The Bombay Girl
By Supriya Nair
The ‘Bombay Girl’ always seemed more visible than she really was. A decade ago, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, authors of a path-breaking book about women in public space called Why Loiter? found that at peak hours at Churchgate station, less than a third of the observable population was female. Yet for a long time, she was a spectre dominating the imagination of Indians both within and outside the metropolis, and nowhere was she more real than in the minds of living, breathing, working Bombay Girls.
And this was the promise of the Bombay Girl. She was a fantasy founded in the dreams of screenwriters, and later, magazine journalists and advertising men.
Sometimes, a woman is defined by the clothes she wears to work, and this is as good as any starting point to describe the Bombay Girl, who was always a worker. In the 1950s, as a high-spirited, socially useful member of modern Indian society, she appeared in Hindi cinema as a journalist or teacher, a club entertainer, sometimes even a social worker. These women, played by Madhubala, Nargis or Nutan, made the glossy washable saris tumbling out of Bombay’s still-chattering mills look sheeny and sophisticated. Worn with modest, structured blouses, they performed the chief function a woman’s clothes were required to perform in Nehru’s India. They allowed the woman to take advantage of her newly granted freedom to be outside her home, while protecting her five-thousand-year-old virtue.
This was the Bombay Girl on screen. You could tell her apart instantly from the Calcutta aristocrat, the salwar-kameez clad ingénue of North India, or the full-skirted village girl, whose hair had to be covered and whose story was inevitably about how much better her life would have been had her fate been in their hands. In Bombay, you might have to wear your hair in plaits and roam about in dungarees, like the garage girl played by Shyama in Aar Paar (1954); cute but unironically working class, like the gamine women of Paris, whose story did not always end happily. There were no princes or mansions waiting for the Bombay Girl, either, but in the 1950s, staying alive and finding a man who liked you for yourself, at the end of the story, was a pretty good deal.
She was always something of a liberal fantasy, and like all liberal fantasies, inevitably guided by our intricate and ever-tightening web of constraints and expedients.
And this was the promise of the Bombay Girl. She was a fantasy founded in the dreams of screenwriters, and later, magazine journalists and advertising men. But time and again, her appearance gave away the fact that she owed her existence to the real women who built the Bombay of the 20th century, both its streets and its homes. Neat and fresh-faced in the 1950s, youthful and bohemian in the glossy features of the 1970s, professional and empowered in the 1990s, and sometimes a permutation of some or all of these things. She was attractive, of course: she was arguably among the most attractive fantasies of modern India. But while acquiring her may have represented the pinnacle of achievement for a certain type of new man, her most unwavering allegiance was to her individuality.
I do not say that this allegiance never wavered. The strategic sense of the Bombay Girl meant that she was never shown to be truly radical – after all, the movies and commercial arts that created her were not radical exercises. She might posture for money, and sometimes even undress for it, but this was an exercise of shrewdness, rather than choice. Every fantasy aims to set someone somewhere free, but the more outrageous this is, the harder that freedom is to win. The Bombay Girl was never outrageous, though she could be eye-popping if the situation called for it. She was always something of a liberal fantasy, and like all liberal fantasies, inevitably guided by our intricate and ever-tightening web of constraints and expedients.
It is the 21st century, and the battle for idealised womanhood has long relocated inland, where new towns and cities present new battlefields for the women squeezing their way into these spaces.
So if the times called for sindoor and mangalsutra, the adornments of piously married Hindu women, then she would be there in her sticker bindis – far from ubiquitous in most of India until recently – and ‘costume’ jewellery. If her messy hairdo and billowing kurtas allowed her to avoid unwanted attention from her male co-eds at college, or at least pretend at home that she did not dress for said attention, then she would roll up her sleeves and let the wind whipping in through the open doors of the local train ripple over her scalp. The secret to happiness in any big city is to eke out space where there’s none to be had. That is what her Parsi foremothers of the 19th century did, when they first wore their garas over tunics and billowing underskirts so that they might appear in mixed company, like English women, but also not unlike the sequestered wives and daughters of good Indian houses: just be-frilled and be-sleeved.
Those Bombay girls were real people, and the “Bombay Girl,” the fantasy, is a picture in a kaleidoscope whose chipped glass shows the reflection of many real people. The impeccably pinned nylon saris of the city’s domestic workers; the impeccably neat centre-partings of its women hawkers and small traders; the billowing riddas of Bohri women zipping around on scooters; the colour coordinated office workers who adorn the ladies’ compartments of the local trains every Navratri, having checked the Maharashtra Times to know what colour to wear on each day of the festival; the college girls learning to let their hair loose and their peasant tops billow for the first time in their lives; the scrupulously modest burqas as well as the beehive-style headscarves of young girls on Carter Road accessorised with red lipstick and admiring boyfriends: in 2020, every visible woman in India seems like she wears her freedom on her sleeve, and Bombay, where all the populations I have just described co-exist, sometimes feels like the capital of that freedom.
Riding on or beside the juggernaut of the big city, a woman has to learn to balance even the simple enjoyment of her scarf fluttering in the open breeze, with the need to save her skirts from being caught in the wheels of a vehicle that was not built with her in mind.
The women who followed their men to this metropolis of fishermen and opium merchants learned to be brave, and also to make do. That is the paradox that causes the oddly flat effect of Bombay Girls in daily life. The weather is incessantly humid; the work is gruelling; and outside every girl letting her bra strap show is a woman in a boxy, if impeccably ironed salwar kameez, tapping her shoulder to let her know that it must be covered up. It is the 21st century, and the battle for idealised womanhood has long relocated inland, where new towns and cities present new battlefields for the women squeezing their way into these spaces , perhaps feeling, even now, what the Bombay Girl always feels when she jumps into a gents’ carriage by mistake.
So now what? Has the Bombay Girl outlived her usefulness? When she dresses up to go to nice restaurants in Bandra, where others wear Terylene midi dresses or yoga pants, the effect is actually a little embarrassing. The Bombay Girl in bandage dresses and tottering heels is really wishing she was in Dubai. Any intellectual seriousness or sense of social purpose she carried over from her beginnings was never a good fit for the consumer-driven fantasies of life after liberalisation. Her easygoing habits, such as they were, were completely miscast for an age of aspiration. Bombay Girls on screen nowadays make their living, in cinema and on streaming TV, by cosplaying Delhi Girls. The Delhi Girl is another male consumer fantasy – this one of open ambition, spirited acquisitiveness and bravery in the face of maximalism (she doesn’t dress to go to work.)
In 2020, every visible woman in India seems like she wears her freedom on her sleeve, and Bombay, where all the populations I have just described co-exist, sometimes feels like the capital of that freedom.
The truth is that the Bombay Girl appeared carefree when she was really dressing for duty. It is only appropriate to retire a fantasy after it has done its work uncomplainingly, so if the Bombay Girl vanishes into the wings, it is best to let her be. She was a representative of freedom, but not the only one. The lehraataa aanchal, the billowing scarf, is the poetic legacy of every Indian woman, whether she heard it in a Hindi movie song or in the permission an elder granted her to cross her threshold and see the world. There is another phrase, a warning, that appears often in Hindi cinema: daaman bachaake chalo, mind your skirts. Riding on or beside the juggernaut of the big city, a woman has to learn to balance even the simple enjoyment of her scarf fluttering in the open breeze, with the need to save her skirts from being caught in the wheels of a vehicle that was not built with her in mind.
The Delhi Girl
By Meher Varma
“You look like you are from Greater Kailash (GK)!” Kaveri’s* husband told her, when she stepped out of the house in her Diwali party outfit, and into their black 2015 Skoda. She was wearing a rani pink lehenga adorned with gotta patti work. She gave him a light, affectionate whack on his lower back, while adjusting her ruby gold earrings in the mirror. I let out a little prescribed laugh from the backseat. The conversation moved as swiftly as the vehicle; minutes later, we were immersed in a three-way guessing game about who would be at the party. While I participated, I couldn’t help but wonder how my friend’s husband’s insult was so quickly couched as flirtation: I thought about the undercurrents that made the transition smooth. Was it Kaveri’s own (maybe performed) discomfort with being decked up that allowed for this game of residential roleplay? – a stand in for an act in class mobility? Was it because it was established that she didn’t normally look like she was from GK, that it was funny/cute/sweet for her to look like she temporarily did? Since she wasn’t really from GK – but from the more upmarket Panchsheel – was it acceptable for her to adorn her body, wear signs of her explicit economic capital, and compete in the way that women from GK (as the couple might imagine) do? We got to the party a few minutes later, and the joke became a distant memory; her outfit blended into the festive décor.
It’s where you wear metal and rope necklaces that cost 12,000 rupees a pop because other women with the same metal and rope necklaces know that you can spend INR 12,000 on something frivolous, instead of something semi-precious.
“Do you work in art?” an elegant, sari-clad lady asked me, peering through her Warby Parker glasses, at a sunny winter South Delhi brunch. I shook my head. Soon, she told me why she made this assumption: “It was your en Inde necklace, and that top… Is it Rashmi Varma?” I congratulated her on her brand awareness, but not without a sinking heart. “Is that what people who work in art are wearing?” I asked, half impressed, a tad insulted at being so quickly stereotyped, but mostly eager to continue the discussion. She told me it was indeed a desirable look amongst a sophisticated, young arts circle that I had “nailed”.
It’s where you wear metal and rope necklaces that cost 12,000 rupees a pop because other women with the same metal and rope necklaces know that you can spend INR 12,000 on something frivolous, instead of something semi-precious. This, for her, was the aesthetic of the young, artsy Delhi Girl: it’s artsy because you can make that choice to buy into a different kind of value system that is still uncertain, still in flux. This may even signify that while you may be working in a gallery, you could also buy something in it if you really wanted to. In short, your work is for pleasure, and the more pleasurable – read: optional the paycheck is – the more artsy your look.
In popular magazines that portray ‘real’ city women – Hello! for example – Delhi women are typically portrayed as lavishly dressed and inside their homes; it’s a different matter that for some, homes mean sprawling estates.
It’s also this phenomenon, the same lady explained, which might inspire you to wear boots with a sari because, though you have no plans, it wouldn’t be totally out of the question for you to do some research at New York University’s South Asian archive this fall. This place and plan, in her imagination, would require you to tread that fine line between stylish and erudite that the boots and sari combination can potentially cue. The look that says put together and spontaneous. The outfit that would say you could theorise the hell out of a Desi-Queen’s subjectivity, if asked of you, over a martini at 3 am.
In popular magazines that portray ‘real’ city women – Hello! for example – Delhi women are typically portrayed as lavishly dressed and inside their homes; it’s a different matter that for some, homes mean sprawling estates. This is markedly different from the historical and contemporary representations of Bombay Girls – on and off screens – for whom the residence was something to leave behind in the morning. For a reader flipping through a magazine like Hello!, from the stylised appearances of the featured women, and the patina of polish that is inscribed upon them by the magazine editors, it is not ridiculous to assume that these ladies don’t do much. But almost always, the article will say they do. It is not unusual to find extremely confident statements that signify agency, and then something about their enviable art collection, blown up to a font of unmissable size. This confidence, the reader will quickly discover, is often connected to the fact that the ladies do work: the fact comes as a challenge to the reader’s assumptions.
They may be done with that, but they are not done, I think, with Delhi – because they are still defining their style in relation to a history where the aesthetic of a little more has reigned for so long.
Occupations vary from being on the boards of companies, to holding senior positions in the family business or owning multiple art galleries. But unlike for the Bombay Girl, where work is synonymous with duty, in representations of the elite Delhi Girl it appears a choice – one that was happily made.
One of the most memorable representations of a Delhi girl on screen was channeled through the protagonist Aisha, in the film of the same name, played by Sonam Kapoor. Modeled on Cher from Clueless, Aisha is a stylish, Golf Links brat who is always dressed to the nines, and easily able to access everything from Chanel to Anamika Khanna and Manish Arora. She invests her life into looking good and being cool, and then is surprised every time a man declares his love for her. She eats a tub of ice-cream after declarations of love are made, to make all this attention relatable. Important to this plot, moreover, is Aisha’s ‘project’: she takes it upon herself to give her small town friend, Shefali Tiwari (played by Amrita Puri) a serious makeover in the hope of ridding her of her ‘Haryanvi behenji’ style. As audiences, we watch Shefali transform into a sassy, sexy woman, who is much like Aisha but not quite. No matter how well Shefali is dressed, her lack of cultural capital is assumed to be evident to the audience. Aisha’s cultural and economic capital, however, does not suffer, and the film ends happily.
The film did only decently at the box office, but was widely loved by Delhi’s style authorities: the stylists were commended for a Delhi upper-class aesthetic that was both global and Indian. This love was perhaps reified by the belief that the film was not a good fit for ‘the masses’: for them to really partake in the humour of shedding Haryanvi style, they needed to be endowed with cultural capital themselves. Declared as emblematic of Delhi Girl Style, Aisha ensured a certain distance from the have-nots.
While I was conducting fieldwork for my PhD in anthropology (on the making of the Indian fashion designer) the merchandiser of a popular multi-retail fashion store in Delhi told me what she considers to be the one definitive thing about Delhi Girl Style: “it does not change.”
Even if the modern Delhi girl wants to appear ‘less’, she has to work more for it; the city’s style is always constructed to mark a proximity or distance from the worker.
No matter what the fashion is, the Delhi Girl Style requires mehnat (effort). Thus, even for the ‘I’m-not-trying hard’ look, Delhi girls must know, and must feel that somewhere, some master sahib has been an integral part of their outfit, if not clocked in overtime to produce it. No matter what, when the Delhi girl appears, there is an implicit statement that there were other people – far removed from her bloodline – who worked for her look. “Mini Modern Maharanis, no matter what,” she explained. For the world though, this effort should be somewhat concealed: instead the good genes – her clear skin, hair and teeth – should be in focus.
To talk about the Delhi Girl style, without mentioning the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) Girl, or this fashion stereotype, would be negligent. Why, you must not under-theorise the kajal-wearing, Anokhi-sporting girl, with a book about surveillance capitalism in her bag, its cover slightly soiled by a to-go paneer wrap.
One could argue with the merchandiser above and say this style is certainly not about mehnat, or wearing the work of others on one’s sleeve. No, it’s certainly not. But it’s still about working, this time through allegiance to the plight of workers who must work to embellish someone else’s sleeves.
“I don’t mind looking like I’m from Delhi, because that’s what I am,” a bride-to-be tells me when I casually accompany her on a premature window-shopping trip. “Just the educated Delhi,” she adds quickly, lightly. She points to an outfit to exemplify the aesthetic she is going for, the kind of Delhi to which she wants to claim membership: it consists of a crisp white sharara-kurta set with a label that says dry-clean only and ‘sustainable’ at the same time. The embroidery is embedded in the cloth, like braille; she runs her hands over it.
If Supriya Nair’s Bombay Girl dresses for duty, to signify her proximity to work, does the Delhi Girl’s dress typically mark her distance from it?
But if this is true, what about the Delhi Millennial girl: her retro Godrej oversized shirt, jeans splashed with paint white strokes, and her half buzzed haircut? As she frequently announces, she’s “just done.” “Done” with their mother who wants her to wear solitaires on her ear and neck, and a dupatta with a little more going on. They may be done with that, but they are not done, I think, with Delhi – because they are still defining their style in relation to a history where the aesthetic of a little more has reigned for so long.
Even if the modern Delhi girl wants to appear ‘less’, she has to work more for it; the city’s style is always constructed to mark a proximity or distance from the worker. In this way, the Delhi girl faces real challenges when her style – ostensibly ever evolving – is called upon to actually deviate from the norm, and rupture a historical narrative. It is this weakness which unlike Supriya Nair’s Bombay girl “who has outlived her usefulness” keeps the Delhi girl relevant. However, for both, it is their inability to truly step outside of the framework of work that allows us, with some unease, to stereotype them.