The quest for purity often draws from a longing for an indigenous bygone era. Whether the Panchatantra or Aesop’s Fables or Canterbury Tales, the definitive indigenous story is often a long tale in itself. But the quest continues. So, Nagaland recently decided to draw up a register for ‘“indigenous” people, and, in many corners of the country, the hunt for ancient indigenous food continues but it’s turning out to be quite an obstacles race. After all, chilli in India dates back only from the 15th century, tomatoes, potatoes and the grains are recent imports and drilling down for the pure root may end up with tapioca at best.
The latest to join the list of foreign objects to be discarded are the flowing black robes worn by graduating students in some universities in India and many abroad. Once the dream of every graduating student to have a photograph taken in them, these hallowed black robes and caps will soon be pushed to the back of the wardrobe, never to be aired again.
Reviving an idea mooted by the last government in 2015, the University Grants Commission wants traditional Indian wear to replace gowns at graduating ceremonies. Disdain for the gown and its foreignness appears to cut across political lines. In 2010, a UPA minister had termed them a “barbaric colonial relic”. This year, some of the IITs moved away from black robes and went traditional.
There’s an interesting back story to these robes and caps, though. The Oxford subfusc (black robe) and mortarboard (worn on the head), for example, have come to be associated with highbrow Western wear but they are actually inspired by a university closer home, one which is among the oldest in the world. Established in 970 AD, it was at the Madrasa Al Azhar in Egypt that the tradition of wearing these robes began. In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and The West (1981), George Makdisi illustrates how it was not just robes and mortarboards that were adopted in western institutes from the Madrasa, but even the notion of “fellows”, of “reading” for a subject, of the “chair”, came from here, indicating a healthy exchange of ideas between several systems of knowledge centuries ago.
What today is the mortarboard or the academic cap with its tassels is what was the Quran with bookmarks, which students of Madrasa Al Azhar, dressed in black robes, kept on their heads when they graduated. Far from being a colonial relic, the robes and caps are graduating ceremony essentials that the east may well have exported to the west.
The robes are just one of the many exchanges that flowed between the east and the west. The journey between continents made possible a flowering of knowledge made even richer by its constant borrowing from the other. Words, letters, ideas, numbers and even nothingness, the zero, became possible because of dialogue and cultures being happy to breach barriers and share knowledge.
Many of our everyday words have roots in the Islamic world. Algebra has Arabic roots, alcohol comes from the Arabic al kuhl and several things which are seen as essentially Spanish (and somehow non-Islamic by implication) are actually deeply connected with Spain’s 700 years of a vibrant Islamic-Jewish-Christian culture.
In Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West (2012), Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow begin their account with invoking “Ole”, the chant that goes around in soccer grounds and is said to have originated in Spain, as being one with the chant for Allah. In other words, they argue, confluence is the lifeblood of culture. The black robe and cap of new graduates is just one of this confluence’s many results.