“Imported undergarments, Madam ji. Sale price!”

wenty four-year-old Chandan Kumar has gotten the dynamics of cups and sizes just about right. On an average, Kumar digs into the pile of 36Bs, Cs and Ds every five minutes. As middle-aged women carrying babies and the day’s groceries gather around him, Chandan is in a symbiotic relationship with his workstation at Janpath. “Why should I be shy about my work?” asks a busy Chandan as the women around him burst into giggles. “What is there to talk about underwear anyway?” interjects 37-year-old Vasantha Kumari, as she pays for her purchase of the day. Folding a pair of extra-large roomy panties, Chandan smiles at Vasantha and adds, “As far as I know, my customers are comfortable with me.”

When it comes to airing dirty linen in public, India has become inordinately open. En route to being a global giant battling poverty and corruption on the sly, this nation finds honourable mention in international news tickers every other day. So there are men in pants, men in tilaks, men in priestly robes and men in namaz caps telling the rest of the world why women must not go out after 8 pm Or get inebriated and lose control in cabs. And then there are the same men turning around to look for their mothers, sisters, spouses and partners in earnest so that they can wash and iron their underwear (read boxers) before work. At the bottom of the laundry basket, often forgotten and shamed, lie the soiled undergarments of the woman of the house.

For an urban Indian woman, the tryst with her brassiere and chaddi has been a love-hate relationship over the years. On any fine day, it begins hush-hush when a mother yanks her teenager to the darkest corner of the house brandishing a sanitary napkin. “Stick it on your underwear,” she says. Thus begins the shopping habit of getting panties with a wider base that can support extra-long, with/without wings/all-night sanitary napkins with alluring names such as Whisper, Stayfree and Carefree. A few months or years later, a brassiere is thrust on her with the same secrecy, very few words being exchanged during the initiation. In the mind of the young woman, questions lurk but none of them seem to find a voice. Like: how does one hook or unhook the bra if the clips are at the back? She quells these thoughts and proceeds to follow the advice that her mother has for her: keep the wet brassiere and the bloodstained chaddi away from the clothesline where the boxers flutter proudly like flags of manhood.

At a lingerie tailoring shop

So when did the brassiere-chaddi become the cosmopolitan bra-panty? “Back in the 1980s, my mother made me wear white tape-frocks with thick seams crisscrossed across the breasts, almost constricting natural growth, ostensibly so that my breasts do not droop. The brand was named Kusum. The options available to us were mostly local brands in white, beige or black. We did not know that inner garments could look pretty,” says Bijaya Ganguly, a school teacher in Kolkata.

In India, the first stirrings of modern inner wear came in 1962 with Maidenform bras promoted by Associated Apparels, affiliated with foreign brands like Jockey and Jantzen. However, now, after a decade of black and white bras (round stitched) and long legged ‘granny underwear’ ruling the market and the popular imagination, the women’s inner wear section has become the stuff of wet dreams. An Indian woman’s engagement with her underthings,the ways it is enacted, speaks volumes about her buying and wearing habits. Precariously perched on complex terrains of negotiation and accommodation,these habits rest on intersections of caste and class biases.

While some have been made pleasurable to the eye, so that the mould of the Indian woman ticks the box of a perfect zero figure, others have been potentially used to critique and resist various forms of desired feminity. “Undoubtedly, buying my first lacy bra seemed like an act of revolt against society (read my mother’s) wishes,” says journalist Pritha Sharma, 22. “But they feel hot, the wires cut into your body and the thin laces which look pretty when you buy them are incapable of carrying the weight of your boobs,” adds Sharma.

Dismissing the discomfort factor, teacher Shivi Shrivastava, 26, says, “Undergarments are necessary, of course, but I like wearing colourful lacy ones. I feel good about wearing them inside, even if it’s just me who sees them. Nicely fitted bras make me feel confident in some way. In short, I love buying lingerie.”

It is only in recent times that the L-word, lovingly pronounced ‘lounge-erie’ entered the Indian inner wear market. Flooding the market with exotic items like suspender belts, stockings, garter belts, corsets and baby-doll dresses, the advent of lingerie promised a high in the sexual desirability quotient. With big malls came e-tailers, minting more money out of discreet delivery. Somewhere down the line, inner wear shopping metamorphosed into sex toy shopping.“When I got married, I bought lacy lingerie as part of my trousseau but never got around to using it much,”says Sharma.

In these contentious discussions of urban feminine rest the narratives of women hailing from small towns and villages. “At a very early age, around 10–11, I sprouted breasts. My mother bought a lot of strap bras of various sizes and I was forced to wear them,” recounts Lekshmi Sasidharan, 26, accounts and admin executive at Style Passport, Muscat. Hailing from a small town in Thiruvananthapuram, Lekshmi explains how there was very little access to the kind of bras sold in the present market. “The bras that I first wore were very uncomfortable, cutting into my chest. I had no choice but to wear them since my mother wasn’t aware of trainers (bras designed for girls who have begun to develop breasts during puberty). Thus, I wore strap bras when I was really young and got addicted to the feeling of having my breasts tied up tight,” adds Sasidharan.

However, to someone like Rina Devi, 35, working as a cook on the outskirts of Kolkata, the first glimpse of bras and inner wear came straight out of television. “I saw pictures for the first time in a TV commercial at an employer’s place. I was fascinated. I saved money for two months to buy a set. At first, I didn’t know how to wear it. Then, my friend who works as a house help showed me how. I am still not comfortable with a bra but I have started wearing panties, especially during periods.”

Across most parts of rural India, women have no access to underthings.“Nobody wears bras or panties in our village. We don’t earn enough to spend on such unnecessary things and our girls must be simple and decent,” says Akhila Bibi, 49, hailing from the village of Bineka in Madhya Pradesh. In 2004, when the NGO Goonj began its work of providing low-cost sanitary napkins to women in rural areas, the first unexpected hurdle that the team had to overcome was lack of undergarments. “We got into making women’s underwear (from discarded T-shirts) because rural women can’t afford undergarments and have no tradition of wearing them,” says Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, in an interview. “So how were they to hold a pad? We tried different devices — a loop, a langoti-like contraption. Because our napkins don’t have fancy wings, we evolved undergarments with loops to hold the napkin.”

As a country that has its fair share of loose clothing such as dupattas and pallus, India never had a culture of using inner wear. “Given our ancient culture and hot climate, it was natural that whilst the lower parts of the body were covered for obvious reasons, the upper body remained bare, even when the head was sometimes covered as a mark of respect, ” says Swati Gautam, former lingerie columnist and owner of Necessity, a lingerie line. “That there never existed a culture of inner wear in India is borne out amply by sculptures, carvings and public art that depict women as bare-bodied. Lingerie came to India with the British and their ways.”

The first historic allusion to bras — tight-fitted bodices called kanchuka — can be traced to the rule of king Harshavardhana in the first century. The period between the 14th to 16th centuries in the Vijayanagar empire experienced a splurge in the trend of wearing embroidered blouses and bras with specialised tailors called chippiga thriving in the cities. However, inner wear in its ‘mod’ garb was introduced primarily by British colonisers since unstitched wraps were in vogue in India. Even that was limited to the aristocratic class hobnobbing with the British. Girls studying in convent schools and hostels had to wear blouses, chemises, bras and panties.

In February 2009, chaddi gained significant political meaning in India when a group of urban middle-class Indian women got together and launched a campaign in retaliation to the moral policing attack of a group of men in Mangalore,who claimed to belonged to Sri Ram Sena. Started by former Tehelka journalist Nisha Susan, the campaign urged women around India to send their pink underwear to Pramod Muthalik, chief of Rashtriya Hindu Sena, parent organisation of the Sri Ram Sene. With the campaign garnering widespread media attention, almost 500 chaddis were couriered to Muthalik’s office. As support grew across cities, Sri Ram Sene was forced to call a truce and resolve the issue.

“Common people managed with lengthy pieces of cloth conveniently tucked at the waist,” explains eminent historian Jyotsna Kamat. “Once the length of the dresses became shorter, underwear eventually gained popularity. What was partly regional and restricted to the upper classes percolated into different strata of society.”

Demographically, lingerie reveals critical markers such as class, caste, educational background and purchasing power of an Indian woman. “Unlike a pair of socks that will be what it will be, a bra can come in a thousand-and-one ‘types’, each vastly different from the other,” says Gautam, with her standout ability to call a bra a bra. “The irony of it all in India is that whilst a village woman who does not wear a bra may suffer from an inferiority complex, an urban socialite who carries herself perkily without a bra may actually suffer from a superiority complex!”

Note: I co-wrote this piece with my colleague Indrani Mukherjee.

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Shaky Feminist. Reluctant Linguist.

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Deepti Sreeram

Deepti Sreeram

Shaky Feminist. Reluctant Linguist.

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