Hats off to the old man. Nearly a century after Gandhi came up with his unique white topi, it has been snatched up from the dustbin of history by a new generation of Indians, clueless about its origins but eager to restore this humble weapon of sedition to its former crowning glory.
In 1919, when Gandhi sat down to design a national headpiece, he had several factors to consider: how to fashion a cap that was not only light, elegant, portable and affordable but could also replace the colourful medley of turbans and caps as India’s first national headgear. Getting people to wear an accessory for their heads was not the problem—“It’s a hot country, and therefore, our heads need to be kept covered,” as he explained later to his friend, Kakasahib. The problem was finding a cap that fits all, in a country where men’s turbans and caps were walking advertisements of their social standing—a proud, colourful symbol of their religious, class and even regional identity.
For starters, Gandhi knew what he did not want. The turban, he told Kakasahib, was ruled out: “It takes up too much cloth.” So was the pagdi. “A dirty thing,” the finicky leader called it, “goes on absorbing perspiration, but does not show it; and so seldom gets washed.” The more common caps were no better—the Gujarati conical cap was “hideous”; the Maharashtrian Hungarian-style ones were made of felt; and the UP and Bihari caps were too “thin and useless” and “not even becoming”.
In fact, of all the headgear that crowned Indian heads at the time, it was the sola topi that he found to be the most practical. Made of pith, he thought it “delightfully light and cool and airy”. Besides, it offered...