Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

That sartorial edge

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Column in Business Standard, November 6, 2015

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is looking for a change in dress code. The khaki knickerwallahs, as their critics derisively call them, are considering dropping their half pants in favour of a smarter, more contemporary style. Top RSS bosses met to ponder the question in Ranchi this week; the matter is to be seriously taken up at the highest councils in Nagpur next year. The current RSS uniform – khaki shorts, white shirts and black caps – hasn’t changed since 1940; it’s evidently proving a deterrent to induct youth at 50,000 shakhas where the brotherhood conducts its early morning drills. And who can blame the young for revolting against the hideous ill-fitting lower garment – more skirt than shorts – that smacks of solar-topeed colonial civil servants strutting about the mofussil? (As the British comedian Bill Nighy wisely remarked, “There are only three men in the world who are licensed to wear shorts – Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise.) New options being considered by shakha leaders are colourful T-shirts with black pants, white canvas shoes and khaki socks or white shirts and coloured trousers in sober shades. Leather belts and shoes were dropped a long time ago in deference against use of animal hides.

There is probably another reason for the RSS bosses suddenly becoming fashion-conscious. It could be the peer pressure exerted by an ex-pracharak prime minister, who, with his limitless wardrobe of multi-coloured Modi kurtas, jackets, bandgalas, shawls and scarves, rivals the dash of quick-change Bollywood artists. Pouring scorn on Narendra Modi’s governance last week, former BJP minister Arun Shourie witheringly observed, “On one side, oh he is a very strong leader, he knows what clothes his ministers are wearing and he makes them change their clothes… He is a very strong leader but he cannot discipline his ministers.”
Come to think of it, not just the RSS but a number of leaders across the political spectrum appear in need of upgrading their sartorial image. Political leaders and their partners in the West consider it a badge of honour to strut stuff by their leading couturiers and apparel houses as a promotion for their fashion brands. Why not us? Here’s my list of who could dress whom, and why.

The RSS should consider the husband-and-wife team of Muzaffar and Meera Ali. Apart from the effortless ease of their garments, and superior stitching by rural hands in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, what could be a greater image-enhancer that engaging a Muslim-Hindu partnership to quell the terrible name it’s getting for dividing the communities?

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has undeniable personality but her saris are repetitive and dull. She was in London this summer, taking tea at Buckingham Palace with Prince Andrew, and keen to order a ferris wheel – a Kolkata Eye on the Hooghly to rival London Eye – but many who saw her in the streets thought she had wandered out of the Bengali-speaking neighbourhood of Brick Lane. Sabyasachi Mukherjee is the answer. At a design seminar last week he eloquently argued that “Glocal” – global going local – meant his rootedness in Kolkata, with his label made up of just two words, “Sabyasachi, Calcutta”. Ms Banerjee and Mr Mukherjee would make a winning team.

Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar need some heartfelt touches from the hinterland. Their Mahagathabandhan needs another kind of ally – someone supportive of precarious skills, disadvantaged communities and endangered livelihoods in remote villages. Laila Tyabji and her indefatigable Dastkar network of rural weavers and craftspeople is an indispensable agent of homespun style – adding colour to their drab personal dress sense it would unleash income generation at the grass roots. If Bihar’s youth have nowhere to go except go away, Dastkar’s wildly popular haats could lure them back home.

Rajesh Pratap Singh is said to be a master of well-tailored men’s garments, Indian or western. His art is also said to rest on making awkward body shapes look immaculately well-fitted – just the ticket for Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Whether in traditional attire at home, or western suits when clocking in air miles on his frequent foreign tours, his bulky size and expansive girth give him a sadly dishevelled look. Bespoke clothing by Mr Singh might help improve his poor ratings among Mumbai’s dressier rich who think he needs help on many fronts.

And can Rahul Gandhi’s perpetually crushed kurtas and rumpled look be improved? A wag remarked that Rohit Bal might be the remedy. Why? “Because only Gudda could freshen up Pappu’s look.” In a season of uncertainty over who has the political edge, a sartorial edge could lighten upcoming Diwali week.

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