The Sikh dagger goes designer By Indrajit Basu KOLKATA - It was Lladro, the famous Spanish porcelain figurine maker, that first realized there's money in India's religions when a few years back it gingerly introduced a limited edition of porcelain Ganesha - the elephant-faced Hindu god - that went on to become Lladro's biggest Indian hit. Soon others such as Swarovski, Frazer Haws and Soher SA followed with their own version of Ganeshas. And now it's Swiss knife-maker Victorinox's turn to salute yet another Indian tradition - the kirpan. For the first time, in a product initiative aimed at Sikhs, a devoutly religious community, the top army knife brand hits markets this month with its brand of kirpan – a ceremonial dagger that Sikhs wear as a religious symbol. Targeted at the 25 million-plus worldwide Sikh population, who are a prosperous and influential community not only in India but also in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, the kirpan would perhaps be the only article of faith that would be showcased as a designer product worldwide. "For the fashion-conscious the world over, this would not only be an innovative state-of-the-art workmanship product, but also a brand ambassador of one of India's rich heritages," said Anish Goel, India's distributor of Victorinox, who claims that he persuaded the Swiss multinational to explore the kirpan market. The Victorinox kirpan was launched in India on September 1 (though it will reach shelves later this month), when Sikhs celebrated the 400th anniversary of the installation of Adi Granth Sahib, the holy book that contains 6,000 hymns composed by five Sikh gurus as well as contemporary saints from all over India. Goel says Victorinox hopes the kirpan will "end the misunderstanding often associated with kirpan in various countries". Perhaps no other aspect of the Sikh religion has been an issue of as much controversy for ages as the kirpan. At the time of annexation of Punjab into India in 1849, the British first objected to Sikhs carrying a kirpan. Subsequently under the (British-formulated) Arms Act of 1878, it was legally banned for a while in the country. Folklore has it that to get the ban revoked, organizers of the Singh Sabha - a Sikh movement - introduced the tradition of the "five religious symbols" known as the Five Ks - kada (wristwear), kesh (uncut hair), kachh (underwear), kangha (comb) and kirpan - in Sikhism. Eventually, in 1914, the British had to withdraw the ban. The Sikhs say kirpan is no longer carried as a weapon but as a matter of religious conviction, much like the Christian cross, along with facial hair and the long hair that is concealed under the turban. Still, controversies surrounding it refuse to die down just as Sikhs refuse to compromise and continue to fight protracted legal battles all over the world for wearing their symbols. As recently as this March, in a verdict labeled as "public safety taking precedence over religious freedom", Canada's highest court barred a 14-year-old Sikh student from wearing his kirpan to his public school in Quebec. The Sikhs said the court made a grievous error - it accepted the most speculative of dangers as a reason for undermining religious freedom, a freedom explicitly protected in both the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights. Sikhs also allege that after September 11, 2001, they are often confused in the US with the turbaned Taliban fundamentalists and have thus been victims of hate. "Victorinox kirpans, therefore, could rekindle a new interest as well in the saint-soldier heritage of the Sikh with shades of the Samurai tradition (which is fairly [well] known to the West) and help them to understand that it is a symbol of a Sikh's commitment to protect the weak, defend the helpless, the downtrodden and to promote justice," says Goel. Family-owned Victorinox has an almost as interesting story with the knives it makes. The Swiss officer knife was patented in 1897 and christened Victoria after the founder's mother. With the introduction of stainless steel in 1921, it was rechristened Victorinox, where Inox is a synonym of "steel". But its real recognition as an item to be hankered for came during World War II when US troops stationed in Europe insisted on carrying Victorinox army knives. All they knew was that it is manufactured in Switzerland, so they called it the Swiss army knife - which is how Victorinox knives are referred to until today. But even as Goel says kirpan is Victorinox's "killer idea" in India, many aren't sure if it's so hot. "There are innumerable kirpan makers in the country, including a few the world over, and I do not see how Victorinox will find a market for a product that it plans to sell at $30-$85 apiece," says Sukhvinder, a Sikh. "We are also supposed to wear kada [a metal bangle], but few would be ready to pay more than $5 for one. A kirpan for $30 sounds atrocious." But Goel says the kirpan has already started making a "buzz" that goes beyond its business potential. "An Austrian doctor called us up to inquire. He knew nothing about kirpan but read up on it once he got to know of a Victorinox version," says Goel. "Though we haven't started selling it commercially yet, we have received numerous enquiries from all over the world, like Austria, Singapore, Germany, Dubai, Spain and the UK. And the most interesting thing is, inquiries are not only coming from Sikhs, but also from collectors from other cultures." Victorinox, therefore, is sure that the knife - designed by a Spanish designer of the company, incorporating an ornate brass-and-enamel design - will capture a whole new market. Encouraged by the initial response, it has already started exploring other, similar ideas. "Soon, there will be a range of products depicting Indian heritages on Victorinox's product line," says Goel. It remains to be seen whether Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a pious Sikh himself, will sport a kirpan when he meets the US president next.