Issue 9

Humouring an Ill-Humored Audience

Historically, regimes have had a relatively high tolerance for jokes made at their expense. Perhaps because comedy possesses a tendency to humanize great leaders, making them more likeable by the masses. Thus, in a way, a healthy amount of humour directed at regimes only served to strengthen their rule. For instance, political satire was widely celebrated in the newly-independent India. Politicians like Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru even went as far as asking Keshav Shankar Pillai, the legendary cartoonists and political satirist to ‘not spare him’, asserting that all political figures no matter how highly respected should always be up for criticism by the citizens. After all, this tolerance towards criticism made for a central aspect of operating in a democracy. But with the recent arrest of Munawar Faruqui, the court order against Kunal Kamra and Rachita Taneja (@sanitarypanels), it is evident that the general public perceives political comedy quite differently today and have developed a rather averse or bitter attitude towards it. And the politicians and authorities no longer feel flattered and find political comedy to be offensive or even threatening to their regimes. 

This difference in perceiving comedy is not simply a product of the evolution of comedy (which hasn’t evolved much and certainly hasn’t become darker or more offensive over the years). But what has changed drastically is our relationship with the government and the institutions that often find themselves being targeted by these jokes.

This new attitude stems from the rise of nationalist leaders and sentiments within the country. A common tactic employed by a nationalist leader is to create socially constructed threats and make their image synonymous with that of the whole country. By constantly drawing attention to internal (minority groups within the country) and external threats (threat of war or economic domination by neighbouring countries, etc.), nationalist leaders fuel the anxiety of the citizens, making them feel constantly threatened by these so-called ‘anti-national’ elements. Hence, the act of questioning or commenting on a leader, their movement or their policies is interpreted as an attack on the entire country and all valid criticisms can thus easily be dismissed as anti-national propaganda. 

In addition to this, since religion plays such a huge role in Indian politics, politicians are more likely to cater to the wants of powerful religious groups. Thus, championing of religious causes by politicians instantly leads to their glorification and increased favourability within certain religious groups. So much so that certain political figures are often compared to or considered to be reincarnations of various Gods. With such associations established in the minds of the people, it becomes impossible to question the actions of these leaders without hurting the religious sentiments of the people. And any remark on them is taken to be a direct insult towards that particular religion. 

People also tend to view the government as a patriarchal figure, one which maintains order and is in charge of the affairs of the country. So, when someone questions the government (a phrase synonymous with ‘insults the government’), we take it very personally, as if to say, ‘Arey, Baap pe mat jaa’ (Translation: Hey, don’t talk about my father that way). 

So simply put, Indians haven’t forgotten how to laugh at themselves but they have developed a habit of closely identifying the ‘individual’ as the entire ‘collective’. Hence, the individual (or the political leader) is seen as the face of the collective (which could be a certain religious group, a political party or the country itself) and thus, all opposition no matter how logical or insightful feels triggering, offensive and disrespectful in nature. 

As we continue to silence political comedians, we are preventing comedy from humanizing our politicians and leading to their further glorification. This trend is being employed increasingly in many countries with authoritarian governments like Russia, Turkey, Egypt, etc. where political satirists are either forced to quit comedy or to live in exile. But cracking down on political satirists doesn’t always end in favour of the government. This is due to the rise of the Laughtivism movement, i.e. the practice of non-violent dissent which uses humour and satire to dismantle fear and critique institutions. Laughtivism tends to force the government into a lose-lose situation where they can either take action against the comedians (often exposing themselves to ridicule for feeling threatened by comedians) or allow them to continue and voice their dissent (at the risk of escalating opposition towards their regime). 

In India, for example, Munawar Faruqui’s new comedy special ‘Ghost Stories’ was trending at no. 7 (in India) after he was arrested for a religious joke that he did not make. And Kunal Kamra’s response to the Supreme Court went viral on various social media platforms and Rachita has continued to create political webcomics to voice dissent, even after they were both issued a court order for contempt of court. In short, the state failed to ensure corrective action on the part of the comedians. And also by taking action against them, the state ended up increasing the popularity of these comedians and broadening their reach. 

But by taking such extreme actions against political comedians, what the government has managed to do is create an atmosphere saturated with fear, wherein other artists and citizens would be reluctant to express their divergent political views in public. And while many comedians have been scared into submission, others have become more vocal and even blunter with their political material. Vir Das, for example, just released the third episode of his series ‘Ten on Ten’, where he talks about topics like freedom of speech and religion, issues that many other comedians are now too scared to touch. So although there may be fewer political satirists left in the country, those still standing are just gearing up to show their teeth. 

In one of his stand-up comedy routines from 2017, Kunal Kamra stated that ‘I love India, I have to say this because kaha milega inta content?’ (Translation: I love India, I have to say this because where else will you get this much content?). By repressing the freedom of expression of artists and citizens alike, the state has given political satirists something that they crave the most: content, and is fuelling the same fire that they are trying so hard to put out. 

Nonetheless, in an attempt to stifle any dissent, the government has tried to tactfully diminish the scope of political satire in India. On the other hand, an increase in demand for political content, infotainment, etc. has made the business of political comedy a risky yet lucrative option. Upon his release, Faruqui posted a video titled ‘Munawar Faruqui Leaving Comedy’ which ended with him saying the words, ‘there is only one reason I do comedy, and it’s this…’ and walking into a room full of a cheering audience and being met with thunderous applause. And that’s perhaps the best way to sum up the scope of political comedy in India – that no matter how hard the state tries to suppress it, for as long as the people continue to demand political content, the art of political satire will never die out.

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

Where Fashion Trends Come From and Why You Should Care

My father, a physicist, once proudly told me that he doesn’t care about fashion. “I don’t think about these unimportant things,” he said. “My focus is on my work.” On most days he wears t-shirts or button downs with neutral tone pants, and he might add a jacket for special occasions. While not the most unusual, he still has a distinct sense of style and it has evolved over the years. I asked him why he didn’t wear the same thing all the time, or just throw on a potato sack and call it a day. He said, “Oh, because I like my clothes. I think they look nice.” Several others like him see fashion as a waste of time, but are involved in the fashion process nonetheless. No matter how far we may try to stay from fashion, due to the nature of the world we live in most of us are forced to make choices regarding clothing everyday. It is simply these choices that make us active participants in the fashion process, knowingly or not. 

Many choose to follow trends in order to fit in and feel a sense of belonging. While some may go out of their way to dress in un-trendy ways, and distance themselves from those they see as ‘imitators’, philosopher Georg Simmel saw these people as engaging in an inverse form of imitation, ultimately becoming part of a group of others like them. Then there are people like my dad, who don’t see themselves as part of the fashion world at all. Unfortunately for him, as a modern consumer he is just as affected by fashion trends as anyone else. Since all clothes retailers are influenced by the fashion world, when he buys their clothes he is adopting their interpretation of any given trend. 

As a multibillion dollar industry, fashion phenomena have attracted attention from sociologists, philosophers and market scientists. However, there is still no formalized theory of fashion, both due to a lack of research as well as the sheer volume of data and variables. After all, everyone wears clothes. Runway shows put on by designers provide an excellent jumping off point for learning about fashion, as the themes espoused by top brands both reflect and inform the choices of the larger fashion industry. 

September and February are usually the months where brands and fashion houses host fashion shows portraying their spring/summer and autumn/winter collections respectively, for the upcoming seasons. These shows take place in various “fashion weeks” around the world (one week per city), with London, Milan, Paris, and New York attracting the most attention. However, like everything else since last March, the Autumn/Winter 2021 shows were different this time. Most designers showcased their collections virtually, while some chose not to show at all. 

While discussing their Menswear Autumn/Winter 21 collection, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons of Prada insisted that they wanted the collection to feel like an emotional response to everything the world has been through in the past year. Each look was built off the foundation of a bodysuit, to represent the body and symbolize vulnerability and a need for intimacy. Fashion has often been seen as a response to the events shaping society and the world outside. This ‘response’ attitude was evident in many of the fall/winter collections shown in February as well as the spring/summer shows from last September, when the mood was perhaps even more subdued. On the other hand the Prada womenswear collection that came out a month after the menswear show struck a more optimistic note, perhaps reflecting a turning point in the pandemic with the launch of vaccines and the tangible hope in the air. 

Prada and Simons’ descriptions of their collections would fit into the external or exogenous model of the fashion process presented by sociologists, which says that changes in clothing simply reflect changes in the cultural values of society at large. While designers might well be inspired by the world around them as well as their lived experience, this model falls short when discussing the adoption of certain trends by different social groups. Cultural changes might affect the popularity of certain trends, but they cannot explain the different times at which trends are adopted by different groups, thus failing to predict future trends. Internal models can address these questions while looking at the fashion process as a self-contained phenomenon, influenced more by internal changes than external, cultural events. Simmel suggests that changes in clothing styles are the result of a ‘trickle down effect’, with trends being steadily adopted by successive social classes, starting with the upper class. 

According to William Reynolds, a marketing professor from Chicago, trends may be either horizontal or vertical. A horizontal trend is one which spreads far, but does not change much during this time, while vertical trends remain restricted to a small group but change rapidly. Most fashion trends embody both these attributes to some degree. For example, low rise jeans in the 2000s became more popular as the waists got lower. When fashion trends die out or reach a turning point, it could be due to functional or cultural barriers to further movement in the same direction. In the late nineteenth century, hoop-skirts or crinolines were extremely popular and were made wider and wider until movement became virtually impossible. They then gave way to the smaller crinolette or bustle. 

Within a small time period trends also often show a strong resurgence, exemplified by the wild popularity of nineties trends in the past few years. Rachel Green from the nineties show Friends was a cultural icon then and still is to this day, with her style recently becoming the focus of dozens of fashion articles and blogs. Trends may exhibit this cyclical nature due to the same technological and cultural barriers, becoming more and more extreme in one direction, ultimately reaching a peak and moving to the other extreme. For example, the long ‘tunic’ tops that were popular in the late 2000s and the short crop tops that they were replaced by soon after.

Rachel Green from the nineties show, Friends.

In an eighteenth century essay on fashion, philosopher Christian Garve cited the innate human desire for change as one of the reasons for changing fashion trends. In all aspects of life, humans seek novelty and variation, sometimes even if it worsens their position. Whether fashion trends come from influential designers or cultural revolutions, or trickle down from the rich, they feed our desire for change and our craving for aesthetic beauty. Fashion remains an important way for human beings to define and express their identity, and to relate to those around them. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of political science, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are fashion, music and writing. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).