In Tamil Nadu, there is a dhoti for every occasion. The Brahminical zari-lined length of translucent cloth that can make a modern-day groom squirm. A battle-ready version for the superstar to hitch up to the thigh. Linen and wrinkle-free sarongs for a stroll down suburbia. And the pristine cotton dhoti bordered felicitously in party colours for the Dravidian politician. As for those who had all but relegated the garment to the status of exotica, there is now a surfeit of blindingly-white bleached dhotis that, as ads on TV will tell you, ensure success in the boardroom, sweep girls off their feet and beget salutes from the temple elephant, among other things. The dhoti or the veshti , so central to the Tamil psyche, is no ordinary garment.
It is Tamil culture itself, pronounced Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in the latest session of the Assembly, where she promised to pass a law to end the quiet fascism of Western dress at elite city clubs. On July 11, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, a private club in Chennai, had denied admission to Madras High Court Judge D. Hariparanthaman and two other guests dressed in veshtis for violating its dress code. The incident provoked widespread public outrage and the chief minister dubbed it an act of “sartorial despotism”, eliciting thumping applause from legislators across party lines. Here was one issue that could bridge the inimical realms of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its offshoot, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
At a nondescript textile showroom on the teeming South Masi Street in Madurai, Vignesh Babu is happy to cater to both parties. A computer science engineer by training, he is the third-generation proprietor of Sarathi Textiles, best known for the “minister veshti” — fine, hand-woven yards of white cotton with slim borders in red and black for DMK, and red, white and black for the AIADMK — that are favoured by the likes of MK Stalin, heir apparent to DMK chief M Karunanidhi, and O Panneerselvam, the state finance minister and former chief minister. “No one has been able to replicate our minister veshti,” says Babu. “And no Tamil politician will wear anything but a veshti and a shirt to the Assembly. That is why we are thriving, over half a century after my grandfather, originally from Saurashtra, started this business here.”
The bordered veshti insinuated itself into the state’s political wardrobe when MG Ramachandran, the legendary matinee idol and the face of Dravidian politics, exited the DMK to found his own party. He famously sported the AIADMK veshti in the 1974 film Urimai Kural, a landmark in his career as a popular actor and a politician. The veshti, usually four yards long and worn wrapped like a sarong instead of looped between the legs like its north-Indian cousin, soon became the norm for the Tamil politician, and a symbol of Dravidian pride, simplicity and purity.
In a month, Sarathi sells 2,000-2,500 minister veshtis through retailers across the state, besides around 8,000 ordinary dhotis, most of them mill-made for lesser mortals. A minister veshti costs between Rs 720 and Rs 910. At any given time, Babu has a stock of 10,000 of these, because demand tends to waver with political sentiment. “When a party functionary wants to buy a gift for Stalin, he will usually come here to buy the trademark Sarathi veshti,” says EV Palani, purchase manager for the Nalli Chinnasamy Chetty store in T Nagar, Chennai. “There is no doubt that these are veshtis for the elite. They don’t crease or rumple. Only the most discerning customers ask for them.”
But even as the white veshti billowed in the corridors of power, its standing had begun to dip alarmingly in the early 1980s. Textile entrepreneur KR Nagarajan braved the “despotism” that had deemed the veshti an uncouth garment, too coarse for office or social wear. It was in this context that he set up shop in the weaving centre of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu. “People had forgotten that cotton veshtis and shirts were best suited to the weather in our state. I wanted to make this simple, versatile Tamil garment popular again,” says Nagarajan, who is credited with infusing the good old veshti with all-new pride and prestige.
Seeing opportunity in a market flooded with cheap, threadbare dhotis— “Men often carried a spare veshti in a yellow cloth bag, just in case” — Nagarajan started making premium cotton dhotis that would last years. Ramraj Cotton, now a colossus in south India, sells around 1.25 lakh dhotis in a single day. Over 6,000 retailers across Tamil Nadu swear by the saleability of an immaculate white Ramraj dhoti, peroxide-bleached until it gleams like liquid crystal in the summer sun.
The vanity of white in hot and dusty Tamil Nadu helped Ramraj bridge the vast spaces between urban and rural, and casual and formal attire. The white veshti was positioned as an aspirational garment for the man of substance. “The whiter the veshti, the better the wearer’s self-confidence,” says Nagarajan. If superior quality was the warp of his rags-to-riches journey, then his clever social repositioning of the veshti was the weft that won him a large market share. After being slighted at a five-star hotel in 1987 for sporting a veshti, which was his usual attire, a deeply distressed Nagarajan swore to liberate other wearers from this stigma. The result was a series of advertisements that pitched the spotless white veshti and shirt as power dressing, a “trendy and traditional” alternative that could bump you a few notches up the social ladder. “I would say that I have brought a large section of men over 40 years of age into the fold of the dhoti,” says Nagarajan, who is now focussed on fashion shows and an online presence to attract the young.
The veshti does seem to suggest a certain vintage. Thirty-two-year-old scriptwriter and photographer Lakshmanaraja Kannan’s friends jokingly refer to him as AC Trilokchander, the yesteryear filmmaker who routinely wore dhotis to the sets. Two years ago, Kannan shook himself free of the vagaries of fashion and switched to the comfort of the dhoti, but not without paying a price for it. “Last year, the security guard at the Malaysian Embassy in Chennai, where I had gone to receive a visa, stopped me at the gate. The veshti was casual wear, he said, and inappropriate for official visits,” says Kannan. But these are blips in the rising curve of the veshti’s popularity. In the Tamil film industry, the garment is now ubiquitously sported by the urban young man, be it Vijay in Azhagiya Tamil Magan (2007), Surya in Singam 2 (2013), or Dhanush, who wears it to glitzy award ceremonies. “The acceptance of the veshti is on the rise, but young people who don’t want to stand out still prefer the uniformity of a pair of pants,” Kannan says.
Corporates still frown upon traditional dress, says Thiagarajan Elangovan, a 32-year-old software professional from Chennai and a proud patron of the veshti since 2001. A few times in a month, he opts to work from home, swathed in his soft cotton veshti. “I feel I am more productive in a veshti,” says Elangovan, arguing against the implicit dhoti ban in corporate culture. This prejudice stems partly from a concern that the veshti could unravel anytime, says R. Siva Kumar, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer from Chennai. “If you ask me to choose between personal dignity and Tamil dignity, I choose the former,” says Kumar, who wears the veshti at home but pulls on a pair of pants for work.
It may not yet be an age-immune garment but the veshti has more takers than ever before, says MC Robin, who founded MCR Textiles, the market leader in Kerala, with his brother, MC Rixon, in 1997. “Many factors are converging to ensure that the future of the dhoti is bright,” Robin says. The Rs 200-crore-turnover company, headquartered in Erode, Tamil Nadu, was the first veshti brand to rope in a major movie star for endorsements in 2001, instantly ratcheting up buzz around itself. “It was an accident of fate,” says Robin. The release of Narasimham (2000), a Malayalam film starring Mohanlal, was round the corner, and MCR had taken a leap of faith by manufacturing 30,000 coloured dhotis like the ones featured in the film.
The Narasimham dhotis proved a hit, kicking off an enduring partnership with Mohanlal, who continues to be MCR’s chief brand ambassador, alongside Tamil star Sarathkumar. Adding to MCR’s flamboyance is its long string of interventions aimed at giving the dhoti a makeover: wrinkle-free and stain-resistant dhotis, dhotis scented with jasmine and sandal, bordered dhotis with mix-and-match shirts, embroidered and designer dhotis, and the latest, a linen dhoti for the suave sartorialist. “We believe in innovating and responding to the market’s needs,” says Robin, 44, a champion of power loom-spun dhotis and hybrid materials amenable to modern lifestyles.
Back in Madurai, Babu of Sarathi Textiles says the minister veshti cannot be spun on a power loom. “It improves in colour and texture with each subsequent wash because of the fine weave. It is painstaking work,” he says. His is a small business, with a turnover of Rs 8-10 crore, but a great reputation, honed over decades, is at stake. Maintaining quality and increasing capacity are proving harder each year simply because traditional weaving families are not thrilled at the prospect of spending eight hours hunched over a handloom for a sum of Rs 200-300. “We have 500 looms in and around Madurai. But since it is difficult to increase capacity by more than 10 per cent a year, we are preparing to diversify into readymade garments,” Babu says.
It was in this clamorous town of Madurai, on a street at a right angle to South Masi, that Gandhi renounced grandiose garments for a tiny, four-yard dhoti in 1921. In the blazing heat of these plains, where an hour or two in the sun is all it takes to dry a dhoti to a crisp, the veshti has always represented certain character traits and cultural associations intrinsic to the Tamil identity. Today, as the garment is fetishised between the pages of a Mills & Boon, swooned over onscreen and touted as an eco-friendly alternative to coloured clothing, a revival seems imminent. “A pair of pants splits a man in two. The humble veshti enfolds you in its embrace,” says Nagarajan. “What else could possibly unite the state of Tamil Nadu?”