If one had asked Suchhanda who she is, it’s likely she would have described herself as Parimal Dutta’s wife, Pokai’s mother, and a small thorn in her mother-in-law’s side. Her sedentary afternoons in Kolkata are filled by watching Bangla versions of K-serials; evenings spent managing Pokai’s homework, and trying to get out of her religious mother-in-law’s prayer routine. But when a Nor’wester blows a magenta nightgown onto her terrace and into her middle-class life, Suchhanda is transformed — the satin nightie unleashes all her carnal desires and sends her flying into the arms of a talkative bird with whom she experiences seven in heaven — a consensual Leda and the Swan, if you will.
Is this real life? Or is this fantasy? It is Obhishopto Nighty (The Cursed Nightie), a 2014 Bengali film about a nightgown with supernatural powers which renders its wearer irresistible to the opposite sex. It is unwittingly passed down from one woman to another, almost always with hilarious results.
Perhaps, it is for the best that such a nightie is purely fictional. Imagine what would happen if a Nor’wester were to huff and puff it all the way to Thokalapalle, a village in Andhra Pradesh which has recently disallowed women from appearing in public in their nighties, especially after 8 am. The village panchayat took the decision after receiving a complaint that stated that men were experiencing discomfort from watching women go about their daily chores and lives in their voluminous outfits. How did the humble nightie attract such ire?
“This is nothing but moral policing,” says Birsa Dasgupta, director of Obhishopto Nighty, over the phone from Kolkata. “It is one of the things that I wanted to address in my film too. It’s called a sex comedy but it really is a film about the sexual politics of Bengal.” It’s been four years since the release of the garishly shot and campy film, and while the 39-year-old Tollywood filmmaker has tasted success with more commercial fare, Obhishopto Nighty remains his favourite.
Why nightie? “Because Bengali female sexuality is always covered up, and this special nightie brings out their truth. Our nightie is not the kind that is associated with housewives, but the sexy kind that invites all kinds of judgment from people. We pride ourselves on being intellectually forward but we will also comment on how a fully-covered woman didn’t drape a gamchha over her bosom when she steps out in public,” he says.
If the nightie can be considered India’s national uniform of comfort, then for long, Bengal and Kerala have been its command posts. It is considered a perfectly acceptable garment for all kinds of domestic activities — running the household, dropping off child at the school bus stop, doing bajaar (grocery shopping), chatting with other nightie-clad women in the street. An ankle-length nightie is usually meant for bed only; most women prefer the maxi-dress length, when teamed with a dupatta folded over their chest for double coverage, especially when stepping out of the house. Its shapelessness might seem distasteful to some, but it allows women mobility and modesty in equal measure. In heat and dust, in the monsoon and winter, the nightie adapts to all kinds of weather.
In Kerala, most strikingly, it is a garment for work — and as common as a coconut tree. Outside shops in every city, small town and village, are rows and rows of them — strung side by side, clipped to each other and swinging gently in the breeze in a happy state of sisterhood. Here, the nightie is no coy nightwear — this is what they live in, work in. With or without a thorthu (white towel) tossed across the chest; with flaps or frills at the yoke or the trendier “A-line or churidaar cut”. In its own, flappy way, this “shapeless” garment has been the ultimate disruptor, the slayer of assumed notions of women and their beauty: if the starched set-mundu is for the demure Malayali manka (young woman) and for the upper-class woman of the house, the nightie is for the woman who has to go about her business, who can’t be worried about the creases on her clothes.
“There’s definitely a class angle to nighties. It’s mostly the working women, the ones who work in cashew factories or Kudumbashree schemes (a poverty alleviation and women’s empowerment programme) who wear nighties outside their homes,” says actor and fashion designer Cuckoo Parameswaran.
Jessy, 44, walks about a kilometre to work — her nightie billowing in the wind as she walks down the main road, along fields and winding village paths, past the village temple and a panchayat building. Once she reaches the Mathews home in Velliyappally village near Pala town, in central Kerala’s Kottayam district, where she works as a domestic help, Jessy plucks a part of her nightie, tucks it into her petticoat and gets to work.
“There’s nothing like a nightie if you have work to do,” she says. “Of course, nighties also give women a lot of freedom. Unlike a sari or a churidaar kurta, you don’t have to fuss over it. Slip it over your head and that’s it,” says Jessy, who is in a nightie “all day”, except when she has to go to the church or travel outside the village.
“At another level, the nightie is a leveller. So while it’s the working class and the lower middle class who step out in their nighties, almost every woman in Kerala would have one nightie — or several — in her wardrobe. During the recent floods, there was one instance of a woman from a well-off family who pleaded with the rescue teams, saying all she wanted was a dry nightie and a spare bedcover. In several relief camps, women were given nighties,” says Parameswaran.
The nightie is not an Indian creation — just like the sari blouse, it is connected to our colonial past. When it came to women, the British, so easily aghast at the sight of bare breasts, enforced the blouse upon the middle and upper-class Indians; any hint of skin was discouraged and considered uncivilised. The nightie, as we know it today, came into being sometime in the early-to-mid 19th century in Great Britain, stitched from social diktats of prudery and morality. It was the Victorian era, where women were not supposed to accentuate their “assets” but layer themselves such that it belied their shape all together. While the original English designs included yokes, collars and cuffs, the desi avatars keep it simple in cotton, with ruffles and ric-rac lace, and elaborate smocking styles, to serve and protect every woman’s modesty.
When Suman Nathwani started out as a bridal nightwear designer in the 1980s in Kolkata, she was derisively dismissed as a “petticoat and blouse” maker.
Earlier, women would sleep in their saris. My mother wore a sleeveless blouse and a plain, soft cotton sari at night. The nightie was for the very rich. One reason could be that there were not many rooms; many members of the family would share one bedroom. In the 1970s, we see more nighties being worn by women inside the house, over which they could slip on a gown,” she says.
In Kerala, it gradually replaced the lungi-blouse as the working woman’s wear and came with little baggage of history — though there are theories that men working in the Gulf brought it back home for their wives. Benny N A, founder of N’Style, one of Kerala’s biggest nightie retailers, says the first nighties he saw, as a salesman at a textile showroom in Ernakulam, were the 100-odd pieces that came from Bombay in the late 1980s. “Those were maxis with strings attached to the sides that had to be wound around the waist. The pieces would reach our showroom in the morning and, by afternoon, they would all be sold.
That set me thinking — if there was such a demand for nighties, why not do something on my own?” In 1987, with an initial investment of Rs 3,000, he bought cloth and got women in families near Piravom (Ernakulam) to stitch nighties, which he sold for Rs 28 apiece. Today, Benny and his wife Sherly employ around 1,000 people at their three factories in Piravom, Thrissur and Ahmedabad. They also run a textile showroom in Piravom, where the nighties sell for around Rs 700 apiece. While Benny says his emphasis on quality keeps him ahead of his competitors, he admits he has to constantly innovate. “Not many among the younger generation wear nighties anymore. So, we make two-piece hosiery pants and tops for them,” he says, adding that he spends over Rs 1 crore a year on advertising his nighties.
Across the country, what women can — and cannot — wear is an ongoing negotiation with parents, in-laws and gossipy neighbours. It’s the tussle that plays out in periodic bans on jeans in women’s colleges, or the policing of the young bride’s sartorial choices. Meena Sharma, 45, who is out shopping for nightwear in Lajpat Nagar, recalls how she wore the nightie inside the bedroom in the early years of her marriage. “Betiyon ko allowed tha, par bahuon ko nahi (The daughters in the family could wear it, but not the daughters-in-law). Now I wear it everywhere in the house,” says the Malviya Nagar resident.
In Thokalapalle, the fine for wearing a nightie in public during the day has been set at Rs 2,000. There’s also an incentive for some to join the Nightie Patrol: those who inform the village committee of transgressors will be awarded Rs 1,000. Men in the village complain the women went too far in their search for comfort — even wearing it with nonchalance to public gatherings. “Before the nightie came, the sari was the workwear for a woman in the village, who woke up early to milk the cow and light the fire. I don’t think the nightie ban has anything to do with ugliness or beauty, it really has to do with power. The fact that women are making a choice without a social mandate is where the problem lies,” says Delhi-based fashion designer David Abraham.
“Perhaps, it is seen as a lazy garment, an I-can’t-be-bothered-by-what-people-think garment. This might be seen as risky behaviour for women,” says Annie Zaidi. The Mumbai-based writer recalls her mother and aunt wearing nighties around family members during the day and to sleep in. Zaidi makes a case for nighties to be considered as daywear instead. “If a nightie is well-tailored — cut to show off the suggestion of a waist, and a proper fit at the shoulders — it looks rather nice. Most nighties look shapeless because they are mass-produced and cheap,” she says.
In the history of the nightie in India, nowhere has the day-night divide been more evident than in Bollywood. The nightie on the screen depends on the kind of female character: a mother like Tisca Chopra in Taare Zameen Par (2007), takes on the morning head-first in a printed maxi (an A-line design inspired by maxi dresses). If she’s Kajol in Baazigar (1993), she’s dreaming about Shah Rukh Khan in a sleeveless satin eggshell blue nightie, with lacework on the bodice and along the thigh-high slit on the left side; it’s subtly sexy and suits a young woman who has no idea that she’s falling for a sociopath. “In the night, no control,” croons Rekha’s character in Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996) but we see an older woman completely in control of the fashion and seduction game she plays with a young Akshay Kumar, appearing in two-piece lingerie-inspired nightgown as she makes short work of Kumar’s defences. And just like the magenta nightie in Dasgupta’s film, this year’s hit, Sanju, showed audiences how a fuchsia baby-doll, with its plunging front and drastically shortened hemline, can lead to ghapa-ghap sex and nearly destroy lives.
The kaftan and the maxi dress could also be seen as extensions of the nightie. “Kaftans have become acceptable all over the world,” says Abraham. Designer Wendell Rodricks equals the wearing of a nightie in public to a kaftan at a private party. “A kaftan is nothing but an elitist nightgown and I’ve seen the late Parmeshwar Godrej wear it. If the wealthy can wear it in public, why can’t others?” he asks.
If women in Kerala love the nightie, most men claim they “can’t stand it”, derisively calling it “chaaku (sack)”, even “loha (cassock)”. Parameswaran says she has her “own theories” for why men are put off by the nightie. “I think it’s because the husbands don’t want their wives to wear what their domestic helps wear. Plus, you could argue that it’s not the most gracious of attires, not sensuous enough, not seductive enough – essentially, not a turn-on dress. Women, of course, love it for the same reasons. Those of the working class, especially, have claimed the nightie. They own it, wear it with pride and go to work. I would say the nightie does what the purdah probably does to women. You may say it looks terrible, robs women of their beauty, but it is also strangely empowering. Tragically, a woman’s individuality is always reduced to her body, but the nightie frees her. She can wear it without worrying about her body”.
(With inputs from Shiny Varghese, Dipanita Nath and Ankita Dwivedi-Johri)
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