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  • Shashi

Costume dramas

Imagine a typical Indian street scene, alive with women in flowing, brilliantly hued and patterned saris, or salwar kameez with their long, floating duputtas – no two alike - and at least some of the men in traditional long kurta pajama, or even in dhotis, their heads splendidly wrapped in bright orange or shocking pink turbans. A riotous feast for the eyes.

Now strip them all of their picture-book attire and strait-jacket them instead into the dreary dress of the modern West. Suddenly all the joy and vitality has gone from the picture, hasn’t it? The butterflies have become beetles and bugs. Instantly, those dancing rainbows of vibrant colour have leached out of the scene, and the graceful swirls of easy movement, played out in the folds of loose, flowing drapery are gone. In their place is a near-monochrome horde of lumpy body shapes and the stilted gestures of people in tight or bizarrely-fitting shirts and jackets, trousers and skirts.

The first scene is one of the most fundamental charms of living here, the second is a sobering glimpse of how things may look in the future India, if it carries on in its current headlong lust for all things western. It is also a reminder of why I feel so sensually starved these days in the sophisticatedly jaded cities of Europe.

This realisation first struck me with full force as I was crossing Blackfriars Bridge on my way to work one cool summer morning in London some years ago. It had started earlier as I was walking along the legendary peacock-strutting ground that is the King’s Road in Chelsea. I gradually became aware that not a single person in sight was wearing anything other than black, blue, grey and various indeterminate shades ranging from white to beige. No peacocks at all. Just an occasional flash of bright red or pale pink and the odd note of olive, sage or bottle green, maroon or brown to leaven the mix.

I walked for fifteen minutes without spotting any other colour (apart from my own bright green outfit and one orange t-shirt). At Sloane Square, I entered the Underground and, in all the thronging crowds down there, no cheery oases of colour met my eyes, which were beginning to feel hungry, a little starved of life and savour.

Emerging again onto Blackfriars Bridge, I found myself engulfed by marching armies in the same monochrome uniform. Then it dawned on me that not just the clothes, but all the cars hurtling past me, as well as all the buildings on the London skyline, confirmed to this depressed colour range. I was standing in a vast panorama that felt as if someone had turned the saturation right down. But why?

There is certainly a view prevalent in Western culture that increasing sophistication means increasingly subtle, or dull, washed-out colours – leave all those shocking shades to the barbarians, whose eyes and tastes are as uneducated as children’s. This is obvious in the pages of the interiors magazines for which I have often worked when in London.

Here, neutral tones have long been considered the normal, adaptive choice, especially among the aspirational, while vividly coloured homes are usually the preserve of the eccentric or bohemian. Some colour may slip in from time to time, but always in accord with the season’s diktat of a few, sometimes bizarrely combined shades – lime green and chocolate seemed in favour a year or so back, but if you preferred to offset your lime green with, say, viridian, you may have struggled to find the goods.

The situation is the same in the boutiques. The vast mass of mass-produced clothing available seems to exist in a similarly reduced palette. Again, every season, a few brighter or more quirky shades find their way into the mix, but in proportionally small quantities compared with the navy, black, white, beige and grey that predominate.

To live so much immersed in only these uninspiring, life-denying colours surely saps the life force, subtly, dully draining it away, day in day out. And this deadening influence must be all the more pervasive when inflicted on people often already starved of the revitalising effects of greenery and flowers and sunshine for many months of the year.

What happens to the souls of those who are so deprived of the warm joy of orange, the fresh coolness of green, the sumptuousness of purple, the sunny openness of yellow? What energy does the person who always dresses in monochrome shades draw in from such clothes? How easy is to feel joyous and positive towards existence when it always appears in shades of grey and neutrals, and when one’s own clothing further reflects this drabness? (For an instant antidote to such colour starvation, you can always look at some mandalas – or even the visionary temples and palaces over at

It is as if there is a subtle conspiracy to make Westerners even more neurotic and depressed through such sensory deprivation. Either this, or the monochrome obsession is being generated by a collective unconscious that is overflowing with negative, life-repressing energy. Sadly, because this dreary uniform has become so universal, most Westerners seem reluctant to cope with the extra attention they feel they would attract by wearing clothes in brighter colours. So they forgo the pleasure of the fresh feeling that comes from dressing in vivid green for fear of the stares that might also come their way.

This is surely not a worry that crosses the mind of even the shyest, most retiring Indian woman, as all of them, as well as some of the men, are wearing every brilliant shade available – fabric shops sell almost every perceptible hue to enable the women to match their clothing perfectly. And the result is a bright, sunny collective rainbow of contrasting colours, patterns and textures that is a joy to behold.

There are two further components to this Indian sartorial superiority, components that Western designers seem to have suppressed, by accident or design, from most modern looks – the concepts of grace, or elegance, and comfort. The sari, the salwar kameez and the pajama kurta are near-perfect blends of form and function, their loose, flowing shapes generally flatter a wide range of body types, while assuring the wearer complete ease of movement.

Even a bulky woman can look graceful in a sari. And there is no comparison at all between the elegance and appeal of a man dressed in the long tunic and soft trousers of a pajama kurta and the same man packed into a Western business suit or jeans and t-shirt. A young woman in salwar kameez has a gentleness and fluidity about her form and her movements that she will never achieve in tight-fitting jeans and skimpy top.

It sometimes seems as if Western designers take a malicious pleasure in forcing the fashion-conscious to wear clothes that make a mockery of the human body and its normal shape, movement and functioning. They accentuate curves where they shouldn’t, lengthen parts that would be better shortened, reveal bumps that are better covered over and divide the body up into ungainly chunks.

Many common garments constrain the body’s natural processes and movement in various ways. Wearing trousers and skirts that restrict the breathing and/or the normal gait all day long, or a top that makes it difficult to stretch the arms freely, must take its toll on the psyche, just as the dearth of colours does. Osho often commented on the fact that the tight, uncomfortable uniforms favoured by armies and police forces serve to maximise the aggressive tendencies of these agents of law and order. If so, then the same could perhaps be said of those who go to work in suits, and it may be that western society depends on such subliminal inputs of aggression to keep itself going.

Certainly, I find it almost impossible any more to tolerate clothing that constrains my movements in any way at all – it presents a persistent low-level irritation to which I have become highly sensitive. How wonderful it would be if, rather than the new India rushing to adopt the uncomfortable clothing of the West, as it is currently doing, the mirror could be reversed.

In a remarkable outbreak of sanity, the West would then look to the East. Out would go the absurd and dreary dark suit and tie and the inelegant jeans and t-shirt, and in would come a new concern for grace and comfort, together with a joyous openness to colour.

Imagine a typical Western convention or assembly – all dark suits and stiff, wooden gestures. Now release all the participants from their drab uniform and pour soft, flowing, brightly hued clothing over them. See their bodies relax and their faces break into smiles as they respond to the subtle change in their bodily sensations and the vibrational shift brought on by the flood of colour and lightness. Perhaps they might even feel positive and open enough to reach a peaceable conclusion to their negotiations.

Note added in February 2023

Alas, the rot has progressed so much in the fourteen years since I wrote the above that what was at that time my sad vision imposed on a much happier reality has now become the sad reality. Indian street scenes are now significantly drained of their colour and grace by the near ubiquitous use of cheap, poorly fitting Western-style clothing in drab colours and designs, most of it imported from China. Young Indians to whom I speak seem nostalgically aware of the comfort and grace they are giving up, but completely subsumed by what they deem their triumphant march into the Western mainstream of life.

In a final futile act of resistance to this sad descent into drab low-vibe clothing – and drab low-vibe life, during the lockdown in India I painted Dancing circle, a reminder of what clothing could and should be like, although, admittedly, all my women are dressed identically – the requirements of the mandala form working somewhat against the freer flowing colours of life...

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