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Crack the dress code

The convocation robe shouldn’t seem foreign to us. After all, it’s one of the many identity markers we wear, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2010 02:21 IST

Just when you think that things will get serious, suddenly they become absurd. On April 1, the Right to Education Act was implemented, making school education a fundamental right for all children aged between 6 and 14. But rather than the finer points of that landmark act being debated, what hogged public attention were contestations about convocation robes.

The debate was sparked when Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh chose to publicly discard the maroon and gold gown he was wearing at a convocation of the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal. Describing it as an impractical colonial relic, he asked: “Why can’t we have a convocation ceremony in simple clothes?” The print and electronic media had a field day, carrying the views of vice-chancellors, students, politicians and people from all walks of life on whether the ceremonial gown should be abandoned or not. Discarding everything colonial, as many pointed out, would mean the end of parliamentary democracy, the postal system and the use of the English language itself.

Others highlighted less sensible elements of our colonial legacy, such as the code ‘VT’ — short for ‘Viceroy’s Territory’ — which continues to be used as the registration code for aircraft in India. Among vice-chancellors, Laxman Chaturvedi of Guru Ghasidas University, the new central university in Chhattisgarh, declared that the state’s traditional dress would be worn during its first convocation. This, incidentally, is what the Institute of Rural Management (Irma) in Gujarat does. Students and administrators wear handloom kurta pyjamas and angavastrams. Even the footwear is Kolhapuri and all of this serves to symbolise the institute’s ethos and culture.

Irma, in this regard, has chosen to evoke the ethos that has been evident at the Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal for a much longer time. Visva-Bharati was founded in British India by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was not merely the first non-Westerner to be awarded a Nobel prize but he was also perhaps the first who used the proceeds from the Nobel prize money to found an institution of higher learning. At convocations at Visva-Bharati, neither the chancellor, who happens to be the Prime Minister of India, nor the vice-chancellor wears academic robes.

Will other universities discard this practice? It seems unlikely. And this is not because they haven’t discarded colonial insignia. The first seal, for instance, of my employer, the University of Delhi, was marked by a splendid motto. ‘Knowledge and Character’ it said and, as an early university calendar explained, it intended to imply that: “No knowledge is worth the name which does not go to form character; the end of life is not knowledge but action.”

However, the motto was written in Latin (‘Scientia et Mores’) and was marked by the Crown. So, after Independence, a proposal was mooted for a new university seal with another excellent motto. This time, it was transcribed in Sanskrit and the Devanagari script — ‘Nishtha, Dhriti, Satyam’, which translates as ‘Loyalty, Courage, Truth’. This was mooted not by an Indian but by a Briton — Maurice Gwyer, vice-chancellor of Delhi University from 1938 to 1950.

But the reason why convocation robes are unlikely to be discarded has to do with the fact that, unlike the Latin lingo and the Crown insignia, they are not particularly alien to our practices. We Indians habitually ‘dress up’ for all manner of occasions, from festivals to weddings. I view with retrospective amusement my own wedding, which was a civil ceremony. While my husband wore a sober suit, the incongruity of decking up in an elaborate lehenga for a civil wedding did not bother me in the least.

Wearing academic robes at convocations, therefore, is simply another manifestation of this practice. It gels well with the norms that make ‘fancy’ dress so normal in India. In fact, if one goes by photographic testimony, we, at the University of Delhi, seem to enjoy our regalia much more than our predecessors in British India. All recent photographs show impeccably arranged mortarboards on the heads of the top rung of the university administration. In a 1930 photograph, however, both the vice-chancellor, Moti Sagar, and the pro-chancellor, Muhammad Habibullah, are wearing pagdis. Later too, Maurice Gwyer, as the traditional convocation photographs reveal, never covered his head with the stiff gold tasseled mortarboard. And, one suspects, in deference to him, nor did anyone else.

Academic clothes are also markers of university hierarchy. A hierarchy that reflects administrative power rather than academic merit and distinction. Faculty members who win academic prizes or become members of distinguished societies and academies do not form part of the convocation procession, but administrators do. And their clothes reflect their position.
So, at the University of Delhi, the deans of various faculties can easily be distinguished from the heads of department because their scarlet gowns are marked by gold lace. In much the same way, the chancellor’s purple velvet gown features a four-inch gold lace, while the vice-chancellor must remain satisfied with a mere ‘two inch’ of gold lace on his gown!

Why should such markers of identity, of a caste system within academia, seem foreign to a people in whose lives so many other, and similar, markers of caste and difference can be observed?