The white, blue-rimmed cotton sari made famous by Saint Teresa of Kolkata has been trademarked in a case the nun’s former lawyer has claimed as a first for a religious uniform anywhere in the world. The design of the sari, which Teresa is said to have purchased from a Kolkata market the evening she was granted permission to start working in the city’s slums, is now the exclusive intellectual property of the Missionaries of Charity, the order the nun founded nearly 70 years ago.
According to British newspaper “The Guardian”, Biswajit Sarkar, lawyer for the order said he had applied for the trademark already in 2013 to combat the “misuse” of the saint’s reputation, often for commercial gain. The trademark was formally granted in early 2016 but only recently publicised. He said he would now take “severe” legal action against unauthorised use of the design, even by charitable enterprises that the order’s nuns had been willing to tolerate.
“There are many organisations starting schools naming themselves after Mother Teresa, and wearing the uniform, where the Missionaries of Charity have no connection,” he said.
Sarkar, who has also had the name Mother Teresa trademarked, said the “soft-hearted” nuns had initially objected to also copyrighting the uniform. “They don’t like taking court cases,” he said. “They say, ‘One day the people will understand they are doing the wrong thing.’ “But we cannot allow that. Now if anybody is misrepresenting the Missionaries of Charity we can take severe legal action.”
He said no exceptions would be made for use of the pattern by other religious orders, or by not-for-profit enterprises.
“Even the nuns were asking me, if the people are not using it for commercial gains, should we stop them?” he said.
“But whether it is for commercial gain or not is not the issue. We are thinking about our identity. If the blue pattern, which is unique in the world, is diluted or used by the public, then one fine morning the organisation will lose their identity.”
Sarkar, who allegedly works pro bono for the nuns, said his next goal was to copyright Teresa’s name and the distinctive uniform of her order in other countries. He will also seek to remove children’s versions of her sari that are advertised as “SBD Unisex Mother Teresa Dress“ on Amazon’s India store (http://www.amazon.in/SBD-Unisex-Mother-Teresa-Dress/dp/B013WBSGZ4) and the websites of other retailers. “Instantly we’ll work on that” he said. In fact, the item is currently “not available” from this site.
Saint Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to an Albanian family in 1910, and joined a Kolkata-based convent at age 21. Horrified by the poverty in Kolkata, she sought permission to leave the institution and work among the city’s poor. In 1950, she established the Missionaries of Charity, which now runs 758 homes, hospices and shelters in 139 countries around the world. She died in 1997 and was canonised by Pope Francis in September last year.
I wonder whether she would be happy with the way business is now created based on her personal reputation. A rather sad taste remains.