‘Naqab me inquilab’:Coronavirus pandemic converts masks to means of expression, now ‘gags’ do the talking – fashion and trends

Konkona Sen Sharma wearing a mask that reads, “Naqab me bhi inquilaab, hum bolenge.”


“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof,” anarchist V tells corrupt politician Creedy as a pandemic ravages Europe in the 2005 film “V for Vendetta”.

In 2020, the world is not as dystopian as in the film, but COVID-19 rages and people everywhere have gone behind masks, for their safety and that of others. Ideas, however, remain “bulletproof” and people are letting their masks do the talking in this new world order.

Lips are hidden, not sealed – in public at least. And so face covers are being used to express dissent, humour, political leanings, personal aesthetics and make other varied points through words, choice of print and even fabric. “Masks communicate a lot about one’s personality, the same way clothes we wear say a lot about us,” said Mandeep Arora, managing director of UBON, a manufacturer of PPE equipment and safety gear. “Pet lovers are choosing masks with animal prints. Also, people are engraving their pet’s picture on their masks to show love towards their pet. Masks with messages are also catching the fancy of youngsters. Hardcore Bollywood fans are choosing mask with their favorite dialogues,” Arora, whose company also makes masks, told PTI.

The bewildering array of masks include customised ones for fashionistas – with thread work, sequences, stickers and glitter.

From going to the chemist to buy a utilitarian mask to scanning online sites, markets and high-end shops, masks have evolved over the months to become an extension of people’s personalities — quirky, intense or maybe just boring. Using masks to express uniqueness makes it easier to wear them, added Divesh Mehta of clothing brand Wear Your Opinion (WYO).

“Mask is covering an essential part of our unique identity, our face. Wearing a mask to protect ourselves is still new for most of us. Having a design/graphic/slogan express your uniqueness, a trait of your personality makes it a bit easier to wear a mask,” Mehta told PTI in an email. With its main focus on the 17-35 year age group that prefers printed masks over plains, WYO has sold over two lakh masks, 70 per cent of which are printed ones. Slogans inspired by movies or popular memes like “Bulati Hai Magar Jaane Ka Nahi” have been working well.  “We create designs and styles which are social commentary on current situations. Mixing pop culture statements with the current situation creates designs that remain in trend for a longer time. While we add humour to our masks, we also send subliminal messages, asking people to follow quarantine, keep distance and overall be cautious. So, it is a mix of Humour + Safety + Positive Information.,” Mehta added.

Mask users agree with the industry experts.

When the safety measure against the coronavirus pandemic covers the most important tool for expression, adapting it to convey emotions and send a point across is sometimes the only way forward.

Donning her black and white ikat print mask, Pune-based communication expert Anupriya Sharma said sends the message to the world that “normal is boring” and “I will do this my way”.

A few thousand kilometers away, Delhi University student Akshay Gautam’s face mask reads “Bilkul ricks nahi lene ka”, a dialogue from 2000 Hindi comedy film “Hera Pheri”, since he wants to say “it is no time to fool around” but with a touch of pop culture reference.     Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, conventional means of protest and showing dissent like holding marches and organising sit-ins have become restricted to social media. India went into lockdown in March.

When anti-CAA protesters at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and several such protest sites across the country were told to stay indoors to maintain social distancing, graffiti that was critical of the government was also removed over the next few weeks.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International India stepped in with masks to to start an #UnGagDissent campaign.  “When the pandemic took over, even as peaceful protests halted across the country, the government continued its relentless crackdown on dissenters. All symbols of peaceful resistance were removed, protest sites were cleared of graffiti and peaceful protesters were arrested and thrown behind bars using repressive laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sedition,” Avinash Kumar, executive director, Amnesty International India, told PTI.

Hoping to ensure that focus remains on “curbing the virus and not the voices”, Amnesty started the social media campaign on July 27 with support from ‘voices’ such as filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha and Hansal Mehta, actors Konkona Sen Sharma and Ali Fazal and activists Harsh Mander and Meena Kandasamy and Ali Fazal.

Konkona, for instance, donned a mask that read “naqab me bhi inquilaab, hum bolenge” (revolt behind masks, we will speak out), a wordplay on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poet “Hum Dekhenge”. Kumar added that the campaign was born out of the idea of using the mask as a tool for protest.

“We wanted to send a message that the pandemic cannot be an excuse to take away our human rights. The mask is not a gag. We will wear it to protect ourselves and others around us, but we will not let it stop us from speaking up for our rights. We wanted to inspire people to continue the fight for their rights from their homes,” Kumar said.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)

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