Tag Archives: fashion

The Venus Flytrap: Doing The Sari

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Dresses may come and dresses may go, but there’s nothing like a sari.

This isn’t the story of how I fell in love with a difficult garment. I’ve never struggled with the sari, not the way I struggled with the bindi (which you can see I’ve fully appropriated), not the way I struggled with dark skin or with dark moods, or anything else with a similar gravity, the congenital weight of things beyond one’s choice. No, there was never a time when I thought that the sari was anything but prime plumage. Watching women wind lengths of cloth around themselves was where I learnt the meaning of the word “covet”, the floreo of pleating fingers the thing that must have mesmerized me into dance. There is a photograph of me at about three years old, wearing a miniature approximation in yellow and green, a fake nose-ring, my grandmother’s wig and an aigrette of pink flowers. I am not cute, I am coy, guilefully aware; at this age more so than at any other, the sari’s magical transformative effects on my demeanour are evident. The image is nearly prophetic. Somewhere in my baby brain I had set my sights on what I would grow up to look like, and through tube tops and sundresses, through denim and leather, that was exactly where I wound up arriving. And I was born knowing the sari signified, above all else, arrival.

I fought to wear saris long before anyone thought I was ready for them, just as I had glued a faux diamond to my nostril for a whole year until I was allowed to pierce it at fourteen. In both cases, the redemption was instant: it was plain to see that my vanity did not dwarf me. Vindicated though I was, for a decade, I saved the sari for “special occasions”, motivated in most part by the time it took to drape one, and in some part by wiles: the knowledge that the garment conferred on me what I call deadliness – it (or I) could stop both hearts and traffic. I’m still careful about when I take it out of my arsenal, if only because in love and in war timing is everything, but I’ve also stopped treating it as sacrosanct. I suppose that happens once you discover how much more interesting it is to keep it on, while doing the thing that usually requires taking it all off.

Today I deal with my wardrobe, and by extension the world, with the maxim, “when in doubt, go with the sari”. There are sequin-strapped blouses for when upstaging the bride is the order of the day and demure, high-backed handloom weaves for when a disingenuous innocence needs to be affected. There are gloriously unaffordable inheritance silks, but these come with taboos: call me prudish, but there will be no kinky romps in anything that used to belong to my grandmother. For that: frivolous synthetics that fall easily, cling flirtatiously.

I know for some the sari connotes respect or codes of restriction. But more and more, this is what I suspect about the true nature of the sari’s timelessness. It has survived the ages because depending on the wearer, it may murmur or it may sing, but it always says the same thing: ravish me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Porcelain, Lately

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I’ve been buying blue.

Not the blues – not music or depression, both of which I have in abundance. I’ve been buying blue in a very specific way – for weeks now, every item of clothing I’ve purchased has been in that colour. I’ve been buying blue clothing as though, well, it was going out of style.

To be precise, the theme is, overwhelmingly, blue with white. Everywhere I turn to empty my wallet as though that would detox my heartsickness, I am drawn to the lacing of those two colours. The cornflower blue sundress cut in a decades-old style that flatters women cut soft like me, the deep-necked casual top in a particularly vivacious Prussian shade, the long-sleeved blouse reminiscent of a kebaya – all of them sieved through with white in floral, psychedelic and paisley prints. Then there’s the tube dress bought off the street on a Sunday I suddenly found myself in Pondy, the lingerie, the saree I chose for my birthday with its electric cobalt so unusual I almost couldn’t find a blouse (but I did, of course).

Sapphire spiked with snowflakes. The sea and its foam. A certain man’s eyes the moment they find yours. Pick your imagery, I don’t care – I may be a poet but I am as much a bird known for my plumage as I am for my song. I buy it as though the colours are in season, like fruit or fads, or umbrellas in the monsoon – though the truth is I am working to the demands of an internal meteorology alone. I buy it as though there will be enough somedays to wear it all.

Why am I doing this? Dressing as if to declare I am porcelain, lately.

I met someone who reads auras. Mine was pinkish on the day we met, but I generally seem to carry a grey one, according to him, which is all the things you might think it might mean. “Wear bright shades,” the aura-reader advised, not having yet been properly acquainted with my infamously kindergartener sense of colour. “It will make a difference.”

I know this to not be true. I wore purple to my grandmother’s funeral, because she had liked that saree. My nails are never anything but red. I have a weakness for yellow ochre and fuchsia. If there is a colour I have not worn, it isn’t visible to the human eye. But it’s like painting a papier-mâché globe; all that’s inside is a burst balloon.

And this is what makes me wonder if, somewhere, it is the ocean after all that I keep trying to recapture. I know now that there are people who will manipulate the grief of someone in mourning. I learnt this the only way one can learn things like this. Six weeks after the funeral to which I wore purple, I took my grief to the sea the way almost everyone does – in their own ways, their own seas, allegorical and actual – hoping to be washed clean of it, and got caught instead in a undercurrent that slammed me back ashore: stripped, seaclogged, vomiting salt.

Not everything is a metaphor. But some things reveal a pattern, fractal though it may be. If I seek to wear the sea, it is only because the coast has disappeared.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

It’s My Party And I’ll Wear Copper Sulphate Blue If I Want To…

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Pictorial evidence, as requested in the last post’s comments:

Chennai, March 13 2009

Chennai, March 13 2009

Pix: Dilip Muralidaran.

Also, I wanted to add that Eric Miller pulled a surprise that ended the event with a twist, (thankfully – in lieu of a q+a session) by reading a poem written during the launch. Here it is, reproduced with permission:

“Poem for Sharanya”

On the occasion of her reading from, and launch of, her collection of poems, Witchcraft, at the Park Hotel, Chennai, 13 March 2009.

Goddess priestess, witch, poet.
What is this public persona you are weaving?
Will you shake the city?
Will you melt it?
All the world disappears
and is reborn
in the words,
sounds,
dreams,
hopes,
daydreams,
fantasies,
meditations,
colors,
shapes,
smells,
the ideas
you inspire.
Yes, bring down the moon,
and let us all discover where to put it.

The Venus Flytrap: Putting The “Bra” In Bravado

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The boss of a friend of mine had a business associate visit their office recently. Partway through their meeting, the boss abruptly went over to where his employees were seated, took off his shirt, turned it inside out, and put it back on again. “It was the wrong way round,” he told his gawking workforce. “And we have a guest.”

“I see,” said my friend. “And here I thought you were just happy to see me.”

If you can ignore the developing subplot between my friend and his boss, what’s really interesting about this incident is the casualness of male toplessness, and its machismo overtones. Hindu priests show off much more than their sacred threads while upholding their patriarchal paradigms, boxers parade their pectorals even as they pound each other senseless in a flood of testosterone and aggression, and football players – they of that hypermasculine pastime – streak across fields with their shirts off upon scoring a goal. There is bravado in barechestedness: nothing says Alpha Male like a flash of man-mammaries, nipples loud as neon signboards.

And putting the “bra” in that bravado is a Japanese e-boutique, Wishroom, which has sold hundreds of pink, black and white brassieres for men. Your menstrual envy (you know, the one that compensates with war and violent video games) got you down? You can now actually pull yourself up the bra straps and be a man.

These aren’t foam-filled cups meant for dressing in drag, and neither are they built for men with bountiful breast tissue (for that, the Australian “Male Support Vest”, which minimizes and de-feminizes, might be more your thing). There is no real aesthetic or functional purpose: no frills, no sequins, and no fancy cleavage-cushioning technology. They are meant, it seems, to be primarily a sensual secret – “I like this tight feeling,” says the boutique’s flat-chested representative as he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black, leather-finish piece, in an online video. “It feels good.”

There’s a saying in Bombay that on a quiet day on Marine Drive, you can hear a thousand bras snap. The man bra (or the much catchier “Bro”, as they called it on Seinfeld nearly a decade and a half ago) might make it two thousand. Rest assured, though, that there is at least one bra (and its wearer) that won’t succumb. As a longtime admirer of blokes of the bellied and B-cupped variety, I don’t find the male bra a very uplifting idea. If anything, the thought of all that silly coverage plunges me into annoyance. It separates me from getting my cheap thrills and pushes up various types of resentment. It also supports ridiculousness and badly fleshed out metaphors.

Still, like any reasonable person, I think that people should wear whatever they damn well please, so I won’t get fashion fascist on you curious gentlemen. I can only subtly discourage you. As someone who once went bra-shopping without wearing a bra (a story for another time), I guarantee that less lingerie equals many more lingering glances. You may not have the necessary equipment, but if it’s good enough for Jacqueline Bisset swimming in that white tee and nothing else in The Deep as she – oh, um, sorry, got distracted – it’s good enough for you.

The curve may be mightier than the sword, as the marvellous Mae West said. She may have been right in more ways than one – just imagine a sumo wrestler or Turkish oil wrestler in a sports bra, or Michael Phelps in a bikini, and tell me you aren’t feeling slightly… unhooked.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Loosen Up And Love The Lungi

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When our very own humble lungi made it onto the pages of the acclaimed street fashion photography blog The Sartorialist a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to bits. Cultural misappropriation and decontextualization? Oh pshaw. That Caucasian guy rocked that indigo lungi the way indigo lungis are meant to be rocked: by men with serious balls, metaphorical and otherwise.

Needless to say, I’ve been trying for awhile to get men out of their pants. And into their lungis.

Veshtis are too formal, kilts just trying too hard, regular skirts too evocative of transvestites (and if you’ve been following this column, you’d realise that would mean all amorous hopes will summarily be squashed but we could be BFFs). But the lungi – ah, how I would love to be taken to a fancy dinner by a man masculine enough to wear an indigo lungi with a white button-down shirt.

Of course, this takes quite some coaxing. I once made a guy come to college in a miniskirt (ah, the perks of being a slightly scary chick with a college magazine editorship!). He refused to take his track pants off from under the red wraparound, but not only did he very sportingly attend lectures and go out to lunch and let himself be photographed that way, he loved it. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he’s graduated to the liberating lounge-cum-luxury wear that is the lungi by now.

Then there was Lungi-Man, the superhero who fought cultural imperialism and mental colonization – and thankfully didn’t go commando as he bounded over traffic and tall buildings. Our intrepid crusader was invented for a friend who is quite severely desi-challenged (you know the type). Lungi-Man’s partner was the über-feminist Pavadai-Chatta Girl (yeah, she liked ironic statements). If I ever get tired of writing dysphoric verse and self-indulgent columns, I’ll do a graphic novel starring the two of them. Installment one: it’s laundry day, the wife’s on strike, and Lungi-Man is forced to wear the attire of his archnemesis, Veshtimeister. Things climax with Lungi-Man and Veshtimeister glowering at one other in a showdown, tweaking their own moustaches and striking dramatic poses, while Pavadai-Chatta Girl unties herself from the train tracks in her sheer boredom, then spits paan onto the both of them, staining their garments irreparably.

I guess you could say my lungi fascination started early. Some of the most fun I recall from my childhood was something called “the aeroplane game”, the key components of which are one lungi, one person to wear it, and one very small and easily amused child (two if the lungi-wearer has long legs). My father, in lungi of course, would sit down with his legs up on an adjacent chair. His lungi would fall in such a way as to create a sort of hammock-cradle, in which I could sit and swing around. I always thought I had discovered this by accident until I met a girl in my teens who had played the exact same “aeroplane game”. My guess is it may have been a common thing in Indian households until people started getting paranoid about the perceived ickiness factor of a kid being so close to the family jewels.

Some time last year, it was reported that a UK distributor had put in an order for 11,000 lungis from Kurunjipadi. No news since about what happened or is in store for what could very well be biggest fashion invasion of Europe since jodhpurs. Take heed, men of India! You can pre-empt the fashion capitals of the world starting today.

And trust me, the girls will love it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: In The Mood For Nostalgia

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I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.

It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.

When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.

Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930’s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.

I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.

We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.

Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.