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Chennai Fashion


By April, in Chennai, the tentacles of summer are slowly holding the city in their humid grip. Plans are in full swing (by those who can afford to take time off) to abandon the heat for those beckoning cooler climes. Newspaper headlines proclaim the possibility of an acute water shortage in summer, so it is just as well the exodus from Chennai begins.

Mid-April heralds the new year for Tamils. Tamil households bear a distinctive air of festivity, and traditional ones are identified by intricate kolams in front of the house, and the main entrance door is decorated with festoon of green mango leaves interspersed with yellow chrysanthemums. The inevitable question by the incorrigibles in the family is, of course, always what do I wear today?

There has been over the past two years, a dramatic change in the clothing habits of the typical conventional Chennai is. Where formerly every festival demanded a new sari and blouse for the women, today’s option is for the ubiquitous salwar-kameez or even the versatile jeans. There is, however, something charmingly appealing about the south Indian woman who knuckles down to the rites of tradition. Freshly, bathed at dawn, with the subtle perfume of sandalwood paste and jasmine lingering on her skin, she knots a towel around her head to support her wet hair and dons the new clothes before puja commences. After she rubs down her long tresses, she prepares a grid of hot coal over which she sprinkles sambrani (license). She covers it with a small basket, lies down on the floor with her head on it, spreading her hair over the basket, so that the sweet fumes permeate through her hair, softly drying it as no modern hair dryer ever will. It is a moment arrested in pure luxury as she closes her eyes to relax before the flurry takes over. Smelling even more sweetly, she ties her hair into a loose knot to commence the whirlpool of rituals which are in effect social events for the family and community.

Going back to the yen for no conventional clothes, boutiques in Chennai have never had it so good. Saris are relegated to the background, to be taken out only during religious ceremonies and weddings. The salwar-kameez-dupatta ensemble is here to stay, judging from the innumerable little shops and boutiques which have sprung up in Chennai to cater to the whims of the Chennai women. Even tradition bound stores like Nalli and Radha Silks, which specialized in Kancheevaram pattu saris, do not wish to be left behind in the race to stock ready-to-wear garments.

We prefer it for its comfort remarks one teeny bopper. When you are running around the whole day getting in and out of buses, the salwar is as comfortable as pants, even better. Who wants to wear a flapping five and one half inches and worry if it looks right? Also, the salwar suit scores high in terms of traditional chic, pipes in another young lady. No one can accuse us of aping the West and wearing immodest figurehugging cloths. The market offers beautiful traditional kameezes and when teamed with a matching dupatta, it is even more modest than a sari.

Emboldened and encouraged by their daughters, mothers are often seen at speciality stores. I plan to make just one salwar kameez to wear at home, they venture shyly. It is a question of their getting used to it and, once broken in, there is no question of turning back ever. Much to the horror of disapproving relatives, even young grandmothers have ready excuses. You know how it is with small babies at home-a kameez messed up is a hundred times better than a spoilt sari.

Curiously enough, men in dapper suits have had enough of stuffy coasts, and tight collars. Even though, at any formal evening, the western suit (full sleeved shirt, coat an trousers) is more acceptable, the middle-aged men are not averse to Indian clothes, with the younger men shyly taking the cue from them. The soft creamy silk waishtis with small zari borders, teamed with silk jubbas are dignified costumes for weddings. Haunted by the fear that the waishti will slip off, the yongesters opt for achkans or the kurta pyjama. Why, I am told that in the Bombay disco scene it is groovy to wear dhotis and kurtas teamed with dramati waistcoats!

Designed for Indian summers, the Indian clothes like the sari and dhoti afford free air circulation but in the name of fashion one tends to compromise and sqeeze oneself into the tightest of garments, provided they are well cut and smart. With handlooms again being pushed to the forefront of fashion, there should be a shift in the fashion scene-perhaps tailored saris and dhotis will dominate, provided they offer the same measure of comfort as other ready-to-wear garments.