One of the most enduring images marking the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is those of students wearing black capes and tasselled, stiff caps that they fling in the air when they receive their degrees at convocation ceremonies. Alas, the graduation robe will soon be a thing of the past in those Indian universities that followed this universal protocol, at least according to a fresh circular issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC). The government wants students to wear regional attire made of Indian handloom when they receive their degrees. The letter addressed to all public and private universities that fall under the UGC, said “using handloom garments would instill a sense of pride in being Indian”.
In these times, one should be grateful that (so far) we’re not receiving notices at home ordering us to cut a laddoo on our birthdays instead of cakes. Because that too is a Western-style celebration that could be questioned, if a senior UGC official can claim the black robe at graduation is a colonial relic that needs to go. However, what the UGC is missing is that some key events in an individual’s life are made up of the same powerful symbols, world over, regardless of where they originated. Like the other important event in one’s life, a marriage, for example, that calls for a certain etiquette with formal clothes, a feast, colourful decor—it may differ slightly based on geography but carries pretty much the same accompanying paraphernalia of festivity, everywhere. Similarly, the black robe has been an essential metaphor of (vetoed) knowledge since the 12th century, when scholastic monks donned them once their studies were over. Graduation day is a tradition that spread into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was adopted by hallowed institutions in Oxford and Cambridge, binding the human race in a sense, with the same, comforting finality to look forward to at the end of one’s education.
It is something to introspect on, that irrespective of the complex network of social histories we descend from, convocation ceremonies have a common aim, whether they’re held in an engineering institute in Manipal or a liberal arts college in California. The idea is to honour students for their years of hard work, acknowledge the end of one stage of life, and new, auspicious beginnings: the transition from Brahmacharya towards Grihasta. When my toddler finished two years at her play school, the entire class of three-year-olds were given black cardboard hats and on the last day, they threw them magnificently and simultaneously in the air, providing, perhaps, the ultimate reference to how ubiquitous the grad ceremony has become. On a more serious note, in an Indian context, receiving that important piece of paper has a special significance, considering the kind of pressure cooker atmosphere academics usually involves. Parents often make huge sacrifices to put their kids through school and when they do finish college, there is a need to celebrate.
Student life is odd in the way it eventually comes together, the angst, the growing up, the work ethic established in those early years often shaping lifelong careers. Cheesy though it sounds, this is one end that actually has a new starting point. One would have to be an exceptionally dour person, (or a UGC official) who thinks yet another life lesson in Indian pride needs to be taught at this stage; on the one day, these young adults may sit back and reflect on their long process of maturation. Just a thought, these graduates should be deciding for themselves with what pomp they’d like to show themselves out into the world. My bet is it won’t be in desi attire but like countless students everywhere, who have waited patiently to make that grand gesture of doffing their hats.