The unsung legacy of the humble lungi

Every summer, as I step out of the house in jeans and a shirt, I ask myself how we reached at our sartorial choices.

Published: 19th December 2019 06:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th December 2019 06:49 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

BENGALURU : Every summer, as I step out of the house in jeans and a shirt, I ask myself how we reached at our sartorial choices. How did we Indians, with a history that is thousands of years old, end up wearing these uncomfortable, tight clothes? How did they get accepted as the official, formal attire? I sometimes wonder – if we had not been colonised by the British – what would be our national attire?

I have no qualms in putting forth my nomination – the humble lungi. Not enough has been written about the role of the lungi in Indian households. They are affordable, accessible, wrinkle-free, made from stretch fabric, and fade out more naturally than the priciest jeans.Unfortunately, the lungi has been relegated to the background of our culture. It has been overshadowed by its nobler cousin – the dhoti. But if the dhoti is the Test match attire of Indian culture, the lungi is the more colourful T20 fabric.

There isn’t a place in the country that I haven’t seen lungis. In Kolkata, I saw grown-ups play soccer in their lungis. In Kerala, the lungi is worn by both men and women. Go to any nook and corner of the nation, and you’ll find entire villages wearing lungis for every task imaginable. Men and women farming in lungis, workers unloading trucks in lungis; teachers giving tuitions in lungis.

One does need to sit for a Social Studies exam to list out the salient features of the humble lungi. It is affordable and easily accessible. Unlike in dhotis, there is no classism is the world of lungis. There are no lungis with gold embroidery or fancy patterns. You could be an IAS officer or a struggling UPSC aspirant – you get the standard blue and white chequered lungi. Everybody is equal in the eyes of the law and the lungi.

The lungis are a godsend with our climate and temperature. It is interesting to note that the lungi is worn in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal – all cricket-playing nations. In the tropical climates of these regions, the lungi provides some solace from the heat. Beside the ubiquity, there is also the functionality of the lungi. It could be used in emergency situations as a towel, or to swat off mosquitoes. The lungis do not come in sizes and shapes – one idea fits all. The truth is that in a lungi, life is a song. Everyday is an occasion for Lungi Dance if you realise the value of arguably India’s greatest fabric. And in spite of this knowledge, Yours Truly has shied away from wholeheartedly embracing the lungi.

It is an incident that occurred many years ago, when I was young and open to new fashion choices. We were watching a film, and the actor Fardeen Khan wore a lungi in a song. My then partner remarked ‘Wow! He’s so cool, he’s able to carry off a lungi and manage to look stylish’. As a young man, I was eager to impress. What I didn’t know in my naivete, was that the lungi might be ubiquitous and universal, but it requires a certain amount of confidence to pull off.

When I wore my shiny new lungi, the response I got was a horrified scream. ‘What the hell is that?’ the gentle-lady remarked. ‘Please take that thing off and wear trousers!’. The incident is seared into my soul to this date. But if UNESCO ever conducts a survey on India’s national fabric, I’d be shocked if the lungi isn’t nominated with the most votes.The author is a writer and a comedian.


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