Black, which has ruled the global fashion landscape for decades, has never been dominant in traditional Indian clothing. But now Indian sari designer Sharmila Nair is using the colour to make a forceful political and feminist statement, writes the BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi.
Ms Nair’s campaign, 18 Shades of Black, has 18 women, draped in beautiful black saris designed by her, talking about the subtle gender discrimination they face in their daily lives.
Ms Nair calls these “unseen restrictions” because they are made to feel so normal, so natural, that quite often women start to place these limitations on themselves.
The campaign, Ms Nair told the BBC, was inspired by last year’s protests in the southern state of Kerala after the Supreme Court revoked a ban on women of menstruating age from entering the Sabarimala temple, one of the holiest Hindu shrines.
Hinduism regards menstruating women as unclean and so they were historically banned from entering the temple.
Ms Nair said she was “shocked” by the large number of women who joined the protests.
Thus was born 18 Shades of Black – 18 because there are that many steps in the Sabarimala shrine, and black because that’s the colour all devotees wear.
“We are told we are impure during our periods, and we buy into these ideas. Even now I have friends who would voluntarily stay away from visiting a temple or participating in religious rituals during their periods,” says Ms Nair.
“So I thought if so many women can fight for the rights of a deity, why can’t they fight for the rights of women? And I thought if so many women came together, imagine the kind of changes they can bring about.”
This subtle conditioning of the mind, she says, starts in early childhood.
“We are told boys and girls are different, girls don’t talk or laugh loudly. In villages, even today, girls are encouraged to study humanities, not medicine or engineering.
“There is a lot of emphasis on marriage and having children. For instance, in many parts of India, the moment you turn 18, your family will start talking about fixing your marriage. And once you’re married, they’ll start asking when you’re going to have a child. And once you have a child, they’ll start asking when you’re going to have the next one.
“We internalise these restrictions. We talk about women’s empowerment, but in our daily lives we submit to these curbs unquestioningly,” she says, adding: “I’m trying to address these unseen restrictions.”
The campaign uses fashion to challenge faith, questioning outdated beliefs that are perpetuated by a society steeped in patriarchy.
It tackles issues like body shaming, discrimination on the basis of skin colour, early marriage, stigma around menstruation, caste discrimination, patriarchy and even a lack of clean toilets for women.
Finding women to participate in the campaign, says Ms Nair, was not easy.
“I spoke to 80-90 women and I heard very compelling personal stories, but most were not willing to go on record. They were worried because of the controversy over the Sabarimala issue. They told me they were afraid how it would be moulded, how it would be received by the larger society.”
But then these “18 wonderful women” came forward, willing to talk about the restrictions they faced and how they stood up to them.
Her models are “women of substance”, they include a lawyer, an actor, a poet, a psychologist, writers and office workers, a homemaker and a techie.
In the videos that Ms Nair has uploaded on social media, we hear powerful personal stories.
Remya Saseendran, a writer and development communications specialist, says she was brought up to believe that motherhood was non-negotiable, and that there was something wrong with her because she didn’t want to be a mother.
“But as I grew older, I realised that a lot of these expectations were imposed from outside… and I realised that motherhood really doesn’t at all have to be the identity of a woman. Motherhood is a choice, just as not being a mother is a choice,” she says.
Psychologist and lactation consultant Swati Jagadeesh talks about the “toxic relationship” she had with her mother and how she found it difficult to share anything with her.
“So I want my child to trust me. She should have the confidence to tell me anything under the sky,” she says, and adds: “My mother taught me how not to be a mother.”
Interior designer Smitha Naik, who is featured in one of the videos, tells the BBC that the campaign uses clothes to talk about issues that are important to the wider population.
In her video, Ms Naik is seen talking about the unflattering way in which women drivers are perceived and the bullying they face on the roads and says that these are issues that need to be talked about continuously.
“It doesn’t end with one campaign or one protest.”
Fashion and creative art, she says, can be effectively used to convey important messages, the sort that 18 Shades of Black is trying to do.
“There’s a popular saying that when you draw a line, you’re not just drawing a line, you’re changing the universe. By wearing black, we are trying to send a message that just like the Sabarimala pilgrims, it is our colour too. We are also entitled to it. We are also an equal part of this society. We are also part of this sea of black.”
Photos by Midhun Divakar
Read more from Geeta Pandey