Minutes after a phone conversation that cast about for answers to the paradox of why Indian men wear so little of the range of handloom weaves and dyeing techniques available in India, my interviewee, the crafts and textiles expert Laila Tyabji, sent me a few images from Padshahnama, the Mughal manuscript that is a record of Shah Jahan’s time. Her text read: “Look at these clothes! Page after page of glorious clothes and accessories—even worn by the retainers and while going into battle….What happened to Indian men? Do we blame the Brits (again!?)?”
Historians will continue to debate whether the Mughals surpassed the first decade or two after independence, when our diverse, democratic republic was forged, in leaving their mark on India through their architecture and cuisine. But that the Mughal era was a world-beating golden age for men’s clothing is hard to argue with. Set aside for the moment that brocade and chikankari were patronised and popularised by Nur Jahan. Turn away from the mesmerising silk and velvet jamas and spectacular turbans. Consider just that muslin came in three notable varieties. “The muslins used for their clothes were of three types: Ab-e-Rawan (running water), Baft Hawa (woven air) and Shabnam (evening dew),” according to a monograph on Mughal clothing.
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The good news is, circa 2022, a shift to indigenous weaves and dyes by men is perceptible, according to many in the fashion industry. More men are more open to wearing Indian clothing, though still predominantly at weddings. A confluence of influences ranges from the ubiquitous Fabindia stores to dress casual trends at work, to the Bollywoodisation of wedding wear by Manyavar, one of the country’s most successful retailers.
“Everyone who gets married these days is feathered like a peacock. It is only a matter of time before it percolates and becomes a general sensibility,” says David Abraham, whose Abraham & Thakore label has skilfully melded Indian weaves into Western clothing styles for three decades. The negative influence on what was considered formal dress in India by the British is falling away slowly. Abraham recalls being turned away from the Bangalore Club years ago for arriving in a jacket and pants instead of the lounge suit that was the dress code then. Recently, a new woman president at the Bangalore Club has allowed even smart sneakers to be worn there. “We have managed to throw off the old British conventions. I see that as very positive,” says Abraham. The banishment of the ghastly term “ethnic wear”, suggestive of a colonial, deracinated world view, would be a good thing too.
K. Radharaman, the founder of House of Angadi, an upscale sari and women’s wear store in Bengaluru, believes the pandemic and the ever-more-casual dress at the workplace and work-from-home routines have changed “the scene for menswear dramatically”. His store devotes a whole floor to menswear. The men’s section includes elegant ikat and brocade waistcoats and shirts with unusual block prints and dyeing techniques by Angadi, innovatively styled mandarin collar shirts using Indian weaves from Kos (a staple of the menswear offered by online portal Baro Market) as well as dress shirts from Rajesh Pratap Singh.
Despite a strong pick-up recently in demand for high-end menswear from the store, Radharaman is a realist. “This is always going to be a niche. Where the wardrobe is concerned, most men don’t spend much time deciding what to wear.” He also believes the Indian male preference for something that is “machine washable” makes the additional care Indian dyes require for the first couple of washes seem excessive to many. Srila Chatterjee of Baro Market makes the point that shirts made from jamdani, for instance, are bound to cost more than something mill-made.
Sadly, it is also true that most middle-aged Indian men, especially those with the means to dress better, appear not to care. This column was written on Kannada Rajyotsava (1 November), Karnataka’s celebration of the founding of the state. The dress code for the celebration in the large housing complex where I live in Bengaluru was inevitably “ethnic wear” but only half-a-dozen men wore a kurta-churidar, while two wore lungis. Most men wore the ubiquitous bush shirt with khaki pants, or, at best, ikat Fabindia short kurtas in dull colours with jeans. The chief guest was the acclaimed Hindustani singer M.D. Pallavi, resplendent in a fuchsia pink Mysore raw silk sari worn with a contrasting blouse made from the khun material woven in the border areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The women’s choir wore Mysore silks that the Mughals would have envied. It takes a special kind of self-confidence to dress as unimaginatively as Indian men do when one is thrown together socially with women dressed so well. (Embarrassingly, I was dressed in a “slim fit” Fabindia kurta that turned tight after its first wash and shabby Aligarhi pyjamas.)
Tyabji, the chair and co-founder of the crafts collective Dastkar, singles out the bush shirt as a crime against good taste: “The middle-aged man in India has usually developed quite a stomach. The bush shirt sits atop it like a maternity garment.”
Having returned to India after three decades and having grown up with a Tamilian mother and grandmother who wore kanjeevarams, my interest in weaves and dyeing techniques for men’s shirting borders on the obsessive. Living in Bengaluru with ready access to companies such as the Good Loom, founded by a US- returned textile engineer whose team has contemporised Mangalgiri and Maheshwari sari weaving techniques as well as Angadi, the generations-old family business whose commitment to Karnataka and kanjeevaram cottons and silks is legendary, has taken this to clinical addiction. The damage the pandemic did to livelihoods of many in labour-intensive industries such as weaving and tailoring, meanwhile, has glossed over the guilt I once felt at spending a fifth as much as I do on saris and shirts today.
Looking to buy ilkal saris for a Delhi friend from Good Loom some months ago, I chanced upon a pink jamdani material dotted with green but is like miniature Christmas wreaths that was made into a shirt. I recently discovered a small business in my city that offers everything shibori, called Umoya Designs, founded by Srishti School of Design graduate Sarah Thomas. I now have purchased half a dozen of their cushion covers, which have temporarily displaced my Gond-style embroidered and kantha cushion covers. When I wrote to Thomas to say that she had little for men, she said she had done a special consignment of pocket squares for a wedding, which is next on my wish list.
A British journalist friend in Delhi, who is getting married in December, has appointed me consultant for his tuxedo and the kurta he will wear under his sherwani. I am pushing for him to wear a bold cummerbund, perhaps even one made of brocade, with his tux. Come to think of it, a shibori or ajrakh bow-tie and cummerbund would be spectacular.
What is incontestable is that for Indian men inclined to be adventurous, the weaving world is now their oyster. So much more is available than just a couple of years ago. In Bengaluru alone, House of Angadi is celebrating its menswear this weekend, while clothing design store ffolio plans to give their hitherto small men’s collection an entire floor. From 10 November, Dastkar will host its handloom fair in Delhi with 60-75 weaving groups from all over India. Tyabji recommends men consider ajrakh, shibori and jamdani for shirts and kurtas. Abraham & Thakore are combining Tencel, the durable and eco-friendly fibre with cotton, deploying techniques used for weaving Maheshwari saris, in its men’s collections. “I am not a purist,” says Abraham.
Whether at work or at weddings, cast off your colonial hand-me-downs and boring whites and blue shirts, mud-coloured waistcoats and khaki and black trousers. You have nothing to lose but drabness.
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Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.