New Delhi: The complex sum total of India’s costume diversity, colourful ethnicities and textile fanaticism has long needed a holding image.
Not a predictable celebrity who waltzes on red carpets, preening in a tuxedo on one day and on another in a sherwani, but someone who manipulates an arch between consistency and change and is as much in love with clothes as with himself.
Someone who uses traditional dressing to look unconventional. Who wears India on his sleeve but makes sure the sleeve is well-tailored and dyed right.
Being formulaic yet innovative if you are male, dress savvy, have the most powerful job in this country and the world’s eyes on you can be tricky if heady.
A relentless pursuit by pundits of visual politics—media, paparazzi, bloggers, groupies, boasters, critics—only intensifies this game.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is far from being India’s most stylish person, but he is certainly among the very few who know both—the dressing rubric as well as how to subvert it.
That the Modi kurta is the oldest but “trending" Indian garment, now finding acceptance as formal wear in corporate or power set-ups, that the classic Nehru bandhgala has found bluster and boom when appropriated as the Modi jacket, that India’s riotous (but always existent) textile colour palette has become the shade card of Modi’s fashion moods are revelatory.
An indecent number of adjectives have been used in the one year of Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister to describe his style. But, really, it is quite stark: be who you are while mirroring the larger narrative. Be self-possessed as well as unafraid.
Some, of course, are tricks of the technique: the short Modi kurta worn over clinging churidars, usually white with multiple churis (pleats) at the bottom shows his and his tailor’s respect for proportion.
What is fashion without balanced proportion?
Also don’t miss that the man is never seen rolling up his kurta sleeves—he either wears them long, buttoned at the wrist or short above the elbow. That fails though when Modi tries sherwanis with Western-style trousers.
His full-sleeved bandgalas look clumsily short at the back. Yet the moment he is back to long sherwanis with a shawl thrown on his shoulder, like what he did recently during his China visit, he gets it right.
The coat length, its sophisticated grey hue offset with what looked like a fine Kashmiri shawl—it came together quite well. Good ensemble, good photos.
Modi’s style halo is fused from the enjoyment he derives from personalizing his wardrobe. It was so evident during US President Barack Obama’s visit this January, when Modi delicately sipped chai “with Barack" in the now famous suit with his name embossed on the fabric.
Halos though need a context even when they emanate from an unidentified place in the head.
The Indian Prime Minister knows that too well—so he gives photo-ops during his domestic diplomacy as big a play as his foreign journeys. He unflinchingly wears headgear that would intimidate many a fashionista—like the Damluk worn by Arunachal Pradesh’s Adi tribe that he wore during a state visit, the traditional Koyet turban while addressing a large crowd in Silchar in Assam or the Saurashtra Satrangi turban he chose for the Republic Day parade this year.
Style is as much about variety as about vanity. Modi dressed to impress while receiving the Obamas in New Delhi—an orange stole flying off his almond coloured kurta at the airport, strategically stealing Michele’s thunder. Then he goes ahead to look like an urban jholawalla while speaking recently at Toronto but refreshingly ready for a gentleman’s soiree while alighting from a plane in Brazil, in a shirt and trousers with a shaded black-grey muffler around his neck.
Dressing chutzpah folks, let’s give it to the prime Minister. Add kurtas and jackets in assorted colours, a bunch of shawls, turbans never tuxedos, his look-at-me body language encased in “selfie diplomacy" and we have: a holding image for colourful, complex, chaotic India.