Thought to be ‘Muslim’ by some, but originating in the land of the five rivers — Punjab, east and west — the salwar kameez has nearly completed its conquest of the South Asian clothesline. What politicians, diplomats and activists have not been able to do, this piece of stitched cloth has.
Attire quite frequently is a signpost of identity for social strata, groups and communities. It therefore comes as no surprise that the elite of post-colonial South Asia, in the process of consolidating individual statehoods, felt the need to evolve a national dress. The national dress was meant to become the flag bearer of a unified nation, harking back to tradition as well as reflecting the values of modernity that are deemed to be appropriate to that tradition. But, in a region whose countries host such a multiplicity of communities and plurality of traditions, this begs the question—whose tradition and whose dress?
Not surprisingly, therefore, there is exclusionary politics stamped all over the choice (and imposition) of a national dress, as it often is with national language. What one wears makes one person belong and another feel distanced; an indication of proximity to the power centre to some, as well as a deliberate denial of that very power centre by others who reject the certified standard. The so-called ‘national dress’, the patriotic badge of pride in one’s country and tradition, therefore, becomes all-too-often in itself a source of division and conflict.
Such dress codes are often unwritten, but are not, for that reason, any less mandatory. Imposition of a particular attire necessarily, and in every country of South Asia, will officially exclude a range of attires intrinsic to particular cultural groups. Women in the Indian Foreign Service know they cannot don the salwar kameez for official events, not so much because it is seen as informal but because it is understood to be a Pakistani dress. So where does that leave India’s Punjabis or Muslims? The same is the case with government officials in Pakistan, who are not allowed to wear the sari because it is not seen as Pakistani or Islamic.
Such enforcement of collective codes is not restricted to state institutions alone. Movements that resist the centralising tendencies of unitary states are just as susceptible to the pull of standardisation. Sri Lanka does have a Muslim minority, and before the rise of ethnic violence the Muslim women’s dress was not any different from that of the Jaffna Tamils, and they were not wearing the Kandyan osariya saree. But after the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) ordered the expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna, the community leaders endeavoured to construct a distinct god-fearing Islamic identity, mostly by way of a dress code for women. And so the women took to the veil.
A million sartorial mutinies
But while officialdom and ethnic politics draw markers that divide and regiment in the name of a constructed identity, there are "a million mutinies" that challenge such sectarian impulses. For women, one of the most visible among them is the salwar kameez or the "Punjabi suit". It has emerged as one of the strongest signposts for the identity of South Asian womanhood, a dress which has been accepted by women all over, all of it without planning or consultation. At any South Asian ngo conference, you will find most women participants wearing the salwar/churidar kameez—be they Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Indian, Pakistani, or even Maldivian. Evidently, the South Asian ngo stratum has transcended the barriers of national and ethnic boundaries to opt for the salwar kameez, as both a convenient dress and signifier of a South Asian female identity.
But it is not just the ngo world that has been swept by the salwar revolution. Its is fast spreading to challenge the orthodoxies of culture, class and fashion, not only in the big cities but also in small townships and villages, and even beyond South Asian shores.
In the deeply stratified Hindu society, upper caste women are required by tradition to wear a saree. In Nepal, there was a time when after marriage no god-fearing caste Hindu woman would wear anything but a saree or its plebian counterpart the plain cotton dhoti. But today the situation is very different, as even upper caste women have taken to the salwar. Working women, in particular, have set the trend and it has now been picked up by the elite classes as well as the labouring poor. The choice seems to lie, first and foremost, in convenience, and the added revolution that Kathmandu women have brought is that when they ride pillion on motorcycles or scooters they sit astride the machine. The salwar kameez is by now ubiquitous not only in Kathamandu, but also in Biratnagar, Nepalgunj or Bharatpur, and it is not only the young who are wearing it any more.
A recent SAARC television capsule, designed to showcase the cultural diversity of the South Asian Seven, highlighted a Dhaka fashion show exhibiting the latest in salwar kameez wear by young Bangladeshi designers. So, the cultural bastion of the fabled Dhakai saree has fallen to the salwar kameez wave! And in the chic circles and among the development set, the Dhakai dupatta has become symbolic of this metamorphosis. On prominent display in the chic Aarong shopping outlets, the shoulder shawl has become all the rage, and is on the shopping list of the South Asian visitor to Dhaka. (Nepal, too, has evolved one of its traditional weaves—called, incidentally, Dhaka—to provide dupattas for Kathmandu’s development set and women on the move.)
On the other side of the Bengal border, the bhadralok of Calcutta lament that their city is fast being taken over by Punjabis, such is the speed with which the salwar has spread. And the unkindest cut comes from their own young women happily slipping into various designs of salwar. The older generation is a bit more hesitant—my Bengali mother-in-law has resisted the salwar invasion largely, I believe, out of the fear of getting accustomed to the comfort and practicality, thereby letting go of a critical aspect of tradition. This, in any case, is what happened with my mother who hails from Multan.
The salwar kameez combines utilitarian and aesthetic virtues, which partly explains its quick spread across boundaries. In contrast to the flowing saree, the maekla chador, or the ghagra, the salwar kameez is a stitched, divided garment that facilitates mobility. The versatile dupatta that goes with it is both functional and decorative. The salwar kameez is therefore seen as eminently practical, democratic and modern—an alternative to appearing either Western or traditional.
There is another reason why the dress appeals to so many women. There is the definite perception of the South Asian salwar kameez wearer as a modern and empowered working woman. At a time when women are emerging more prominently in the public sphere, it is only natural that such an image contributes enormously to the appeal of the salwar kameez, to the detriment of the saree and other forms of dress assigned to women by patriarchal societies. Take a look, again, at Kathmandu’s middle and upper middle class women. Definitely, a part of their leanings towards the salwar had to do with the runaway success of Pakistani serials over the 1990s, which showed self-confident women, beautiful, smart and working in modern professions.
While the salwar epitomised rebellion, howsoever understated, the saree has represented the integrating factor in the modern history of the Subcontinent. It is a versatile wear, worn in different ways — Kandyan, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Bengali, Parsee, as the maekla chador of Assam or as dhawani in South India. For many women the saree has also opened up windows into the cultural and geographic landscape of the region—South Indian silks from the weavers of Kancheepuram, cotton Chanderis from Madhya Pradesh, fine muslin from Dhaka. The variation in fabric is itself a study in diversity, and Andhra Pradesh alone offers the Dharmavaram, Narayanpet, Gadwal, Pochampalli and Venkatagiri varieties. Indeed, the saree is unique in that a single dress gave rise to a diversity of local expression and spanned a geographic landscape now divided by state and national borders. But the fact is that, increasingly, the saree is being folded away in cupboards, to be pulled out only as a rites-of-passage ceremonial dress.
The salwar’s displacement of the saree, its image as the dress of women liberated from domesticity, as well as the perception of it as a Muslim and Punjabi dress, has contributed to the orthodox reactions it has evoked in parts of India. Rimi Chatterjee, a Calcutta working woman, recalls how her Bengali mother growing up in a traditional Hindu family in Bihar, was forbidden to wear salwar kameez as it was "Musalmani". Ironically, she and her sisters were allowed to wear ‘frocks’, even sleeveless ones, at home though it was always sarees when they went out.
The salwar is thus a subversion. After all, women are projected as physical markers of tradition and community identity. The reaction was therefore bound to be severe. Women’s expansion of cultural choice, implicitly entailing a ‘re-negotiation’ of tradition and identity, has been fiercely contested by the traditional forces. Battles have been fought every inch of the way. Two years ago, a college student, Shalini challenged the unwritten dress code of colleges in West Bengal. She wore a salwar kameez. The then principal of Ashutosh College debarred her. However, in the controversy that followed, public sympathy was with Shalini and the salwar now rules the roost.
Ethnic dress, ethnic stress
But parallel to this regionwide one-wear—let us call it the salwar kameezisation of South Asia—there are equally robust and even violent affirmations of cultural distinction. In the sporadic re-assertion of community identities, the focus of the male protagonists tends to fall particularly on what the women wear. South Asia’s cycles of ethnic politics does not allow any neutral space for dress. It becomes a way of distinguishing one’s own from the ‘other’.
Writing about his work in Majuli, the island on the Brahmaputra’s midstream in Assam, the social activist Sanjay Ghosh drew attention to the bitter criticism his organisation Urmil drew from militants espousing a separatist identity from mainstream India. The main charge against Ghosh, who was later killed by the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom), was that his work undermined indigenous culture. Local women workers and volunteers of the organisation had shed the traditional maekla chador to wear the salwar kameez or jeans, both of which allowed them to ride bicycles to work.
Of course, expediency makes even die-hard ultra-ethnicists relax on tradition, as in the case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its need to recruit women cadres. Before the "manpower shortage" hit them, the LTTE’s identity politics was focused on reinforcing the traditional image of the Jaffna Tamil woman in full saree, bound by caste, and ritually sequestered. But their need for mobility—it is hard to conduct guerilla warfare swathed in a saree—freed the LTTE women. Touted as ‘Birds of Freedom’, the female brigades of the LTTE, clad in trousers or salwar kameez, had the unintended effect of sartorially liberating Tamil women as a whole.
The image of Danu, the suicide bomber who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, has fixed in the mind’s eye the image of the Tamil woman terrorist in salwar kameez. In Sri Lanka, whether you are Sinhala or Tamil, chances are if you are wearing a salwar kameez, the security forces will be extra vigilant. Early this year, in the heavily guarded Fort area of Colombo, a young woman in a salwar kameez was sighted in the evening wandering up and down the avenue. Accosted and searched by security, this suspected Tamil guerilla did not have explosives strapped on her person, ready to detonate. She was actually a Sinhala sex worker from out of town.
In moments of ethnic stress, the dress one wears can become a dangerous identifier of one’s background. Sushobha Barve, a Maharashtrian social activist, still remembers the words of a fellow traveller in the suburban train: "Aaj galat kapre pehan ke ayee hai" (You have worn the wrong clothes today). It was November 1984, and prime minister Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Waves of anti-Sikh goons were on the loose. And Barve was wearing a salwar kameez. In the compartment were a couple of Sikhs. The mob was dragging them out, bent on killing them, which they did. She tried to stop them, but was instead badly roughed up by fellow passengers who believed she must be a Sikh, perhaps a relative, because of the dress she had on. It was perhaps the fact that she spoke Marathi that spared Barve, but those words, "aaj galat..." haunt her to this day.
It is precisely the meanings that dress conveys which makes the salwar kameez both an expression of choice and an object of disapproval. For us, women of the immediate post-colonial generation, there was the hangover of the Anglo complex, that is, the need to distinguish oneself from ‘chi-chi’ Anglo Indians, and to valourise a nativist ethnic identity, rejecting Western clothes.
Our children, the inheritors of a globalising economy, in which our countries have become the sweatshops of the world’s garment industries, more easily slip in and out of Western as well as ‘nativist’ ethnic clothes. Indeed, the spread of the export-oriented garment industry all over South Asia has made for an explosion in the availability of Western clothes. In Sri Lanka, the step-up for the second and third post-Independence generation, is more likely to be from the skirt to the saree, without the salwar kameez stage in between. Among the culturally differentiated peoples of Northeast India who are largely Christian, or the myriad hill ethnic groups of Nepal, there is a much greater propensity to wear Western clothes.
Which raises the obvious question: Is the salwar’s takeover of the South Asian landscape just a transitional phase, a way station towards the even more free clothing favoured by the West and so easily taken up by the women of Southeast Asia? As the distance from traditional dictates increases, will the demure ladies who still try to protect their ‘modesty’ with the dupatta shawl, fling the salwar away in favour of trousers, skirts and other imported dresses?
The men have long ago given up, of course. To put it differently, all over South Asia the males readily gave up their own national or ethnic attires for the basic shirt and trousers, while shifting the burden of cultural and ethnic sartorial responsibility on the women.
In a whisper then in a rush, as the Subcontinent’s middle and upper class women make their way out of the home and into the marketplace, they will obviously experiment with more than one form of dress. And what they will wear tomorrow is what they would like to be seen in and what is comfortable. The variety of wear is bound to increase. But there is no question that the salwar, while it may have to share cupboard space with an ever-increasing variety of dresses both Oriental and Occidental, will remain a critical aspect of hundreds of millions of South Asian women for a long time to come. Besides, it will always have the pride of place of being the attire that helped in the process of the liberation of the South Asian woman.
As for the men
There is an unwritten code evident in what the male political class wears. In India, the Nehru jacket became an early standard, as did the achkan churidar. But newer cultural standards emerged over the decades. Southern politicians donned the ‘Thiru’ attire, consisting of a veshti or mundu, the characteristic ‘undivided’ flowing dhoti of the south, white shirt and the angavastaram or shawl draped over the shoulder. This was after the fashion of C. N. Annadurai, the fiery DMK leader from Tamil Nadu, who bore the standard for ‘Dravidian’ resistance to North Indian domination. The ‘divided’ dhoti and the kurta became the norm in the Ganga plains, but it did not extend north to Kashmir, nor to the Northeast. Under the circumstances, a single national dress for the Indian male could not emerge.
Pakistan however, has been remarkably successful in evolving a male national attire for ceremonial as well as everyday wear. The awami suit, both practical and democratic, is a salwar kameez, the dress we associate with the Pasthoons. In addition, Pakistan also has the Bhutto jacket for the more formal occassion. In Bangladesh, which has its own Mujib jacket, the style and colour of dress of politicians are imitated by rival student groups in Dhaka University as marks of their political affiliation.
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala politicians have fashioned a national dress which owes much to the dress of the Jaffna Tamils, observes Nira Wickramasinghe. It is the white cloth or sarong—banian and shawl—worn during ceremonial occasions. Former presidents J.R. Jayawardene and R. Premadasa, were particularly careful not to be seen in the Western suit. Politically, this is a most useful dress—the sarong hides the upper class identity while the banian emphasises the working class one.
In Nepal, while there are as many attires as the country’s myriad enthnic groups, it is the labeda (or daura) suruwal introduced by the Thakuri rulers, who united Nepal two centuries ago, that has come up as the national dress. This attire, with its double folds held in place by strings (tuna) over tight round-the-calves suruwals, harks back to its origins in Rajasthan, from where the Thakuris claim their Rajput descent. The emphasis on creating national identity under the Panchayat system (which lasted 30 years till 1990) also led to de rigueur popularisation of the labeda suruwal; King Birendra in particular introducing the world to this ensemble during his international state visits. ‘Ensemble’ because the labeda top is covered by the Western jacket (called ‘coat’ in Nepal), which is unfortunate as it manages to completely hide the distinctiveness of the labeda, both the tying mechanism and its handsome front.
But the national dress is merely a costume, everywhere in South Asia. It is the Western shirt and trousers that make up standard wear for the urban working man, and the socially mobile rural man, whether it is in the Punjab plains, Kathmandu Valley, the Kandyan highlands, or the delta of the Brahmaputra-Ganga.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
flickr / The US Army
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