Indianness has become a knotty idea. Those who don’t make it palpable-- by cow vigilantism, yoga adherence or swearing against Pakistani actors – don’t fit the new charter of a nationalist identity. Like a demanding deity who must be regularly appeased with ritualistic fuss, Indianness is now a mantra, a jap to be repeated as proof of devotion. Not all such chants are divisive or disappointing—Swachh Bharat positions certainly are not, for instance. Yet some indeed are. The so-called outrage over Vogue India’s May 2017 cover with American model Kendall Jenner sits on that side of that spectrum.
That a section of Indians are upset with the country’s most known fashion glossy for putting an “all-white” model on the cover of one of its special issues in its 10th anniversary year is a meaty enough piece of news to make it to international newspapers is news itself. But this indignation that many “deserving Bollywood celebrities” (to quote from Twitterverse) and top Indian models were left out to celebrate Jenner instead represents numerous cross currents.
One is the cusp we are at in our socio-political constructs. From being the colonised we are learning to colonise ourselves. Where we rebel against being boxed, defined or caricatured because of our Indianness wherever we may be in the world. Yet we find those very peculiarities useful in our nationalist self-definitions. The Indian narrative is moving away from validations or reflections of India in a Western mirror to create new myths of Indianness back home. In this case, we favour brown against an all-white fashion model. If this about a thoughtful stand against the white skin bias of fashion magazines, we must cry wolf every time the white-hot Shahrukh Khan and Inc (Siddharth Malhotra, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor etc) who sell fairness potions climb on to the glossy covers. Or might this mean that we would have been okay with the non-Indian but fabulously brown Naomi Campbell but the chalky gradation of Jenner’s skin colour is the real issue?
The Kendall on Vogue India fuss is more delicate than this trite positioning, as some will argue. It is perhaps about Indian versus American, national versus global, us versus them. What we may be saying is that some kind of brownness validated by country of passport, some kind of Indianness by origin, some kind of Bollywood-ness by profession or some kind of Priyanka Chopra-ness by achievement is now a requisite to be a cover girl for special editions of Indian glossies.
No social media activist from this “Be Indian, Feature Indian” club however turns watchdog when Priyanka Chopra the metaphor and the star gets featured on dozens of American and other global titles. That is applauded as the world’s gesture of inclusivity and diversity—currently also the number one trend in global fashion-- but Jenner on one of our fashion magazines is seen as deference to whiteness.
I am no fan of Jenner. She is one among many where fashion oomph goes and that’s regardless of her silly Pepsi ad that invited deserved backlash last month. But I would defend Vogue India’s choice anyway and ask whether a similar hue and cry would have ensued even if the very white and meaningful Meryl Streep had been the face of this cover? For if we are arguing for meaning, that’s a different debate altogether.
It is also perhaps the right time to ask if some of us will soon expect news magazines to put British Prime Minister Theresa May in a sari (she did wear one for her Sri Someshwara temple visit during her November 2016 visit) on their covers should they feature her? Or, if Nikki Haley would be rated by Indians as a better American ambassador to the United Nations than the former Samantha Power—since Haley is “at least” of Indian origin? Perhaps not, let’s guess as our reasoning is strictly limited to fashion models. Glamour is fair game after all, right?
What is disappointing about the Vogue India cover shot by Peruvian photographer Mario Testino, who also guest edited this special issue is the artist’s clichéd interpretation of India. A painted Rajasthani façade at Hotel Samode Palace near Jaipur as Jenner’s “India” backdrop? Really? What about searching for India’s visual karma beyond its excessively photographed, pretty “palaces”?