Last week, as an extension of a book tour, I was invited by Delhi’s Pearl Academy of Fashion (PAF) to talk about my recently released book Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion. The invitation came from Tarun Panwar, the head of the Luxury Programme PAF has launched just this year. I was to meet the first batch. Panwar had asked me to veer my answers to what’s Indian luxury and the peculiarities of the Indian luxury customer. In my 10 minute talk, I wanted to emphasize that the book looked at contemporary India through fashion and clothing but was not about the fashion industry. This was to be followed by a Q&A session for an hour. I expected the usual questions, falling back on the “asking pattern” of those who have been interviewing me in the past month. I was beyond wrong. Students have a rather different view of all operative words that mattered here–fashion, clothing, India, confessions, conflict. Yet to be swept into the tides (free falls and and ebbing too) of the fashion world, they asked me completely unpredictable and enjoyable questions. Fresh, free from baggage. Well, mostly.
The ones that threw me the most were from two students—one male and one female. The boy asked wanted me to take a side–for or against about “those who wore the sari, covered their arms and legs, did yoga, were from India, vs. those who wore tight, revealing clothes, who were, well, for want of a better cliche—westernised. My answer doesn’t matter here; what does is the absolute divisiveness of his question into “us vs. them” , modernity vs. tradition” seen so narrowly through the “sari vs. a short, revealing garment.”
Incidentally, I was dressed in a sari—a khadi drape with long blouse sleeves, presumably given the impression of a traditional person who toed the line. “Why do you wear a sari?” asked a female student. When I answered that I wore it because I found it to be the most elegant of all garments, that I didn’t have the figure to carry off a short dress, that I had grown up in a middle class family believing that the sari was the simplest of all (and confessed that I have changed my view now), she looked unconvinced. Are you traditional minded, she persisted. Not one bit, I said, smiling to myself. She clearly disbelieved me. When I told her that I also wore sexy saris, which revealed a lot of skin, her face clouded. She wanted to hear that I was a traditionalist in a sari and that those who “exposed” skin were people with another mindset. Panwar ended the debate there also because much of her peers had stood up to argue with the girl, hotly asking What Had a sari to do with being traditional?
I loved that interaction, it went on for much longer than planned and when Tarun commented that I was obviously surprised by young people with old mindsets, I agreed. I admit I was surprised. Just as these two students misread the sari as the sole representative of a traditional outlook; I misread youth for being the sole sign of forward thinking.