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Why ‘Brand’ Mother Teresa is surrounded by controversy 

Sandeep Goyal & Carol Goyal

The blue-bordered white saree of Mother Teresa seems to have a penchant for remaining in the news. Last week we wrote about the Kolkata-based Missionaries of Charity obtaining a trademark on the famous attire of the Saint of the Gutters, which having been recognised as Intellectual Property of the organisation as on the fourth of September, 2016, coinciding with the day the Mother, was canonised

This week, the saree is back in focus. For not necessarily all the right reasons.

There is cardinal choler over the saree. []

One of the Vatican’s top cardinals is not pleased.”Holy Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a universal symbol, beloved by believers (and) unbelievers,” said Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, 85, an ex-prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Causes of Saints. “It is absurd that taxes will now have to be paid on her saree. It’s the first time I have heard anything like it,” he was quoted as saying by the online version of the Italian weekly Panorama, which hit shop shelves on Thursday. The white saree is a symbol of purity, while the three blue borders represent poverty, chastity and obedience. “It certainly does not honour the saint’s memory,” Saraiva Martins was quoted saying. Panorama added that the news had upset many at the Vatican to the point that Pope Francis was expected to put out a statement.

We reached out to Kolkata based IP lawyer, Biswajit Sarkar, who helped the Missionaries of Charity obtain the trademark on the Mother Teresa saree. Sarkar had some telling points to make in rebuttal of the fears being voiced out of the Vatican. For starters, he was of the view that the Vatican had not fully comprehended the trademark that had been obtained and was confusing it for a copyright. More importantly, he said that the trademark was only to protect against the unfair use of the Saint’s name, design and colour pattern of the saree. The trademark was unique in nature for protecting the distinctive pattern against misuse as the Missionaries were apprehensive about unauthorised commercial activities that could be misunderstood or mistakenly attributed to the Mother’s organisation. Sarkar also clarified that his own law firm had undertaken the IP exercise completely free of cost, pro bono.

Sarkar’s view could well be debated. But he could also well be right as we came across a Mother Teresa Institute of Management in Preet Vihar, Delhi which had absolutely no connect to the Missionaries! No wonder the Mother and her franchise needs safeguarding.

This brings us to brand Mother Teresa. The Mother, despite her global stature, and saintliness, has always remained surrounded by controversy. On the one side, she was much decorated and awarded: the first award being the Padmashri for distinguished service (1962), then the Magsaysay Award the same year, Pope John XXIII Peace Prize (1971), Good Samaritan Award (1971), John F Kennedy International Award (1971), Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International peace (1972), Nobel Peace Prize (1979), Bharat Ratna (1980), Rajiv Gandhi Sadbhavana Award (1993), and more. On the other hand, the Mother’s ‘brand’ has always been zealously guarded by those surrounding her, leading to controversy and debate. In the Name of God’s Poor, a film based based on the Mother’s life by Dominique Lapierre ran into heavy weather in the early 2000s, and it took a lot of worldwide pressure to get it released. Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin, played Mother Teresa in the film. The documentary Hell’s Angel, produced by ITV Channel 4, created worldwide controversy because of its depiction of the ‘fallibilities’ of the Mother, like her mingling with Haitian dictator Duvalier and her unquestioning acceptance of funds from alleged swindlers like Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings and Loans.

C M Paul, an authority on Mother Teresa has this very interesting story to tell about the initial years of the saint. The very first Mother Teresa film produced was by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1969. It is said to have made Mother Teresa of Calcutta world famous. After it was shown on television in England, donations started to pour in. Many viewers said it had a ‘profound effect’ on their lives. Anchored by prominent journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and directed by Peter Chafer the two-part made-for-television film was entitled Something Beautiful for God. The film crew came to Calcutta and spent entire days with Mother Teresa for this 58 minute film. After five days of shooting, the skeptic Muggeridge believed a miracle took place during its making. Scenes shot in Nirmal Hriday (House for the Dying) in Kalighat were ‘miraculous’. Technical opinion held there wasn’t enough light for usable footage. However, when the processed film was shown, the scenes were ‘bathed in a beautiful soft light.’

Others claim, however, it was a miracle of the new colour film marketed by Kodak Eastman!

Christopher Hitchens (who played the role of devil’s advocate in the discussions surrounding Mother Teresa’s canonisation) once famously dubbed her ‘a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf’. In a story headlined, ‘Mother Teresa wasn’t a saintly person – she was a shrewd operator with unpalatable views who knew how to build up a brand’, The Independent of UK in 2016 went on to write damning copy, “A suitably charismatic appearance, a penchant for photo opportunities with Princess Diana (an incredibly successful and symbiotic brand collaboration if ever there was one), and a global fundraising brand (Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity has raised and deployed billions of dollars across the world) – this, all this combined with the public’s belief that Mother, or Saint, Teresa preached a deliciously palatable message of peace and love which bordered on the hippie”.

Is Mother Teresa a brand? Well, she is a ‘brand’ in what we know of her, who she was and what she did. Once you utter her name, one immediately thinks peace, love and holiness – well, to us that is branding. Her life and her work has left such an impression on the world that keywords and thoughts, her colors and feelings overcome the senses. That is the essence of true branding. God bless!

(This appeared in Business Standard on July 25. Sandeep Goyal is a well-known columnist and commentator who has spent more than 30 years in advertising and media.Carol Goyal is specializing in Art Law. She is London based.)

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