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The Days of Desi - Part 1

Surekha Kadapa Bose Nov 19 2017, 17:31 IST
Illustration by Kavitha Mandana

Illustration by Kavitha Mandana

The new lingo of the youth today is - "We are Indians, bro!"

Does anyone doubt this? We, 134 crore people, are residents of India, and so by right we are Indians. This is true of every citizen of the other 194 countries in the world, who too are known by the country they belong to - Americans, British, Japanese, Chinese, Sudanese, Russians and so on and so forth. Do we hear them stress their citizenship?

But for some reason, the end of 2017 is witnessing a sudden cacophony, a sudden urgency, and a new-found love for everything desi. This, of course, is a delightful U-turn from the previous passionate adoption of everything foreign. But, just as we went to extremes to adapt the Western lifestyle from the 1970s to the new millennium, we now seem to be doing the same with desi. There seems to be a bit too much stress on desi food, fashion, culture, religion, rituals, films, music, education etc. The only difference is that, back then, we didn't have vigilantes to dictate terms for us. We had the freedom to adopt any lifestyle that we wanted to.

Stand-up comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath had very humorously narrated an incident in one of his shows on going desi. He was invited to the wedding reception of his friend and the dress code was Indian or desi. Biswa went in his casual jeans and shirt and found to his consternation that the hall was full of men in kurta-pajama or bandhgala, and women in lehenga-choli, sari or anarakali. Biswa narrates, "All glitzy affair. My annoyed friend, the groom, asked me why I wasn't dressed in an Indian attire? I said, 'I am dressed in Indian style. You all are dressed in ancient style! Bro, go out and take a look. Everyone is dressed like me'."

A spin on attires

That brings us back to the question - what is the desi style? According to Wikipedia, desi is a broad term for the people, cultures and products of Indian subcontinent. There is a general misconception that fashion, as shown in the big fat wedding scenes of Bollywood films, is 'the' desi attire - men dressed in long silky sherwanis, bandhgalas, with a angavastra wound round their necks, and women, of course, have to be dressed in voluminous ghagras with miniscule cholis, blingy saris etc...

Kerala-based young designer Sreejith Jeevan says, "Indian fashion or Indian-wear is a vague term. What is perceived as Indian-wear is just Bollywood-inspired. If we look at what people wear in each state, there is no way to categorise it. What is now perceived as #indiamodern is to me more about Indian fabrics and tradition - seen through the eyes of someone who lives today. I feel it is absurd to say that if you make an anarkali and a sherwani, you're making Indian-wear. A lungi or a mekhela is equally part of Indian fashion."

Delhi-based designer Amit Sachdeva adds, "It's good to see people appreciating desi attire. But the sad part is that, for them, desi means the end product, like a sari, a salwar-kameez, a lehenga, a dhoti, a sherwani, which is typically categorised as Indian-wear. What we want people to do is appreciate Indian handlooms and textiles. India has a vast cache of handlooms offering various textures, hues and designs. The beauty of these can be styled into Western attire like shirts, pants, palazzos, crop tops, skirts, gowns, dresses etc. Contemporary attire in handlooms is 'the' real Indian-wear. The usage of Indian textiles will also help sustain handloom crafts and grassroot karigars."

Unfortunately, this love has also brought in an unnecessary quota of marshals, or the so-called rakshaks of Indian culture. They have taken upon themselves to decide the proper attire for 21st century Indian women. Take the example of actor Priyanka Chopra meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin. She was dressed in a beautiful non-revealing dress which reached up to her knees. The marshals didn't like this at all. She was trolled mercilessly for this and told that she should have dressed in desi attire while meeting the prime minister.

Then there is tennis champion Sania Mirza. The number of times she has faced flak for wearing short skirts while playing on the court is beyond belief. Even a fatwa was issued against her.

After desi attire comes food. The craze for desi has made inroads here too. The best examples are the popular junk foods - pizzas and burgers - which are originally adopted from Italy and America. Now they are getting Indianised and are being served with a desi touch. You get pizzas with toppings like tandoori paneer, chicken tikka, paneer vegorama, and burgers with stuffings like veg aloo tikki, masala dosa, paneer and so on.

My take on this variation: if one is so much in love with desi khaana, then why not say "no" to pizzas and burgers, and have Mom-made dosas, parathas and samosas instead?

In one of the earlier interviews to this paper, popular chef Ranveer Brar had said, "Today's youth have come back to liking everything desi, but with a slight twist. For example, if they eat momos (originally from Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim), they want it with Indian filling, the paratha is back with exotic fillings, and even the traditional desserts with a slight quirk are getting more popular. The youth want to retain their desi touch, but not lose the phoren tag!"

There is nothing wrong in adopting desiness. But the moot question is, what is desi? India is a very vast and diverse country. Every state has its own separate identity. What is native to one state is alien to another. So, consensus on what constitutes desi is one huge problem.

According to Goa-based psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar, "Diversity is one of our country's greatest resources. But our diversity can also be divisive and the question arises whether the protection of this diversity does not need a framework to contain its centrifugal forces. Superordinate identities like Indian-ness, if they evolve with the mutual consent of various groups and are not imposed by force or diktat, dampen internal conflicts and are an antidote to divisiveness."

The book Indians: Portrait of a people, which he has co-authored with his wife Katherina Kakar, describes in detail the nuances of being Indian and what sets Indians apart from the rest of the world. The book says, even though India is diverse in its culture, an invisible unity binds people of varies cultures, caste and language.

Costly confusion

But, this unity is in the danger of breaking down. The new-found aggressive vigilantes are on a rampage. For some reason, going desi or flaunting Indianness is getting confused with religious identities.

In fact, the world over, India has always been admired as the biggest democratic and secular country. Every foreign tourist always asks in wonder, "How do so many of you live so harmoniously?" Every NRI, or even every Indian tourist abroad, doesn't flaunt his or her Indianness by dressing in typical Indian attire.

They gel with their surroundings. But they also retain their Indianness by celebrating our festivals with complete zeal.Former diplomat and present MP Shashi Tharoor had once said, "I carry my Indian identity and my Indianness with me." This is the case with every Indian. Anywhere we go, we carry our Indianness with us.

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