In the series ‘Icons of India’ , we take a look at the iconic objects that collectively defined the Indian experience over the past 68 years. From things that brought the world to our living rooms to tasty treats, take a nostalgic journey down memory lane!
My late grandfather was a simple man. He grew up in Rajasthan and helped his elder brother farm.
Upon realising that the older sibling was taking advantage of him—minimal rations for food, some scraps for cloth and no money—the elders intervened, and my grandfather moved to Hyderabad to eke out a living for his wife, and their five children.
Come hail, storm, or the 500 days of Hyderabad’s summer, if my Bapu stepped out of home, this was his attire. (While Bapu means ‘father’, I used it for my grandfather.)
Bapu in his trademark safari with Amma, my grandparents
It was the cultural elite of the society—the educated middle or upper-middle class—whose acceptance of the outfit adorned it with qualities not necessarily intended.
Many of them still entertained a hangover of its colonial past, so those who held positions of power—like businessmen and bureaucrats—were considered by themselves and others—to be a class apart.
Geeta Khanna agrees. She says, “Post-independence, the British ‘hangover’ has unfortunately lingered on way too long, and the safari suit was an acceptable formal/official outfit for the ‘summer’ of India. It also spelled prosperity and an anglicised mindset that was considered superior.”
From the African bushes to Indian bureaucracy—the long journey of the safari suit
President Ram Nath Kovind often wears safari suits in the ‘bandh-gala’ style. Source: President Ram Nath Kovind/Facebook
The soldiers needed light and breathable clothing to be active in the heat. For this, their uniforms had to be made of cotton to keep them cool. The button-down shirt would have four large pockets on the chest and waist areas so that they could carry bullets, weapons, and binoculars, perhaps a bottle of water. The shirt had a large collar and a belt at the waist, which kept everything together; and the pants too would come with pockets.
The tailored suit gained popularity during the 1930s and continued to be fashionable attire for men up until the seventies when the unisex safari suit became du jour. While the tailored suit is associated with the ‘Establishment,’ the safari suit made popular by Yves St Laurent, represented adventure and freedom from life’s constraints (like that offered by the hunt) and worn later by Roger Moore as James Bond. As Sarah Gillian suggests, the suit initially signified ‘sobriety, simplicity, conformity and restraint’, the man’s tailored suit functions to construct an image of an idealized male body.’
The 007 fandom in the western world and that of the ‘angry young man’ in Indian cinema caused people to imitate their styles. Young employees of corporate organisations and bureaucrats wore them to the workplace as Little Master Sunil Gavaskar modelled them in s, while actors Rajesh Khanna and Vinod Khanna wore them on the screen in dazzling colours.
Politician and bureaucrat Kunwar Natwar Singh was commonly seen in the outfit. As a young diplomat in Indira Gandhi’s secretariat in 1966, he was part of a group of six, of varied ages, from different backgrounds and mother tongues. But they all d a similarity.
Another politician, SMI Asseer, told the India Today magazine that he had as many as 25 safari suits in his wardrobe. Similarly, renowned industrialist Rahul Bajaj seemingly had an inexhaustible wardrobe of the suits.
He is the co-founder and managing director of Hangrr, a custom clothing brand for men. He points out how the “unlined, unstructured” safari suit jackets are similar to military uniforms in style and design.
Rishabh says, “It became easier and inexpensive to produce. Considering the socio-economic landscape of the time, it found the perfect fodder to reach mass popularity.”
Raymond, Vimal and DCM Textiles became some of the foremost suppliers in the country. However, around the same time, the 80s, he notes how the outfit began to lose its relevance in the west.
The relic of a bygone era
(L) Rajesh Khanna even carried off the safari suit in a powder blue colour, a rare feat. Source: Bollywoodirect/Facebook (R) Sunil Gavaskar advertising the outfit. Source: Sadasivan KM/Facebook
The liberalisation of the 90s opened up India’s economy to a host of western products. It also marked a shift in the country’s geopolitical landscape at the turn of the century. We could bid adieu to the pains of colonialism and move away from the uncertainty of post-colonialism, and finally herald a new kind of modernity.
Khadi, for instance, was a symbol of nationalism during the struggle for Indian independence, when one was not simply accepting a piece of cloth made from a particular yarn—the crucial point was the rejection of foreign fabric.
When viewed in the “objective” light of the present, far from the yoke of colonialism, khadi was losing its sheen.
Khadi, once described by Nehru as ‘the livery of freedom’ and by Susan Bean (to whom I owe this quote from Nehru) as the ‘fabric of Indian independence’, now stands unambiguously for the reverse of its nationalist definition.
I have therefore read it as the site of the desire for alternative modernity, a desire made possible by the contingencies of British colonial rule, now impossible under the conditions of capitalism and yet circulating insistently within an everyday object of Indian public life, the (male) politician’s uniform. I do not think that khadi convinces anybody any longer of the Gandhian convictions of the wearer but if my reading of it has any point to it, then its disappearance, were it to happen, would signify the demise of a deeper structure of desire and would signal India’s complete integration into the circuits of global capital.
Although khadi and the safari suit are less common today, they have not yet been rendered irrelevant. Whether for the sake of nostalgia or as experiments of retro fashion, these icons have been etched in the patchwork of Indianness.
Rishabh notes that there has been an increased demand for safari suits over the past few years, with the attempts to “bridge the gap between the old and the new, and provide safari suits with a modern fit and cut”.
Apart from his team at Hangrr, he tells me that designers across the world are incorporating similar designs into their clothing lines. Some examples are four-buttoned military jackets with shorts and safari-style shirts and jackets.
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He concludes, “The traditional colours, patterns, cuts and designs might no longer be relevant, but innovation and modern techniques will keep safari suits trendy for quite some time. And, like everything else, personalisation plays a great role in getting it right—we must make the safari suit relevant to the person’s style, taste and need. This has helped us keep this timeless outfit relevant and desirable, not only in India but across the world.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)