India-Australia relations suffered a minor setback this week, after a swimsuit by an Australian fashion designer featuring a portrait of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, sparked outrage across the subcontinent. Designer and model Lisa Burke presented the swimsuit as part of the latest collection of her Lisa Blue label at Australian Fashion Week Thursday. But when pictures of an Indian-looking model wearing a one-piece swimsuit with a portrait of Lakshmi printed on its front and rear made their way to India, Hindu nationalists didn’t like what they saw.
Over the weekend, they took to the streets in several Indian cities, including Hyderabad where pictures show activists burning the Australian flag in protest against what they viewed as an act of deep disrespect. Ms. Burke’s label was quick to announce a halt in production, vowing that the Lakshmi swimsuit would never make it to stores. “The image of Goddess Lakshmi will not appear on any piece of Lisa Blue swimwear for the new season, with a halt put on all production of the new range and pieces shown on the runway from last week removed. This range will never be available for sale in any stockists or retail outlets anywhere in the world, ” said a statement posted on the Lisa Blue Web site Saturday. “We apologize to the Hindu community and take this matter very seriously,” it said.
The statement explained the Hindu god print was just a naïve faux pas. “The uses of images of Goddess Lakshmi was not in any way a measure of calculated risk taking,” it said. But the company’s apology failed to end the controversy. Sunday, a group of orange-clad Hindu activists, led by the right-wing Shiv Shena party, staged a protest in Amristar. And Monday, the Hindu nationalist groups Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad gathered in New Delhi brandishing banners against the swimsuit and calling on the Indian government to take legal action against those who insult the Hindu gods and goddesses.