13 February 2013

Post Facto: Tied up in knots -- the many meanings of the dupatta

My Sunday Guardian column, from early 2013:

A few weeks ago, a teacher called Snehlata Gupta wrote a piece on Kafila describing an incident that took place in her classroom of a co-ed school in Delhi. One of her students, a 17-year-old boy, came up to her outside the classroom with a problem. "In a quiet, hushed, almost embarrassed tone he said he felt I should wear a dupatta in class", an appalled Gupta writes "because it embarrassed him to see me without one." Gupta managed to control her rage. She told the boy, that he could shut his eyes or stay out of class—and henceforth refused "even more determinedly" to wear a dupatta to class. "Maybe a rather childish reaction but it made me feel good", she writes.

The wearing of a dupatta is perhaps the most carefully calibrated act of everyday dressing in contemporary North India. Also called chunnichunari, or odhni, the dupatta is understood to be a necessary accessory to the salwar-kameez, churidar-kurta, or ghaghra-choli. So much so that the coordinated salwar-kameez sets that are probably the most ubiquitous women's wear in urban North India – 'suits', in Delhi lingo – come with matching dupattas. The dupatta quietly inserts itself into one's idea of the outfit—if you wear a 'suit', you automatically wear the dupatta that came with it. It's not wearing a dupatta that is then marked out as an act of choice.

Even when a dupatta is worn, though, there's always the complicated question of how. The dupatta is, of course, a remnant of the veil—as revealed most clearly in the word odhni: 'that which covers'. In more orthodox households, women still drape their dupattas (or sari pallus) to cover their heads and faces before men other than their husbands. But while the practice of purdah is probably growing less common (with the complicated exception of the newly burqa-wearing Muslim woman), the dupatta doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.

A schoolgirl might wear hers starched and pinned to the shoulders of her white kurta uniform. The neighbourhood aunty with child and shopping bag might wear hers like a scarf, with both ends hanging down the front. The chic young woman on her two-wheeler might wear hers as protection against sun and dust and wind: wrapped tight around the head, but flying out behind her in the wind, in lieu of her tied-up hair. However it's draped, though, the primary purpose of this unstitched length of fabric appears to be to cover up anything a woman's stitched garments may inadvertently (or advertently) reveal — the possibility of cleavage, yes, but also just the possibility of breasts.

That was what Snehlata Gupta's student meant — that it was her job as a woman to keep her breasts out of his line of thought. The same boy, during an earlier class discussion, had declared that "if girls dress so provocatively boys can't help themselves". Since South Asian men can't be trusted to control their thoughts — or their actions, goes the dire, threatening logic—the dupatta must be worn: women must police their own bodies.

Sometimes it feels like necessary pragmatism: who hasn't carried a 
dupatta as strategic shield: to cover over a figure-hugging top, and be put away when one reaches the perceived cocoon of one's office, classroom or party?
Yet, over the last two decades, there has been something of a revolution in women's clothing in Delhi. And I'm not talking only about the upper middle class set that pair their kurtas with patiala salwars, jeans or tights, more often than not abandoning dupattas altogether. I'm talking about young women at Delhi bus stops, who in the 1990s invariably wore salwar-kameezes with dupattas. Young women at Delhi bus stops in 2013 are as likely to be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or shirt, without dupattas. Though still a massive cause of friction — witness the khap judgements, institutional dress codes and general pronouncements about shameless tight clothes — the rising acceptability of Western wear is a steady demotion of the dupatta. Another form of subversion is the increasingly common sheer fabric compressed into near-nothingness: a thin band round the neck rather than a loose loop across the shoulders, joyfully refusing to fulfil its unspoken duty as invisibiliser-of-breasts.

Like everything in the North Indian universe, the dupatta's symbolic status is perhaps best explicated by the Hindi film song. From the plaintiveness of Laaga chunari mein daagmitaaun kaise, ghar jaaun kaise? to the tragic accusation of Pakeezah's Inhi logon ne le leena dupatta mera, all the way to the explicitly sexual address of Aaja na chhu le meri chunari sanam of Biwi No. 1, it is as if the chunari stands in for sex itself. But thankfully, dupatta songs are not all about shame and metaphorical virginity — a loss of modesty is often about deliberate abandon. The dupatta that lehraos in the wind is nothing short of a metaphor for freedom. As the Teen Deviyan song goes, Jab meri chunariya malmal ki, phir kyon na phiroon jhalki-jhalki.

To not wear a 
dupatta is certainly one kind of freedom. To insist on revelling in its flowing pleasures while refusing to be bound by it, is another.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, here.

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