Honestly, it was her gorgeous outfit that I noticed first. I won’t pretend to have known who she was and even to have long been a fan (as many do when major awards are announced!). No, I confess under-informedness. When Tulsi Gowda, the 77-year old environmentalist from Honnali, Karnataka, walked up to the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, to accept her Padma Shri award for a lifetime’s dedicated to forest conservation, I admired her beauty first, and only after Googling her could I also admire her work. 

She wore the traditional attire of her Halakki Vokkalu culture. Her black checked saree, with a red border and gold zari work, was wrapped in a sarong-style that allows ease of movement, with twists that leave the back and shoulders bare for more comfort. Around her neck, layers of many-beaded necklaces accentuated the halter-neck drape. She was barefoot at the awards ceremony, and perhaps often if not always is.

Sadly, in India, appreciating someone’s style is almost never simply a happy-making moment. I wish I could have just admired Gowda’s powerful presence, enhanced by her striking garments and accessories, and enjoyed learning more about her work later. Instead, a couple of small pebbles of rue also rolled around in my heart.

Firstly, and not flippantly: the same moral police that hasn’t blinked an eye at what they surely perceive as being merely the rustic apparel of an elderly tribal woman would be up in arms if a younger woman had appeared in a backless saree at a state event. Forget public ceremonies – the stalking and abuse that women with online presences experience constantly says enough. Of late, there has also been a visible increase in policing around traditionally feminine ornaments. The withdrawn Saybasachi ad in which a model wore a mangalsutra in a low-cut blouse and the campaign to boycott brands that put out Diwali advertising in which the women featured did not wear bindis are indicators of this. The saree, as a similarly emblematic article of clothing, would not escape such scrutiny. But much depends on who is gazing. It’s never actually about the object, but about who wields it.

Secondly, and relatedly: context. There’s no controversy about Gowda’s apparel because her context doesn’t threaten the sensitivities of the establishment (or its minions) – but neither does she. All great public recognitions also come with invisible undercurrents: everything from internal politics, funding agendas, PR exercises and more. That doesn’t make recipients undeserving (well… sometimes it does). In Padma Shri Tulsi Gowda’s case, even as we celebrate her achievement, we must see it in its larger context, which is ominous. Here is just one example: India’s coal shortage, which indigenous and non-indigenous activists have correlated with the Government of India’s support for mega-corporations like Adani, Vedanta and Jindal appropriating forest reserves for mining. According to Survival International, 80% of new mines will be on what are or were Adivasi lands. What does it mean to honour one indigenous environmentalist against such a backdrop, in which the lands, waters and skies are being desecrated, and in which many more activists for Nature or for human rights are consistently silenced?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 11th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.