Why are we uncomfortable about wearing Indian clothes to the workplace?
What the prime minister wears is not good enough for Urban Pind. Why else would I be thrown out from this, as their website says, “urban bar” for wearing Indian clothes?
A couple of months ago, I walked into this south Delhi restaurant (maybe it's a bar or a lounge, who knows?) wearing what I have often worn to interview ministers on my show: kurta-pyjamas. The guard sneered, scowled and told me, “These things (meaning my poor kurta-pyjamas) are not allowed in.”The manager agreed and said, by way of aggressive explanation, that they have a “young” image and the Pind, as it so happensvillage in Punjabi, cannot break that “code”.
This week I thought about this when two development professionals — have you noticed how their tribe has soared with each passing year — giggled, as it so happens at the Gymkhana Club, and asked, in their distinct I lived in New York twang, if I was a “neta”.
I wanted to tell them what Shah Rukh Khan once said about Madhuri Dikshit: “These days she has an accent, so I find her less interesting” but I had a bigger point to make. Why, said I, is it that in India people always seem surprised when you wear Indian clothes? In Bombay, I gather only Javed Akhtar wears Indian. Everyone else dresses like Himesh. Oops, actually that's not entirely true. South Bombay wants to dress like Ratan Tata and manages usually to dress like Harshad Mehta.
So why are we uncomfortable about wearing Indian clothes?
Of course, it is our colonial hangover and I believe it runs deeper than just copying the Whites. After all, when the Whites were here, we were happy to flaunt our bejwelled-ness. In 1921, for instance, at the height of the royals cosying up to the British to distance themselves from the grumble of independence, even when the Prince of Wales came to India, the Maharani of Burdwan wore gold tissue embossed with roses with an overlaid sari of gold lace.
Years ago, Colin McDowell, the British fashion critic whose writing in many ways is the definitive final word in contemporary fashion history (in the same way that Suzy Menkes' columns for the International Herald Tribuneis the definitive contemporary fashion journalism) came to the Indian fashion week he told me that he went to a club one evening and felt very sad. “All around me,” said McDowell, “there were young women who could have been from anywhere in the world. Everyone was wearing an LBD (little black dress)!
“I felt very sad,” he said, “here was India, with all its textiles and colours and textures and there was not a single person who was wearing any of that! These people could have been anywhere in the world, there was nothing distinct about India.”
Colonial baggage is not the only reason for this loss. One of the biggest reasons of the loss of Indian clothes has been something Sabysachi Mukherjee, to Indian fashion what Vishwanathan Anand is to chess, keeps discussing with me.
Look around you, office after office is bereft of Indian clothes. In the age of industry, connectedness and entrepreneurship Indian clothes are rarely seen because they failed, or we failed to make them, office wear, and thereby, everyday wear.
Since most of us no longer wear Indian clothes to work, since the “corporate wardrobe” for some reason does not include Indian clothes, they have become occasional wear — costumes not clothes.
So we wear Indian clothes for weddings and deaths and festivals but on most days, most of us, especially in northern and western India, do not wear Indian clothes. Men are specifically to blame since women still wear the occasional sari and salwar kameez to work but men de rigueur wear shirts and trousers — mostly blues and whites. Therefore death to Indian clothes and even bright, some would say Indian, colours.
Why don't we wear Indian clothes to work? Why don't Indian news anchors, for instance, wear bandhgalas instead of suits? Even in news TV, Indian clothes are costumes to be donned to festive days. Udayan Mukherjee, the face of the markets, wears dazzling bandhgalason mahurat trading but not otherwise. Rajdeep Sardesai wears the occasional kurta but is usually in his unkempt cool, about-to- run-out-of-the-newsroom light shirts and dark trousers. Prannoy Roy also dons the odd bandhgala but seems far more comfortable in his impeccable suits.
Barkha Dutt, thankfully, sticks to kurtas and salwar kameezs but most of the women are swept up in suits. The only beacon of hope is Nidhi Razdan who has single-handedly, sumptuously, brought back the sari on TV. And I do believe most Indian male anchors would look far more polished in nice bandhgala— that covers the Indian paunch more neatly than a suit.
And it is not true that Indian clothes cannot be business wear. No, forget the Air India hostesses. That's not business wear, that's bizarre wear. Think instead of our great power banker women — from Naina Lal Kidwai to Chanda Kochhar to Shikha Sharma — these women have used the sari with as much devastation as Madeline Albright used her brooches.
Can you think of any men in business who regularly wears Indian clothes? If you can, tell me on email@example.com. I can't.
In the process, as William Bissell of Fab India will vouch, Indian clothes have died at the work place. I just bought a series of light wool sherwanis from Fab India's new range and have been hunting for places to wear them in the Delhi winter.
Trouble is there seems to be so few places where you can wear them! But I have decided now to wear Indian clothes on my TV shows. The only way to bring back the joy of Indian clothes might be to put them back on TV, get Shah Rukh to sport them more often and then, the only thing remaining would be to bully Urban Pind. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi will stop by one day. Wonder if they will stop him for wearing Indian?
Hindol Sengupta is Associate Editor,Bloomberg UTV