It is precisely this question that comes to mind on a small detail of the ceremony surrounding the advent of a new presidency in India. What if, it may well be asked, had Mahatma Gandhi not been felled by a bullet in 1948 and had gone on to witness India’s transition to a republic in 1950? What if a grateful nation in search of a moral compass had insisted that the ‘father of the nation’ should also be its first President? And what if the Mahatma had agreed?
In that event, would Jawaharlal Nehru have had the gumption to advise his mentor that wearing “a black achkan and white churidar pyjamas would be suitable for the inauguration ceremony as well as for any other official function”? Would the man who conversed with the mighty King-Emperor in Buckingham Palace in a dhoti and shawl have delighted the photographers by putting on something utterly incongruous? Would the ever-irreverent Sarojini Naidu have chuckled over a Mahatma in fancy dress?
The imagery of Gandhi in Nehruvian attire is deliciously wicked. However, behind the farce lurks a more profound question: does India need a dress code for ceremonial occasions? This was the question Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic, asked Nehru three days before he was sworn in. The first two occupants of the palace on Raisina Hill after Independence had, after all, assumed charge in markedly different clothes: Lord Mountbatten in the ceremonial uniform of an admiral of the fleet, and C Rajagopalachari in a white khadi jacket and dhoti.
Left to himself, Rajen Babu would have preferred a variant of what Rajaji wore to the Durbar Hall on becoming governor-general. Dhoti, in its different regional variations, was the preferred dress of most Indians for formal and ceremonial occasions. Some Muslim communities in northern and central India, however, preferred the long achkan or sherwani with white pyjamas. In short, there was no single definition of formal wear. Just as the Scots never gave up their kilts in clan colours for the regulation dinner jacket, India’s definition of ‘formal’ has differed according to culture and geography.
In West Bengal, the home state of India’s 13th President Pranab Mukherjee, the Calcutta Club has, for example, deemed that lounge suits and dhotis are acceptable for the dining room, while the kurta-pyjama (whether of the Fab India or political India variety) is a definite no-no. This is quite a contrast from the Delhi clubs where dhoti is taboo but pyjamas are accepted. Yet, there is a visceral antipathy of the Bengali bhadralok for the pyjama. A Bengali notable once rebuked Madhav Rao Scindia for coming to dinner in kurta-pyjama. “The pyjama,” he informed his bewildered guest, “is what you wear between the bedroom and the bathroom.”
It is worth considering what the custodians of Bengali taste thought of the new President, abandoning the customary dhoti and assuming office in a Nehru-decreed uniform. The last occasion a Bengali had occupied a post of equivalent importance was Subhas Bose, the Congress President in 1938. Predictably, Bose was impeccably attired in white dhoti-panjabi, with a striped angavastram for colour. This was quite a change from the 1928 Congress session in Calcutta when he turned up in military uniform, complete with steel-chain epaulettes. A bemused Gandhi compared Bose and his uniformed volunteers to a Bertram Mills Circus.
The Mahatma found Bose’s militaristic pretensions amusing. In the same vein, rooted Bengalis found Nehruvian aesthetics suspect and pretentious. Writing in 1965 in The Continent of Circe, the Bengali gadfly Nirad C Chaudhuri described Nehru as “more a Muslim than a Hindu, so far as he is anything Indian at all…He is usually repelled by anything pronouncedly Hindu.” Nehru’s critics noted the alacrity with which he shed the dhoti after 1947 for a sartorial style that epitomised the adaption of Hindu elites to a Muslim court.
That such a style finds favour with both North India and Bollywood is undeniable. But why make some people’s preference the norm for all Indians? It is time to liberate India from Nehru’s flights of whimsy.
Sunday Times of India, July 29, 2012