Would you wear a garment without a blouse?

This piece was a reaction to seeing a room full of amazing black and white photos by Sunil Janah of women who were topless. Like the below photo of a Hill Maria Woman from Bastar.  Courtesy of the Swaraj Art Archive, as are all the images here.


The free women in Sunil Janah’s photography

Scurrilous as it sounds, it was the breasts that stupefied me—and I might as well warn you now—this is a word you are going to read a lot in this column—and if it makes you uncomfortable—well, that’s the point. I had entered Tasveer art gallery in Bengaluru to cultivate the sagacity that comes with viewing art—or so we hope. Instead, my thoughts were salacious.

Sunil Janah: Vintage Photographs, 1940-1960, contains a selection of black and white photos of tribal women. Janah’s images are well known and venerated by the cognoscenti. Knowing little about him beforehand except that he was Bengali and that the images in the exhibit were from the Swaraj Art Archive, I entered Tasveer tabula rasa, which arguably is the best state of mind from which to view art.

Janah’s photos are disorientingly intimate—as great photos are. He captured tribal women and courtesans in their natural milieus. The photos look as if these women were going about their daily rituals—pounding rice, picking fruit, dancing, gossiping and laughing. They glance casually at the camera; and boom—Janah just happens to be there to click the picture and capture the moment for posterity. Yet, great art doesn’t happen by happenstance. A casual pause or pose does not a great photo make. Great photographs offer a sense of being a voyeur. They give us the feeling of having been at the scene. So how did he do it?

Many of the tribal women have towels wrapped around their waist. That’s the extent of their clothes. Didn’t these women find Janah and his camera intrusive? Were they self-conscious? How did he get them to agree to pose? How did they allow him to capture them half naked; bare breasted?

Ah yes, those breasts. We live in a time when breasts are over-sexualized. Of all the female organs, they are the ones that arouse—literally and figuratively. They are the stuff of ire and fantasy; fashion lingerie and erotic fiction. Agent Provocateur has built a business around sexy bras that fetishize this body part. Looking at these images showed me that breasts weren’t always viewed this way; at least in India. That gave me hope and hopeless nostalgia.


One image riveted me. She was a tribal woman from Bihar, staring at the camera, her head cocked to one side, her torso bare and beautifully shaped. She just stood there, staring at the camera. Fearless. Free. With just a towel wrapped around her waist. Stuck in hot Bengaluru, clad in a stifling full-sleeved salwar-kameez, I felt pangs of envy. You know what the weirdest thing was? This woman; this beautiful woman clad in a simple loin cloth was wearing multiple necklaces around her neck. It was as if the breasts that she revealed, the body-part that is the fetish and focus of our time, was just a functional organ to her, no different from a heel or elbow. She needed jewellery beyond that—to decorate and ornament. Her clothes were appropriate for the place and climate. Today, we just ape the West.


Art inspires. It makes your thoughts fly unbidden to corners of your head and heart, provoking surprising and occasionally shocking thoughts.You know what I thought when I saw Sunil Janah’s photos? I thought of Sundari-paati. She was my neighbour’s grandmother (Dadi). A widow. She went around Madras (now Chennai) in the 1980s—not that long ago—clad in a soft beige nine-yard sari, worn without the constraints of a blouse or the added layer of an underskirt. Her attire made eminent sense in humid Chennai, just as the tribal women’s attire made sense in India. Malayali women used to go topless in scorching Kerala until the 1900s. What happened? When did we become so prudish and don clothes that are inappropriate for our climate? When did a certain female body part go from being a functional organ to an object of prurient fantasy? They wore jewellery, you see; beyond the bare breasts; those tribal women. They didn’t think that going topless was enough to stop traffic. They needed the lipstick in the form of necklaces. And this wasn’t so long ago.


Two Bengaluru women, Ally Mathan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, have started a Facebook project called the #100sareepact. They plan to wear the saris they own 100 times at least in 2015, and tell stories about it. It is rather wonderful; just as Tasveer’s photo exhibits and lectures are. But the six-yard sari that we wear today is less than 150 years old. Before that women in India wore nine yards of unstitched cloth without the British-imposed petticoat and blouse. It made sense for our weather. We had glorious regional variations. Anyone who loves Indian textiles should look at Janah’s photos. They should listen to literary critic Ganesh Devy’s lectures on the colonial mindset. I love the #100sareepact because it encourage PLUs (People Like Us) to wear saris. I wonder though, will the pendulum swing back far enough for women to give up on blouses entirely, like the women in Janah’s photos, or during my grandmother’s time. It is not logical for us to be wearing thick jeans and tailored layered long-sleeved clothes. The women in his photographs were more scantily clad than Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. But they exude authenticity and a spirit of the land. There lies the hope and tragedy.


Shoba Narayan wears nine-yard saris sans petticoat within her home. Not always but on special occasions. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

I found some good blogs on this topic on Pinterest here and here

Ally Mathan’s sari project on Facebook here

Profile of Sabyasachi

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

Clad in a khadi kurta-pyjama and Ferragamo flats, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 37, is having lunch at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata. It is 4pm. We are at the coffee shop. He orders lal maas. I have already eaten. I order jhalmuri.

“You can’t have muri (puffed rice) in a five-star hotel,” protests Mukherjee, who calls himself a “street food and puchka (panipuri) connoisseur”. He dismisses the famous man near the Park Hotel as selling “Marwadi puchka with snow peas and chana in it”. The bestpuchkas, he says, are in south Kolkata, near his parents’ home. But then, every Kolkatan I know says the best puchkas are near where they live.

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Mukherjee is also a “biryani freak” and will only buy it at Rahmania or Nizam’s for their “sinfully greasy biryanis”. Fish, he says, has to be eaten at home. He tastes myjhalmuri and finds, to his surprise, that it is “fantastic”. I bite into gravel while chewing. Perhaps, the hotel buys the dish from the street and sells it to its patrons. We order two more portions.

Started with a Rs. 20,000 loan he took from his sister, Payal, in 2002, Sabyasachi, the label, has grown into a behemoth, employing over 600 craftspeople, 32 assistants, including one from Harvard, and revenue topping Rs. 52 crore in 2011. Part of the reason is Mukherjee’s talent, but a bigger reason is his shrewd business acumen that allows him to spin fantasies out of this City of Joy.

“I am not India’s most talented or creative designer. But I am India’s most influential and powerful commercial designer,” he says matter-of-factly. There is context, of course. I asked him to rate himself. The man doesn’t go around making such pronouncements. Yet his smugness is galling.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

I stare at him from across the table. With his long, wavy hair, Cheshire cat smile, and well-argued opinions, Mukherjee is hardly the angst-ridden, self-destructive designer along the lines of John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Though perfectly courteous, he doesn’t pander or charm. He doesn’t seek to be liked and, frankly, is a bit too “sorted” for me. But after two days in his company, I end up with grudging respect for his fashion sensibilities. I like his reverence for textiles, his love of artisanal craftsmanship, his pride in being Indian, and the fact that he knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. He slams the Hermès sari, waxes eloquent about the Dabu mud-resist hand-block print techniques of Rajasthan, and bemoans the fact that Indians don’t embrace native handmade traditions with the fervour that they do foreign brands.

“In airports, sometimes I will see African women dressed in their traditional garb—turbans and robes. I know that they will be travelling first-class because they have that confidence,” he says. “Why can’t we Indians take pride in our native clothes?”

When his sister got married, Mukherjee bought her saris from every region of India. His favourites are the weaves from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and the south. He has little use for socialites in their bandage dresses. “A Queenie Dhody will never influence fashion the way a Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerji or a Sonia Gandhi can,” he dismisses—somewhat self-servingly, given that these particular celebrities (the first two anyway) wear his saris.

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity: Frida Kahlo, Mira Nair, Deepti Naval,Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer Shobana, Sonal Mansingh, Rekha, Gulzar, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, and get this—Usha Uthup.

He describes Uthup attending one of his food festivals, wearing a Kanjeevaram sari and Adidas sneakers. “She had glued pieces from her old Kanjeevaram blouses on her sneakers. She could only wear sneakers these days, she said, and wanted them to match her saris. That, I thought, was true innovation,” says Mukherjee. “They looked likeManish Arora shoes but I don’t think she had heard of Manish. She is a true original.” As for the socialites who throng his stores: “They are of no consequence to me. I don’t care if they buy my clothes. I don’t make it for them.”

You sound like a businessman, I accuse. He doesn’t budge. “I am first and foremost a businessman and only then a designer,” he says. Providing a livelihood for his artisans gives him satisfaction and keeps him up at night. When the right time comes, he says he will hire a designer to take over his role and do other things: Design hotels, public spaces; make movies; music; do art projects—all the things that his brutal schedule doesn’t allow him to do. “Sabya has been saying this for years,” says a fashion designer friend of mine.

Mostly, he works. He is at his workshop in Kolkata from 9am-10pm every day, except when he travels. He doesn’t like to socialize—he thinks compliments “mess up your mind”. He relaxes by sleeping; likes to live in isolation, and ploughs all his money back into his business. He rents a one-bedroom apartment that has a large terrace and bathroom to indulge in the two things he likes to do: take long baths and gaze at the stars. “There is so much give and take in my business that I like to relax in isolation,” he says.

His family is intimately involved in the business. His beautiful sister, Payal, is the “bedrock”, says an assistant. His father, a chemical engineer, manages the finances, and his mother, an artist, has been asked to step aside and “take rest”. Mukherjee confesses that he still keeps his splurges on shoes from his dad, and accountant. “I mean, dad knows that his son earns a lot of money but I don’t want him to think that we have changed as people. So I tell my sister that when we do some indulgent shopping, it’s nicer for him not to know. I don’t want him to think he has raised two monsters who have completely lost the plot.”

What about romance, I ask? Are you gay? “Yes,” he says in the tone that we say, “Duh,” this destiny’s child. He is not in a hurry to find a soulmate. That will happen, he says confidently.

We talk style. He likes Dries Van NotenStella McCartneyMarc Jacobsand Coco Chanel: all designers who’ve never pandered to fashion editors. He dismisses Sonam Kapoor as a model and clothes horse rather than a style icon, unlike, say, Zeenat Aman. “What today’s celebrities don’t realize is that you need to be consistent to be an icon. You cannot do sari one day, pants the next and a dress on the third. If you look at style icons, you’ll see that they all have a very consistent style—Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchys; Mrs Kennedy in her sheath dresses or even Madonna in her crucifix and underwear.”

I make a mental note to wear the same style of clothes consistently. But what—sari or sheath dress? That’s the question.

After two days in his company, I go from disdain to dislike to grudging respect to wanting to be liked. I want this man’s respect. Who is your ideal customer, I ask. “The woman who doesn’t need Sabyasachi the brand but understands Sabyasachi the product,” he replies. “Secretly every designer in the world hankers for that kind of customer.”

These days, Shoba Narayan walks up to strangers everywhere and compliments them on their woven saris. Someday she will wear India’s weaves on a regular basis. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com