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, todays 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
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.