Pardesi, the turban untied : Re-examiningidentity through the turban

Pardesi: the turban untied is part of the show on contemporary Indian textiles, titled Fracture: Indian textiles, new conversations at the Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, India

“Mass production is only concerned with the product, whereas production by the masses is concerned with the product, the producers, and the process.” Satish Kumar, Gandhi’s Swadeshi — The Economics of Permanence, as written in The Case Against the Global Economy - and for a turn toward the local.

This artwork looks at the loss of Indian identity especially when seen through the clothes that Indian men wear today. It is also about the loss of a certain power, grace and flamboyance that we Indians had due to handcrafted textiles we used to wear. This has now been lost due to the effects of, first colonization, and subsequently, globalization.

I used turbans (as opposed to lungis or dhotis), because Indian men, unlike Indian women, started giving up the national dress and traditional textiles a century ago, despite the impact of the Swadeshi Movement.

Traditionally, turbans gave a man his identity to his community, his caste, his region, his religion, his profession and often his age. Today, wearing a branded garment, is also about social status and identity via the brand — a global identity, at the sake of personal identity. We are moving from a community based to an individual based society and our clothes reflect this change. Additionally, today the focus is on the global and not the local — the cities and not the villages, modernity and not tradition, technology and not craftsmanship.

During the “Raj”, the British took raw cotton from countries like India and made finished western wear in Lancashire which then found its way back to the Indian market. Since they were machine made and inexpensive, they quickly replaced traditional Indian clothing.

Indians wearings western clothing were called “babus” and considered to be “civilized”, rich and powerful. This process led to closure of several cotton mills in Bombay and elsewhere in the sub-continent as Indian cotton was also taxed heavily while imports were being subsidized.

The backlash to all of this was the Swadeshi Movement in 1905, when British garments were burnt in communal bonfires. As a child I remember being told the story of the pain my grandfather felt, who after returning from Oxford to the Punjab, had to do away with his newly stitched tweed suits.

Today, global western clothing brands make mass produced garments in “third world” sweat shops and sell them back to the middle class and rich in the same “third world” countries such as India. This glut of mass produced garments is destroying traditional textile handicrafts. This is being exacerbated by the middle class and the poor who aspire to wearing jeans and t-shirts like the people they see in films and other media than the traditional dhoti-kurta. This is, in effect, no different from what the British were doing during the Raj.

Another side of this scenario is the “aspiration class” — people such as house-help, security guards, driver etc., who see these brand labels and messages on the clothes of their employers purchase cheap knock-offs of these brands since they can’t afford to pay the premium these brands charge.

In this artwork, I made exquisite hand block-printed turbans, using traditional techniques which are painstakingly created with a lot of care and labor. Global brands are parodied in this sense, because they are being created by hand, and that too, onto traditional Indian turbans. While some of brands are being made in India — in both western ready-to-wear and as turbans (for this artwork) — their purpose, process of creation, and message couldn’t be more different.

In an ironic twist — while this artwork appropriates western global brands in its designs and patterns — it is completely made by traditional artisanal processes — since all the printing is done by hand using blocks which are also hand carved.

This artwork addresses commodification, mechanization and the domination of global brand messages that have become so pervasive that many wearers aren’t even aware of their message. For us Indians, it has sadly meant the demise of traditional exquisite handwoven and hand printed textiles in favor of mass-produced cheaper quality garments.

This artwork uses the trademarks of some of the most iconic western clothing brands in the world — to be applied as traditional Indian textile motifs and patterns, such as — the butah, the boti, cheenta, the jhar, the daali, the jaali, leheriya and mothra.

This artwork was made in collaboration with Sandeep Kumar and Vinay Singh.

This project has been featured on NDTV: The Arts Hour, and, Hindustan Times