Imported undergarments, Madam ji. Sale price!” Twentyfour-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 middleaged 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.
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 innerwear 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 longlegged ‘granny underwear’ ruling the market and the popular imagination, the women’s innerwear 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.
In early 18th century Kerala, the state of Travancore established by Marthanada Varma had several barbaric taxes on the avarna (lower castes). Apart from taxes on pepper and spice trade, there were infamous levies such as mulakaram (breast tax) and thalakaram (head tax). Historians have observed that the revenue collected from such oppressive taxes paid for a large part of the treasure within Thiruvananathapuram’s Padmanabha Swami Temple. In public, all avarna women were not allowed to cover their breasts as part of the several humiliating practices associated with caste. Anyone who wished to do so was asked to pay an exorbitant amount as breast tax to the rulers. Though protests against these casteist practices began and intensified at several places like Aratupuzha and Kayamkulam in the 19th century, it was the act of a woman martyr that brought an end to the repugnant tax.In the beginning of the 20th century, Nangeli, a native of Cherthala, decided to cover her breasts, violating the law. Hearing the news, the village officer rushed over to her home to collect the tax. Back then, money was served on a plaintain leaf to the tax collection officer. In a mockery of the ritual, Nangeli cut both her breasts,presented them to the officer and bled to death. Fearing intense backlash over Nangeli’s martyrdom, the then maharajah of Travancore Sri Mulam Thirunal withdrew the tax. The place where Nangeli died came to be known as Mulachiparambu (land of breasts).