It was the cotton cloth that was at the heart of India’s struggle for Independence. If the charkha used by Mahatma Gandhi was a spinning wheel that symbolised economic self-reliance in homespun cotton yarn, the other aspect of this metaphorical thread was his loincloth that led to Sir Winston Churchill’s notorious description of him as a “half-naked fakir” bent upon sedition against the British empire. For Gandhi, the homespun loincloth was a political symbol against colonial rule.
The recent controversy over the denial of entry to a dhoti-clad judge into the club area of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) has brought back into focus the significance of attire as one involving issues of justice or dignity. Chief minister J Jayalalithaa said the state plans to enact a new law to curb such practices, triggering a fresh round of thinking on sartorial politics.
Nearly seven decades after Independence, the symbolism of attire may be lost on newer generations, many of whose elites still follow the aesthetic preferences of colonial masters or their latter-day inspirations — successful business tycoons. Some, in their liberal political correctness, see the dress codes prescribed by some clubs as a matter of preference that goes with private gatherings or institutions. But that misses the political and historical significance of the issue.
In Tamil Nadu, the issue of dhoti has snowballed into a controversy in which the state’s rivals have closed ranks in the perceived insult to Tamil culture. In 2002, the Bangalore Club denied entry to none other than the then director of the prestigious National Law School, Mohan Gopal, when he arrived for dinner in a dhoti-kurta on India’s Republic Day.
Perhaps it was to address the nuanced divide between formality and ethnic identity that Jawaharlal Nehru popularised the Nehru jacket during his long years as India’s first prime minister. He is not alone. Mao Tse Tung wore his own special Zhongshan suit that mixed western and eastern elements in a tunic top with pockets that could be worn with trousers as formal attire.
In the 1960s and 80s, Zaire’s Col Mobutu Sese Seko banned western attire under a policy called ‘a return to authenticity’ and sported a leopard-skin cap and a wooden walking stick as a mark of his African identity. In place of the Western suit, Mobutu created his own two-piece combination of pants and a tunic, taking inspiration from Mao.
In New Delhi’s circle of envoys, the diplomatically correct invitation cards usually mention ‘national dress’ alongside ‘lounge suits’ — enough to allow everything from the dhoti and the kurta to the African kaftans or Scottish kilts if that is what one chooses to wear.
It is not surprising that Jayalalithaa described the TNCA’s dress code as “sartorial despotism.” Perhaps it is not an accident that last year’s most celebrated Bollywood song was the ‘Lungi Dance’ from Chennai Express — ostensibly a tribute to superstar Rajnikanth, but loaded with such patronising innuendo in its caricatured mannerisms that the superstar’s supposed endorsement of that song was never made in a public statement.
Between the lungi and its white or off-white variant, the veshti there often falls a class divide.
Tamil Nadu’s politicians may close ranks for the veshti with the same vigour they usually display when the criticise the Sri Lankan government’s policies regarding the island nation’s Tamil minority. But they may do well to take inspiration from the leaders of Colombo, who have, like Tamil Nadu’s own P Chidambaram, celebrated the attire as an international costume. The veshti’s Sri Lankan equivalent, the sarama is a rule rather than exception among Sri Lanka’s better known leaders.