Jodi Magazine's latest issue
Would you believe that a pair of legs can kill a culture?
Some members of the Tamil community seem to think so, venting as much on social media over a bridal magazine cover.
The offending photo is featured in Jodi, an annual publication catering primarily to Tamil Canadians and coinciding with the same organization’s bridal show. In it, model Thanuska Subramaniam sits regally on a floral throne inspired by Beyoncé’s twins announcement Instagram photo. She’s wearing a traditional bridal saree, draped so that a slit leaves room for her legs to peak through.
For many, the cover is stunning, elegant and empowering. That’s what photographer Vipoositha Gnanenthra of Ovyian Photography and the magazine’s creative director Thadsiga Jayaseleen were aiming for.
“Every bride has their own sense of individuality,” says Jayaseleen, who worked on the concept with Gnanenthra. “And this issue was a celebration of whatever way they can drape their saree or wear their jewellery.”
But commenters on Jodi Bridal Show’s Facebook page and the online lifestyle publication TamilCulture.com are calling it a “mockery,” “shameful,” “an insult” and yet another way to kill Tamil culture. They declare outright that it is in no way representative of a Tamil Hindu bride. (Subramaniam is Tamil and Hindu, though not quite ready for marriage.)
A couple of guys suggest that the photo comes close to revealing the model’s crotch, like a South Asian take on Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct leg cross. This likely says more about those guys and their sweaty palms than anything in the cover image.
“When I saw that comment I was like, ‘First of all, I need to give you a lesson on human anatomy,’” says Subramaniam. “My crotch was not showing.”
The up-and-coming model was “shocked” when the shit storm started brewing online last week, particularly because she received nothing but positive feedback during the bridal show and is pretty proud of the final product herself. “I love it. I didn’t even think I could look like that.”
She’s got support from many online commentators who were quick to clap back against those declaring the Jodi photo an affront and Tamil culture’s death siren.
The ruckus is just the latest iteration in an online war of words within the Tamil diaspora, which you can find popping off on sites like TamilCulture.com. There are those like Subramaniam who were born in Canada and find creative ways to express their cultural background while keeping up with current trends, too. And there are many who latch onto cultural purity, maintaining traditions the way they left them in Sri Lanka.
For a community whose roots were taken from them by a civil war, preserving traditions is a new form of survival. But it also ignores the changes happening in South Asia, which doesn’t remain static and insular amidst global influences. According to Jayaseleen, for years, far more provocative images of women in sarees have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar India and Vogue India. Some included women without blouses, showing side boob and all, which, as Gnanenthra points out, is how sarees were worn before European colonialists interfered with tradition.
The purists dismiss those arguments, and as Subramaniam points out, it's more than a little telling (and “annoying”) that the most insistent among them are men.
The articles that get the biggest and most passionate responses on TamilCulture.com deal with women’s rights and what defines Tamil culture – two topics often at odds with each other.
The culture is patriarchal. The red saree is part of a package that includes arranged marriage complete with a dowry, caste hierarchy and a puberty ceremony for young Tamil girls after they first get their period (still practised in Toronto), which traditionally indicates a readiness to marry.
So it's not surprising that whenever TamilCulture.com posts a story about female empowerment, the resistance comes back with aggressive slut-shaming and questions about why a site that calls itself Tamil Culture would post such offending material. The site’s brief post on the Jodi cover generated the same response, because once again, a female owning her sexuality and asserting individuality is a threat to the entire culture.
If a pair of legs can actually kill this thing, then let's go get some nails for the coffin.
But for Gnanenthra, a friend who I will from here on out refer to as Vipoo, the cover image is meant to help preserve culture. On top of her work as a bridal and fashion photographer, she is also the owner of Little Black Sari, an Etsy like marketplace for the coveted fabric.
“My job is to reinvigorate interest in sarees,” says Vipoo. She tinkers with draping methods in online videos to inspire a younger generation who live a lifestyle at odds with tradition. It's the same mentality she brought to the Jodi cover: a sexy twist on tradition with acceptance that culture evolves to survive in a new environment.
“The saree is a piece of cloth," she says. "You can wear it any which way. It’s evolved for so many years because it was so versatile. It kept up with changing times.”
Vipoo also hopes that time will help her work with more Tamil models, a demographic she finds extremely rare. We have South Asian models aplenty, but Sri Lankan Tamils with darker complexion are hard to come by, perhaps because a repressive environment makes posing for a magazine a daunting pursuit. With her boss pose, Thanuska Subramaniam is among very few Tamil women to grace a magazine cover in Canada. And we see the response that got.
“There is so much Tamil female talent that was behind this cover,” says Subramaniam, listing off everyone from Vipoo to the women who arranged the floral throne. “It’s sad that all those people who had negative things to say about the cover, didn’t want to acknowledge that aspect behind it. People should be proud of that. They should encourage that.”