By Oindrila Mitra & Ankan Chowdhury
One weekend in 2022, my wife Oiandrila and I gathered with our favourite Dada ( big brother) for our long waited annual Durga pujo lunch in the Sydney suburb of Brighton-Le-Sand. To my surprise, he visited us in his Dhoti (or Dhuti as we pronounced in Bengali).
Dhuti is not just an attire in Indian state of Bengal( West Bengal), rather it has a story to tell. A story that has been existing for several thousands of years. It is a mundane piece of cotton cloth, almost looking like a simple cloth, hard to believe at the first sight about how it could be part of a man’s stylish attire in its all glory! In 21st century, Dhuti & Kurta is not in vogue. Considered out of fashion. Rarely not many are accustomed to the traditional art of wearing Dhuti in India.
Even though, we live in an era where young men or Millineums would question the extension of Dhuti easily, opting for the western styled clothing. Alarming to watch, how the tradition of wearing Dhuti, is continually lose its ground. I, myself is not used to wearing dhuti. And It is extremely rare and unique for anyone wearing Dhuti in the Sydney streets. As rare as some objects in an episode of Antique Road Show. It doesn’t happen in everyday life as we love our Aussie style of blue suit with white shirt and brown shoes or blue jeans with white Tshirt in rain, hell or shine.
Definitely not Dhuti.
Our childhood was about seeing grown Bengali men carrying a simple white Dhuti with effortless style at weddings, family ceremonies, religious gatherings while oozing a royal charm around them. There was a time when flaunting a Dhuti used to be considered as a posh factor in the society and people would have easily judged the societal position of a man merely by just looking at his style of Dhuti, accessories and the fashion manners that followed. During 19th century, the new generational culture of British-India capital was mostly fostered by the wealthy class of Bengal, those who challenged the orthodox social ways of Bengal and gave rise to a completely new way of living in the then British-ruled Kolkata( one of the richest cities in the world). Even though several modernizations took place, society never left their dhutis, rather learnt how to wear it with a British coat on top. In a photo taken under the wooden staircase sculpture in Sydney’s Wynyard station by photographer Sumeet Pal Singh, Dada portrayed such style with sartorial splendour. Dada chose to wear a Dhuti (purchased from the Biswa Bangla store in Park Street,Kolkata, India ) for our annual celebrate Durga pujo gathering in Brighton-Le-Sands.
He lives and loves Dhuti.
I learnt, some of his Dhutis, were purchased from Byloom store in Hindustan Park or directly from various Bengali designers such as Agnimitra Paul or Serenity or been gifted. His dhoti display a mixture of creativity, colours and culture.
In Australia, he keeps wearing Dhutis with confidence and style to support merited students in Macquarie University with his Halder Chowdhury Prize or to celebrate 150 years of Kolkata trams in Melbourne or attending events such as Diwali at NSW Parliament, to keep the tradition of wearing Dhuti alive. Many years ago, when the image of Dada flaunting his dhuti in style, popped up in our Facebook page, we immediately asked ourselves: Who is this man ? Why does he wear dhuti ? Is it necessary in Australia?
Honestly, at first glance, we thought that its rather a gimmick without any substance. Dada looked to be so out of place among others, wearing such an attire in Sydney city. A city where we mostly enjoy outdoors in our shorts. We also explored elegant Marble Bar, iconic Queen Victoria Building (QVB) and amazing Mrs Macquarie’s Chair with view of the Sydney Opera House as part of our city life. Like Sydney, Dada, never disappoints with his Dhuti style and keeps creating great memories, as his photos on Facebook consistently suggests. He wore Dhuti with dramatic cloud over Sydney Harbour or abundance of blooming purple Jacaranda trees in Kirribilli or colourful evening sky in La Perouse. He didn’t shy away from appearing in The Guardian newspaper, as he attended Blue Mountains Rural Fire Service fund raising event in his Dhuti. He can also be seen celebrating the very first historic Durga pujo in Tasmania, Australia or 17th Bharatia Pravasi Divas in Indore, India or Bengali New Year at The Pierre Hotel, New York, United States.
Slowly, we started observing the real man behind his Dhuti. We kept meeting him in cultural gatherings in Sydney whether be Durga Puja festival or Bengali theatre or get together. He was consistent – carrying a Dhuti with that effortless style and the royal charm. We had a name for Dada in our mind – ‘Dhuti Da’. Very soon we realized that ‘Dhuti Da’ loves showing-off his heritage, people and their background. He is proud of them. As a Bengali who wears his traditional clothes with immense pride and elegance, a gentle reminder of 19th century ‘Bengali Babu Culture’ and reminder of Swadeshi movement. His clothing style is an integral part of him which he never misses to articulate. His whole idea of reviving the Bengali traditions, history and heritage of textiles, kept on unfolding. His DhotiSutra Facebook page, highlights various celebrations of such Dhuti traditions.
And why not?
In India, fashion designers sensed the crisis of Dhuti culture too. Their goal has been to revive the Dhuti culture, with a touch of contemporary style, minimalistic designs and use of fabric such as silk or cotton blended with varieties of other textiles. In addition, ‘Dhuti Da’s’ collection of Dhuti/ Kurta and his support to upcoming designers, traditional weavers (without any knowhow to promote their masterpieces in Australia) who create unique pieces of Dhuti/ Kurta impress us all.
Traditional but minimalistic.
We couldn’t but think how naïve of us to make fun of ‘Dhuti Da’ in the past. Perplexed by our own critical judgements, we realise, reviving the tradition of Dhuti is more important then, just wearing a Dhuti. It is a celebration of heritage like Indian painter Nandalal Bose in his painting The Bewildering Smile or a photo of Dr Bidhan Chandra Ray, (CM, West Bengal) welcoming Queen Elizabeth ( UK) in his Dhuti at Kolkata airport or Abhijit Banerjee in a traditional dhuti received the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences at the Nobel Prize Award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.
When asked, ‘Dhuti Da’ told us that he wears Dhuti for dignity, respect and represent two groups of Indians: Traders and indentured labours. Traders from Kolkata’s Clive Road in Dalhousie (the Wall Street of the East) where they traded, made money and spend lavishly on art, culture and heritage. And labourers who worked for Britain, France, Portugal, Netherlands and Spain. They didn’t set the dhuti style in vogue but wore the Dhuti to trade and provide much needed human capital to expand the British Empire. Just as they are doing in Middle East today. For centuries, indentured labours travelled from Kolkata port to Mesopotamia, Mauritius, Trinidad, Suriname, Guyana, Fiji , Australia, South Africa, British Guiana, West Indies, Jamaica, St Christopher (St Kitts), Windward Island, Grenada, Kenya and Uganda with British colonists. They arrived in Australia in 1797 to help build the British settlement too. ‘Dhuti Da’ is proud of them all and wants global recognitions.
Heart-warming for any Bengali to see how ‘Dhuti Da’ envisions and proudly admires our Dhuti culture, heritage and tradition. In 2018, according to an SBS article, he splashed his Dhuti with news anchor Deobrah Knight on a catwalk at Royal Daulton House in Hyde Park, Sydney. That iconic moment was immortalised next day by a national television presentation across Australia. As a Bengali, it gives us immense pleasure to see ‘Dhuti Da’ in a traditional outfit in modern Australian society that hardly knows about such clothing tradition. It also makes us feel, that more and more young men could start picking up the art of wearing this sustainable attire regardless of their physique, status or profession. We proudly support and endorse his tenacity to stand out among others in Australia with an genuine perspective. In 2022, as Australia celebrates Diwali with the lightening of the Opera House, we understand how far Australians of Indian background have come in the Land DownUnder, especially our ‘Dhuti Da’ who is no one, other than Mr. Indranil “Bengal” Halder, making progress and changing our multicultural society far more interesting. And we love him as a two nation ambassador who is continuously enriching closer ties as a proud global Bengali in Land DownUnder.