Airbrushed history of pajamas


COMMENTS about Narendra Modi’s sartorial metamorphosis turned my thoughts to the 19th-century poet and wit Akbar Allahabadi. Also, a friend in Chicago forwarded me Emma Tarlo’s book on the sartorial history of India. Public criticism of the suit Modi wore to receive President Obama is passé. A more interesting problem arose when some Muslim clerics prodded the prime minister to don a skullcap, which he has refused.

We don’t remember seeing Jawaharlal Nehru or Mahatma Gandhi wearing a Muslim cap. Why should Modi be forced to wear one? What we could emphasise instead is the less discussed story of the pajamas he wears. Who knows what the prime minister might do if he realises the Muslim role in giving him his favourite outfit? With his strong dislikes, could it be possible he unknowingly dons the Turko-Persian attire?

The pajama is by most accounts a Muslim introduction to the country of exotic, unstitched clothes — the angavastrams, the dhotis, and the abhushans to embellish them. None of my scholarly friends could find a word for the darzi, Persian for tailor, in Sanskrit.

Akbar’s quatrain, on the other hand, reserved special sarcasm for Sir Syed’s efforts to set up a modern college for Muslim boys with a penchant for Western clothes. He also critiqued Sheikh Abdullah, Syed’s contemporary, who built a similar 19th-century school for Muslim girls in Aligarh. The poet lamented that the new culture had put the traditional pajama in jeopardy.

Ek peer ne taaleem se ladke ko sambhaala/ Ek peer ne tehzeeb se ladki ko sanwaara/ Ek tan gaya patloon mein ek saaye mein phaili/ Pajama gharaz ye hai ki dono ne utaara

(Two Muslim gentlemen asked their boys and girls to modernise. The boy put on the trousers, the girl took the skirt. That’s how the pajama met its demise.)

If Mr Modi has knowingly embraced an Indian Muslim contribution in his wardrobe he should be applauded. Akbar Allahabadi too would be happy. The pajama narrative is, however, only partly true. While it does have a foreign lineage, there is no evidence that Muslims removed from the northern Indian cultural theatre had embraced it. Bengali Muslim women in pre-1971 Pakistan preferred the sari to the shalwar, an outfit they continue to deride as ‘Punjabi’.

Tarlo’s book Clothing matters: dress and identity in India has a wider canvas than a Hindu-Muslim query. There is the role of the colonial intervention in not just influencing local dressing habits but also fighting for the dignity of scantily-clad women, contrary to what Akbar Allahabadi would want us to believe.

A myth Tarlo shatters is about Gandhi being the creative genius behind India’s Swadeshi movement whereby his followers made bonfires of their foreign clothes. One of the early advocates of Indian clothes was George Birdwood, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in Bombay. In 1880, he assembled his famous work, The Industrial India, in which he discussed the need for craft preservation.

Birdwood was disturbed by the popularity of Manchester cottons and called for hand-woven clothes way before Gandhi turned the quest into a useful political symbol. Thus the much-maligned Muslim and British rulers gave traditions to India that its common people continue to use.

While the Christian missionaries’ role looks primed to be airbrushed from India’s history books, their fight for a dignified dress code for many Indians will be difficult to erase. A passage from R. Ayyappan’s account of the popular struggle to scrap the humiliating dress code for women with the help of Christian missionaries in Kerala is a good illustration.

It was on July 26, 1859, when lower-caste women in the then Travancore region were granted the right to cover their breasts. That day marked a major triumph for female liberation. On that day, Travancore Maharaja Aayilyam Thirunal made an official declaration granting lower-caste Nadar/Channar women the right to cover their breasts.

The victory of the Channar Lahala or the Upper Cloth Mutiny (Maaru Marakkal Samaram), after half a century of violent struggles, is widely seen as the event that triggered a wave of renaissance movements that shaped modern Kerala, Ayyappan wrote. It was Western influence and the work of missionaries like Charles Meed during the early part of the 19th century that revealed to the lower- and upper-caste women the indignity of their existence.

“Cries for equality began to rise not just from various parts of Kerala, but from the whole of South India … inspired by the success of the Upper Cloth Mutiny,” historian Joy Balan Vlaathangara wrote in his book Vaikuntaswamiyum Samoohika Navothanavum.

Clearly, Muslim darzis and Christian missionaries contributed to India’s dignified demeanour regardless of what Akbar Allahabadi might have thought of it, and despite the insults flung at their people by blinkered prejudice and ignorance. Dawn

The writer is a Delhi based senior journalist.

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