WITH JUST seconds remaining for her walk on the preeminent red carpet in the world, Rushmi Chakravarthi had a decision to make. Draped in a bright yellow saree, she liked how elegantly it cascaded down on her, but wasn’t chuffed about the sartorial choice of the blazer. She was lined up at the London’s Olympic stadium along with the rest of the Indian contingent, awaiting the entry at the opening ceremony. The official Olympic kit had paired the saree with a blazer, the same navy-blue colour as the men’s. Rushmi didn’t like it. Neither did her doubles partner Sania Mirza. They instead chose to carry the blazer in their hands, a fashion decision shared by a few other women athletes. It made for an odd spectacle – messy, uncoordinated, and above all, an inappropriate representation of India.
This year too won’t be any different. Forget reinventing or questioning the saree, the undesired cloak of blazer too remains. You can’t blame the designer – Study by Janak this time – as it’s the Indian Olympic Association who briefs them and issues guidelines. The four-yearly gripe has been swirling for years. And once again the world is probably left wondering why Indian women wear blazer over sarees.
The television camera’s gaze falls for five seconds on the athletes during that 400-metre walk. Twenty in all – three on the Indian flag, the next five on the flag bearer before it jerks up to delegates with their miniature flags in the VIP stand for three seconds, before it falls back for a roving close-ups of the athletes for five seconds, before the frame ends with a long shot for about three seconds. Over to Indonesia.
A snapshot from those flickering seconds is embedded on the front page of every newspaper in the land the following day. Jaded pixels of posterity. A dull shrug of deja-vu, before the page is flipped.
Jwala Gutta is anxious. With just over a week left for the opening ceremony, the charismatic badminton star has no idea what she’ll be wearing on the night. No athlete does. “Is it a saree, or something else? What’s the colour? Please WhatsApp me the photo. Because with a saree we need to get the accessories like the blouse ready,” she says.
On August 5 —the wee hours of August 6 in India—Jwala would be in a ombre design printed saree – Chanderi fabric shaded with marigold yellow and indigo blue, with a khari block print border, according to the stylists Study by Janak. With that blazer.
“The beauty of a saree is to have a nice blouse and pallu, show a little back, show a little tummy. By wearing a blazer we are covering the look. I probably wouldn’t wear it on top. Probably I will be carrying it in my hand this time. I love sarees, and I really can do justice to them. But the blazer…” says Jwala.
Rushmi wouldn’t be in Rio but she recalls her ‘saree day’. “The world get to see our lovely sarees and said ‘how nice’. Why would you want to cover that? Then you might just wear a t-shirt and a skirt and that blazer on top. The whole purpose is defeated. Wearing your national attire and representing your country, I can’t explain the feeling. But that blazer is a big no,” she says.
It isn’t a grave crime, for the athletes and the people have much bigger dream than what they are wearing, but showing little more care about the nation’s sartorial identity can’t hurt. Historically, and even on this occasion, countries like the USA and Great Britain have got the world’s foremost designers on board to create a spectacle. This year GB has roped in Stella McCartney and the US have gone for Ralph Lauren.
IOA has gone with the blazer. The appropriate question is why? The designers were given two reasons. To shield the athletes from the ‘cold’ weather in Rio—it will be 28 degrees —and secondly to make sure that there’s some place on the attire to stick the IOA crest on. The only leeway given was to do away with the turbans for the men.
“If given a free hand, we had thousands of designs in mind. For men something more Indo-western, bandhgala type,” says Abhishek Duggal of Study by Janak. The IOA secretary Rajeev Mehta said he had nothing to comment on it and passed the buck on to chef de mission, Rakesh Gupta.
Rushmi offers a cold shoulder to that rationale. “We play in colder climes in our shorts, so we don’t need protection. And the saree is a universal giveaway of where you’re from. If Switzerland and other European countries don’t wear a crest, you might get confused. But the saree is enough to show you’re Indian.”
Former long-jumper and the flag-bearer at Athens 2004, Anju Bobby George likes the idea of crest but has a better solution to display it. “Since the saree doesn’t have space, maybe it’s time we wore sashes like those contestants at the Miss Universe pageants,” she says with a laugh.
Anju then delivers the comeuppance: “We are athletes and among the fittest women in country. If anyone can pull off body-fitting blouse it is us. The crest can go up on that.” 12 years ago, she was wrapped in a pink bandhini – graceful but lacking oomph that she desired.
The number of women in the contingent has more than doubled from 26 to 54 since Anju carried the flag. Jwala Gutta wonders why they aren’t more engaged in the process. “They should probably take suggestions from people who are known for their clothing. Maybe they could have asked Sania and me. You need to be creative, come on! You see every other country puts in so much effort in their detailing. It’s a world stage. We could have experimented with Indian wear,” Jwala says.
“I don’t know if anybody wants to put that effort. They might just say we are anyway going to wear it for a day,” she says.
Aparna Popat, former India No. 1 shuttler, details that lament. “It’s just a 400-metre walk but it stays with you for the rest of your life.” Some Olympians don’t even make it for the players’ parade as their events could be as early as the next morning. For those who do, it leaves an impression. The wait, and the drama in the build-up to your entrance, the cheers, the goosebumps as the flag is caught on the big screen – the least they want is to be comfortable and proud about what they are wearing.
Namrata Joshipura, a Mumbai designer, is also a sportsperson. She runs marathons around the world, and has played hockey at national level for Delhi for many years. “An athlete can look like an athlete even in a saree. It should be a beautiful fabric, draped stunningly well and without the funky blazers. On that stage, they don’t want to look sensual or sexual but aesthetically appealing,” Joshipura says.
THE SAREE, most agree, still remains the ultimate embodiment of India, but some are beginning to wonder whether time has come to look beyond it. Aparna Popat, who went to two Olympics, feels that the time may have come for India to look beyond the trusted saree and go more chic, without losing the Indianness. With India producing more medal hopes from across the country, she also thinks this is the right time to show off its diversity in terms of fashion.
“Imagine if you were a European country or the USA, how many options do you have? But we are spoilt for options. We could go western but I don’t think many people will be happy with that. Even our kurta and salwar is as western as you make it and as Indian as you make it,” Aparna says.
Jwala puts it more bluntly. “We should go with the world. We don’t need to be, “Oh we’re traditional and we don’t want to change”. Everybody’s changing,” she says.
Arjun Saluja, known for his androgynous designs and for his works with Bollywood bigwigs Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone, recommends that the saree be deconstructed along with the identity of being Indian. Considering more than half of the average Indians are below 35, the attire he feels should reflect that.
“I recently deconstructed a saree, made it look like a skirt, just put a pair of pants underneath. It makes it look like a skirt over a pant, and I made a bomber jacket, which is both athletic and utility. I think it’s important to respect that these are sportspeople and respect tradition while finding an amalgamation,” he says.
Jwala and Aparna also reveal that the saree can often present a practical dilemma to many of the athletes. Aparna talks about how often the sizes aren’t right and you just hope to find someone your size before the ceremony to swap blazers with. “It’s the Olympics though, and you just squeeze into whatever you have, and the only time the blazer does its job is if the blouse is totally not your size,” she quips.
Jwala believes readymade sarees are always a safer option. “The whole ceremony can last not less than 3-4 hours. There are so many girls who don’t know how to wear a saree. They are tomboys, the wrestlers and boxers. Among baddies, Ashwini (Ponappa) doesn’t know how to either,” she says.
In the end, it’s not about blazers or blouses. Jwala puts it best. “I represent India. I represent badminton. I would want to look the best. And it’s my duty to look the best.”
IT’S not just in India that the Olympics opening ceremony is considered a global catwalk, where your country is expected to make a statement, and the outfits worn by the athletes ripped into with unabashed criticism.
Australia: Elegantly decked in a green-and-white striped jacket with big gold buttons and Rio-inspired white shorts and skorts.
Canada: Will sport the sportiest of uniforms, with chic red and black blazers made out of windbreaker material and a back-covering maple leaf on top of thin-fit black sweatpants, which were described on Twitter as ‘business in the front, party in the back’.
Iran: Their original uniform was likened to Pelikan pencil erasers, and called everything from disgraceful to ugly with officials contemplating changing the design.
Georgia: Designer Samoseli Pirveli’s decision to modernise the traditional Georgian chokha has come in for terse ridicule, with one politician saying it was “tasteless and would make the world laugh at Georgia’ and 6000 signing an online petition against it.
Who’s Left Field
South Korea: While their uniform is nothing spectacular and has a very private school look to it, a narrow-cut blazer with a collar button-up paired with white trousers, it is still unique for they are infused with mosquito-repellent to keep the Zika-causing insects away.