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Musings IX: On Clothes and Free Will

Ananya Dutta Gupta
Department of English and Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati

Around the age that I have just reached, my maternal grandfather quit wearing the Western suit and settled permanently for the dhoti and the kurta, better known as the punjabi in Bengali. My grandmother on her part gave up the coloured sari for the more ascetic combination of six yards of white or near-white cotton with a wide, intricately embroidered border in shades of red. It was their way of registering the imminence of middle age. The coded gesture must have been laced with a mixture of pride and self-conscious propriety, befitting responsible and dignified parents of growing children, marriageable nieces and eligible nephews. I cannot recall seeing them wear anything else, and my cherished memories of a fortunately prolonged grand-childhood are tangled with this inherited image (no less evocative and culturally coded than, say, Van Eyck’s classic Arnolfini’s Wedding) of a husband and a wife marking their passage into a new life through a symbolic return to tradition and custom.

There was an interesting difference, of course. In the case of the husband, it was a prodigal’s return to his roots, a renunciation of the trappings of modernity acquired from the British coloniser for more tropic-friendly fabric. His choice, I am sure, was coloured by Swadeshi politics no less than by ergonomics. Born in 1904 and former participant in both the revolutionary Anushilan Samiti and the non-cooperation movement, my grandfather reached this moment of sartorial self-appraisal around the time of India’s imminent nativity.

My father in his turn used to maintain how one cannot imagine more comfortable protection from the sultry, insalubrious heat of Bengal than the yards of simple, coarse, home-spun, airy, white cotton that Vidyasagar is portrayed wearing in that iconic, endlessly reproduced photographic image. It is quite another thing that my father never seriously considered switching to such tropical wear. He did not have to. Our cultural absorbency, as Indians, is uncanny. So, my father’s sartorial universe offered a four-fold array of choices: the dhotipunjabi for infrequent ritual occasions, thechost/churidar/Aligarhpyjama and punjabi for anything from informal evening gatherings to social visits after Bijoya Dashami, the ordinary white vest and loose pyjamas as home-wear, and what he called Bush Shirts and trousers for the daily commute to work.

In an interesting shift that frustrates any overarching thesis of a growing Westernisation of millennial Indian sartorial choices, my husband, an erstwhile denim-and-T-shirt-fanatic, now wears Indian outfit to work daily. I ought to note, though, that the long, collared, sherwani-inspired Punjabis he prefers are markedly different from the tailored khaddarones worn by my grandfather and their “ready-made” variants worn by my father. At home, however, my husband has stuck to American casuals affording all the inimitable comforts of shapelessness globally popularised by American brands and the American philosophy of individual convenience over the public gaze. Globalisation, then, has empowered us in the arts of cultural masquerade and camouflage. We flit between identities as effortlessly as we change clothes. Rather, we change clothes in order to travel between identities, now Bengali, now Indian, now American, and now European. Not to do so would represent a kind of resistance.

With the wife, my grandmother, however, the new self-fashioning in white and red seems to have been subtler and yet more significant. It was an implied recognition on the part of the woman, as she approached middle age: that she was now to be identified more completely than ever with the maternal principle and as an exemplar of married chastity, to be revered by her male progeny and emulated by the females. It must have had the desired effect, for it was my mother who shared with me, anecdotally, the history of her parents’ sartorial shift. It was quite another thing though, that my mother did not choose to go retrograde at forty and that she continues to wear colour at seventy. Even in the decade when she turned forty, even among her peers, an emulatory act of visual asceticism would have seemed a trifle overdone, an act of exhibitionism out of sync with the reality of the working woman. I cannot help recall Ray’sMahanagar and the symbolically loaded presence of the lipstick in Arati’s self-discovery as a working woman.

In the past twenty years, the Bengali middle class has progressively left the ethos of self-denial behind. Every day, breathtakingly well-groomed models and actresses urge us, readers of newsmagazines, to love, indulge and pamper ourselves. Every time we drive into Kolkata, I find myself staring at the smartly attractive face on a gigantic M.P. Jewellers’ billboard gushing over her enviably gorgeous neckpiece while the caption reads, “Pretext? Why, me, of course!”

Senior citizens nowadays are often financially self-sufficient and solvent, if not affluent. Many of them have access to personal conveyance and are often found “hanging out” with peers at one or another of the fine dining destinations mushrooming across Kolkata. The white sari with a red border would be incongruous in such a milieu, an oppressive and unpalatable reminder to everyone else about the pre-globalisation, pre-IT, pre-cellphone India of Five Year Plans and Doordarshan. Those were forgettable times of humble savings and material privations.

In Gaaner Oparey (literally, Across the Song), the thinking man and woman’s television soap opera that made Rabindranath a millennial sensation in the new-age Bengali living room, the late Rituparno Ghosh deftly plays upon the new economics of colour, fabric and style. His rābindrik (Tagorean) heroine, strategically named Pupe after Rabindranath’s granddaughter but closer to Labanya in Shesher Kobita (The Last Poem), registers her “purist” abstention from mindless aping of the West through certain consonant practices: avoiding English words in her speech and wearing only white saris. Her choice of retail outlet for alternative, “ethnic” couture, however, is suitably upmarket. “Maayer deya mota kapor” (“the coarse-spun cloth, our mother’s handiwork”) – the slogan of an yet earlier Swadeshi movement – is now a trusted “glocal” brand, a confirmed favourite not just with Pupe, but many of us. We are all conscientious buyers of consolatory cotton and air-conditioned nostalgia.

The plot proceeds to demonstrate the unsustainability of Pupe’s purist rigidities and maps her journey towards a more nuanced, fluid, and pluralist understanding of culture in terms of progressive sartorial relaxation. As the serial began to descend from the rarified zone of high rābindrikatā (Tagoreanism), Pupe too began to be seen, first, in coloured saris and then jeans and jumpers. In one episode, she even walks the ramp on the terrace in her Western casuals. Ultimately, Pupe’s adjustably cosmopolitan dress code comes to resemble that of any young, educated, professional, female urbanite today – straddling worlds, avatars and fashions with élan. The rain-soaked episode in which Pupe’s journey of love begins shows her, not in spotless white anymore, but in royal blue. Her choice of song is strategic: “aami shokol daage hobe daagi, kolonko bhaagi … aami suchi ashon tene tene berabo na bidhaan mene” (in free translation, “From now on, only blots and blemishes shall be my adornment, I shall stain myself with shame … No more shall I drag along my little mat of immaculateness, decree come what may.”)

What Rituparno Ghosh manages to convey with exemplary delicacy is the fact that clothes, and colours on them, have always been a quietly persistent site of intersection and tension between individual taste and societal perception. The encounter would have been one of relatively uncomplicated, though repetitive, confrontation if either of the two contending parties had been constant and consistent. The fact that both individual self-perception and the public gaze are fickle and insecure makes for an infinite variety of mutual responses. Societal responses to novel or unconventional choices can range from disapproval and outrage to sneering ridicule to grudging acceptance. Many will recall the mildly contemptuous epithets “mod” or “ultra-modern” directed by scandalised Bengali mothers against sartorial rebels. On the other hand, individual responses can be anything from bold defiance to permutations of seeming deference and quiet resistance. I have been told how my paternal grandmother would use her anchal (the long loose end of the sari that used to be drawn over the head as an expected mark of feminine demureness before male seniors, particularly in-laws) as a register of protest against her erring and errant husband. Whenever he came home from his protracted pilgrimages, she would cook and serve him the choicest dishes from her culinary repertory. All the while, her face would remain determinedly concealed behind a long veil of silent indictment.

For many of us, though, Pupe’s gradual metamorphosis was something of a loss, a diminution, and a dilution of her earlier, more iconic, albeit naїvely cloistered view of cultural purity. Pupe dazzles in white, and we are left wistful for that archetypal fusion of unadorned feminine virtue and wisdom that is celebrated in the Hindu Saraswati or the classical Minerva.

In Pupe in white, the urban, middle-class Bengali saw a heady glimpse of another kind of alternativity: the āsramik code of wearing white prevalent in Santiniketan. Despite its decline into tokenism from what was meant to be an intrinsically and integrally eco-sensitive way of life, the “Spartan” sartorial culture of Santiniketan has steadily emboldened me to wear white, and to dissociate myself, with all the self-conscious zealousness of a neophyte, from the tinsel flashiness of the city. Sir Thomas More’s Utopians make fun of visiting Europeans’ fascination with precious metal with similar condescension. Needless to say, such essentialisation is misplaced, for the sartorial trappings of āsramik culture now have a far-flung, indeed worldwide, constituency.

Wearing white may be said to configure a tendency to idealise a particular kind of cultural rigour in almost moral terms. In that capacity, it represents no less a provocation than its radical binary, namely nudity or clotheslessness. Here I am reminded of the two Jain sects, the Svetambaras and the Digambaras. The former wear white, the latter virtually nothing, not unlike Tom O’ Bedlam in King Lear, who inspires the eponymous king to shed all trappings of civilisation and brave the raw might of nature.

Let me come back to my enduring mental image of grandmother accompanying me to school in a red-bordered white bodied sari, her hair worn in a simple bun, and a black leather bag held in the crook of one hand. I do not know why, but the closest literary equivalent of her own improvised signature style combining conformity and independence, elegance and convenience, has always presented itself to me in the form of Gora’s mother, Anondomoyee. Rabindranath pointedly mentions the unexpected touch of West-inspired sartorial practice in Anondomoyee’s attire, even as she goes about performing the customary domestic chores of the Bengali Hindu household. Her straddling of worlds then is comparable to my grandmother’s blending of a Western handbag with a white and red sari. I can visualise my grandmother who would have the same sari wrapped around in what was called the sādhārana or homely style (allowing the bunch of inventory and almirah keys to hang from the loose end over one shoulder) quickly re-cast it in the more formal, pleated fashion for a hurried round of errands.

In other flitting images, once again pieced together from my mother’s stories, my grandmother, born only four years after the writing of Gora, may be seen travelling to Bethune College every day in slightly raised covered ballerina shoes and a pleated sari pinned to the jacket with a dainty brooch. These images have struck me as being more akin to the imagined appearance of a Suchorita or a Lolita.

Urban Bengali women of my mother’s generation reserve my grandmother’s preferred combination of the white and red sari, redolent with passion and purity, attachment and abnegation, for ritual occasions: the leave-taking ceremony for Mother Durga on the final day of the Pujas, weddings of sons and daughters, and the shraddh or funeral ceremony. The sari, however, has stayed, both for those who continued to live in India and for those who moved to the West. Here’s what I read from an online transcript of an interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:

Bulan Lahiri: You travel the world in a sari. Is that a statement of identity?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Not really. I wear a sari…I always have worn one….. You know, I am 68 years old. It’s the most convenient thing for me…it never occurred to me that I should change… I am not an identitarian. I sometimes wear Western clothes but most of the time I wear saris because they are cheaper and second, I feel all the fashion efforts made for saris go against the grain of that free flowing garment. I don’t think of it as traditional because this way of wearing the sari came about from conversations with the Tagore family women and women from Bombay in order to make the sari more manageable for riding cycles and so on. Also people give me saris and so it is economical. . I don’t know what my identity is or anything… I think the sari is a contemporary garment. I wear Western clothes and 57 per cent of the time I wear a sari.[1]


Even as young women shake their heads in disbelief, my mother and my mother in law will unselfconsciously maintain that the sari is the most comfortable of clothing for the sultriest of Bengal summers. Not surprisingly, when my brother and I were children, my mother looked most beautiful to us when she dressed daily for college. Oftener than not, she would wear in a broad-bordered tanter sari, her luxuriant hair tied in a bun more elaborate than my grandmother’s hurried contraption, and her face adorned with a big red bindi and some muted lipstick. Ray’s Arati must be of my mother’s age.

My generation has seen, perhaps, a further slide towards tokenism, at least in terms of a steadily shrinking number of occasions tacitly demanding sartorial conformation. I wore a red-bordered white sari to perform my father’s last rites and the display of red on the border of my sari was meant to underline my privileged status as a married daughter, belonging to a different family line or gotra, as it is called, and hence entitled to a shorter period of ritual bereavement and abstinence. It offered a sharp visual contrast to the white and grey pastel prints worn by my mother during the full eleven days of prescribed mourning. I recall this symbolism of colours without any overbearing resentment. I do understand that the contrast of all white on the one hand and the white and red combined is steeped in all the pains of enforced denial and repression, but I can also see in them a socially felt need to protect as well as to control through codes of clothing and appearance. After all, the married man’s ring is as dominant a marker in the West as sindur or vermilion in the parting or the mangalsutra or its equivalent is for the married woman in most regional Indian societies.

My point is that even conformity to a code of resistance is conformity, nonetheless. Conversely, resistance to codified modernity can be as emancipating as resistance to stultified tradition.  Smart, young news-presenters on satellite television channels wear the corporate suit as a matter of habit or enforcement, as though their newfangled competence is somehow stamped in their choice of contemporary Western business clothing. Yet, on the days of the Pujas and on Nababarsho or the Bengali New Year’s Day, they go on air in traditional Bengali costume without any diminution in their elocutionary skills. I for one find it difficult to equate Western clothes with any automatic sartorial modernity. I do not wish such a statement to be misconstrued as blind conservatism or cultural insularity. The usefulness of Western clothing is vitally palpable in the steadily chillier Indian winter and also during holiday trips to altitudinally colder climes. What’s more, I often find myself admiring Kate Middleton’s style as well as the regal gowns on the global celebrity red carpet.

All that I would submit is that in the Bengali sartorial universe, climate and identity politics, peer pressure and commonsense comfort continue to be locked in a fraught, contentious relationship. The West has taken this conflict to an unprecedented scale of absurdity, and the aptest reading of such sensationalised farce euphemistically called “wardrobe malfunction” is probably Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Andersen’s tale is, in many ways, a wonderful fictional prop for my thesis in this essay: namely,  nonconformism too can lead us into the realm of blind, self-cancelling mimicry.

Recently, my husband shared with me a futuristic vision of temperature-controlled clothing. It was a sobering thought and my mind sailed back to a childhood visit to the Nehru Children’s Museum in Kolkata, which in those days hosted a permanent exhibition of dolls from around the world. I can still relive my eager lingering in front of each and every pair of dolls, male and female, in national costume. The other day, at the department, I could not help staring at two new Sikkimese students. One had a traditional Sikkimese robe or gown that I recognized from my recent visit to the hills. The other wore a beautiful kimono-like dress that took me back to a Japanese doll in a glass case I often saw as a child at a neighbour’s lavishly decorated home. What a far cry from the pretty Japanese tourists with incongruously dyed blond hair I constantly ran into in Western cities!

The world will be a singularly dull place when homogenised, air-conditioned clothing arrives. Art will have fled, by then, like Spenser’s flower of “courtesy” in The Faerie Queene. Knowing human ingenuity, however, one can be reasonably sure that the air-conditioned suit will soon develop regional variations. Who knows? We might someday have the air-conditioned sari.



[1] In Conversation: Speaking to Spivak, http://www.thehindu.com/books/in-conversation-speaking-to-spivak/article1159208.ece, updated on February 6, 2011, accessed on 14 September 2014.


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