Last month, I went to Delhi to give a presentation to some hotshot marketing types. It was the first PowerPoint presentation I have ever done and I was terrified. But this piece is not about the sorry ass I made of myself. This piece is about clothes and the pleasurable dilemma that we women face every time we open our closets: what to wear?
Power ‘pallu’: Naina Lal Kidwai, group GM and country head, HSBC (left), and Renuka Ramnath, CEO and MD, ICICI Venture, regularly wear saris to work. Photographs: Hemant Mishra and Kedar Bhat
The simplest thing would have been to wear a black business suit and for weeks, that was my plan. Then I got to thinking: What is the point of espousing and celebrating personal style if you end up wearing what are essentially cop-out clothes?
Correct me if I am wrong, but I think Indian clothes are on the verge of dying out of corporate India. Sure, there are women executives who wear saris: ICICI’s Renuka Ramnath, Britannia’s Vinita Bali and HSBC’s Naina Lal Kidwai come to mind. In Bangalore, I am proud to say that prominent women such as Sudha Murthy and Rohini Nilekani don’t just wear Indian clothes, but bindis as well.
I have conflicting feelings about bindis. I appreciate their cultural uniqueness but question their religious connotation. As a proudly secular Indian, I wonder how wearing a bindi can be different from wearing a hijab since both are religious identifiers and therefore dividers. That said, I wear bindis mostly because I feel they are a lost cause and I must add my weight to their survival. It is like signing a petition: Save the humpback whale; wear a bindi.
Indian clothes are another matter. There is nothing religious about a salwar-kameez or a sari. I am no fan of netas but I appreciate that our politicians still wear Indian clothes (at least in India; Davos is another matter), ranging from P. Chidambaram’s pristine white dhoti to Atal Behari Vajpayee’s north Indian version of it.
In corporate India, however, few wear Indian clothes. Just as English has become the lingua franca of global business, I think Western attire will soon be its sartorial equivalent. Most of the young executives I meet, both men and women, wear a shirt and pants. This is sad, for many reasons. Homogeneity in clothing is not just boring but also doesn’t reflect our rich culture and textile traditions. If we Indians start wearing Western clothes all the time, how are we different from the faceless Chinese businesswoman who wears dark suits and changes her name from Su-yan to Susan?
Clothing choices are easier for women. We can wear saris and salwar-suits and still appear professional. Few young women do, however. Perhaps they feel that they appear older in saris or salwar-suits; perhaps they feel that Western clothes make them appear more professional. Perhaps they think it is not “cool” to show up in a salwar-suit. It is harder for men. It would take a very brave man to show up at work in a kurta-pyjama, however understated it is. Maybe the thing to do is to get the male CEOs to start wearing Indian clothes so as to encourage others. Then of course, the question becomes, why should you? My reasons would be to “save” Indian clothes; to encourage others to wear them; and to facilitate cultural diversity in the workplace. I honestly feel that our clothes are colourful, crisp and elegant. They suit our body types and having them around will encourage creativity. Mostly, my reason is a paraphrase of Edmund Hillary’s reason for climbing Everest. Why wear Indian clothes to work? Because we can.
Unlike traditional Japanese attire such as the kimono, Indian clothes are wonderfully adaptable and comfortable. Nobody even knows what traditional Chinese clothing is. You have to go to Lijiang and Dali and observe pretty maidens from the Yi tribe in colourful red clothes to realize what China has lost in its race for economic prosperity at all costs (I can see the capitalist hackles rise right here). But this is not about whether 10% GDP growth is worth losing precious irreplaceable cultural touchstones; this piece is simply about what to wear to work.
Part of me questions why I am obsessed with dying traditions. Countless other traditions have died; and some, I would argue, should die. But as lost causes go, Indian clothes are an easy fix. There are very few downsides to wearing Indian clothes; you aren’t hurting anyone and best of all, it is easy. Unlike reviving, say, Sanskrit or Farsi, you don’t have to learn a new language or plant trees or pick up litter from the streets. Reviving the salwar-suit or sari is easy: You wear one and get others to wear one.
For my Delhi gig, I took the middle path, which I guess is the same as copping out. I wore Western clothes for one session and Indian clothes for another. I am not proud of my choice. I feel that I should have worn Indian clothes throughout, particularly in light of what I’ve just said. But cut me some slack, okay? It was my first presentation and I wanted to blend in.
Shoba Narayan is studying zebras and their ability to blend in, to aid her lifelong sartorial goal of standing out. And yes, she knows that doesn’t make sense. Write to her at email@example.com