The rakhi: a design for modern India

Disegno Daily

Those who have watched Bollywood films of the sixties and seventies will be familiar with the image: a doting sister tying a colourful bracelet around her brother’s wrist. The bracelet is a rakhi and, more than any other piece of design, its evolution is a symbol of the changing face of modern India.

The rakhi is part of Raksha Bandhan, an annual Indian festival celebrated by Hindus in August. In the festival, sisters tie a rakhi around the right wrists of their brother as a sign of their mutual filial bond. Raksha Bandhan is an ancient festival, but is increasingly adapting to suit the economic and cultural demands of a new and so-called “rising” India.

The design of rakhi, a once simple cord of threads, has evolved into an elaborate object. The bracelets now take countless forms and are used in ways that speak of an India that is transforming and reinventing itself, while ensuring its ancient traditions and customs remain in tow. Ever since its economy was liberalised through the major reforms of the early nineties, India has grappled with the complexities and contradictions of modernity.

Within the lives of some who survive today, the rakhi was a simple set of woven red or saffron cotton threads, twisted or plaited together to create a cord. It finds its origins in the early Hindu epics – in which a piece of makeshift cloth torn from a sari could be bound around the wrist as a protective amulet – and from numerous Hindu rites where the tying of thread is highly auspicious.

Elaborated from its original identity as a set of bound threads, there are now thousands of varieties of rakhi. Often intertwined with strands of tinsel, rakhis carry a badge-like motif in their centre. This motif – which may take the form of anything from a floral pattern of paper petals to a religious icon – is moulded from plastic or cut from sandalwood, and glued to the cord. Whether inspired by Indian or Western jewellery, whether foil-plated-metal, silk or cotton, there is a rakhi for everyone. Like in any good capitalist society, all you have to do is hand over enough money.

The most obvious sign that the rakhi has become a consumer good is the advent of designs for children. Children once wore threads cut from the same reel as their parents’ rakhis, but now manufacturers mass-produce special alternatives. Known as “toy rakhis” – because of the plastic toy figurine that they usually feature – the latest fads include Angry Birds rakhis (inspired by the iPhone app) and Chhota Bheem rakhis (named after a character in a famous Indian cartoon). Toys are interchangeable with figures of gods like Hanuman and Krishna; and Mickey Mouse and Super Mario seem to have acquired an equivalent timeless status, appearing on rakhis year after year.

The toy rakhi is where religion meets popular culture most clearly. A sacred thread with a miniature plastic toy stuck onto it, it celebrates children’s consumerism as an ineluctable world of fantasy, an aspiration, a plastic dream. The question it leaves you asking is, where does the consumer good end and the religious one begin?

This question becomes even more perplexing if we consider the case of the global brand Cadburys. Like rakhi manufacturers, Cadburys have caught on to the fact that when marketing their chocolate to Indians, Raksha Bandhan sells. In recent years, a Raksha Bandhan-themed advertising campaign has cemented the connection between Cadburys and the rakhi to such a startling degree that a number of online retailers now sell rakhis alongside Cadburys chocolate.

Vodafone is another retailer to capitalise on the festival. In one television advert, a brother lovingly gives his sister a Vodafone handset to mark Raksha Bandhan. With no rakhi featured, the Vodaphone phone takes centre stage. On seeing the brother and sister’s poignant exchange, viewers are implored to “put their money where their rakhi is.”

It is easy to paint the rakhi as an object tainted by the vagaries of consumerism, but this is only a partial picture. Despite the attempts of manufacturers and global brands to transform it into a product, the rakhi remains more than a commodity and continues to be used in ways that show it continues to mean something beyond its material worth.

Last year the chief minister of Bihar, a state in eastern India, endorsed a series of green policies by tying a rakhi around a tree trunk on Raksha Bandhan. Additionally, each year the West Bengal Association of Voluntary Blood Donors holds a blood donation event on Raksha Bandhan. The poster for one event included an image of a wrist bearing a rakhi alongside the emotive slogan: “Let Blood Bind us Together Forever.” This year, at one school in the central state of Maharashtra, students celebrated Raksha Bandhan by tying rakhis around the wrists of the drivers of their school buses.

Although big business may have capitalised on India’s religious festivals, they remain a long way off succumbing to the kind of consumerism that has come to characterise Christmas or St Valentine’s Day in the West.┬áThe rakhi is a symbol of modern India: a piece of design increasingly subject to the demands of capitalism, but nonetheless rooted in tradition.

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