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 continued…