For Rangas, Billas and Suryas: do not dare tell women what to wear!

Indian men will have to give up trousers, pyjamas, sherwanis and achkans if they want to be ‘sanatan’ Indians! Tejasvi Surya, BJP MP should then frequent TV studios in dhoti and angavastram

(Left) Women riding sideways; (right) Women horse riders in the Jodhpurs
(Left) Women riding sideways; (right) Women horse riders in the Jodhpurs

Sujata Anandan

In the 1970s and 1980s, in an era when the kind of communal bigotry existing today was not quite the norm in society, there were still some bully boys who could have grown up to be today's Tejasvi Suryas and Anant Ranganathans.

One of these, a notorious ragger, accosted my smartly dressed classmate in jeans and long shirt – in that era jeans were coveted by all teens, boys and girls, and even boys had a hard time persuading their parents that wearing jeans was not equivalent to becoming a Roadside Romeo. So, of course, my classmate in the coveted jeans was a prime target.

This Bully Boy stalked up to her amid a gaggle of giggling boys and pulled her by the collar. "Kal se saree pehen kar aana!” he commanded. The girl should have been duly crushed. But she turned a cool, untroubled look upon him, pulled him by his trouser band –ordinary cotton trousers, I might add, none of the coveted jeans - and snapped back, "Kal se tum dhoti pehen kar aana!"

There was deathly silence among the giggling boys as well as the frightened girls. The Bully Boy turned red in the face and looked as if he would hit her while she held her ground and waited for the violence. Obviously, Bully Boy had no stomach for it among a bevy of girls fast losing their fright and rallying round his enviable target and many of the boys around him sniggering and moving away.

It was a salutary lesson to both boys and girls. We learnt not to be bullied by the bigots, though they were not called that in those days, only Bully Boys. And like all bullies, even this one had no courage, he disappeared from the campus for days and when he reappeared, most of the girls were in trousers, bellbottoms, lungis (sarongs), parallels (the predecessor of today's palazzos) and dhoti pants. The boys were still in their ordinary cotton trousers.

To me personally that episode was my first lesson in feminism, independence and equality. If boys could wear trousers, why couldn't girls? Girls had the right to decide what to wear. And women were no less than men in any way.

My choice of clothes ever since has always been an eclectic mix of western and Indian, dictated by design, colour and comfort and I am damned if I will allow anyone to dictate what I wear, including a bindi or a nose ring - if that makes me look like like sambaar without drumsticks, I am quite happy for I prefer bhindi in my sambaar, anyway. And that is bhindi, okra or ladies' finger not bindi - just in case the South Indian bigots who pronounce both words the same way did not know.

But now the recent outrage by bigots over a particular brand launching Jashn-e- Rivaaz for Diwali – and let me state that I love their soaps, curtains, tea, oil AND, yes, clothes - has got me thinking about the significance of what my classmate had told that Bully Boy years ago – if she had to wear a saree, he had to wear a dhoti,

And therein lies the crux of the matter. Because if we are going to descend into traditional Hindu food and attire, then I should say that though the drumstick is now grown mostly in Pakistan and to a lesser extent in India, its origins are African and Arabic. And, of course, they do taste great in sambar but not as much a treat as bhindi which again has Abyssinian origins. But I love both, with or without the sambar.

Now when it comes to clothes, there is nothing more magnificent than the Bengali man or a Maratha in a traditional dhoti. They wear it with beautifully embroidered kurtas these days but if we are going traditional, then men who wear dhotis must necessarily wear it with only an angavastra, whether they don the South Indian dhoti, which North Indians refer to as lungis or any other type of yards and yards of unstitched material.

Because tailoring was an alien concept to India until the Islamic invasions - men wrapped yards around their torso and protected their chests with more yards of unstiched clothing. Women wore sarees - either without blouses or a piece of cloth round their breasts - without the modern-day petticoats which was a British invention to be worn under women's gowns. That did not last beyond the Victorian era, when even men modernised from tight-fitting breeches and waist coats and high boots to comfort clothing of loose trousers and shirts.

So, what the Rangas and Billas - oops, Suryas - wear today is entirely British, western and Christian attire. If you see them on occasion sporting a sherwani to a wedding or an embroidered kurta, that is entirely of Islamic origins. I would really like to see them in a dhoti and angavastra in a television studio one of these days!

Meanwhile, let’s think why the Rajputs and Marathas chose to shift to chooridars and achkans or what can only be described as male-type Anarkalis toda. They both were martial races and borrowed from Moghul clothing for the chooridar and a loose shirt was more practical in the battlefield than the loose ends of their dhotis.

Then again, a riding habit for women in the West is known as a Jodhpur, which is a tight-fitting trouser from ankle to knee that loosens from the knee upwards and it is drawn from the attire of the Rajputs who themselves modified it from the Moguls – before that, women had to wear skirts and ride sideways on the saddle as those flowing garments did not suit riding astride. Today in the West riding side saddle in a skirt is merely a part of an equestrian event and, I am told, Princess Anne excelled at it.

So, food and clothing are usually about good taste and comfort in both. Obviously, the bigots will not be able to wear any unstiched clothing in the modern day, for what, pray, will they wear under it? Today both the Shivaji and Rajput costumes and the Victorian swimming and riding costumes for women are known as little more than fancy dress trotted out by young school boys and girls at annual competitions.

So, the bigots can stick their bindis and drumsticks wherever they desire but out of sight of women who do not care for their attire to be dictated by such men. Give me the western skirts and Indian lehengas, the trousers and jeans, the pantaloons and palazzos, the salwars and the sarees, I can get into each of them and look smart and traditional. And dignified.

I am sorry to say that if the bigots practice what they preach, they can only end up looking like clowns in their langots and unstiched clothing, with or without bindis on their foreheads and drumstick in their sambaar!

(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai. Views are personal)

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