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Essay: The wear and tear of the Modi ‘kurta’

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-06-2014 Shefalee Vasudev

While we were stitching myriad accounts about the Modi kurta, India’s new Prime Minister changed its colour and contrast settings. On the morning of the swearing-in ceremony, Narendra Modi, whose “colourful kurtas”, “god-given sense of colour”, with a fascination for orange and a supposed disdain for green, had interested style watchers, reached Rajghat in New Delhi in pristine white. The short-sleeved kurta and white sleeveless bandhgala jacket with buttons looking like mints with holes, busted the colour fixation we highlight as the most important detail of Modi Style.

So Washington Post’s article last week on the “Modi tunic”, asking US first lady Michelle Obama to make space for “fashion icon” Modi, or a New York Times blog earlier this month deconstructing the Modi kurta as a “case study”, may be effusive but both miss the point that the Prime Minister is already evolving beyond the static.

Modi’s blue ensemble, with a sky-blue jacket studded with attractive, blue-black buttons, worn at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi a day after the election results, included an azure-blue full-sleeved kurta, not the half-sleeved one frequently defined as Brand Modi. Later, his almond kurta with a sleeveless bandhgala, the colour of cold coffee, worn on the evening he was sworn in at Rashtrapati Bhavan, was distinct from all the colours he has been associated with. As was his first appearance at the Prime Minister’s office on 27 May—in a muted kurta the colour of old gold, with a textured brown bandhgala jacket or his first appearance in Parliament on 4 June in a pale yellow kurta (full-sleeved again).

In his trademark colourful ensemble during election campaign. Photo: Ant Ram/Hindustan TimesIn fact, all his public appearances over the last two weeks have been remarkably muted, very different from the maverick wardrobe he flaunted during election campaigning. All those incongruous combinations (bright kurtas with brighter jackets) that first grabbed attention have made way for colours that suit the politics of balance that appears to be his first initiative as Prime Minister. Is this a conscious choice, is he just responding to the Delhi summer with a seasonal aesthetic, or is he dressing to suit his new role as a statesman? We don’t know. But the orange kurta has gone.

That’s why I wouldn’t agree with those who give much of the credit to Jade Blue’s Bipin Chauhan, Modi’s go-to tailor in Ahmedabad. If there is indeed a story about the Modi kurta, it would hardly be limited to a smart tailor in the background, hysterical about turning the PM’s prime garment into a global brand. Nor is the sartorial comparison, imaginary even, between Modi and Obama relevant. Our Prime Minister may have personalised the way he wears his kurtas but Obama brings a rare resilience to glamour, even to red-carpet dressing that can objectify many women.

Yet, the first lady of the US is hardly trying to drive home a hard-nosed political point with her clothes, as Modi might be doing. Trying to compare the two is like weighing the influence of Jacqueline Kennedy’s signature three-strand pearls against Jawaharlal Nehru’s iconic bandhgala. Or, Indira Gandhi’s handloom saris against former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s beautiful braids; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s steely, worked-out body encased in sharp suits against US politician Sarah Palin’s tight skirts. None of these people, whose appearances have been noticed and debated, have played sartorial musical chairs—their styles remained distinct.

If we can read nationalism in Modi’s dressing, Obama’s look is about accessible glamour, just as Kennedy’s was about spirited decadence. If Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi was the most garishly dressed politician in the world, former French first lady Carla Bruni was about Parisian sophistication and nonchalant sexiness. Each made a different statement.

It is also relevant to ask why we find the Modi kurta so compelling when every second politician in this country has worn it in the past and does so even today. White kurtas paired with blue turbans were former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s favourite garb. Light-coloured ones, often in fine Chikankari, worn with half-sleeved bandhgalas and Kani shawls, are favoured by Union finance minister Arun Jaitley. Kurtas were favoured by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and continue to rule the wardrobe of senior BJP leader L.K. Advani. From Rahul Gandhi’s white kurtas to those of Sachin Pilot’s or Shashi Tharoor’s, which include colours like acid green, maroon or blue, and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s or Nitish Kumar’s, we have dozens of instances.

Why then this fuss over the Modi kurta? Some say it’s his unabashed emphasis on colour, others say it’s the adaptation to short sleeves and shorter lengths, tweaking the traditional kurta into a tunic, and yet others give credit to Modi’s immaculate turnout. Perhaps it is all these combined, but it could also be that success stories attract us to their tangible aspects. Or that the kurta has become the sign on a door that we believe will open to India’s political future.

Either way, Modi, whose appearance began to display signs of finesse about a decade back, clearly recognizes the role of dressing in creating a personality cult. Over the years, he not only corporatized the kurta-churidar by pairing it (even if accidentally) with branded spectacles and fine pens but politicized it too. Or that’s what his aide Amit Shah would like us to believe. Before the election results were announced, when asked why Modi never wore the Islamic skull cap, Shah told Outlook magazine, “The kurta-pyjama Modi wears is originally a Mughal outfit.”

That’s why political fashion is never just about the garment.

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