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Saree as a weapon: The sartorial tastes of Indira Gandhi and Rattanbai Jinnah

Writers Sagarika Ghose and Sheela Reddy used the sartorial tastes of both Indira Gandhi and Rattanbai Jinnah to give a glimpse into their lives, and the choices they made as tough, but vulnerable figures.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 26, 2018 13:41 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Jaipur Literature Festival,Jaipur Literature Festival 2018,JLF 2018
Visitors on the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival at Jaipur’s Diggi Palace on Thursday.(Prabhakar Sharma/HT Photo)

A few days after she was married to Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1918, Rattanbai Jinnah, better known as Ruttie, accompanied her husband to a grand ball thrown by the then governor of Bombay, Lord Willingdon.

By then, the 18-year-old Ruttie was already turning heads with her distinctive sense of fashion, and her chiffon sarees and sleeveless blouses were the talk of town. Unfortunately for her, Lady Willingdon was conservative and didn’t appreciate the way Mrs Jinnah had dressed. In the middle of dinner, she turned towards one of her staff and said, “Fetch Mrs Jinnah a wrap. I think she is feeling cold.”

For full coverage of Jaipur Literature Festival, click here.

The snub landed hard. Jinnah rose from the table with a start and said, “When my wife is feeling cold, she will tell you,” and the couple walked out in a huff. They were never to step inside the governor’s house again until the incumbent moved out.

Such stories and more were told on day one of the Jaipur literature festival at a session on Indira Gandhi and Mr and Mrs Jinnah, where writers Sagarika Ghose and Sheela Reddy used the sartorial tastes of the two powerful women to give a glimpse into their lives, and the choices they made as tough, but vulnerable figures.

For former prime minister Gandhi, the saree was her weapon. Ghose recalled a particularly powerful moment in 1971 when she met the United States President Richard Nixon, who was then an ally of Pakistan and backing the neighbouring country as the war for Bangladesh loomed.

Gandhi had spent a particularly trying day and had been made to wait for almost 45 minutes by Nixon. But she got her revenge at the dinner when she turned up in a resplendent saree, and kept her eyes closed throughout the party, offering staccato answers to Nixon, who was infuriated by the end of the night. To rub salt in his wounds, she took him by surprise the next day by answering questions, at a joint press conference, in French, a language he didn’t speak.

Indira Gandhi was also a connoisseur of sarees. Ghose recalled a moment when she was campaigning once in an open jeep, and spotted a young girl in the crowd.

She turned to her chief of intelligence, and asked what saree the girl was wearing. Stumped, the officer mumbled, “Silk”. No, pat came the reply, “She is wearing a handloom weave from Coimbatore. What intelligence are you gathering?”

For Gandhi and Jinnah, the saree was not simply a garment. “Gandhi never wore it to exhibit femininity. It was a symbol of power, of a male authoritative figure. She didn’t think of herself as a woman,” Ghose said.

Jinnah too, increasingly, used the saree that she was used to draping since she was 14, as a weapon – often against her husband. She would take nose rings and wear them as ear rings, she would pair a “mang tikka” with bobbed hair, said Reddy. Towards the end of her marriage, as she increasingly got lonely with Jinnah tied up in the whirlwind of national politics, she used her clothes as a rebellion. “She shocked the Muslim clergy. She would turn up at Muslim League meetings in a sort-of-transparent saree and colourful blouse. The clergy would complain and threaten to walk out, but she stood her ground,” she said.

Clearly, the Sari Pacts that are all the rage on SociAL Media are only taking off from where Mrs Indira Gandhi and Mrs Jinnah left off.

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First Published: Jan 26, 2018 13:40 IST