So, I am a fashion writer. Which means I am positively vacuous and have limited knowledge about anything else other than clothes, shoes and bags. At least that's the kind of response I get every time I do anything which has nothing to do with the 'frivolous' cosmos of Christian Louboutin or Christian Dior. So, I was expecting this when I started anchoring the seven-part series on decades that takes us right from the noughties to the forties. Something, I had already iron-grid myself against, counting one to ten every time someone mentioned how they were surprised to see me do something as serious as this and smiling a polite thank you instead of acting on my instinct of splitting their face open.
But what I was totally unprepared was of my own reaction to the intense research that went on in finding the details of everyday lives of the decades lived past. Being a '90s child, my knowledge of the past extended as far as the '80s, or till the '70s if craned beyond its length. What was earlier as hazy collective awareness of movies, books and hearsay transpired right before me every week, as I delved deep into the '60s, '50s and the '40s.
I saw that the sixties weren't actually all gloss and Technicolor that they were portrayed on screen but actually a decade where its people battled with two major wars (Indo-China War, 1962 and Second Indo-Pak War, 1965) and lost their loved leaders (Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri), all within a few years. While the West was grooving in psychedelia and churning out a Mod generation of mini-skirts and Vidal Sassoon haircuts, we were going through one of our darkest phases. The golden glow of freedom envisioned 20 years back hadn't quite shaped the way we'd had thought it would. True, we weren't speared of The Beatle mania either, when they visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh and even delivered an alleged private concert in Delhi. Imagine that! The Beatles. Performing in Delhi. And No Metallica Madness Was Even Heard Of.
The fifties on the other hand were the years when we were still deeply entrenched in British influence. Be it in our movies, fashion or the moves. The twist was as popular in New York clubs as it was in our local Bombay pubs. And they were the years when the Nehruvian dream was just beginning to agnize. Everything was a first, be it our dams, our constitution or elections. If there were the Lal-Bal-Pal in the 1910s who changed our political discourse, then we had the Dev-Dilip-Raj triumvirate in the 50s who transformed the way the women loved their heroes. My grandmom still talks about how she loved it when Dilip Kumar's shiny black hair blew in the wind on black and white celluloid. Not to forget the very revolutionary and way ahead of its times, parallel cinema. The cinema of Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt, which was read and seen like textbooks in filmmaking even then. Actor Boman Irani had once confessed at an awards show to having seeing Guru Dutt's Kagaz Ke Phool multiple times in a theatre, only because his mum sent him each time to see it for its cinematography, its lighting and its use of sound.
The forties on the other hand, weren't all that archaic that they are made out to be. Of course, it was the most monumental decade in the history of our nation but it was also the decade that gave us the uber-modern Barsaat (1949) and Andaaz (1949), where the onscreen chemistry between Raj Kapoor and Nargis set the screens on fire to jingle an old cliché. There were movies about unwed mothers (Kismet, 1943) and inter-caste marriages (Achut Kanya, 1936) and social commentaries on the class divide (Roti, 1942). Even stylish sari-blouses without sleeves were a rage, just take a look at pictures of Sarojini Naidu if you don't believe. When prohibition came to Bombay in 1949, forbidding people from buying more than two bottles a week, many got medical certificates from doctors citing health reasons that would allow them to purchase more than the designated number. Pure ghee didn't have the same allure as dalda, whose artery-clogging properties were yet to be discovered and was the latest revolution in cooking. Even though wearing khadi was the was a national duty, polyester and synthetic fabrics were quite popular and people needed to be discouraged from wearing 'western' clothes like trousers and shirts. Pears soap was a transparent luxury everyone wanted a piece of, and apparently still does.
Unfortunately, whenever we think of the decades before the '70s, there is little to rely on aside from the Western ideas that we have absorbed from movies like Forrest Gump and series like Mad Men. However, authentic they're nowhere close to depicting what took place in a modern Indian society then and we all have are hackneyed versions of tennis-ladies to rely on. Here's hoping, someone somewhere changes that soon.
From HT Brunch, August 12
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