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The Artistry Of The Saree: Exploring Intellectual Property Rights And Cultural Heritage Through Draping Techniques

Fashion's biggest night, the Met Gala, converges a world of style, elegance and celebrity. As the internet fawns over the outfits, makeup, hair and accessories, all eyes in India were fixated on Alia Bhatt, radiating with pride as she debuted the first-ever Saree gracing the Met Gala.

To Indians, the sight of the most commonly worn attire of women of the country on the world's largest runway of opulence strikes a sense of patriotism, pride and preeminence. The 'Saree' is a garment that highlights the versatility of the Indian woman and has long been a prominent symbol of Indian culture, elegance, and feminine grace. It is a long, unstitched piece of intricately woven or decorated fabric draped over the body in a particular style.

There is no doubt that Alia Bhatt did justice to the "Garden of Time" theme, adorning floral and spring colours and opting for statement jewellery. Her Saree was designed by legendary Indian designer - Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who has been a revolutionary force when it comes to traditional Indian garments. His style is known to be a captivating blend of timeless elegance and contemporary refinement, marrying the allure of Indian heritage with the polish of modernity. Alia's look at the Met Gala can simply be put as grace intertwined with a sleek and contemporary flair, which is a testament to the versatility of the Indian Saree, a garment that can be draped in more than 100 ways across different regions of the country, each tradition ingeniously crafting its own distinct way to adorn this timeless garment, reflecting the nation's rich tapestry of diversity.

As the Indian Saree finds its way onto the world stage, one can only wonder if there will be a paradigmatic shift in how the West views it as a garment. India, being a confluence of cultures, has given rise to a myriad of draping styles in different regions of the country, with each tradition ingeniously crafting its own distinct way to adorn this timeless garment, reflecting the nation's rich tapestry of diversity. This diversity in saree draping styles is not just a reflection of India's cultural heritage but also a testament to the creativity and artistry of its people.

Yet, a significant challenge arises: while intellectual property laws safeguard designers' creative expressions in terms of fabric, patterns, or motifs, there exists no legal framework within the domestic laws to extend such protection to the different draping styles that are an integral part of the saree's cultural heritage. Sarees as an "Intellectual Property" can be protected under the Copyrights Act 1957 or the Designs Act 2000, but this protection only extends to 'functional aspects' of the garment. So then, should protection be offered to the various draping styles?

To answer this question, it's imperative first to answer the following questions: Does the draping of a Saree come under the purview of a functional aspect of a garment? If yes, how can the draping style be given intellectual property rights? To whom will these rights be given? And why are the various draping styles not currently protected under the law?

The draping of a Saree, as a functional aspect of a garment, is subjective to different people. To some, a functional aspect is merely the utility of the garment as plain clothes that need to be worn. To some, the functional element of a garment influences how the wearer of the garment is perceived by society. In Indian society, how a Saree is draped carries significant cultural and social implications.

The draping style often indicates the wearer's marital status, region, community, and even the occasion for which it is worn. A traditionally draped saree is perceived as a symbol of modesty, grace, and adherence to cultural norms, while more contemporary or fusion draping styles may be viewed as a departure from convention or a statement of individuality. The act of draping a saree itself is considered an art form, with the ability to drape it elegantly being seen as a marker of femininity and poise.

By fulfilling its purpose as a functional aspect of a garment, the method of draping a saree should be eligible to receive protection under Intellectual Property laws. Strangely, however, the method of draping a garment does not come under the purview of any domestic legislation.

Under the Copyrights Act 1957, the draping of a saree doesn't exactly fall within the ambit of 'artistic craftsmanship' under Article 2(c)(iii) of the Act, so to speak, as that would mostly be limited to the design, material, or weave of the saree. 'Artistic craftsmanship' should not have an excessively restrictive meaning, especially in an art form as ancient and diverse as Saree draping. Since there is no single way to drape a saree, with numerous styles evolving organically across different regions and communities over centuries, the Copyright Act does not have the power to grant exclusive rights over a particular draping method to any individual maker or designer.

The origins of most traditional draping styles are virtually impossible to trace back to a single creator, as the history of the saree itself dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years, intricately woven into the cultural fabric of the Indian subcontinent. These techniques have been passed down through generations, refined and reinterpreted by countless practitioners, making attributing ownership to any person or group impractical.

Under the Designs Act 2000, the draping of a saree doesn't fall within the definition of "design" under Article 2(d) of the Act. The definition mentioned in the act primarily applies to articles; wrapping and arranging a garment cannot come under it. The method of draping a saree cannot be registered, as the fluid and impermanent nature of saree draping makes it difficult to represent the process as a static design sufficiently. Designs registered under the Act must appeal to and are judged solely by the eye. While a draped saree may be visually appealing, the actual method or technique of draping is more akin to a process rather than a visual design itself.

It is, however, possible to provide the method of draping a saree with a 'Geographical Indication tag' ("GI Tag"). Under the Goods (Registration & Protection) Act 1999, India allows the registration of intangible goods that derive uniqueness from their place of origin. Many saree draping styles are unique to particular states, regions or communities in India and are deeply rooted in their cultural identities. Securing a GI tag would help preserve these indigenous draping techniques as part of the nation's rich intangible heritage while enabling traditional practitioners to reap economic benefits from their unique skills and knowledge. Furthermore, a GI tag can serve as a mark of authenticity, preventing misappropriation and misrepresentation of these regional saree draping styles by unauthorised parties.

Coming to who would be the owner of such intellectual property? A particular indigenous committee/ tribe or members of a clan or community can own such Intellectual Property under Section 11 of the Goods (Registration & Protection) Act, 1999. A GI tag could be immensely advantageous for the communities and regions where these traditions originated and thrived. Firstly, it officially recognises and aids in preserving these intangible cultural heritage draping techniques, shielding them from dilution or loss across generations.

Moreover, the GI certification prevents unauthorised parties from misappropriating or passing off these traditional draping styles by providing legal protection and enabling quality control measures to uphold authenticity. Importantly, GI-certified products command premium pricing and enhanced marketability, which can generate economic prospects, revenue streams, and employment opportunities for the communities practising these intricate draping arts.

Additionally, a GI tag promotes the cultural identity associated with these regional draping styles at national and global levels while establishing a strong place-based branding, attracting cultural tourism and economic spin-offs. Crucially, the GI holder gains exclusive rights to certify and regulate the use of the draping method, creating a unique market differentiator and preserving the authenticity of an invaluable facet of India's diverse cultural tapestry.

But can a "process" rather than the end outcome be afforded protection by a GI tag? In my opinion, the answer would be yes. Take the example of Swiss watches - their method of assembly, which involves skilled craftsmanship and techniques passed down through generations, is considered a key factor that contributes to their reputation and quality.

Similarly, draping a Saree involves a distinct method and technique that varies across different regions of India. Each region has its unique draping style, with specific pleats, tucks, and folds passed down from generation to generation. These regional variations in draping techniques contribute to the distinct character and identity of the saree from that particular region.

Just as the method of assembly in Swiss watchmaking is protected under GI, the traditional methods and techniques of draping a saree in different regions of India could potentially qualify for similar protection. This recognition would acknowledge the cultural significance, skills, and traditions associated with draping a Saree in a particular region.

If we only look at the "process" of draping a saree, there should be avenues to protect Saree-draping under Indian Patent Laws. However, this is impossible as the method of draping a Saree fails to meet the qualifications under the Patents Act of 1970. Under this act, Patents are granted for new inventions capable of industrial application. Draping styles or techniques do not qualify as patentable inventions as they are traditional knowledge and practices that have been passed down through generations. The traditional practice of Saree draping is not patentable subject matter under the Indian Patent Act as it lacks novelty, doesn't have an inventive step, doesn't come under the ambit of "invention" under Article 2(l) of the Act, isn't a "technological advancement", or doesn't have any "industrial application" under Article 2(ja) of the Act.

GI tags have previously been given to Sarees that do not possess geographical domination but have earned their reputation due to their geographical origin, for example, the Jamdani Saree of Bangladesh. This can be extended to draping styles, each region's unique availability of local materials like fabrics, embroidery, and dye sources, and the influence of climatic conditions, which have lent distinctive characters and appearances to the draping styles.

Take another example of how an intangible "method" can be afforded protection under WIPO laws - Trade Secrets. Both trade secrets and the traditional methods of draping a saree involve knowledge or techniques that are kept confidential and not widely known, deriving their value from being kept secret - trade secrets provide a competitive advantage to businesses, while unique draping methods give artisans a distinct advantage tied to the reputation and authenticity of their regional saree draping style. The knowledge transfer and preservation occur through controlled dissemination and confidentiality agreements for trade secrets, oral traditions, apprenticeships, and practical training within communities for draping methods.

The reason that Indian legislation has no exclusive rights over the methods of draping sarees is because of their lack of permanent form. The intangible and ever-evolving nature of saree draping techniques poses a challenge for existing intellectual property frameworks that primarily deal with tangible, fixed expressions or creations. Additionally, these traditional draping styles are considered part of the shared cultural heritage of various communities in India, making it difficult to attribute exclusive ownership or authorship to any single individual or group.

There should be some sort of concrete view on the draping of a Saree as it is beyond just a style of dress; each saree draping technique carries centuries of evolved wisdom, skill, and artistic expression passed down through generations. The seemingly simple folds contain complexities that unite the realms of utility, aesthetics, and identity. This generation has a tangible element to it, preserving the cultural heritage of India.

Granting Geographical Indication (GI) tags to traditional saree draping methods could have several potential downsides. It may restrict the free exchange and sharing of cultural practices that have historically transcended geographical boundaries, hampering innovation and experimentation. With many regions having overlapping or similar draping traditions, delineating clear boundaries for GI tags would be challenging and could lead to conflicts and disputes over ownership.

There are also concerns about cultural appropriation, as these practices are deeply ingrained in various communities, and restricting them through GI tags may be seen as appropriating shared cultural heritage. Enforcing GI tags for saree draping methods could be difficult, given the widespread nature of these traditions.

Additionally, there is a risk of over-commercialization, with certain regions potentially exploiting the GI tag for commercial gain, undermining the cultural significance of saree draping traditions. Extensive consultations with stakeholders, including traditional practitioners, cultural experts, and communities, would be necessary to determine the appropriateness and feasibility of granting GI tags while balancing preserving cultural heritage and promoting inclusivity and innovation.

India boasts a number of various draping styles - the Nivi style, Bengali style, Rajasthani style, Maharashtrian style, Kashmiri style, etc., to name a few. Affording the different styles of draping Saree protection under the law and providing them with a GI tag could be beneficial by preserving these traditional techniques, promoting regional diversity, and creating economic opportunities for local artisans and communities. A well-designed GI tagging system can help prevent misappropriation and misrepresentation of these age-old saree draping traditions while ensuring quality control and authenticity.

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