Monday, April 05, 2010

Off with the gown; hand me the Japee and the sorai

The no-nonsense Union Minister of Environment and Forest, Mr Jairam Ramesh, on Friday called the practice of wearing convocation gowns a “barbaric colonial relic” and removed his gown at one such event. (source)

“Why can we not have a convocation in a simple dress, instead of coming dressed up as medieval vicars and popes,” he asked, removing his gown worn over his trademark white kurta.

Two days after pocketing these swadeshi brownie points, Mr Jairam Ramesh went to the Guwahati Zoo to inaugurate the night safari. Here he was felicitated with a traditional Assamese Japee and Sorai, which the grinning MOEF donned on his head and clasped in his hands and sportingly posed for photographs.( source) 

If you will, for a moment, keep aside the swadeshi vs colonial angle , both the practices – that of wearing colourful, flowing convocation robes and the one of carrying the traditional Japee and Sorai can be viewed as meaningless and stupid. You can’t condemn one as barbaric and endorse the other as traditional.

That is because human beings have an innate need for rituals. Probably this shared belief in rituals improved the survival value of the race by providing a common purpose, even if the said purpose had no specific functionality.

Given this legacy, whether we are a tribal society in an island in the South Pacific or we are engaged in a Board Meeting in a Corporate office in London, we continue to observe rituals. Where religious rituals are absent, surrogate ones take their place. The Opening Ceremony at the Olympics serves absolutely no purpose, if you take a rational view; the organisers can start off straight with the events. But without the ritual and the pageantry of the Opening and Closing ceremonies, Brand Olympics will lose its shine and appeal. The changing-of-guards ceremony at Buckingham Palace or the daily show of saber-rattling at Wagah are other examples of ‘meaningless’ rituals calculated to capture people’s attention.

Sworn atheists in the DK and DMK parties in TN may frown upon religious rituals and label them barbaric, but they will not hesitate to garland a statue of their long-dead leader, forgetting the absurdity of venerating an inanimate block of granite chipped away to look like and symbolise a human being.

Those who get absorbed in the nitty-gritty of rituals and get lost in the symbolism would miss out the big picture and the larger social purpose. Equally, those who dismiss rituals as ‘barbaric’ or ‘medieval’ are only kidding themselves. They would be unconsciously observing several surrogate ones in other areas of their lives..

It is easy to ridicule the convocation ritual. But, without the attendant ritual and the induced air of solemnity, the aura will simply not be there and you will not find anyone attending. The graduates would rather take their degrees by mail.

If you object to the colonial hangover, replacing the robe with the “kurta’ won’t do. You must substitute it with an Indian equivalent that is ornate and resplendent in colours and hope that this will gradually become a tradition.

Update 26/04/10 : Santosh Desai, in a column in TOI today, expresses similar views.


kd said...

Completely agree with you. Some rituals give a sense of respect to certain things, and impact our view of them. At the same time we should always recognize rituals as such, and not blindly insist on them if and when they become a hindrance.

Balajisblog said...

Raj - At least in its present form, convocation robe, however ridiculous it may look has a uniformity across the country. If we switch to an Indian equivalent, given our inclination to immediately trivialise - we will have following options ( factions ) within 5 years :
Punjab Univ : Kurta Pyjama
Bengal Univ : Dhoti, Kurta
T.Nadu : "karai" Veshti, Thundu
Kerala : Probably lungi
Maharashtra Univ : Whatever Bal T decides
...and so on and so forth....Balaji

Raj said...

Silcador, true.

Balaji : You make a brilliant point. Only a colonial costume can be an acceptable pan-indian solution. Like the English language.

Raj said...

Dilip,let me tactfully ignore the first three paras of your comment.

About your fourth, I am not sure if rituals must carry a purpose. Ritual can be something symbolic or even an excuse to get people together, But, I agree, no ritual can infringe on the rights of other individuals.

Usha said...

Aside from the fact that the convocation robe looks terribly ridiculous just like the coats that lawyers roam around in the court complexes ( they all look like magicians),my aversion to donning the robe stems from the fact that one is not sure if it has been cleaned properly after it was worn by some anon the prev year.
Otherwise I love some of our rituals like lighting a deepam to inaugurate a ceremony.

Raj said...

Usha, the next time you get a degree, we'll have steam-washed or dry cleaned convocation robes delivered at your door step. Service will be as good as Ferns and Petals.