Can you trademark purity, compassion and empathy? Not really. The closest you can get to doing that is to legally protect the image of the person who embodies these lofty human qualities.
In the case of Mother Teresa, her simple, hand-woven, white cotton sari with a blue striped border became a symbol of these noble qualities, which were at the core of her work with the poor and destitute. It stood for what she believed in and was a key part of her image.
So, to prevent its misuse, the Mother’s iconic sari was trademarked by the Missionaries of Charity, the Kolkata-based religious order she founded. Simply put, the trademark gives the Missionaries of Charity legal grounds to prosecute people and institutions using the sari for commercial gain.
Misusing The Mother’s Image
The trademark was granted by the Indian government on 4th September 2016, the day Mother Teresa was declared a Saint by the Vatican, the seat of the Catholic Church. The Missionaries of Charity had filed its application in December 2013, after numerous complaints that Mother Teresa’s name was being exploited for monetary gain came to light.
There were people who had no relation with the religious order raising funds in her name, shops selling souvenirs of the Mother telling customers that the proceeds were being given to her order, and even a cooperative bank named after Mother Teresa being run in Hyderabad!
Clearly, these entities had no qualms about making money off the image of a religious figure, prompting the decision to trademark the Mother’s plain but distinctive sari, which has become a global symbol of the Mother and her work.
It was the sari that Mother Teresa wore when she first stepped out of the Convent more than 70 years ago, and onto the streets of Calcutta to serve the ‘poorest of the poor’. This is its fascinating story.
How The Sari Became Mother Teresa’s Uniform
Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje in Macedonia, on August 26, 1910, Mother Teresa joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India, at age 18. Not long after, she arrived in India, where she took her vows as a nun and, from 1931 to 1948, taught at St Mary’s High School in Calcutta, where she was also the Headmistress.
But the poverty and suffering on the streets of Calcutta moved her deeply and, in August 1948, she was granted special permission to leave the convent for a year so that she could work among the poor in the city’s poor, on the streets and in the slums.
Known then as Sister Teresa, it would be the first time she would be living outside the protective confines of the convent. So one of the teachers at St Mary’sSchoolbought her a pair of simple, white saris with three blue stripes on each for her to wear.
Once she began her mission, she never looked back. And the sari the teacher had brought her to wear became the sari that would be associated with for the rest of her life.
Magdalena Polton, who later became Sister Gertrude, only the second woman to join the Calcutta-based Missionaries of Charity, recalls the first time she saw Mother Teresa in the sari. “It was the 26th of April, 1949, the day I had myself come to join Mother… It was then that for the very first time in my life I saw her in her white sari with three blue borders. And what a shock it was for me - Mother Teresa, a Loreto nun, my Headmistress, was now dressed like a poor Bengali woman in a simple white cotton sari with three blue borders!"
It Was Bought In A Local Bazaar
In the early years, Mother Teresa’s first two saris and the ones worn by the other Sisters at the Missionaries of Charity were bought from shops on Harrison Road, now Mahatma Gandhi Road, in Calcutta.
Calcutta, in 1945, and it was from shops like these that Mother Teresa’s iconic sari was first sourced
Sister Gertrude recalls, "The saris that used to be sold there usually had borders of red, green and blue. Mother selected the blue border, for we associate the colour blue with Mother Mary. It stands for purity. Also, in those days, women who swept the streets used to wear a similar kind of sari. So Mother adopted a religious dress that was both symbolic and practical - it not only helped to identify ourselves with the poor but was also suitable to Calcutta's searing climate.” Each sari, according to her, cost Rs 2.50 back then.
As the Missionaries of Charity expanded, it had to source the sari in large numbers. So, in 1958, when the organisation opened a home for leprosy patients called Gandhiji Prem Niwas at Titagarh in Kolkata, it trained the inmates on looms, to weave them. The institution is still the primary source of the ‘Mother Teresa sari’, which is shipped to branches of the religious order around the world.
There’s an easy way to source a ‘Mother Teresa Sari’ if you’re not fussy about getting an original – or breaking the law. Buy one online. There are saris resembling the original being sold by vendors as ‘fancy dress costumes’ for kids. There are also fashion brands whose saris don’t even pretend to look like the original but bear the name of the Mother. One version is yellow with a red and green paisley pattern! And it’s available in ‘silk & cotton with blouse piece’.
Although the trademark gives the Missionaries of Charity the legal teeth to prosecute offenders, tracking and policing e-commerce sites like these is tough. It's a sad but telling irony that an icon associated with a saint should suffer from counterfeiting.