This weekend, Brian and I attended our first party in India, the Bourbon Street Bash, sponsored by the American Women’s Club of Mumbai. The fundraiser was held at the Trident Hotel in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), aka the place that went all out for Brian’s birthday. We went with some of Brian’s work colleagues and their families. The gala raised over 5 lakh (USD 10,000) to benefit the Foundation for Mother and Child Health, which helps improve early childhood nutrition and access to health care for underprivileged mothers and their children. It was a wonderful night that raised a lot of money for a good cause.
When I returned home, I had an urge to read Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” It has been many years since I read this seminal work in cultural anthropology, but, somehow, I remembered that it applied to my experience Saturday night. So what do a Balinese cockfight and a charity gala have in common? On the surface, not much. They could not be further apart in terms of experience. But, at a deeper level, they both are imbued with distinct social rituals that express cultural norms and confer status on the participants. Charity galas have a distinct, rhythmic ritual: hors d’oeuvres, speeches, dinner, auction, more speeches, and possibly dancing. At each interval, a certain type of social discourse takes place. For women, clothing plays a critical role in that discourse.
Clothing is a deeply personal, but inherently public, means of communicating culture. It is perhaps the easiest, most visible way in which we communicate our origins, our status, and even our beliefs. The Bombay Times is filled with images of parties where Bollywood starlets wear styles ranging from traditional saris to low-cut gowns. On the street, you can see a mixture of styles: a traditional dhoti, kurti paired with jeans, t-shirts paired with Indian-style leggings, or 1000s of other combinations of traditional and modern dress. So, trying to negotiate the complexity of styles and determine which dress is appropriate to which occasion presents challenges. The good news is that, much like New York, Mumbai is the fashion capital of India, so I do not lack for choices.
I wore a salwar kameez, a traditional Indian-style pant suit, sometimes called a Punjabi suit. Earlier in the week, Brian and I had gone shopping for a western-style cocktail dress. I found one, but the sales clerk showed me some really beautiful Indian attire. The moment I tried the kameez on, I knew I found the right outfit. I have never felt clothing so natural and comfortable but so elegant at the same time. It seemed to just suit me. The outfit included three pieces: the pajama pants, which are quite voluminous, but can be tailored more narrowly; the kameez top (from which the term chemise is derived); and the dupatta, a long scarf designed to be draped down the front of the outfit. The pants were hot pink but look almost peach in the photo. The kameez was heavily beaded and had embroidered flowers on the front and a digitally printed floral image on the back. The dupatta was pink and white with black stripes on each end. I found low-heel thongs with pink, black, and silver stripes to match.
It turned out that most women wore cocktail dresses, so I stood out in my pant suit. I had called one of the event organizers earlier in the day to see if other women would be wearing Indian attire. She said yes, so I thought I was good to go. Then, there was that awkward moment when I realized I that I was a bit out of step with everyone else. Just as that awkward feeling hit its peak, I received Facebook posts from everyone telling me how beautiful I looked. So, I just embraced the difference and went with it.
Even now, it seems a contradiction that I was one of the few women in Indian attire at an event in India. At a party given by Americans for Americans, perhaps it is to be expected that the women would wear in India what they would wear in the US. The majority of Indian women also wore cocktail dresses. Only toward the end of the evening did I see a few women dressed like me. The juxtaposition of an American woman in Indian attire with an Indian in American attire shows how much globalization has blurred cultural boundaries. Now, if I can just get the hang of the dupatta, I will be set.