Friday, November 27, 2009

Aapka swagat hai. Of course

The sari is perhaps the most gracious dress a woman can wear. But it does not lend itself to fashion variations like a Western woman’s gown does. The Indian male faces the same disadvantage as his dress too is confined to a black bandh-gala shut jacket. The Western male can mark formal occasions with back tie and cummerbund. Or white tie and tails.

At the much-discussed state dinner at the White House, our Prime Minister looked extremely well dressed. But the style was the same as on any other occasion: black shut-coat suit and trademark blue turban. Barack Obama’s dress showed that it was indeed a special occasion: black bow-tie and black studs on a starched white shirt. Ratan Tata and Amartya Sen wore exactly the same Western outfit showing the advantage non-officials have over government leaders.

When it came to the ladies, the contrast was even sharper. Shrimati Gursharan Kaur is a naturally elegant lady. And she looked doubly so in her formal sari. But there was no way she could transcend the familiar look of the familiar sari-blouse combo. Michelle Obama could draw upon an entire culture that thrives on variety and invention. She got herself an all-new look with a shimmering silver-scquinned cream-and-gold strapless gown and matching wrap. Her fashion designer was given full credit. The sari is not designer-oriented. It can be worn in different styles of course – Bengali, Maharashtrian, Kodagu, Mylapore. But it remains essentially the sari.

If you are the Shilpa Shetty type, you can indeed claim that your sari is specially designed by Tahiliani. All it means is that the designer has worked a bundle of diamonds and pearls and stuff on to the sari to make it worth a crore to two. But it too is draped the familiar sari way. Bollywood has done its best to take the sari’s waistline to the netherworld and to let the blouse make its presence unfelt. Even then the sari ensemble remains what it has been from grandmothers’ times.

Obviously style maketh state dinners. Just as well that our Prime Minister and his wife could, in their own traditional ways, present stylish profiles. It might have been different with, say, Deve Gowda. Remember his visit to Davos for the economic forum? Sticking bravely to his native style, he became the Man With the Flying Dhoti in Switzerland. Earlier Prime Minister Morarji Desai was known to take a goat along on his foreign trips. For obvious reasons.

As in style and protocol, so in substance we have reasons to be satisfied with Manmohan Singh’s Washington visit this time. This is worth noting because there were apprehensions that he would be, like he was during the George Bush days, a supplicant anxious to please America. In fact, he did something very different. About a month before the visit, India bought 200 tonnes of gold from the IMF for $ 6.7 billion. The world was stunned by this open vote of no-confidence in the American dollar. Manmohan Singh did make some reassuring noises in his speeches in Washington, but the gold stayed firmly in India as a hedge against the dollar.

Obama for his part had to make reassuring noises to balance his exaggerated attempts to please China a few days earlier. He had hailed China as a great nation, but made it a point to hail India as a great nation of free people – a small change with a big meaning. Besides, he didn’t dare say a word in Mandarin when he was in China, but he managed all of ‘Aapka swagat hai’ in Hindi. The pronunciation was terrible, but the applause was warm. In the end, that’s what sate dinners are all about, aren’t they?