Jason Temasfieldt and a bunch of like-minded youngsters found themselves against a wall while brainstorming on the ways to raise their voices against sexual harassment of women. They wanted to put up billboards, and place television and print advertisements — anything to reach out to more people. But, they did not have enough funds to take their cause forward on a larger platform. So, they did the next best thing.
“We put up messages like ‘It could be your sister tomorrow. Karma bites hard!’ and ‘It’s not about my thighs. It’s about your eyes’ on T-shirts and wore them everywhere we went,” says Temasfieldt, the 24-year-old co-founder of We the People Foundation (WTPF), an NGO that addresses the issue of sexual harassment of women in public places.
Shurbhi Sharma, a volunteer at WTPF, says team members wanted to find “an easy way to send a social message out into the world” and the best way to do that was through T-shirts. “These days, college students and other youngsters seem to wear nothing but tees. So, it felt like a good idea to use this piece of clothing to take our cause to a broader audience,” explains the 18-year-old.
The one-liners adorning the T-shirts, often humorous but mostly hard-hitting, did what hours of pontification had failed to do. Soon, friends, family and even strangers started stopping the WTPF team, and enquiring about sexual harassment and the ways to curb it.
Here to stay?
The T-shirt has undergone a sea change in recent times — from a symbol of self-expression to that of activism. While humour and shock value still rule the roost when it comes to flaunting messages on tees, there is a slow and steady shift towards meaningful and socially relevant ideas.
“Words or designs on T-shirts have a great recall value and are known to create an impact, sometimes small, but more often big, on our minds,” feels businessman Manmohan Singh, who has come up with a selection of T-shirts depicting the sketches and words of noted Urdu author and social commentator Sa’adat Hasan Manto. “He was the conscious keeper of the sub-continent and wrote extensively on communal harmony. Unfortunately, not many people are aware about his contribution to literature. We are trying to promote his works through this line,” he says.
Singh’s earlier line of clothing had famous quotes by Mahatma Gandhi. Those by renowned physicist Albert Einstein, British prime minister Winston Churchill and ace cricketer Sachin Tendulkar are currently in the pipeline. “Inspirational quotes by great thinkers are a good way to send across a positive idea to the target audience and potential customers,” he admits.
Outlet for angst
Last year, when the academic year ended and examination results were looming large, Singh’s T-shirts with the ‘It’s OK to fail’ theme sold like hot cakes. There was one that read, ‘Paas ya fail? Aaal is well’, and another that combined sex education with an anti-suicide message. Inside the two Os of the word ‘CHOOSE’ was a picture of a condom that was ticked ‘Right’ and another of a noose that was ticked ‘Wrong’.
“These tees were targeted at students struggling with peer and parental pressure in educational institutions and in their own homes. Our intention was to address student suicides that follow every year once examination results are out. And, the tees managed to create the intended buzz,” he adds.
Singh says T-shirts with social messages are popular mostly with the youth since they have lots of angst but not enough channels for self-expression. “While these tees are trendy and fun, they are also a great way to put across a positive point succinctly,” he feels.
Entrepreneur Neil Dantas, known for his quirky clothes, accessories and furniture designs, points out that he talks about what is happening around him through his work.
Dantas designed his first T-shirt after the July 11 train blasts in 2006 in Mumbai. It had a graphic of train handles with several hands holding on to them with the words, ‘We’re still holding on’. “It was a tribute to the resilient spirit of Mumbai and how the city continued to function despite what had happened,” he says.
Since then, Dantas’ tees and accessories have had a say on almost everything under the sun — from the North Indian-Maharashtrian divide and communal harmony to the lack of space in the burgeoning city and its iconic black-and-yellow cabs. “My designs are not just graphics. They always have a message. I don’t just want to showcase my skills; I also want to highlight and talk about the issues that we face in our day-to-day lives,” he says.
His imagery is recognisable, but it has a twist. There is a T-shirt with a red BEST bus without an outline. “Through the open bus, I am trying to say there are no clearly defined lines on who can get on board and that everyone is welcome in Mumbai.”
However, not everyone gets a social message. Dantas says he has had requests for different colours for a green T-shirt with Om inscribed on it. He explains that the green depicts the colour in which most Muslim places of worship are painted in and the overlapping Om in white is a symbol for peaceful co-existence between religions. “The point would be defeated if the Om tees are made in any other colour but green. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand that.”