- Narendra Modi
- Jayaram Subramaniam
- P. Chidambaram
- Kamal Haasan
- Venkaiah Naidu
- M.G. Ramachandran
- Aaditya Thackeray
Unsung because of its unaffecting plainness—worn staidly in its crisp formality or as a raiment for the hurly-burly, fit to be folded up in a flash to aid mobility, the veshti, it will be agreed, is primarily a workaday affair. When Narendra Modi, clad in a veshti and white shirt, showed Chinese President Xi Jinping around Mamallapuram, he also showcased the white wraparound cotton apparel that had been a staple dress for South Indian men.
Modi has given the veshti an international exposure, though the garment has forever been in national spotlight. The one politician who had never abandoned the white veshti—and the cloth, in turn, lending him an air of composure and grace—has been former finance minister P. Chidambaram. Though a stranger to the veshti, Modi, through that single visual statement, had also sought to counter the notion that the BJP and his government were anti-Tamil.
Taking a leaf out of Modi’s stylebook, Shiv Sena’s Aditya Thackeray, too, wooed Tamil voters of Mumbai’s Worli constituency by showing up in a veshti during his assembly poll campaign. It was one of those delicious ironies that politics serves up over time—a stark departure from his grandfather who, in the 1970s, poured bile on (the veshti-clad) ‘Madrasis’ of Mumbai.
In Tamil Nadu, the veshti/dhoti has remained a stock outfit for its regional leaders, though in 2016 DMK’s Stalin tried for a brief while a new look with trousers and T-shirts. In neigbouring Kerala, veshti, which goes by the name ‘mundu’, has been clothing for all seasons for even those touched by fame, like filmstars on public appearances.
“You are more likely to see Tamil and Malayalam film heroes sporting veshtis in movies than in the other two South Indian states. The cultural connection of the veshti is much stronger in Malayalam and Tamil movies,” says film historian G. Dhananjayan. He says that Tamil and Malayali actors had made veshti a fashion statement through movies. “Just watch Kamal Haasan in Nayakan or Mohanlal and Mammooty hitching their mundus with practised ease before folding them in half above their knees,” he points out. In Telugu movies, it is the “panchkacham” style of wearing dhotis, as in the North, that is in vogue.
But the credit for gentrifying the humble veshti, thus paving the way for its adoption by the image conscious, solely rests with a businessman from Avinashi in western Tamil Nadu. In 1983, K.R. Nagarajan, after cutting his teeth in the knitwear industry of Tiruppur, had a brainwave—making high-quality veshtis that will last. “Till then, our businessmen used to carry a spare veshti as they had a tendency to tear at the most inopportune moment due to the low cotton count. I went in for cotton fabric with higher count, though it made the final product costlier. But the result was a smoother fabric that looked better and lasted longer,” recalls Nagarajan.
He converted a spare warehouse in Tiruppur into a showroom that sold the newly recast veshtis under the brand name of ‘Ramraj’. Soon, exclusive showrooms for Ramraj veshtis proliferated across the state. Rather than make all the veshtis in his own factory, Nagarajan convinced weavers with powerlooms to make cotton yarn on contract, but with strict quality control, which are converted into veshtis, shirts and innerwear in his factories.
Nagarajan overcame the note-ban period by dropping prices to Rs 100, taking a cut of Rs 85 for every veshti.
While Ramraj was the first ever veshti/dhoti brand of uniform excellence, it still needed greater acceptability to be the fashion garment of today that commands universal respect. Another inspiring moment came when Nagarajan was stopped from entering a Chennai five-star hotel when clad, as he normally was—in a veshti and white shirt. “That got me thinking…why not ramp up the style value of the veshti? I got my advertisers to make an ad film with Malayalam-Tamil actor Jayaram sporting a spotless white veshti and white shirt alighting from a plush sedan, entering a five-star hotel, attending a corporate board meeting, being mobbed by youngsters and finally being saluted by an elephant. The tagline ‘Salute Ramraj’ summed it all up,” chuckles Nagaraj, Tamil Nadu’s “veshti king”.
Ramraj veshtis, propelled by that advert, was a sensation. Soon, half-a-dozen veshti brands vied for Tamil Nadu’s market and television space. One was named ‘Minister White’; another called itself ‘MCR’, using news pictures of Tamil political icons in veshtis—from Kamaraj and Anna to MGR and Karunanidhi—to visually marry the ordinary veshti to powerful influencers. “Veshtis dominate the advertising space in the state today when most apparel brands have shrunk their advertising budgets,” says Aravindan, a brand consultant.
In 2014, the veshti was accorded a much-needed legal heft—by the one Tamil Nadu CM who did not wear it—Jayalalitha. In August 2014, a retired High Court judge was turned away from the TNCA Club in Chennai for being ‘inappropriately’ dressed after he arrived in a veshti to attend a book release function. A furious Jayalalitha condemned how the state’s traditional attire can be considered a disqualification. She immediately had the assembly pass a law that “no recreation club, association, trust, company or society shall make any rule, regulation or by-law, imposing restriction on entry to any person wearing a ‘veshti’ (dhoti) reflecting Indian culture or any other Indian traditional dress into any public place under its control or management.” Any violation would lead to punishment, including cancellation of the licence. Soon, she was hailed as the state’s only “vetti kattiya pombalai” (a woman clad in veshti).
Meanwhile, the garment itself was getting reinvented. The cumbersome process of tying the veshti around the waist and making sure it stayed that way was overcome with a smart innovation—Velcro bands. Nagarajan started selling his Ramraj veshtis stitched with Velcro bands, which meant that even children could wear veshtis cut to their sizes. He even started a catchy ad campaign that urged people to “kattikko illa ottikko” (tie it or just stick it). For those who complained a lack of pockets, he provided veshtis with pockets that could accommodate mobile phones. “The idea was to make the veshti more user-friendly, especially for youth,” Nagarajan explains.
Faced with a sluggish market after demonetisation, Nagarajan adopted a clever ploy to boost sales and keep the orders coming in for the weavers. He dropped the prices of veshtis to Rs 100, taking a cut of Rs 85 a piece. Coming ahead of the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, this led to a huge spurt in veshti sales. “After lining up before ATMs for cash, people lined up before our shops to spend that cash,” jokes Nagarajan. Now, every January, Ramraj has discount and combo sales—‘Veshti Week’ he calls it grandly—giving people one more occasion to buy the white drape.
Ramraj Cotton now manufactures 2,500 different types of dhotis and commands 70 per cent of the dhoti market in South India. It even organised a fashion show where all models were dressed in the signature white shirt and dhoti. The veshti that Modi wore at Mamallapuram was purchased at a Ramraj shop in Chennai (no, not the Velcro type). In a way, he personified the utter democratisation of attire the veshti has achieved in a society in thraldom to expensive status symbols.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai