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The Cachet of Indian Kitsch

October 2013

By Shreya Ray, Delhi

A little more than a decade ago, mainstream fashion producers noticed the power in marketing subculture style. Looks that were once considered rebellious and politically overstated trickled onto hangers in mass-market stores around the world. A similar phenomenon manifests in India today.

While the more globally recognizable styles are still bold statements here--like low-slung jeans from New York City and the Palestinian keffiyah-- an authentically Indian protest-chic is seen sported on young Indians today. It’s called the jholawallah (one who carries a jhola/cloth bag) look.

Traditionally donned by chain-smoking socialists/Marxists, this combination of handspun cloth garment, a cloth bag and smoky kohl-lined eyes has unmistakable cachet. Brands like Fab India and, more recently Anokhi, which means unique in Hindi, have designed their entire lines of clothing based on the look. The hipster is in fashion and the style traditionally associated with poor writers, intellectuals and activists, is increasingly being seen on privileged classes and sold by big chains alike. Both, I may add, otherwise have no cultural affinity with this style.

Of course, a Bollywood embrace is the biggest sign that the jholawallah look has arrived. The noticeable inclusion of intellectual, activist and journalist-type characters into multi-million dollar movies thinly veils Bollywood’s desire to cash in on its coolness quotient, as seen in movies such as Lakshya and Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi. While characters in these movies are portrayed as ideologically identified with a certain kind of clothing, the NYC hoodie and the Palestinian scarf are often seen on elite, urban yuppie characters in mainstream movies as well (and, certainly, without an ounce of protest behind them!).

The alternative is now the mainstream, and the abnormal is now the norm. The trend is seen inside people’s houses too. A rush of young, indie Indian brands increasingly position themselves as kitsch in tone and irreverent in character, decidedly stomping out the silver-crystal hegemony in upper-class homes. They instead offer pieces of ironic understatement that help decorate your home in an intelligent, youthful way. The trend also mixes together what used to be a socio-economic divide. Crazy Daisy sells plastic versions of chili-lime (an Indian version of the Turkish evil eye), which are commonly used by the underclasses, to young urban professionals who never used, much less experienced the original versions.

A similar trend is underway in the independent music scene. Jazz, the music that rose from the American underground, has seen a massive surge in Delhi with a noticeable rise in the number of jazz bands that can be seen playing at embassy dinners, or clubs in elite pockets of the city. Although jazz first found popularity in the subcontinent during the Imperial era – many Bollywood musicians then were, in fact, jazz musicians-- the recent prominence of jazz is interesting, because of the class of consumers who now listen to it and the context in which it is being performed.  Live music venues, like Raasta and QBA, are brimming with Zara-clad patrons who leave their air-conditioned homes to sip their Bacardi drinks and listen to the music. So one could say that jazz in modern-day India has little in common with its underground, American originators!

Entertainment & Gaming
Fashion & Style
Chili-Lime makes a splash in urban Indian décor
Shopping at Delhi's Fab India
Sipping martinis while listening to jazz in Delhi

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