Why the Dupatta is an Indispensable Accessory For Every Indian Woman

Gender

Why the Dupatta is an Indispensable Accessory For Every Indian Woman

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

One of the ways that Indians attempt to understand themselves is through Hindi cinema. It seeps into our everyday lives in the form of dialogues that we turn to when we’re at a loss for comebacks, and sometimes, in the form of songs we turn to that get us in a way that people rarely do. Recently, when I asked the women around me about their relationship with dupattas – a traditional scarf that is used to accessorise suits and tunics – they embellished their stories with links to different songs about dupattas. From “Lal Dupatta” to “Dupatta Tera Nau Rang Da,” the ubiquitous dupatta has travelled across time and space.

My own fascination with dupattas had similar origins. Although, I often found myself confused about the purpose of dupattas: In my everyday life, I would see women around me use it as a garment of honour – a long, impractical, baggy piece of cloth that women used to cover their breasts because men couldn’t keep their eyeballs to themselves. In movies however, the dupatta was a garment of desire. In the filmi universe, this very piece of cloth found itself entangled in a potential partner’s cuff or it found itself fluttering against the wind whenever you were consumed with desire. In Hindi cinema then, this dupatta was a metaphor for the exact freedom that the everyday dupatta seemed to deny. It was in this friction of being embroiled between honour and desire that the dupatta became a subject of inquiry for me. I wanted to know, why were women wearing dupattas and were they too attached to the dupatta to let go of it?

Take me for instance. I had grown up with romanticising the dupatta. But gradually as I came-of-age, like the women around me, I somehow grew distanced from it. Even though our wardrobes were a balanced mix of kurtis, suits, crop tops, and skirts, the dupatta seemed to be buried away in a corner. It became a garment that meant too much and too little at the same time. It meant too much because it carried a deep nostalgic sentiment. Some of the dupattas we owned were inherited and there was no way one could have discarded them. It meant too little because often, we didn’t know what to do with them.

But as I began to look carefully, I noticed a special feature of the dupatta: its indispensability. It is perhaps the rare item of clothing that has encompassed every facet of a woman’s life. I soon noticed how the dupatta had moved on from being attire to being an object of utility that was being used in myriad ways. When I moved to Delhi for college, the dupatta went from being used for aesthetics – the women in Delhi University draped their dupattas with their opinionated politics – to being used as an escape. The girls in my hostel would get together to piece a range of dupattas together and turn it to a rope to climb out of the balcony. The garment suddenly became synonymous with rebellion – against curfew timings. It was how we took to the streets whether it was to protest or to grab drinks at a bar.

I soon noticed how the dupatta had moved on from being attire to being an object of utility that was being used in myriad ways.

Then there is the reliance on the dupatta during motherhood. I often find it difficult to settle the question of whether women consciously choose to be mothers or if they are conditioned into it. For my house help, Lakshmi Didi, being a working mother didn’t mean she could leave motherhood behind. On more than one occasion, I remember her bringing her children over when she would come to work at our house. Her friendly army of children included her newborn daughter who often lay in a hammock-like structure sculpted out of a dupatta. When I quizzed her about this, Lakshmi Didi said it served her in two ways: One, it gave her daughter the impression that she was swinging and wrapped in someone’s arms and two, since the dupatta carried Lakshmi Didi’s scent, her daughter was likely to think of her. For mothers all around the country, the dupatta was nothing short of a wingman.

But perhaps, my personal favourite way of using the dupatta remains its ability to be an accommodating sex toy. I have had female friends confide in me about using it to sometimes blindfold their partners, and sometimes tie them to their beds. While for some, the dupatta had simply come to use in the heat of the moment, some of them had chosen to go ahead with the dupatta to avoid an expensive purchase. It’s perhaps poetic that the dupatta was being used on men who tend to think that the fairer sex only turned to dupattas to conceal their bodies and their desires.

It’s now been years since I first chanced upon a dupatta. As an adult woman, my relationship with it is hinged on convenience. Today, I have made curtains, table-covers, and even cushion covers out of them. Each of these dupattas carry an anecdote, weighted with meaning: The curtain in my room marks my first escape from the curfew and the table cover in my living room is reminiscent of the first time one of us burnt an iron.

It’s only recently that it hit me: The dupatta doesn’t ask anything of you. In our journey through life as women, the dupatta has found a way to be a constant companion, sometimes in the background and sometimes walking into the foreground. To then, know what dupattas can do for women is to realise the sheer complexity of what it means to be a woman.

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