Saturday, October 22, 2005

Genesis of a drawstrung nation

This is absurd.

Whether the news is true or not, whether the alleged fatwa is justified or not, is secondary. What intrigues me is the bit about 'salwars' being Tamil gear... Tamil? Since when?

It's really quite intriguing - this mad scramble across the sub-continent to claim the unobstrusive salwar as 'traditionally ours' and hang it round women's pelvises.

I ran a search on the genesis of shalwaar (also of salwar), and found little historical information, though I did find several idiotic claims that it was of 'Indian' or 'Pakistani', 'Punjabi' or 'Muslim', origin. Much marketing of this piece of baggy sackage (there's no other apt term for it, really); while some speak of it's in-betweenness, others hint at it's genesis and the journey thus far.

Now, I'm no authority on traditional garments (though, we really should stop writing 'salwar-kameez' because it is pronounced 'shalwaar' and 'qameez', as in 'qatl' and 'qayamat'), but I do know that shalwaar-qameez is about as 'Indian' or as 'Muslim', as aeroplanes or T-shirts.

Let's go back a little. Let's go back 20 years.

I'm in primary school. I'm wearing a blue-green shalwaar (churidaar, actually) and it's my birthday. This is rural Rajasthan. Everyone is gawking. NOBODY wears shalwaars here. Not our teachers (all wear sarees) and not the students (all the girls wear skirts or frocks or, if the family's daring, pants).

This is the first time I'm spending any length of time in the costume either. My mother tells me, after school-hours, she found me wandering about with the kurta tucked inside the churidaar, pant-shirt-style.

Fast-forward 15 years.
I'm in high school. Everyone wears shalwaars - the Mallu Bio teacher, the Rajput kindergarten teacher, the Tamil Maths teacher, the Gujjar Socio teacher. they're not calling it 'shalwar-qameez' anymore. They're calling it 'suit'.

Fast-forward 5 years.
I'm in college. We're wearing 'suits' for formal functions, 'suits' for photo-sessions, 'suits' for karate practice (some girls wore shalwaars topped with with T-shirts), 'suits' for shopping.

The college administration approved. The hostel warden approved. Jeans were barely tolerated. Skirts (with shorts underneath) were acceptable only on the sports' field.

A year later, in Bombay, I attend a Bajrang-Dal-organised workshop for young girls. They talk of the 'outsider race' (read Muslim). They talk of denigration of women's status in society. They ask the girls to wear bindi or tika, as a symbol of their 'Indian' identity. All the girls are in shalwaars. ALL. Most of them are Maharashtrian or Gujarati.

I ask, casually - why?
The girls look surprised. "It's 'our' dress. What else will we wear?"

This dress of 'Muslim' origin, they say. This dress of 'Indian' origin, they say. This dress of 'Pakistani' origin, they say. This 'punjabi' dress, they say.... even (allegedly) this dress of Tamil origin, they say?

Go back 50 years.
My grandmother is not in shalwaar-qameez. She's in a gharara. She is wound into sareescape by my grandfather, with his nationalistic fervour - one India, secular India, free India... and one national dress - the saree.

Fast-forward 50 years.
My grandmother wears nothing but shalwaar-qameez. My aunts too. My neighbours too. And (wonder of wonders, she who wouldn't be caught dead in the garment, 5 years ago) my ultra-hip mother too!

Go back 60 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
A punjabi woman, on both sides of undivided India. Of both communities.
And oh yes, the Punjabi men too! Of both communities. They called it a shalwaar for men as well, until it became unfashionable and we started calling them simply pyjama.

[I have to interject - pyjama is not correct. It is silly to call everything 'pyjama' when men wear it. They can choose between shalwaar, churidaar AND pyjamas of various cuts and shapes.]

What they're wearing is very similar to what Afghani, or Pathan, men wore. The costume today is sometimes referred to as a 'pathan suit'.

Go to Saudi Arabia. Go to Egypt. Go to Morocco.
Shalwaars, no. Muslims, yes. T-shirts... maybe. In Iran, pants, head-scarves and T-shirts are more common than shalwaars. Even in Saudi Arabia, underneath the abayas, you won't find too many shalwaars.

Go back 100 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
We don't know. Possibly the Pathans. Possibly the Turks, though their version is more like 'harem-pants'.

Go back 1000 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
We don't know. Probably not us. Probably nobody.

Go back 2000 years.
Go back to ancient India.
Go back to Harappa.
Go anywhere in the world.

There are no shalwaars.
There are no aeroplanes either.
Nor any T-shirts.

Fast-forward to now.
My domestic help does not wear shalwaars.
"People laugh... They look at me like I was wearing something odd. Nobody in the family wears it." This one is from Rajasthan. The last domestic help lady wore only shalwaars. She was Haryanvi.

What makes a shalwaar Indian?
What does the wearing of a shalwaar-qameez make us? Good 'Indian' girls?
How did it get to be this way? How did the shalwaar worm it's way into the moral good books of an entire nation?
Correction. An entire sub-continent.

By being what it is - comfortable? Even, cyclically trendy?

I don't think so.
It isn't just about comfort. It is also about being covered up.
It's about a drawstrung modesty.

Sarees are alright, sort of. But try wearing a saree 'sexily'. Wear it with a strappy blouse, or without one altogether. See how many 'Indians' approve.

Shalwaars are acceptable because they're non-threatening. And that's how we like our women, don't we?
Not slavish. Just non-threatening. Not disembodied, just non-physical. Not invisible, just non-visible.
Non-out-there. Non-this-is-how-I-am. Non-look-if-you-want-like-I-care.
Oh, yes, we like our shalwaars.

Lucknow, 2 years ago.
My mother cuts up her transparent sarees to make shalwaar-kameezes for me. Now, I'm still wearing shalwaars, only they don't quite hide my body away.
My aunt refuses to take me out to the market. "Are you out of your mind? What do you think? This isn't Bombay... ".

I used to wonder, in fact... why did Bombay's young women not take to shalwaars with as much enthusiasm? (IMHO, the shalwaar-related fashions were a disaster over there.)
Now, I think I know why.


david raphael israel said...

Annie --
delightful historical medidation.
I think some of your flash-backs & forwards may be a bit chronologically incorrect(?) -- only that if you jump back 20 years, then up 15, then up another 5, that should take you to the present, no? In which case, you should now be a college student. [Minor quibble, that.]
Talk of shalwaar & kameez recollects titles of two films (both of which, if I get my act together, I wish/intend to release on DVD in future, inshallah):
Fareeda Mehta's Kali Salwar, and
Mani Kaul's Naukar ki Kameez (1999).
(Though neither film deals with shalwar-kameez in your specific sense. This is mere readerly stream-of-consciousness, and/or incidental film-plug I suppose. Both are lovely. The first is based on a Manto story, btw -- and was the feature-length directorial debut for Fareeda. Mani Kaul's film is extraordinary -- as is the novel it adapts [I know the latter via Satti Khanna's English translation].)
Now back to regular blogo-schedule.
What were they wearing in Harappa? Don't some of the sculptures have suggestion of garments? Something rather simple, one might presume.
Sivakami Velliangiri wrote a notable poem evoking another instance in the evolution / change in Indian garments, here, btw:

cheers, d.i.

david raphael israel said...

I messed up the link for Mani Kaul's film.

Also, Sivakami had I guess double posted the Chattai poem. (This thread was the one that included my blabbing & questions.)

david raphael israel said...

too, in the 2nd Chattai link, one notes Sivakami's additional poem (further down in the thread):
Of course now I'm footnoting my parenthetical note.

Anang said...

One of the best posts I've ever read on the internet. This definitely has something to do with the "historicity" of the salwar kameez, with everyone claiming it as their own tradition so they can proclaim themselves cultural guardians of the Salwar Kameez and exlcude races/people they don't like.

Aishwarya said...

I'm not sure if you know this, and if this is an all-India or purely Tamil thing, but a lot of my older relatives refer to the salwar-kameez as the 'punjabi'.

Aditya Bidikar said...

A wonderful post indeed.

People refer to it as 'punjabi' here in Pune as well, maybe because 'kameez' is usually taken to mean shirt. And this adjective is usually used without a noun, meaning no 'punjabi suit'. 'Salwar' for men is catching up these days, because pyjama is supposed to sound rather pedestrian. And for men it's salwar-kurta here.

Subramaniam Avinash said...

Does it matter where it actually comes from? Haven't we seen how good humans are at co-opting history to suit their own limited ends? Rather long-winded trip down mammary lane. Would have made for an excellent newspaper article. Love the blog, and your bloughts. Will be back. Warm regards, Doppps.

Anonymous said...

One of your best posts ever, Annie.
(And I am just not returning a compliment:)

Anonymous said...

very very interesting. I had asked the same question on nittewa's post - since when is the s(h?)alwar kameez a tamil 'costume'? in fact, in most parts of Tamilnadu inlcuding Madras, it is known as a totally Northie thing - even referred to as "modern dress". and yes, non threatening and as cover-uppy as possible :)

Subramaniam Avinash said...

Lol at Charu's comment. 'A salwar-kameez' is a modern thing. ROFL. Bad one.

Anonymous said...

daily unusual, glad to have been source of much merriment.
this comes out of interacting with people in my job as a researcher - always, always, when asked to describe a "modern" woman - salwar kameez is mentioned in that context.

The Wandering Hermit said...

that was well said indeedy... Bajrang Dal.. oh how I hate it... because that Archarya Dharmesh happens to be a Chacha... and knowing the corrupt effer no wonder the funda's of whatever they spew out is kinda skewed towards absurdity... hate it and all those phony prophets of hinduvta....

But I enjoyed this look back through the mists of time and history... loved it actually.

The Wandering Hermit said...

BTW forgot to add that the TITLE reminded me of one words "NADA" *I cannae remember the name of the movie but it was some silly one starring ANIL KAPOOR and this was an oft repeated word in that movie..*

Twilight Fairy said...

Tamil!!! that's the funniest I have ever heard.. lungi yes, but salwaar - ABSOLUTELY NO!

Punjabiness..has got everything to do with afghani or pathani cultures.. they all were the same I suppose, the countries divided much later..

km said...

Phew! I'm giddy from all that time-travel :)

Great post.


Anonymous said...

Qameez i grant, but shalwaar? That's absurd! I grew up in the heart of salwar land (wherever that might be), and it IS pronounced salwar there. A salwar is a salwar is a salwar (is a salwar)!

I know I am getting my knickers in a twist on this, I refuse to fall for this unfortunate shibboleth propaganda. Just having a lisp does not give people the right to pronounce judgement over the way we pronounce.

Where can I regishter my protesht then, memshaab?

Annie Zaidi said...

david, apologies for source of minor quibble. and i would love to see both the DVDs you mention. Kali Salwar, i assume, is based on Manto's short story of the same title?
thanks, anangbahi, aditya, dopppsy, pawan, km, zoro...
aishwarya, i know. i suppose its about as anything else.
charu, interesting, isn't it? how for all its modernity, shalwaars are so acceptable, and sarees without blouses, all our breast-beating about tradition, are not.
anonymous, what part of the shalwaar 'heartland' did you grow up in? because, it is just as easy to reduce a sherbet to sarbat, and like the song goes, "sor, nahin baba, shor... sho-or. pawan kare shor."

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