Colonial Relics

A friend and I were talking about Jairam Ramesh’s remark on the convocation gown. His view was very similar to many who have commented in the TOI site. That it is a meaningless stunt given he wears suit, speaks English and does many things whose roots can be traced to the colonial ‘masters’. Nevertheless, as Jairam Ramesh added, it is a worthwhile debate for educational institutions if not the judiciary.

Clothing, whether forced or ‘chosen’, is a layer that symbolizes the docility rendered to a body that is otherwise (probably) ambivalent about its position in a power structure (Foucault). If there’s a normal way of dressing -- whose ‘normality’ is not static or unproblematic, of course -- and it’s at the centre of a continuum that extends both ways (of gender, morality, authority, sanity, conformity, social class etc.), there are clothes that fall on either side. Nevertheless, not all clothing is likely to lend itself to such binary classification. For example, is a man in his underwear expressing his masculine ‘freedom’ -- bearing his chest -- or just hanging on to his last piece of ‘dignity’? Space becomes an essential component to aide our judgment in such cases.

The ‘academic dress’ (or ‘convocation gown’) is not all that unique to convocations, after all. The judges and lawyers wear something similar (in some countries they still have the curly wigs to go with it). Add few pleats and the burqa is not far either. When it’s a convocation it segregates one from those who are not graduating, unifies those who are graduating, and above all, identifies them as lesser than those who take the podium seats. If you happen to be the unfortunate student of a ‘deemed university’ like Sathyabama, the insult won’t just stop with Jeppiar donning a ‘better’ dress than yours, Dr. Vijay might be there to rub it in deep.

The problem here is not necessarily that the gown is a ‘colonialist relic’ -- which it is -- but that it’s a symbol of servitude students all over the world are haunted by. It is actually apt that there be an honest send off: making obvious the power relationship between the students, teachers and the management. If there happens to be a debate and the universities want to do away with the ‘colonial gown’, I’d recommend a very ‘Indian’ loin cloth for the students and a well ornate sherwani with all the ‘zamindari’ gear, including a whip, for the officials.

PS. Ironic as it is, it’s commonplace to find ‘graduation photographs’ in almost every house that has a university graduate and a nail. I wonder if the ‘masters’ who award the degree -- you know, the likes of Dr. Vijay and Dr. Kamal Haasan -- have their ‘graduation’ photos in their living room. If they did, how is one to differentiate the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’?


Subhash said...

I'd recommend doing away with all universities and start gurukul system. Let students run guru's errands, clean toilets, and part with their thumbs during convocation.

Muslims, ofcourse, can continue with their madrassas and get employed to blow trains and planes.

Suresh said...

I have serious criticisms/issues with madrasas, but I strongly disapprove of what you've said about the 'students'. And I want to add that I feel extremely uncomfortable in letting the comment stay.

Anonymous said...

PS part of the post reminds me of Rasukutty!

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