ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Competition Shortlisted Entry
Freedom to Dream: India at 70
Polly Allen, 27 years old, West Sussex, UK
India’s creative freedom has always shone through in Bollywood, but the film industry can be linked to a larger creative movement involving other pursuits like fashion and photography. Looking towards the 70th year of Indian independence, it might seem naÃ¯ve to label artistry as freedom, but surely there’s no greater conduit to free speech than through the arts. India has a creative arts scene where, in the words of Rabindranath Tagore, ‘the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. What more could you want for a sprightly 70-year-old?
Devdas might seem a melancholy note to start on — romantic entanglement, lost love and alcoholism — but its cinematic echoes are important. This story just demands retelling, and each distinctive version hits home with cinemagoers in its own way, from the 1928 silent film to Dilip Kumar’s starring role in 1955. 2002’s Devdas brought worldwide acclaim, whilst contemporary update Dev.D (2009) included hot topics of the day, such as texting scandals, and added comedic touches. The next interpretation will be a political thriller, Aur Devdas.
Bollywood has always incorporated costume elements from a changing world, as fashion historians have noted, but its plotlines have also represented the zeitgeist. Early 40s pictures occasionally included subtle cries for independence woven into song lyrics. Bombay Talkies (2013), a celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema, featured a short film about homosexuality: unthinkable 70 years ago, let alone 100. Equally ground-breaking was Mary Kom (2014), a biopic about a female boxer. Gender roles and sexual identity are now overtly on the box office agenda — surely that’s liberating.
Photography is another catalyst for freedom. The ability to capture a moment (then spread it across the world in 2016) is enticing, whether as political statements or art. Photo Ink, in New Delhi, is just one photography gallery championing some of the brightest talent in this area. Here you’ll find art critic Richard Bartholomew’s black and white shots of Modernist artists at work, mixed in with candid shots of his wife and son; Dileep Prakash’s Anglo-Indians project, capturing people with mixed British and Indian heritage across more than 40 Indian cities; Ketaki Sheth’s gentle images of the Sidi, Indian citizens of African descent. Projects like these constantly uncover new strands to India’s story as a nation, preserving the dreams and realities of its citizens.
Thematically speaking, fashion is never too far away from the art world, and it’s another industry where freedom of thought is treasured. Aartivijay Gupta, one of India’s most distinctive fashion designers, perhaps exemplifies this. Her most recent collection, Winter Floral, combines vintage botanical prints and organic fabrics. She stands out as a maverick amongst many of her peers, unafraid of tongue-in-cheek prints and playful concepts. Previous inspiration has been drawn from illustrations of 19th century costume, musical instruments, Pantone colour charts and technical drawings.
Gupta’s clothing has been worn by the likes of actresses Dia Mirza and Parineeti Chopra, presenter and chef Maria Goretti, and fashion industry insider Fern Mallis (creator of New York Fashion Week and, later, its Mumbai counterpart). Such achievements and creative licence would not have been possible had Gupta started out in 1947; had she been working in the 1960s, 70s or 80s, she would probably have focused on bridal wear. Today, the fashion industry has many successful female designers and business owners, and is all the better for it. Like Bollywood actresses, they weren’t always given equal billing in the early days, but now they’re rightly acknowledged.
Lakme Fashion Week, where dreamt-up designs become a much-admired reality, is central to the Indian fashion calendar. It’s also on international fashion editors’ radars, with prominent names including Manish Malhotra gaining fans overseas. Some have completely crossed over to other fashion markets; Ashish Gupta studied fine art in Delhi before moving to the UK to complete BA and MA courses in fashion — he’d dreamt of being a designer since he was 12 years old. Gupta’s label, simply called Ashish, has shown at London Fashion Week since 2004 and is known for its flamboyant embellishments. However, Ashish hasn’t forgotten his roots: all his collections are made in India, where the designer’s mother takes charge of the factory.
Like Ashish, the Indian fashion industry may have the potential for global dominance and the freedom to grow, but its roots are never forgotten. Both the Fashion Design Council of India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have backed #IWearHandloom, a social media initiative by textiles minister Smiriti Irani celebrating the value of traditional handloom fabrics. Irani isn’t alone — famous faces from Bollywood and beyond have shared their selfies in handloom clothing. Laila Tyabji, one of India’s most vocal supporters of home-grown crafts, was naturally involved. She also spent four weeks this summer donning a different cotton sari every day, to demonstrate the versatility of saris and their individual prints.
From Bollywood epics to pin-sharp photography and cutting-edge fashion, India thrives on imagination, creativity and the freedom to dream. Here’s to the next 70 years of free thinking.