(Published in Sify.com, on July 20, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/dhoti-row-why-are-we-so-obsessed-with-clubs-news-columns-ohusl0feihdif.html)
The denial of entry to Justice D Hariparanthaman by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association has opened up yet another row over the dress codes of clubs, and caused everyone to ask whether this is a “colonial hang-up”.
Even as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa threatens to take legal action against the club for insulting the “traditional dress” of the state, a discussion has been triggered in India as well as abroad over the sartorial guidelines of clubs.
The TNCA does not ban just dhotis. It bans T-shirts, kurtas, salwar trousers, and sandals for men.
There have been numerous instances in the past, where a colonial era club has been embroiled in a controversy over attire.
A few years ago, there were demonstrations at the Calcutta Club after the artist Shuvaprasanna was asked to leave for not conforming to the dress code – he had arrived to attend an event in kurta-pyjama. Earlier, M F Husain had been turned away for the same reason. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji, had declined an invitation because of the dress code.
The refusal of entry to L K Advani at the Delhi Gymkhana Club prompted a row in Parliament.
In 2002, Professor G Mohan Gopal, the head of Bangalore’s National Law School resigned his membership to the Bangalore Club in disgust, after being denied entry when he arrived in a dhoti for the Republic Day celebrations.
I have personally come across situations which would be howlers in any other country. I was scheduled to interview an author at the Madras Club. I saw him arrive from his room, and then disappear for a few minutes, after a conversation with the manager. Apparently, he could not pass through the dining hall in his informal attire, though he would be free to wear his T-shirt in the verandah, where I was waiting for him. A friend once told me how a journalist was asked to wear a tie at a Press Club. After asking whether that was their only stipulation, he went to the restroom, and emerged wearing nothing but his underwear and tie.
In every such case, the members of the club – or at least, the majority of members – have defended the dress code.
Rather than argue with the codes of these clubs, we should perhaps think about the relevance and importance of such clubs.
Most were founded to allow the white sahibs to bond with each other – and occasionally, with their sycophants in the civil service. Some were established in protest against the racism, which restricted Indians from holding memberships. However, all of them aspired to be British, evidenced by their dress code.
Even now, most people I know sneer at clubs which were always open to Indian members.
I find the pride people take in their membership to these clubs amusing.
Yes, they do have rather good facilities – the libraries are well-stocked, the gym equipment is in decent working condition (since it is mostly used by geriatrics), and the swimming pools are clean.
But these (perhaps excluding the library) are facilities one could find anywhere – including in the recently-built apartment complex where I own a flat.
So, what exactly is the source of the members’ pride? Does it stem from the fact that their ancestors merited the approval of the British? Does it stem from the fact that they married men whose ancestors merited the approval of the British – for most of these clubs do not allow women to join on their own account?
Recently, I was talking to some people at a book event that was hosted in one such club. I was asked whether I thought the “club culture” would last. I wondered what this “club culture” really meant. Was it an obsession with rules? Was it the idea of exclusivity?
I answered honestly – most people in my generation don’t see the point of the clubs, at least in my circle. We would rather go places where we are welcomed on our own merit. We would rather not be told how to dress.
I resent the idea of a dress code universally.
I don’t see why temples stipulate that I must wear a saree or a salwar kameez “with dupatta”, or why men are required to wear “full pants” or dhotis, as if we were convent-school teenagers who had to be kept from checking each other out. You know, “I see your muscled calf and raise you my expansive bust.”
I don’t see why I should cover my head in a gurdwara or dargah. I refuse to travel to any country that enforces a dress code.
Nightclubs say they insist on formal footwear and trousers for men to “keep the riffraff out”. But does the fact that a man wears formal shoes and trousers preclude him from harassing anyone?
Bizarrely, a few years ago, a nightclub called Blacks refused entry to a sari-clad woman. The manager was quoted as saying, “Nowhere in the country are women allowed to enter discotheques wearing saris. How can a woman dance wearing a sari? It attracts unwanted attention.”
I suppose any organisation is free to make its own rules.
We have a choice between indulging them and boycotting them.
I would not want to enter any place that forbids me from wearing a saree, or requires me to cover my head. And everyone is free to decide whether they would deign to humour such rules, or skip the need to do so – by avoiding the organisation in question.