Kala Cola

The latest Diwali special advertisement by Coca-Cola in India uses ancient Warli tribal art for commercial objectives, reports Shalini Bhutani.

Warli art - Photo credit: Wikipedia

India’s most popular festival Diwali has long been considered a good period for business. Grabbing the opportunity, the global beverage giant Coca-Cola has launched a new ad film in its web and TV version, inviting the audience to celebrate a “Coke Diwali”!

However, this latest Diwali special advertisement borders at being politically incorrect, to say the least. It uses folk art imagery from the Warli culture, to show tribal figures moving to the remixed version of the Hindi film song “Jaata kahaan hai deewane, sub kuchh yahaan hai sanam”. (Roughly translates to ‘where are you going crazy lover, everything is here darling!’, pointing of course to the bubbly beverage in the bottle and the drinking experience it offers.) The dancers and drummers — all tribals — are shown to be celebrating Diwali with fire crackers et al and of course drinking the Cola straight from the bottle with the city in the distant horizon.

One can simply marvel at the animation and how the beautiful geometric designs typical of the Warli style dance on your screens. One could even muse at the deft fusion work with the visually aesthetic Indian folk art through modern digital production. Or one could just miss it all in blissful ignorance and satiate one’s thirst with the beverage, while the company rakes in the moolah. In fact to those in young urban India looking beyond the bottle and the party in this “red” brand, this might even be their first sight of tribal art. Ironically a dose of one’s own tribal culture through an advertisement by an Ameircan MNC headquarted in Atlanta, Georgia!

The likelihood is that many will know much less about the Indian tribe depicted – the Warli tribe that lives in the Western parts of the country in Maharashtra, India. The Warli art style is closest in design to pre-historic cave paintings. Nature is considered supreme by the Warli tribals. They celebrate the human-environment relationship. And the word ‘Warli’ itself literally means piece of land. That is how closely they see their connection with their land and therefore their reverence of the living world.

But to those who know of the antecedents of this beverage giant both in and outside India and more so to those whose basic drinking water has been threatened by the MNC, this ad film comes across as not only culturally insensitive but also deeply disrespectful. Especially since the Cola company has shown little respect to local communities’ rights of first-use to water. The company that invites you to simply party on with the liquid it offers, has actually been the party-pooper when it comes to drinking water.

The Plachimada struggle in the state of Kerala made news world over when the Coca Cola plant there was shut down in 2004. The Adivasi Samrakshana Sanghama there with others had pointed to the damage to agriculture and the pollution of water sources. Meanwhile, Rajasthan too has had its share of the Cola war on its water. In the drought-prone Kala Dera of Rajasthan the ground water levels dropped significantly due to over extraction by the company’s bottling plant. For the villagers there solely dependent on agriculture, it is the Kaala (black) Cola. So the farmers there sans water will not be amongst those celebrating a “Coke Diwali”.

There is yet another dimension to this film. That of the use of cultural concepts, be it folk art, indigenous motifs, tribal dresses, etc. for commercial imperatives. This reminds one of the Maori struggles for their dignity and cultural integrity. New Zealand has had to tweak its laws to require a Maori Advisory Committee to advise if a particular brand or trade mark is found offensive by its original people.

Anyhow, reasons enough that tribals aren’t really celebrating the festival with the Cola. They can breathe easy only if their little drops of joy (read water) are secure. Perhaps the song used in the commercial is not so inappropriate after all; what the local communities need actually lie with the Coca-Cola Company – the power, profit and the pints. Meanwhile, through the company’s adverts, kala (art) gets branded once again.

The word ‘kala’ has two meanings in Hindi: black and art

Shalini is a lawyer and works on issues of trade, agriculture and biodiversity. This piece was first published at http://www.d-sector.org/article-det.asp?id=1413

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team nor of Aliran.

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