Asian arts and crafts have had a long history of being adopted by the west. From 1700s ‘chinoiserie’ vases popping up on Victorian mantelpieces, to big brand designers like Kim Jones finding ‘inspiration’ in karakoram and ikat prints, design and craftsmanship from India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia have found their way into European and Western collections, and have been doing so for centuries, with little to no credit returning to their source artisans.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons the Sabyasachi X H&M collection roused such controversy. Sabyasachi Mukherjee is one of India’s most sought-after designers. Through a variety of projects, Mukherjee has actively shown support for the Indian textiles industry. Save the Saree, for instance, retails hand-woven sarees, with the entire proceeds going to the weavers of Murshidabad. Mukherjee has also used Baranasi fabrics heavily in his collections, and has been involved in reviving cotton Benarasi sarees in pure khadi and vegetable handblock prints from Bagru.
It is perhaps not surprising that some of the designer’s supporters felt, well, a little bit betrayed, when they saw Sabyasachi’s Wanderlust collection for H&M, which included Indian motifs and prints, but did not appear to pay it forward - or back! - to the craftspeople who originate them.
‘We are deeply pained by the missed opportunity that ‘Wanderlust’ has been for artisan livelihoods’, stated an open letter with about 200 signatories, including some of India’s most respected crafts leaders and advocacy groups. ‘The publicity material implies the range is connected with Indian craft. However it is not made by Indian sources and with no visible benefit to them.’
It could be argued, however, that Sabyasachi as a business had no obligation to give employment or recognition to traditional craftspeople, any more than any other brand does, Indian or otherwise. After all, Sabyasachi is far from the only label to be ‘inspired by’ Indian crafts. The problem isn’t really with the label or the designer – it’s simply from the failure of those who matter to give the necessary rights and protections to their own regional crafts and craftspeople. Sanganeri block prints, for instance, are interpreted in the Wanderlust collection – but they are a GI (Geographical Indication) protected craft by Rajasthan’s Chhipa community. Will anyone actually enforce any kind of legal infringement action? Thus far, we’ve heard nothing.
The defence of creativity is not a luxury – it is a necessity. Art, whether in fashion, music or dance, is what informs a culture. It matters more than ever to those who are in danger of losing it. There are many ways in which culture can be lost; the loss is usually gradual and insidious, where credit is denied or minimised, or where certain cultures are suppressed or marginalised. This happened with Eurasian and Peranakan culture in Singapore throughout the 60s and 70s, where entire groups and subgroups of language, art and heritage were classified simply as ‘others’.
In other cases, such as a the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the suppression of artistic culture is immediate and brutal. The Taliban, during their previous time in power, banned all forms of art and artistic expression during their time in power in Afghanistan – and they are on track to do it again.
The musician Qardash, from the rock group Kabul Dreams, wrote in a searing article on The Juggernaut. ‘...Taliban banned music in any way, shape, or form. Musicians buried their instruments out of fear that the Taliban would find the instruments when they searched their homes. The Taliban burned thousands of audio and video cassettes, destroyed historical and cultural landmarks by force, and completely silenced diversity of thought...’
He goes on to wonder, ‘For the men and women who are still in Afghanistan and who have integrated music and art into their lives, will they have the freedom to continue under the new regime? Will they have the freedom to create music, or to listen to songs on television or the radio? Will they be able to document this moment in history through their photography, or capture hearts and minds with their storytelling? Will they be able to combat your voice with their own, without putting themselves at risk of a public beheading?’
All this is just to underline the crucial place that creative arts hold in a society and culture. It is the lynchpin upon which we found our identity as human beings. It is through our art forms that we perceive and celebrate our diversity, while also appreciating the common threads that bind us all.
And it’s worth defending and fighting for.