The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, February 2, 2003
Time Off

Hats off to breaking the mould
Manohar Malgonkar

Tony Blair may be the first British statesman to have appeared at public functions without a tie and a coat
Tony Blair may be the first British statesman to have appeared at public functions without a tie and a coat

TONY Blair must surely be the very first British statesman to have appeared at public functions without a tie, and quite frequently, even without a coat on. True, there was that single picture of John Major which some American tabloid had picked on for his outlandish attire, not realising that the photograph of Major, with no tie and a thick sweater draped loosely around his shoulders like a scarf, was taken while he was umpiring a cricket match. So Tony Blair, making his official announcement of his decision to hold elections on the premises of a high school ó and in his shirtsleeves ó was something unheard of. A tie and coat were as indispensable for a British MP as, let us say, a chador for a housewife in Iran.

Or, for that matter, some kind of a headgear for an adult male in our own land until quite recent times; say, the twilight of the Raj. In my childhood, for a man to be seen in the streets bareheaded meant that he was in mourning... unless he was being deliberately disrespectful. It just wasnít done.

Just as much as a piece of cloth called a saree is the national dress for women in India, a piece of cloth wound round the head was the national headgear for all men. Everyone, from fieldhand to his king, clerks in offices and merchants, wore turbans. They came in all sizes and colours and, among the well-to-do, they were a fashion item too. E.M. Forster has described how his friend and employer, the Maharaja of Dewas, took pride in the way he tied his turban and lamented that, after his mother died, there was no one who could really appreciate his skill.


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The turban that Tukojirao Puar wore was in the Maratha style, with a flowing tail. The Sikhs, the Rajputs, the Lingayats wore their turbans in their own regional styles; some were compact, some voluminous.

They came in all colours except white, which was the colour of mourning. They were mostly of cotton but, in deep South, they were of silk. As a rule you could tell a manís ethnicity by the type of his turban: Sikh, Marwari, Deccani, Karnataki, Malabari.

The only other type of headgear was a pagri, commonly worn in the cities by well-to-do men. A pagri was an already tied turban, a sort of a hat, really, which could be put on as you were ready to step out of the house. They, too, came in a variety of shapes and colours; some resembled boats and some pudding basins.

The pagri was seized upon by our maharajas as the proper headgear to go with their flamboyant robes made of rich silks and brocade. They set about designing pagris in a variety of shapes to make them stand apart from those of the common man, or those of other Maharajas. As they finally emerged, each princely state had its own type of pagri. There was no mistaking say a courtier of Scindia from one of Holkar or Wadiar.

Pagri was also the headdress of the urban gentleman, the lawyer or the shopkeeper. Their facings were made of rich silk and some had gold borders, adding a touch of colour to their drab working clothes.

The turban, which was a piece of cloth, or the pagri, which was an already-tied turban, remained the traditional headgear of the Indian male till well into the 19th century when the cap, a relative newcomer, came in and all but replaced them.

Right up to the British conquest of India, not many Indians wore a cap, which was once looked upon as a badge of servitude. They first find mention in history in the early 16th century, as a Portuguese imposition.

Very soon after they had conquered bits and pieces of territory on Indiaís west coast, the Portuguese carried out a merciless campaign of Christianising their domains. The only way of escaping was to run away, and that was what some of the Hindu families did. In one of the Portuguese outpost, that of Bassein, which was a fort, this created an acute problem. The fort had its garrison but hardly had anyone to do the manual work. That forced them to permit a limited number of non-Christians from the neighbouring areas, to come into the fort to work as daily labourers, but they all had to leave the fort before sundown. For easy identification, these labourers were made to wear a cap made of red cloth.

The Portuguese lost the fort of Bassein in the year 1734. But 40 years later, when the Portuguese in Goa began to let in some Hindu families to come and live and carry on business in Goa, among the several other restrictions imposed on such immigrants was the wearing of the red cloth cap for all men whenever they were out of doors.

So the cap was the headdress of the underclass, the turban of the landed gentry, and the pagri of the urban rich and of the maharajas. But the cap gradually replaced both the turban and the pagri and became the national headgear, and even a fashion item. By the late 19th century, cap-making was a thriving business and most towns had specialty shops which sold nothing but caps made of cloth.

And then came the 1930s, and Mahatma Gandhiís agitation for independence, and the cap found itself transformed into one of its most effective flagbearers. Made of handspun cloth and in the colour of mourning, white, the public took to it in such astounding numbers that all other caps found themselves discarded and indeed some of the fancier ones were consigned to public bonfires.

Two photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru highlight the change: one, of 1909, shows him wearing a black achkan and white churidar, with a black cap; the other, taken some 20 years later, shows him wearing the white cap. Nehruís refined film-star profile was ideal for showing off this new headgear as a badge of nationhood. It caught on and by the beginning of World War II, it had become the national headgear. Only those who were in the Empireís service went about in their old caps or turbans or pagris, furtively.

The Mahatma had brought about a revolution in menís fashions as a stepping stone of the independence struggle. Look at any photograph of a crowd scene of the 1940s: everyone, but everyone, seems to be wearing the Gandhi cap.

But, if a cap, or indeed some kind of a headdress was indispensable only 60 years ago, why donít we see anyone wearing any sort of cap, or turban, or pagri, these days? Look at pictures of crowds cheering their heroes at cricket or football matches, or, for that matter of a session of our central cabinet. Not a cap among the lot was there, then, some fashion revolution? Did the Mahatma, after Independence had been won, decide that the white cap had served its purpose nobly, and that henceforward, in a free India, no one needed to wear a headdress of any kind?

Nothing of the sort. What has happened is an intensely slow and gradual process of change over more than a hundred years. It began in the late 19th century when some prominent persons in India decided to appear in public bareheaded, and thus set an example for others to follow? They did, in the Indian context, what Tony Blair had done in Britain when he stopped wearing a tie and coat for his informal official functions.

Who? I consulted a hefty book of photographs and paintings called The Raj, which is published by Britainís National Portrait Gallery as a sort of commemoration volume of Britainís Indian connection. Surely, I kept thinking, it could only be the Mahatma who has an uncanny propensity for setting fashion trends.

I was wrong, but only just. The first picture of an eminent Indian to let himself be seen outdoors bareheaded is that of Rabindranath Tagore, and he stands shoulder to shoulder ó how fittingly, as I thought ó with a fellow Nobel Laureate, Albert Einstein.

But only a few pages later, there was the Mahatma, togged up in a dark three-piece suit and wearing a stiff collar and silk tie, bareheaded, a young man fully at home in Londonís clubland!