THE ETYMOLOGY OF THE PHRASE “the whole nine yards” has been dubiously linked to many things: the length of a World War II ammunition belt, the volume of fabric in a bridal train, even a joke about a well-endowed Scotsman whose kilt caught in a door. To me, it means one thing—the unsparing drudgery of dressing up for a ceremony in a nine-yard sari, a complex and voluminous drape that makes the wearer shuffle like a hermit crab over sand. The difference between six and nine yards is several lifetimes. I remember playing, as a child, in the folds of my grandmother’s endlessly long and lustrous saris—she wore them effortlessly day in and day out—but no one alive today wants to walk about swathed in nine yards of Kanchipuram silk, albeit in a poetic shade of green we Tamils call manthulir, or the colour of the tender mango leaf. Even my mother, enforcer of inviolable rules in the name of tradition, watches a YouTube tutorial every time she has to drape one of these saris. I am willing to bet that the Harikatha artist Vishakha Hari, who wears the madisar, as the nine-yard drape is known, on stage, is happier in practical clothing. Then again, considering she casually likened women to gold in the course of a performance and suggested both were valuable things that ought to be locked up, Hari is perhaps willingly escorted to, maybe even styled for, her events by the men in her family.
The madisar is a cumbrous garment, an identifier of caste and status from another era. The Tamil Brahmins once defined themselves by their religiosity and their rituals, their fastidious vegetarianism and clothing, and their obsession with purity. They were the self-appointed custodians of temples and high culture and officiators at all rites of passage in Hindu society. They were the beating heart of the Carnatic classical music scene. Over the years, the Dravidian movement and the march of modernity have challenged their exclusive privileges of worship and their cultural hegemony, but many ‘Tambrahms’, as they call themselves, continue to cling to tradition and custom, often in performative ways. Young women who cannot read and write in their mother tongue wear the madisar—along with a lopsided topknot inspired by the Vaishnavite poet Andal’s signature hairdo—to their curated-for-Instagram, often-inter-caste weddings, for they are vaguely aware that it represents an elite cultural aesthetic. Boys who don’t care for the sacred thread relent when it is time to get married—for no Tambrahm mother would allow her son to be sans thread on his big, bare-chested day. And those of us who believe in the capacity for individual reason and cringe at unquestioned cycles of social behaviour register a foregone defeat when our parents invoke a late grandparent’s wishes.
Tamil Brahmin families are at a particular moment in their history, a point of transition. The old Vedic ways are dead, leaving behind a nostalgia they indulge in on special occasions. The abiding flow of modern life has shifted the basis of their social relationships
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Recently, I mounted a small rebellion to wear a sari of regular length to a ritual whose redeeming feature and chief social function is the customary feast at the end, served on banana leaves by the attentive family caterer, also a Tambrahm, one who must wear his identity on his forehead for the sake of business. I compared my mother’s sartorial intransigence to that of the #NoBindiNoBusiness brigade, but, seasoned player that she is, she didn’t rise to the bait. “Must you protest each time? It’s only for a few hours. Then you can go back to your life,” she said in closing arguments. These skirmishes are characteristic of Tamil Brahmin families that are neither woke nor Hindu supremacist. They are at a particular moment in their history, a point of transition. The old Vedic ways are dead, leaving behind a nostalgia they indulge in on special occasions. The abiding flow of modern life has shifted the basis of their social relationships. They have traded in a dusty doctrinaire past for the sufficiently malleable and polished metal of cosmopolitanism. The caricature of the Tamil Brahmin as a conservative whose unconcerned subordination of morality to scripture, of participation to elitism, of invention to familiarity, made him or her an object of ridicule and grudging respect, has long expired. Tamil Brahmins are not ones to pursue a phantom, or to waste their efforts on the air, to paraphrase Pushkin. Over the past two decades, as capitalist pursuits steamrolled over cultural quirks, the Tambrahm stereotype morphed into that of a quietly ambitious sort, educated in the US, and settled into a high-paying tech job and a placid marriage with two kids. More recently, with geeks taking over the world, the community has shrugged off a genetic aversion to risk embracing startup culture.
“Tamil Brahmins have always had a hero complex. The heroism of entrepreneurship, especially in an age of abundant capital, is irresistible to us,” says a Bengaluru-based founder, requesting anonymity. The son of an IAS officer, he says the millennial Tambrahm is more often than not concerned about fitting in rather than standing out. “It has been a few years since I dropped my last name—not out of a sense of shame about my people but because I believe in the importance of lived experience in shaping identity.” He met his wife while on a work trip to Europe, and they married in six months’ time with their parents’ blessings. “My mother was happy to welcome a European into our increasingly multicultural family. But one thing was not negotiable—a big fat Tambrahm wedding.” Because Tamil Brahmins continue to fancy themselves as an appealing social archetype for our time even as they accept other worldviews.
Over the years, the Dravidian movement and the march of modernity have challenged their exclusive privileges of worship and their cultural hegemony, but many Tambrahms continue to cling to tradition and custom, often in performative ways
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Wherever there is an elite clique—of investment bankers, businessmen, lawyers, artists, politicians, opinion-makers, sportspersons or movie stars—Tamil Brahmins, by dint of their privilege and hard work, find their way in, and how some of these eminent personalities conduct themselves says a lot about the trajectory of the larger community. For some time now, they have been speaking in two distinct voices. From Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s offhanded remark in Parliament about coming from a family that doesn’t consume onions and garlic, to actor R Madhavan’s conscious effort to infuse aspects of ethnicity, culture and rituals into his film Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, one set appears to be renewing their intellectual and cultural commitment to their community. At the other end of the spectrum is vocalist TM Krishna whose cathartic confrontation with the past has led him to campaign against Brahminical cultural hegemony.
In an increasingly polarised world, the average Tamil Brahmin, too, is under pressure to either renounce his identity or to support a gratuitous Hindu revivalism. Anyone who is part of a Tamil Brahmin WhatsApp group knows families are riven by this split that reflects a fundamental cultural and political turn in the contemporary history of India. To belong to neither camp is to nervously wonder if it is indeed okay to post a reel from a visit to the temple—when everyone around you does so without a second thought—or to invite your woke friend to your baby’s naming ceremony. To come out as agnostic or non-vegetarian while never forgetting the lyrics of ‘Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam’. To feel out of kilter with your own social world and to reject a self-aggrandising value system without personal animus. To recite a shloka just to revel in the familiar sounds. To give in to the lure of tradition that is still chaotically alive. And to wear anything but your heart on your sleeve. Luckily, we are also known for our levity. The joke goes that our idol worship ended with J Jayalalithaa. No one laughs louder than us at our penchant for pedantry and sitting in judgment on anything contrarian, fresh and transgressive. The stereotypes can write themselves.