Blouses and petticoats was no slip of the pen. This tight fitting and climatically unsuitable attire was also forced upon us by the British colonialists. Resistance to this imposition led to the 19th century riots. Ever since that time the Indian woman has suffered the heat stoically and in silence. But never mind, the 21st century will liberate them from all foreign pollutants
The doorman at the Intercontinental Hotel in Phnom Penh is dressed in a Kaiser helmet, a short white military jacket with gold buttons, a silk sarong and polished black boots over long white socks. The royal dress of the King of Nepal is an English jacket worn over his kurta and churidar pyjamas. A common sight among Delhi’s early morning walkers are women in long nightgowns with a dupatta casually thrown over their shoulders. These are just a few examples of mix and match wears.
Yet in parts of the world, governments and ultra-nationalists are busy forcing dress codes on soft targets, especially women’s attire, trying to invent some ephemeral “authenticity” and “identity”. Recently, the “secular” French government banned wearing headscarves at work and school contending that only French identity could be expressed. Are tattoos, nose rings, belly buttons and salwaars part of the French identity?
Now the ban on headscarves has snowballed to Belgium, Germany, the UK, and Italy, the Netherlands. Thousands of miles away some Indian Muslim clerics woke up one morning and launched a campaign against Sania Mirza’s tennis outfits. The rightwing BJP party does not lag behind in this crusade. Let us join them on their delirious journey in search of “roots”.
Not so long ago the youth wing of the BJP, the ABVP came out with a directive about an acceptable dress code for women in Kanpur. Their concern was truly laudable since our ancient scriptures state that the gods dwell only where women are respected. The tight fitting jeans worn by our girls, if nothing else, are so unsuitable for our climate.
But what else can our girls wear? The salwaar kameez is out. It has been implanted on the subcontinent by Turks from Central Asia where women and men galloped about freely on horses. What a comfortable dress for horseback and motorbike rides! This dress has overtaken our entire country, so much so that the salwaar kameez is associated today with this subcontinent rather than with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. We proudly declare that Princess Diana and Cherie Blair wore these designer outfits. No question of accepting the salwaar.
So should all our women go back to wearing the beautiful, graceful sari (assuming no other dress existed earlier)? But which sari and from which geographical area should serve as the model? Not an easy choice. The popular sari that is worn in Indian cities today was an invention of Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law, Gyanodanandini Tagore, who wanted to attend the British Durbar in a suitable attire and created a blend of the European gown and the local sari. In the book series Saris of India, it is stated that in three Indian states alone, there are 25 different ways of tying a sari (10 in Madhya Pradesh, 10 in Bihar, five in Bengal). Moreover, the lengths, widths, patterns and fabric can differ from village to village.
But before researching the sari, first it would be necessary to rouse the public into organising huge bonfires for all foreign apparel, like in Gandhi-ji’s time. Next, women would have to take a vow of going swadeshi and shunning everything foreign. Then with a cry of Vande Mataram, jeans, dresses, salwaar kameezes, sari blouses and petticoats would be hurled into the bonfire.
Blouses and petticoats was no slip of the pen. This tight fitting and climatically unsuitable attire was also forced upon us by the British colonialists. Resistance to this imposition led to the 19th century riots in Calcutta and Kerala. Ever since that time the Indian woman has suffered the heat stoically and in silence. But never mind the 21st century will liberate them from all foreign pollutants thanks to the ABVP storm troopers.
While the woman drapes herself in a long unstitched fabric, what about the men? Are they going to attend corporate meetings dressed in badly stitched trousers? Is it not time for the Sangh Parivaar, or the ABVP to pay attention to the Indian men’s dress code, including the khaki shorts of their RSS brigades? For it has been aptly stated that “he does not preach what he has not practised till he has practised what he preaches”.
So what should our men wear? A hand-spun dhoti with a wrap-around shawl? Some of our ancients were against stitched clothing weren’t they? In the meantime, one of their bright and diligent students could be given the task of researching the topic, “The origins of khaki shorts in vedic texts”.
Our journey was intended to show the futile “search for roots” and true identity. Global links have always thrown up a range of choices for the individual, even in matters of dress. Narrow identity campaigns lead to alienation for they insult us all who want to live with multiple identities.
Dr Kalpana Sahni has been a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. A doctorate in Russian literature, she has published extensively on literature and cross-cultural issues. She can be reached at [email protected]