VARANASI, India — Over the last two decades luxury brands have eyed India’s fast-moving economy, booming middle class and youthful population, already among the world’s largest, hoping they had discovered their next big market. But it wasn’t to be.
Along with India’s protectionist policies (talks with the European Union on a free-trade agreement have been stalled since 2007), the rise of Hindu nationalist politics has become a major obstacle to realizing the country’s promise of growth.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party formed a national government in 2014, the Indian fashion industry has been pressed to aggressively promote traditional attire and bypass Western styles. The effort aligns with the party’s broader political program: to project multi-faith India, a country of more than 1.3 billion, as a Hindu nation.
And with Narendra Modi, the party’s strongman of Hindu nationalism, as prime minister, fears that the country would head into a phase of aggressive nationalism have largely come true. Members of minority communities, accused of being disrespectful to cows, sacred to Hindus, have been lynched. Critics of Mr. Modi have been branded as “anti-national,” some shot and killed by Hindu nationalist activists.
Fashion, and how Indians think of it, has not been exempt. Mr. Modi has made traditional dress a priority and, as many in the country want to please him, the fashion industry has followed along.
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“There is a clear connection between the rising Hindu nationalism and the aesthetic production of leading Indian fashion designers and the country’s luxury industry at large,” said Tereza Kuldova, a social anthropologist and author of the 2016 book “Luxury Indian Fashion: A Social Critique.” “Aesthetic production has an uncanny tendency to materialize ideological currents in any given society.”
Mr. Modi’s effort to restore Indian-ness in Indian fashion began with his Make in India campaign, announced just months after he took office. The initiative to encourage local manufacturing was initially led by an urbane party politician and fashion designer from Mumbai, Shaina Nana Chudasama, popularly known by her nickname of Shaina NC.
And in August 2015, Ms. Chudasama introduced what she called the Banarasi Textiles Revival Movement at a fashion exhibition in Mumbai.
The exhibition, which brought together the work of some of the country’s leading fashion designers including Anita Dongre and Manish Malhotra, was organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Textiles and intended to promote the Banarasi sari, the traditional garment known for its fine silk and opulent embroidery — and primarily worn by Hindu women. Since then, there have been frequent state-sponsored fashion shows and exhibitions, most recently the “Symphony of Weaves,” a fashion showcase for the country’s textiles, held in July in Gujarat, all with the aim of promoting traditional Indian clothing styles.
India’s leaders have always made political use of traditional clothing, from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s adoption of the dhoti to Jawaharlal Nehru’s jacket. But active state intervention and patronage of the fashion industry have never before reached this scale.
“A subtle current of Indianizing the fashion was already there, but now, with the government’s backing, it has gained a new momentum,” said David Abraham, one of the country’s leading designers and the creative director of Abraham & Thakore, the New Delhi-based fashion label.
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The Banarasi sari is woven in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, formerly called Benares or Banaras, which happens to be Mr. Modi’s political constituency. It is also one of the holiest cities for Hindus, who consider it the eternal home of Lord Shiva, the Supreme God.
For Hindus, the city’s ghats — flights of stone steps along the banks of the Ganges — are the site of liberation, or moksha, from the sins that afflict them in the earthly drama of life. Hours after Mr. Modi was elected prime minister, that was where he went to thank the voters. “God has chosen me,” he announced amid the chanting of hymns and “Har Har Modi,” a campaign adaptation of “Har Har Mahadev” (“Everyone is Lord Shiva”).
During his campaign, Mr. Modi had promised to revive the tradition of the Banarasi sari and to help its weavers, a significant percentage of the constituency’s electorate. The weavers, who are mostly Muslim and following a family trade, largely live in poverty.
In late October, I visited Varanasi to learn whether anything had changed in the three years since Mr. Modi came to power.
Mohammad Bashir, a wiry middle-age man who was my guide, led me through the narrow alleys of Saraiya, a village about 10 miles from the city. There were open drains clogged with thick black sewage, and half-dressed children played nearby.
As soon as we reached what looked like a community center, about 50 men, old and young, gathered around. A few told their stories on behalf of the group: Nothing had changed for them.
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“We can’t send our children to school,” said Mohammad Yusuf, who, in his mid-50s, was one of the older weavers. “The fee is too much. Each family earns about 100 rupees to 125 rupees a day,” or $1.55 to $1.95.
But Mr. Modi’s call to revive the Banarasi sari certainly has benefited the merchants in the city, who employ the weavers. “The demand for the luxury sari has gone up,” said Hemang Agrawal, creative director of the Surekha Group and a businessman based in Varanasi.
The project of Indianizing popular fashion is now in the hands of the country’s textile minister, Smriti Irani, who was appointed in July 2016.
As personalities, both Mr. Modi and Ms. Irani have contributed to the cause. Mr. Modi’s choice of colorful kurtas — a tunic shirt with half-length sleeves — and Ms. Irani’s saris have become popular fashion statements. Before becoming a politician, Ms. Irani was a household name as a soap opera star. Tulsi, the character she played in “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” (“Because the Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law”), popularized her as a traditional Indian daughter-in-law draped in sari.
The government’s aim certainly has been to produce a popular fashion aesthetic that matches the broader political program of Hindu nationalism. But the world is more open to cultural change than it ever has been before, so will that effort ultimately succeed?
Only time will tell.
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