WHEN THE NATION’S most powerful man wears the staple cloth of the nation’s poorest like a badge of honour, it is no accident. It immediately elevates the item to a national symbol, taking it from its mofussil roots and transforming it. That’s exactly what happened when Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a gamchha as a homemade mask during a critical video conference with chief ministers on coronavirus. In that one moment, the gamchha joined a select wardrobe that includes Jawaharlal Nehru’s jacket, Indira Gandhi’s ikats, and Rajiv Gandhi’s shawl.
Suddenly, those who sniggered at Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s tweet featuring a photograph of himself wearing a gamchha on his face and speaking of the effectiveness of the jal gamchha in fighting the virus, fell silent. In the days that followed, several ministers followed suit, wearing masks or stitching them. In one swift move, the Master Communicator was able to connect directly to the man on the street, in the queues, in the makeshift shelters, in the quarantined homes: ‘Bear with me, I am one of you.’
The gamchha has been around in India at least since the 18th century with references to similar checked fabrics in British colonial records. Textile curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul calls it a versatile piece of fabric which can be used as a turban, a headdress, a kerchief, or even to bundle up things to carry in frugal times. It’s a thick to medium weight cotton square rumal with checks and is part of a large culture of textiles being used in eastern and southeastern part of the Indian subcontinent.
Don’t be surprised if the gamcha, mostly from West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Assam, and much favoured by Amitabh Bachchan in iconic songs like Jumma Chumma in Hum (1991) and in Kajrare in Bunty aur Babli (2005), makes a comeback on the public stage. Indira Gandhi’s love for ikats is synonymous with her larger love for handlooms, creating an archetype for what young Indian women politicians wear even today. Rajiv Gandhi’s use of the shawl over kurtas created a contemporary identity for a young male politician, which was appealing to both urban and rural populations across demographics and regions, providing a link to the past and the present, creating a standard for public dress.
In a country like India, wearing Indian is important but not always accepted. Fashion designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, who designed a gamchha collection in 1999, recalls designing a uniform for airport staff that required the men to wear waistcoats. There was much grumbling because the staff felt it made them look like “waiters”. A year-and-a-half later, when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, they wore it with pride. His gamchha jacket even made it to the 2015 Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A Museum in London.
Our most successful politicians are those who are able to tell our stories best. Mahatma Gandhi wore the dhoti and nothing else and could still meet the King of England, George V, in 1931 in London as an equal and say he didn’t feel ashamed because “the emperor was wearing enough clothes for the both of us.” Gandhi was teaching India to be proud of itself and its heritage, of its tradition of simplicity and frugality. It was under his influence that Motilal Nehru, a man who famously got his suits stitched at Savile Row, gave it all up in the 1920s, getting the entire household to wear Indian. It must have been some remnant of that which a young Sonia Gandhi was channeling in a delicious anecdote in Tavleen Singh’s Durbar. When asked by a young Naveen Patnaik, then a glamorous socialite with a penchant for writing and partying, whether the dress she was wearing was Valentino, she replies: ‘I had it made in Khan Market by my darzi.’
Suddenly, those who sniggered at Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s tweet featuring a photograph of himself wearing a gamchha on his face and speaking of the effectiveness of the jal gamchha in fighting the virus, fell silent. In the days that
followed, several ministers followed suit, wearing masks or stitching them. In one swift move, the Master Communicator was able to connect directly to the man on the street, in the queues, in the makeshift shelters, in the quarantined homes: ‘Bear with me, I am one of you’
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That was 1970s Delhi. The city has changed but not so much the political culture of jaisa desh, vaisa besh. Patnaik has gone on to becoming a khadi kurta-wearing Chief Minister, the longest-serving in Odisha, and Sonia Gandhi has since then refurbished many of her mother-in-law’s ikat saris—several of which she has passed on to her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
India’s most popular politicians are those who portray complex ideas simply. So when Prime Minister Modi talks about washing his own clothes until he became Chief Minister of Gujarat and says how he always liked to be presentable, it makes more of an impact than all the memes about him wearing a suit woven with his name when he met US President Barack Obama.
When Rajnath Singh wears a kurta pyjama while performing shastra puja on a newly-received Rafale aircraft, it is meant to make as much of a statement as the blend of nimbu-mirchi tradition with high-tech modernity. And when Nirmala Sitharaman discards the Budget briefcase for a made-in-India bahikhatha, she is not merely breaking with convention but going desi with dash.
Globally, too, people in public life have used what they wear to show who they are, or want to be. If it’s Kate Middleton, a commoner married into the royal family, it is her mid-market recyclable fashion style that makes her accessible as a ‘people’s princess’, a noughties version of Princess Diana. If it’s Hillary Clinton and her pant suits, it is to demonstrate she means business as founder of the informal republic, Pantsuit Nation, allowing a generation of women politicians after her to dominate the House of Representatives. And if it’s Margaret Thatcher, she would always favour pearls and pussybows to relieve the tedium of her decidedly monochromatic power dress suits. As her screen alter ego Meryl Streep says in her biopic, The Iron Lady, ‘I may be persuaded to surrender the hat. The pearls, however, are absolutely non-negotiable.’
In the same vein, the customary blue border on Mamata Banerjee’s taanth sari; MGR’s fur cap, which his mentor CN Annadurai said, was enough to win an election; and Jayalalithaa’s cape, meant to signify Empress Impregnable. But not everyone’s clothing choices can convey the reality. Rahul Gandhi, sleeves rolled up, can tear up imaginary ordinances and deliver scathing speeches, but not do much else.