued only in 1924) to be able to cover themselves. Even in contemporary times, veiling exists in various forms across the Korean peninsula and Japan. Also, all Muslim women dress differently. They are not a monolith,” he said.
Across India, many designers are increasingly referencing clothes and designs that are symbolic of an upper-caste Hindu aesthetic. “But they label these creations as ‘real India’ in their social media captions, as if to suggest that the act of veiling and hijab is Islamic and foreign.”
On the other hand, Datta finds it problematic when these very same designers conveniently capitalise on Islamic culture. “During fashion shows, most clients come from countries such as Bahrain and Dubai,” he explained. “Our designers go all out in using motifs and embroidery inspired by the Mughal era and other Muslim aesthetics so that their clothes are purchased by these wealthy patrons in western Asia. You use traditional Islamic references, pass off your work as intrinsically Indian, but when it comes to real life, you’re silent. That doesn’t sit well with me as a clothes-maker.”
Datta believes that through his conceptually-charged fashion, he can inspire young designers to speak their minds, both on and off the runway. “Only recently, an Indian designer went to Kashmir around the same time the special status of the Muslim-majority state was scrapped by the government, and protesters were quelled,” he said, noting how some designers appropriate Muslim cultural elements while staying detached from broader realities.
“Most of them [designers] come from generational wealth and comfortable backgrounds, which is why they are detached from reality. This is precisely why they feel no queasiness in hopping on to a flight to Kashmir and creating content,” he added.
Datta prefers that his creations reflect his immediate environment. “For people wearing the clothes that I conduct extensive creative research on, they are immediate visible markers for their communities,” he said. “It’s become an ecosystem of sorts which involves field research in marginalised communities, excavating their clothing samples, accessing libraries and museum archives. Everyone is free to partake in and engage with the work from the research stage to executing.”
Through his work, Datta is raising the alarm on a problematic politically-driven narrative. Though his designs and ideologies tend to radiate within a certain social circle, he believes he is also bridging the gap for lower-income Muslim families who may never have heard of him before.
“When I’m making a veil, I put it on women, men, and non-binary people alike,” he said. “But if that woman in Mumbra [a Muslim-majority ghetto in Mumbai] who might not be familiar with my work [learns about it], I hope she finds solace in the fact that there is someone from the community of clothes-makers who is actively batting for her.”
The “Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics” show is on at V&A museum until November 28.
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