By Kunzes Goba
When I visit the website of Amoh by Jade, there’s a song that’s autoplaying. It’s an acoustic number, an English song and when I use Shazam to find the artist of the song I find out that it’s the English musician, Philip Selway. This foreign voice is used as background music for a video, acting as a minimalist accompaniment to a teaser for the collection ‘The Descendants of Niyam Raja’. This particular collection, showcased at the Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2018, has been criticized for cultural appropriation of the Dongria Kondh tribe by @AdivasisMatter. And I agree with them.
The video’s attempt at maintaining a cool, earthy ambience looks almost like a parody. There are shots of trees in a forest, a model sitting in the back of a truck with two women in sarees, presumably local Odisha women. There’s a brief shot of them smiling at the women, as if to confirm that she is a friendly guest to them. The Instagram photos and videos from the runway show are at the bottom of the site, and the most noticeable one is of Kalki Koechlin wearing what looks like an organza lehenga. The caption says that ‘earthy tones’ were used to ‘keep the rawness and authenticity of the concept alive’.
Cultural appropriation is basically theft. It is someone outside a community selling the same things but making more money out of it. Appropriation can only be done by an outsider, someone who has not experienced the oppression the marginalized community has faced, but wants to sell the pretty parts of it for their own gain. The word ‘appreciation’, ‘sharing’ and ‘inspired’ is thrown around a lot in all instances of appropriation, whether it’s Jade Coutoure’s ‘ode’ to the Dongria Kondh tribe, or high fashion brands like GUCCI rushing to mimic African-American street style, or Coachella-esque photoshoots using the sacred Native American war bonnets as accessories.
It’s infuriating, because when one reads up on the Dongria Kondh people, it’s easy to find news on the tribe’s victory over Vedanta Resources and how much the people have suffered, both before and after a court banned the corporation’s bid to mine bauxite from the land. The tribe’s culture is deeply intertwined with its history of self-sufficient farming, the mythology of the mountain god, Niyam Raja, a representation of their respect for their natural resources and its sustenance.
The tribe themselves never gave permission to the designers, which also brings up the issue of consent. Every time there’s an absence of mutual consent in a relationship between two people, violence takes place. This is why cultural appropriation is an act of violence.
To put the name of the Dongria Kondh on these clothes without allowing them a space to work with the designers, or to profit from it, confirms @AdivasisMatter ‘s accusation of exoticisation. It’s not different from the Incredible India ads where it’s easy to show off the various ethnicities for diversity, but to fail to help them to survive. The Dongria Kondh have faced multiple cases of police and administrative harassment, with the Odisha government going so far as to compare them to Maoists, and even a global recognition in the form of an award has not stopped the tribe from facing a food crisis. The people are now looking at alternative methods of farming, unlike their natural self-sufficient ways, due to a large portion of their crops slowly going extinct.
A word which keeps coming up to describe the couture collection is ethereal, but the Dongria culture and the fight for the survival of it is very real. It begs us to ask ourselves — why do we continue to ignore the indigenous people of our country? And why do we only seem to remember them for superficial campaigns of ethnic diversity and beauty?