One thing that India, or I.N.D.I.A, cannot fault – strictly objectively speaking – Prime Minister Narendra Modi for is his sartorial sense. Immaculately turned out always, PM Modi has admitted to being a hygiene freak and his disdain for the frumpy rivals only his dismissiveness reserved for the Opposition.
Even the people of Italy – the anointed King of Global Fashion – marvel at how he emerges from his aircraft during foreign visits in uncreased kurtas, paired with some of the most exquisite handcrafted shawls saluting India’s heritage. “In contrast,” a characteristically opinionated Italian journalist says, “our PM (Giorgia Melloni) is the only person I know who can make Armani suits look like Salvation Army giveaways”. I understand the sentiment here but we are not interested in Ms Melloni’s sartorial choices and this essay is not even about PM Modi’s sartorial coups.
We are now a country of uniforms, uniformity. The Uniform Civil Code is hot on the government agenda and in keeping with the spirit, a new Uniform Sartorial Code for the parliamentary staff has been announced. With the upcoming special session, the Indian parliament will move into the new building. We Indians cannot let any event go unmarked. Hence, a new uniform for the new parliament. Just like the new civil code for the new India.
The Opposition has critiqued the government for using the lotus motif in the uniform. The party symbol, they say, has been brazenly used by the BJP even when it’s the taxpayers’ money – not the party fund – that pays for the projects. The BJP is ready with the retort – the lotus is India’s national flower and critiquing its usage is anti-national. This time the Opposition has a comeback because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that everyone has a thing or two to say about all things fashion. Why did the government not use the national animal or the bird as motifs for the new uniform? The government, as usual, does not care for such criticisms. From prehistoric findings, we are now aware that human beings drew fauna before attempting to draw flora. Just like the Congress, especially under Indira Gandhi, owned the tiger with a penchant, the BJP is doing it with the lotus, staying true to evolutionary chronology.
If sources are to be believed, the ubiquitous bandhgala of the Indian bureaucracy is giving way to a Nehru jacket. (Pssst…some people call it the Modi Jacket now). The BJP government has trebled its chances of re-election with this masterstroke. The bandhgala, my personal proclivities aside, is an instrument of torture in a city like Delhi. You can wear it for a total of 10 days without being half-dead. But, the real coup in the uniform change is the incorporation of Rani pink -India’s beige. And just for that, the National Institute of Fashion Technology deserves a big pat on the back. The authentic Modi-style backslapping.
My Purcell-Cambridge-educated husband has eyes that cannot register any colour other than grey, black, navy blue and beige. He gets blinded by my wardrobe. Now is a moment of my tiny private triumph: my kitschy neons have vanquished his funereal greys in the order of officious precedence.
But let’s come back to the lotus motif. Items from some of the earliest excavations from Mohan Jo Daro bear this, the Buddhist iconography lays great emphasis on it, and the Mughals turned it into an ornamental design staple in their vegetal repertoire. In Islamic art, the lotus has a prime place in the arabesque. The Chinese blue and white pottery uses lotus extensively. The Egyptians were obsessed with the lotus motif and probably the first to recognise its artistic potential beyond that, therefore, is the inspiration behind the pattern of the new uniform? Is it unity in diversity? If yes, is the lotus party living up to it? Or is it a resurrection of ‘purity’ in some past epoch that the pattern symbolises? The BJP revels in it.
I could be accused of reading too much into what is just “fashion”. But, like sex, fashion is about everything except fashion. The choices we make with respect to how and how much we cover our bodies are rooted in our sense of the self. And this sense is informed by what our sense of past, present and future is. When a country’s leadership constantly looks back, it usually ends up losing sight of that which is right in front and a little beyond. The rejection of the safari suit, another colonial-era monstrosity, is a welcome change. But if it comes as an attempt to efface or obfuscate the evolutionary history of India i.e. Bharat, we need to think about our motivations for doing so. What is it that makes us uncomfortable about our past? What makes us proud?
The BJP has a lot to be proud of; its meteoric rise in India’s electoral democracy is laudable. It has discarded the underdog mantle and how. As the general elections inch closer, the party will do well to find its sense of self, its sense of the past, present, and future. The newly introduced Manipuri turbans are a great attempt at mainstreaming the hitherto marginalised traditions. But as the state continues to burn after two months of sectarian violence, does it not become incumbent on the government to urgently protect and reassure Manipuris through strategic peacebuilding measures instead of giving a sartorial nod?
(Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based author and academic.)
Disclaimer: This essay was written by the author dressed in Rani pink robes.
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.