Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre: Political discourse in S, M, L and XL

May 13, 2018, 06:01 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

Political sloganeering flourishes in the T-shirt space, even as poetry, regional pride and street agitations find a chest-wide popular platform

Sumedha  Raikar-MhatreJagadamb refers to the ancestral deity Tulja Bhavani whose shrine sits in the mid-size city of Tuljapur in Osmanabad district. But, in present-day Maharashtra, the term Jagadamb rises above the geographical address. It is an embodiment of the feisty street-fighting youth, belonging to the Marathas or other backward castes, who owe their allegiance to a goddess who was also the motivation for Maharashtra's most-revered Chhatrapati Shivaji. Flashed on hooded T-shirts and pullovers, 'Jagadamb' has emerged topmost among the potent watchwords currently dominating popular discourse. Online sales and offline retail purchases across the state speak for the all-seasons connect of Jagadamb, which has takers irrespective of commemorative days and morcha schedules.

Abhijit Tarphe, a Dadar-based calligraphy artist, creates tees that occupy the fun space between political discourse, street lingo and social commentary. Pic/Ashish Raje
Abhijit Tarphe, a Dadar-based calligraphy artist, creates tees that occupy the fun space between political discourse, street lingo and social commentary. Pic/Ashish Raje

Apparel carrying longer mantras of Maratha loyalty — Ek Maratha Lakh Maratha, Hoy Maratha and Amhi Shivrayanche Sainik — have enjoyed cyclical demand, corresponding with the calendar of the 58 silent marches held last year. As the anecdote goes, Maratha T-shirts are in a "politically dormant" state at the moment. But fiery speaker (at the Maratha Kranti Morcha) and advocate from Aurangabad, Swati Nakhate Patil, feels T-shirts are effective communication tools. "What better reminder of the time when we took to the streets for reservations and equal terms? The identifiable catch lines recap our journey so far." T-shirt messages, she thinks, help in creating a family of volunteers. She'd know considering she is head of the Akka Foundation which has initiated a reform movement against socials ills like dowry and superstition among the Marathas. The foundation's signature T-shirt, wears a generic slogan – Sarvansathi Sarva Kahi – which indicates a wider fight for everyone's rights.

Swati Nakhate Patil, seen here with volunteers wearing their signature tee with the slogan, Sarvansathi Sarva Kahi. She heads the Akka Foundation which is fighting against socials ills. She has been one of the main speakers at the Maratha Kranti Morcha over the last one year
Swati Nakhate Patil, seen here with volunteers wearing their signature tee with the slogan, Sarvansathi Sarva Kahi. She heads the Akka Foundation which is fighting against socials ills. She has been one of the main speakers at the Maratha Kranti Morcha over the last one year

"The Marāthās" is a collective term referring to an Indo Aryan group of Hindus, Marathi-speaking castes of warriors and peasants who created an empire, covering a major part of India. They are not alone in the fight for rights. Another rights movement that's currently finding a reflection on T-shirts through creative slogans, photographs and graphic designs concerns the Lingayat community. They are seeking legal recognition as a religion distinct from Hinduism. Inspired by the success of their counterparts in Karnataka, the Lingayats in Maharashtra (some of whom have thronged Mantralaya too) are pressing for their religious minority status on T-shirts, which sing paeans to 12th century social reformer, philosopher and statesman Basaveshwara.

The Killa brand of tees focuses on Maratha pride associated with Chhatrapati Shivaji, and his various forts
The Killa brand of tees focuses on Maratha pride associated with Chhatrapati Shivaji, and his various forts

He rejected temple worship by replacing it with direct worship of Shiva in the form of the Ishtalinga necklace, the image of the linga set in a silver casket, to be worn at all times close to the heart. Little wonder that both, Basaveshwara and the Shiv linga prominently feature on the T-shirts. As a professor of history and a keen observer of progressive movement slogans, Satara-based Amrut Salunkhe points out an interesting contradiction in the Lingayat factions. Not all sub-sects recognise Basava as the founder, but they don't seem to mind the T-shirt — available in Kannada and Marathi typography — carrying the phrase, Jai Vishwaguru Dharmsansthapak Basaveshwar! "The dissident factions have not yet come up with a counter icon. At this point, two different T-shirt creatives wouldn't have helped in lobbying for the larger Lingayat brotherhood," Salunkhe feels.

Theme T-shirts honouring the men of letters in the Marathi cultural world have been in currency for two decades; a recent manifestation was seen during a death anniversary of late Namdeo Dhasal whose fans wore the poet-ideologue's world view on a memorial T-shirt. The Bharatiya brand made use of faces of popular litterateurs like PL Deshpande and Narayan Surve, just as it made good use of the Marathi Abhiman Geet, and distributed T-shirts on Ashadi Ekadashi, Holi and Ganesh Chaturthi. They fashioned kid-centric lyrical sequence tees on monsoon joys too. Bharatiya has now extended its T-shirt ideation to Hindi and is soon to come up with Tamil messages. Their fare was earlier vended at literary summits, before it grew popular online, somewhat in the provincial cosmos where the Killa T-shirts thrived. Designed by Malvan-based artist and JJ School of Applied Art alumnus Arun Amberkar, Killa garments focus on the fortresses built by Chhatrapati Shivaji. The iconic rajmudra (official signature) T-shirt has been a hit for over a decade. Amberkar calls the line "lovingly crafted, wearable and usable slivers of history."

Dadar-based calligraphy artist Abhijit Tarphe feels customised tees are a fun zone for current affairs to find a rightful space. His T-shirts displayed apt word play (Sonu, tuza mazhyavar bharvasa nay ka?) when RJ Mallishka had attacked the BMC. He captures the Mumbai commuter spirit in the line, Mili to BEST, Nahi Toh Next.
Tarphe also has a range of occasion-based T-shirts like the tricolour-filled Independence Day special or Gokulashtami's Aya Makhan Chor creative. It is another story that T-shirts for Gokulashtami and Holi usually are gifted by political party leaders, chiefly Shiv Sena Shakha Pramukhs.

Jai Bhim T-shirts as a community-building tool have worked well over the years, not just for the April 14 Babasaheb Ambedkar Jayanti or the December 6 Mahaparinirvan Din. The apparel also comes in handy for Buddha Jayanti and during any political rally Dalit groups organise. This year, a Goregaon-based youth association, designed a special T-shirt declaring Mazhi Chaityabhoomi, Swacchabhoomi (My clean Chaityabhoomi). It served two political purposes; an affirmation of the Swacch Bharat mantra, challenging the stereotypical notion of Dalits arriving from rural Maharashtra who converge at Dadar's Shivaji Park Chaityabhoomi and litter.

T-shirt messaging extends to a range of causes — Separate Vidarbha; Who Killed Judge Loya?; Make (Women Safe) in India; Rape Roko; India Against Corruption; Donate Eyes; Pinkathon run against breast cancer. It has also been used to add cohesion to groups (I am with Anna Hazare; Desh Me Narendra/ Pradesh Me Devendra) or merely declare strength (Dr B R Ambedkar: King Number 1) or sport a vibe (Dude Please, Thane is not Bombay!/ Delhi is about Mera Baap Kaun Hai, Mumbai is about Who I am). T-shirts can help start a conversation, from the polite to the political.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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