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Class will tell, and be shown

There’s been lots of recent debate, discussion, TV shows, editorialising and other forms of ranting about backward classes, what constitutes ‘backwardness’, Anand Halve tells more.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2007 03:48 IST
Anand Halve

There’s been lots of recent debate, discussion, TV shows, editorialising and other forms of ranting about backward classes. There is also confusion about what constitutes ‘backwardness’, its symptoms and whether the criteria are historical, economical or any other ‘al’. Well, judging by advertising on Indian TV, the answer is: Backwardness is sartorial. Specifically, women’s wear.

Perhaps you recall this touching scene from a detergent commercial: a woman has saved a few rupees thanks to the economical detergent she has used, and is lovingly sending the money to her father. Typical example of lower- or middle-class filial affection? Yes. And what do you think she is wearing? A saree, of course.

Another commercial, not so long ago, for a brand of wall finish, made the point about how distemper gets onto clothes by having the ‘heroine’ of the drama lean against a wall. Having shown that distemper is not to be trusted, the ad introduces the superior alternative.

And what is the girl who rubs her derriere against the distempered wall wearing? A salwar kameez.

Ditto the girl whose mother is impressed by the young neighbour moving in along with his plastic furniture. Now, you see that distemper and plastic furniture are not exactly premium products. You’d never see women from upper-class families, who use acrylic emulsion or expensive furniture, wear Indian-style clothes; they wear western attire.

It is not just that Indian style women’s clothes – sarees, salwar kameezes, etc. are showed largely in middle-class settings, they’re also the ‘Before’ stage of life which is transformed by products; and in the ‘After’ stage, they switch to western clothes.

You may remember a commercial for an ayurvedic fairness cream in which, in the ‘Before’ stage, accompanied by a father in a dhoti, the girl wears a simple Indian dress. On being Michael-Jackson-fied (yes, the transformation shown is equally severe a case of ‘Black or White’), thanks to this wonder ointment, she gets a fairer skin, along with a westernised wardrobe.

Oh to be sure, Indian dress is not entirely absent in ads. However it is restricted to traditional occasions (Rakhi and Diwali promotions), products (weddings in heavy gold jewelry) or moments (Karva Chauth in a car). As a rule the picture is clear: Women who are successful executives, users of premium durables, fancy mobile phones, takers of expensive holidays, etc. all wear western clothes. Their homely, poorer cousins wear sarees and salwar kameezes.

Interestinlgy, here is a quote that did the email rounds recently: “…we would not conquer (India) unless we break… her spiritual and cultural heritage… I propose that we replace her old and ancient… culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native culture…”

The quote was erroneously attributed to a British Lord. It should have been attributed to Indian advertising.

(The writer is Co-founder, chlorophyll Brand & Communications Consultancy.)