A lot of people think wearing a dhoti is somehow 'inferior'

Im a 24-year-old Gandhian and Im not ashamed to wear a dhoti everyday
Blog Sartorial Politics Friday, January 15, 2016 - 16:37

On January 12, the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, I was going to Bombay University to watch a play (for the first time in my life) based on his life. Sitting beside me in the bus was an old man, perhaps in his late 60s. I was dressed in my usual khadi dhoti-kurta, and I asked him whether the bus would go all the way to the university campus. I was relieved to hear that he would alight at the same stop as mine.

After I paid for the ticket, I counted the change, rearranging the notes so that all the 'Gandhis' were on one side. Once I put the money in my wallet, the man sitting next to me asked, “Are you new to Bombay?"

I smiled and said yes and told him I was from Kerala. 

We started talking and when he told me that he was working in an automobile finance firm I asked him if he knew where I could get a used Ambassador car in good condition. We then discussed old Ambassadors and Premier Padminis, and how they have almost disappeared from Indian roads. He was eager to know whether these were still common in Kerala. We kept talking.

Half an hour later, he grabbed his bag and signalled that our stop had come. When we alighted, he told me, “Dekho aap Bombay mein aise lungi mein na ghoomna. Angrezi kapde pehen lo. Warna logon ko jaldi pata chalega ki aap bahar se aaye ho aur vo aapko ullu banaenge.” (Don't roam in Bombay in lungi - dhoti is what he meant. Wear English dress. Or else people can easily understand that you are from outside and they might fool you.) He also told me not to ask autorickshaw drivers for directions, and instead ask old people or students.

He extended his hand and I returned the courtesy. Then I joined both my palms and told him namaste and dhanyavaad. 

As I walked away I started thinking about his suggestion that I wear “English clothes”. Our minds are still colonialist, it seems. 

This is not the first time that I have experienced this. Once when I was taking leave of my neighbour as I had to catch a train to Madras (Chennai), he asked me in shock if I was going in a dhoti. He almost ordered me to wear trousers, which I refused, with a smile.

On a previous occasion when I was to attend a family wedding in Bombay, my relatives were adamant that I wear trousers, or at least pyjama (worn with a kurta). I refused.

I attended my engineering degree convocation in my khadi dhoti-kurta. When my batchmates, seniors, and juniors saw me, they laughed. Some asked me what was I doing. I said I found nothing wrong in wearing what I always wore, since there was no dress code prescribed. I wore the convocation mandatory gown over my kurta.

When Tamil Nadu Governor and university chancellor K Rosaiah walked into the auditorium, he was in the same attire as me – dhoti and a robe over the kurta. I smiled and told my friends sitting next to me, “See the Chief Guest of the function is himself in this attire, and in this large gathering of over 1000 people only we two are in the same costume. It is rather a proud moment for me.” 

Wearing a dhoti is seen by some as something “inferior”. We have to become more “English”, they feel, just like the gentleman whom I met on the bus. Some feel that dhoti clad men (save politicians and saints) are “lower” or “illiterate”; others think it’s fine, but only for specific occasions or when going to a temple; others feel that it’s ok in rural areas but not in cities.

I refuse to be impressed by any of these arguments. I have earned both ridicule and respect for being a habitual wearer of the dhoti. Except when a dress code to the contrary is prescribed, I see no reason to do away with the humble dhoti and adopt the “gentlemanly” or “English” trousers. Thus, when I go to law college to attend classes, I go in a white shirt and black trousers, the uniform prescribed for male students.

I wear a dhoti because it is our traditional dress. I feel pride in wearing it. And I wear only khadi ones to promote khadi and the rural artisans who are dependent on this. I am a Gandhian and not once have I felt ashamed for wearing a dhoti. In fact, I do feel ashamed when people tell me all sorts of things to convince me to give it up and adopt “English” trousers. 

I’m open to those who argue that a dhoti is not as comfortable as trousers or jeans. Initially, I found it very difficult to wear the dhoti as my waistline was thin and a regular length of dhoti was too long and had to be folded before being tucked. So I began to shorten it to fit me. With practice, I have managed to get the dhoti stay on without it loosening for nearly the whole day. I now find it as comfortable as trousers. But I do wear jeans, as I did when I travelling from Bombay to Ahmedabad on a winter night for protection from the cold.

To all those who tell me to give up wearing dhoti, I say, I have no ill-will. Come up with a logical proposition that will satisfy me and I shall change. Not reasons like I have to be “English” or modern. I am traditional but not orthodox.

(The writer is a law student and a version of this article was first published on the writer’s blog under the title “Don't roam in Bombay in dhoti, wear English dress - an old man advised me”)

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