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Who's Sari Now? Breaking India's Colonial Dress Code

December 10, 1987|DILIP GANGULY | Associated Press Writer

CALCUTTA, India — The British left 40 years ago, but their dress codes still prevail at exclusive clubs in Calcutta. That means traditional Indian clothes are out, even when worn by Indians.

"Some of us Indians are still more loyal to the Crown than the Queen of England herself," complained Ananda Shankar, the composer whose penchant for native Indian dress has created a stir here.

He was ordered out of the century-old Calcutta Swimming Club in October when he turned up in typical Indian garb--a long, loose shirt, tight pajama pants and sandals.

The incident triggered protests from middle-class Indians, which led to a riot outside the club and a crusade by local newspapers. West Bengal state's chief minister, Jyoti Basu, intervened, but to no avail.

Not Up to Standard

Shankar's costume was ideal for Calcutta's steamy climate, but it was simply not up to standard for the club's secretary, Stanley Basil Velloz, an Indian from the former Portuguese enclave of Goa.

"It is not possible that all types of dress, which are being worn by various sections of the Indian population, can be allowed to be worn by the visiting members and their guests," Velloz said in an interview.

"Just imagine, South Indians wearing their state dress of lungi (sarong) coming to our club. This would not only be disgusting, but revolting."

Velloz said not all Indian dress is forbidden at the club. A notice on the club's billboard gives detailed instructions on dress. Of six types of Indian dress worn here in the hot and humid east, four are banned.

"Members and guests using bar must wear shirts and these must be properly buttoned," the dress code says. "On special Club Nights jackets and ties will also be worn."

(Another rule forbids the striking of bearers --the word for servants.)

At the poolside bar, many members sit in safari suits favored by Westerners, often sipping Scotch whisky.

Links to Tradition

There is other evidence that the Calcutta Swimming Club took little notice of India's independence from Britain in 1947.

"It was only in 1965 that we accepted the first Indian member, a former maharajah," Velloz noted.

The club is one of seven institutions in Calcutta that pride themselves on being founded by the British and still impose colonial dress codes.

Though the whole of India was under Britain's rule, the effect is more visible in Calcutta because it was here that British traders first set foot on Indian soil, and from here they ruled the country.

It is the legacy of 300 years of British colonial rule that composer Shankar sees in the dress codes.

Some of the 40-year-old Shankar's music uses both Indian and Western instruments. He says he accepts East and West, but complains that many Indians disdain their own customs and costumes.

"I travel all over the world . . . wearing Indian dress and I feel the foreigners pay full respect to me," he said.

'Humiliated' at Home

"But in my home city I am humiliated and ordered out of a club because I was wearing casual Indian dress. It is a pity that until now we Indians have not cultivated a pride of being Indians."

He said he wore traditional sandals on a visit to the South Calcutta Club, and a waiter who knew him offered his own European-style shoes because sandals are prohibited.

He said he turned down the offer on grounds the waiter's shoes would look "ridiculous" with his Indian clothes, which are allowed under that club's rules.

But Shankar maintains that the rules at the Calcutta Swimming Club are the most ridiculous of all.

"In a swimming club, how does dress matter? After all, you are going to take the plunge with a 10th of your body covered."

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