By Arundhati Ghosh
Most of my friends think I am very lucky to have found my passion in the work I do — leading a foundation that supports arts and culture projects across the country — much before I hit mid-life crisis. I feel lucky too. When I have to think about what I wear to work, and work is quite a 24/7 affair, I have to think about it deep and hard. It’s challenging not only because ‘work’ and ‘life’ are pretty much overlapping for me, but also since the work I do takes me to such a diverse variety of places and people.
I am one of those late bloomers, in more ways than one. I discovered what it really meant to be a woman, and the world of colours, quite late in life. My days in college were spent mostly in ‘rejecting ideas’ – of what was said to be feminine, good natured, polite, conventional and the well trodden path. So instead of exploring colours and styles of clothes in my youthful exuberance, I stuck to greys and browns; and jeans and sari with a jhola stuck to my side, and organised michhils, dharnas and gheraos and solicited votes to ensure our party won the college elections! ‘Doing too much politics’ as Bangalis would say.
At work too for many many years through my career in the corporate sector, I stuck to jeans or sari. And of course, that really short ‘boy-cut’ hair. Then something changed in my mid-thirties, a few years after joining the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). Whether it was because I’d finally found a space which did not make me feel like an alien, or because I was working with adventurous artists, or because I realised the connections between feminism and self expression – I still don’t know. But what happened was quite dramatic. I looked out for colours. I liked the idea of seeing myself in various types of clothes. I actually looked through shops to discover – clothes! And hung a full-length mirror at home, for the first time.
My work at IFA involves meeting very diverse sets of people for a range of varying purposes. There are artists and scholars who discuss their ideas in need of support, officials of trusts and foundations we seek resources from, senior members of the corporate sector we attempt to engage in our work, journalists who write about the work our grantees do, individuals who help us in different ways, and staff from government offices who support our work in education. From fancy restaurant dinners to gatherings at homes of community artists in small interior towns, decision making boardrooms and avant-garde artists’ studios, village festival grounds and dargahs in the middle of the desert, work takes me everywhere and in all kinds of transport.
Initially, I did not give much thought to what I wore, nor distinguish between when I was wearing something consciously thinking about the people I would meet that day, and just amusing myself. I would just open the cupboard, take out what I liked that morning, and wear it. Skirts, jeans, saris, trousers, even a few dresses. (I mention dresses particularly because in my earlier phase of ‘rejection’, dresses were what I strongly denied myself as the most obvious feminine trap! Discovering them really late in my early forties, I am still amused at how those ‘dress days’ have become special for me.)
In some time I realised, and was told by different people with varying degrees of affection for me and my work, that what I wore made a difference to my work. Or the success of it. I’d be taken more or less seriously and thought of as more or less competent, ignorable, persuasive or flirtable depending on what I wore! For a minute, a wide range of images of similarly clad men in shirts and trousers who I had worked with over the years flashed across my mind like a monotonous, monochromatic movie. I must say I felt a bit miffed at not having this power to determine how good men were at their work from what they wore! Their boring choices in clothes seemed to keep them immune to such judgements. And women, being more adventurous, must thus face the jury.
I considered all the well-meant advice, and thought what this could mean for me. So if I was meeting senior people across the donor community or government officials, the verdict was ‘sari is the safest bet’. For artists, it seemed it did not matter much what I wore. That seemed odd to me since I have seen too many artists – men, women and others – take great care to express themselves in what they wear. For the corporate sector, the words of the wise said ‘keep it professional and tone it down’. It seems experience predicted that too much colour could lead to rebellions they may not be able to control in their ranks. And if I was meeting non-profits with deep moral fortitude, it is better that I stick to hand-made, environment-friendly attire. Plus or minus a big bindi. Cliches, many would say, but good advice is often based on handy cliches, and stereotypes. I must say I did try for some time to see what this kind of ‘conscious wearing to work’ would do. Soon, I was bored, irritated and it seemed to have no great impact on my work. Honestly, it was a relief to be free of the rituals.
Of course free will does not always work. There are places where one goes to, dressed keeping in mind the respect one owes the community that is hosting us, or legal and social requirements of the region. I remember my work in Afghanistan where I had to cover my head in public all the time and wear long-sleeved loose kurtas. But realising what an opportunity to work with female reproductive health in a region like Afghanistan would mean, this seemed like a small sacrifice. One has to decide for oneself where self-expression ends and compromise begins. And weigh the scales. I know women who have sworn never to visit an Islamic country which has such rules, but won’t mind covering their heads at a temple or Gurudwara. I perhaps don’t understand that logic. But these are complex, political choices one has to make for oneself.
The decision of what to wear to work for has changed so dramatically over the decades. And so far, a sari has not made me seem like I will be less prone to taking artistic risks with projects, nor jeans and a raggedy t- shirt denied me a corporate donation. And I suspect that’s primarily because the passion and excitement I feel for my work never fails to ‘wear’ me. My colleagues tease me saying ‘you must wear the twinkling eyes today for the big meeting’. That ‘twinkling’ is less my doing, and more because of the amazing work my colleagues and I facilitate artists and scholars to do, when we can support their dreams. And that’s at the heart of it all.