March 30, 2020
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Vanity Fair

Indian manhood experiences a socio-psycho-sexual gear shift

Vanity Fair
But what is the nature of the statement we make with our clothes, cosmetics, perfumes and coiffures, not to mention the other artefacts with which we surround ourselves?
-Fred Davis: Fashion, Culture and Identity

Not so long ago, the mid-Eighties actually, when women were women and men were men, and only poofs went for pedicures, the late Delhi-based fashion designer Rohit Khosla was regaling friends with an anecdote about a groupie, one of the party at a weekend outing. “I couldn't believe my eyes,” he chuckled as he narrated his experience of sharing his room with his as-regular-as-they-come room-mate. Come night, the man laid out a whole department store of mouth fresheners, deodorants, under-eye gel, cleanser, moisturiser, cologne, after-shave, tweezers, nail cutter, hair clipper, gel and mousse on the washstand in frond of Khosla's disbelieving eyes. “And I thought I was the pfaffy fashion designer,” guffawed Khosla. The friend today heads a prestigious public relations firm.

Cut to Delhi, 1997. In smokey Safdarjung walk-up, middle-aged, tad-grey at the temples, tad-thick at the waist, trifle lined in the face, Bacchus-worshiping, babe-chasing banker, with beautiful wife and babies to boot, hungrily eyes a nubile young thing sashay past him into the welcoming arms of her profanely sleek, superbly sculpted, bronzed and buffed, Kleined and cuaffed boyfriend. “Body sculpting,” mutters the banker drunkenly to friend and colleague parked alongside; the suppressed longing of a youthful decade peopled by early marriage and kids, missed amours and unrealised Apollonian aspirations welling up in his forlorn voice, “I gotta get into body-sculpting.”

Delhi 1997, again. Chic American embassy to-do. Spunky, suburban, sub-editor lass, well-read, well travelled, blasé I've seen-it-all variety, oscillates between spluttering indignation and disdainful disbelief as she haplessly eavesdrops on the conversation of the three early-30s men – corporate executive, architect, graphic designer, respectively – who she's sharing a dinner table with. “All evening,” she recalls incredulously, “all they talked about was their jowls and how to lift them, their wrinkles and how to erase them, their skins and how to clear them, their waists and how to trim them. I felt like some pater familias presiding over my table of three-daughters.”

No mere stories, these, but signifies of a deep-seated attitudinal change; of a socio-psycho-sexual gear shift, an authoritative and emphatic redefinition of the very correlates of Indian manhood. “Mainstream manhood in the Nineties is no longer only about bread-winning, authority, severity. Allure, desire, youthfulness, sculpted body, overt eroticism, sexuality, vanity, expressive display, even domesticity and child-rearing, are part of the male realm today,” says Delhi-based socio-psychologist Veena Das.

Sobriety, frugality, economic advancement, the roti kapda, makaan mania was particular to the post-Partition, late '60s early '70s pre-liberalisation male. “The Nineties male,” as sociologist and psychoanalyst madhu Sarin points out, “has made his money. Made that house, bought that car, dressed the wife, educated the kid. It's time to come back. To himself. To, however fleetingly, recapture the youth he spent on the family. ” To which end he's not loth to spend his disposable income. He's been her man all along. It's time to become the OCM man. Or, the Raymonds man: the Complete man.

And what “completes” the man? Department stores, shirt, shoes, and sunshades companies, jewellery and watch companies, under-eye crème and underwear companies, have been spending advertising fortunes on telling the Indian male what he's incomplete without. On manipulating male minds. Telling them they really do need that Scabal suiting that costs 'only' Rs 2.27 lakh per suit length, to cite just one example. Dewy-eyed designers hawk images of la dolce vita through carefully orchestrated, cultically exhibitionistic, fashion pageants, thereby spawning a whole new fashionocracy. An aristocracy of Dandyism. A new landscape of narcissistic need. The Indian male's transition from Neanderthal to narcissistic mindset is as market-manipulated as internally motivated.

But is the Indian male actually turning vain? All evidence seems to suggest so. Delhi's megastore Ebony sells over Rs 1 lakh worth of men's apparel and accessories per day. At Newman, down the road, sales of Rs 2,000 shirts, Rs 16,000 suits, Rs 4,500 kurta pajamas, have never been brisker. Praveen Gandhi, 37, partner, Newman, is loth to reveal figures but the Rs 35 lakh ad budget, the expansion from Palika Bazar cubbyhole to a five-store chain with franchises in seven cities within a decade, says it all. Right behind Newman, at Villa Appearances, one-stop shop for the city's bridegrooms and buccaneers, men's stylists Anil Saigal, 38, and Vipin Handa, 39, have expanded the 1,200 square feet tailoring and hairdressing salon they opened with a Rs 5 lakh investemnt in 1981 into a whopping multi-level 10,000 square feet men's ready-wear-cum-fabric-cum-accessories, tailoring and beauty salon with handsome old Burma teak interiors, central air conditioning, library, café, pool table, in-house café to boot. Renovation cost: Rs 4 crore. Staff, year 1981: 41. Staff 1997: 400. Turnover 1981: Rs 30,000 a day. Turnover 1997: Rs 3 lakh a day. Speciality: Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh bridegroom trousseaus of four outfits. They also do “Honeymoon wardrobes” for men. “We like being wll-groomed, well-dressed. Made our fortune helping others do the same,” states Handa.

News from the readywear shirts, sunshades, jewellery, watches, shoes, cosmetics, watches, shoes, cosmetics, jewellery, male underclothing markets further confirms the trend of Indian men turning not particular but peacock in their packaging. “Plumage is in. Parsimony is out,” exults Delhi-based fashion quisling, Gunjan Arora. In Delhi, Lacoste's Connaught Place outlet alone nets Rs 50,000 in sales every day. Sixteen outlets countrywide report at par sales. Pankaj Sethi, marketing executive, north, for the upmarket range of Tanishq jewelled-watches, cuff-links, kurta buttons for men is surprised by his own sales figures. “Since our January '95 launch we've sold seventten hundred Rs 45,000 men's watches countrywide. The response to our men's jewellery line launched in '96 – Rs 65,000 diamond kurta buttons, Rs 5,200 gold cufflinks – is excellent. ” Sales personnel at Bausch and Lomb are gurgling in delight. Turnover, male Ray-Ban range, 1993: Rs 7 crore. Turnover 1997: Rs 35 crore.

Vain menfolk can't seem to spend enough on hoofing-up. Take Reebok. “We had a Rs 30 lakh sale in Delhi alone when we launched November 1996. Monthly sales average today: Rs 45 lakh. Could up that to Rs 60 lakh but production falls short,” reveals Sanjay Gupta, Reebok's Delhi distributor. Woodland shoes' all-India turnover 1993: Rs 7 crore. 1997: Rs 65 crore. “Ninety per cent of our revenue comes from our men's wear range,” says marketing manager Vikas Bagga.

Not to many Indian male takers for the old “beauty is not skin deep” homily if the escalating sales figures of Shahnaz Hussain's male cosmetic range are any indicator. Total Shahnaz Herbal revenue 1997: Rs 240 crore. Male cosmetics line share of the pie: Rs 24 crore. “It goes up 10 per cent every year,” claims Shahnaz spokeswoman Niloufer Usman.

Which is not to say that Indian men no longer believe that true beauty lies within. Rex Kurien, product executive, Maxwell, Bangalore, is ecstatic. His VIP and Rivolta brand of underwear, no less than 42 styling options from boxer to bikini brief available between those two brands, have never sold faster. Rivolta, launched in June 1996, backed by a Rs 2.5 crore, intensely homo-erotic, Calvin Klein-esque ad-campaign, hit bull's eye. Sales of Rs 100 to Rs 200 Rivolta rump wrappers from June '96 to March '97: Rs 3 crore.

Those Rivoltas are not meant to encase bodies that are revolting. A fact many urban Indian men have been quick to recongise. Not everybody can afford personal trainers a la filmstars Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt to power-work them muscles but that's no deterrent to seeking muscular mahanirvana. Crush-on for health club memberships is intense: propelled as much by the chimera of enhanced social status as for their promise of enhanced sexual appeal. The beauty regime golden boy Milind soman follows – cleaning his face with Ten O'Six astringent, moisturising it with Johnson's baby oil, followed by 45-minute fat slaughtering workout – is now common to most men, not models alone. Delhi's hoi polloi are making a beeline for Vandana Luthra's Curls and Curves chain of beauty and slimming saloons. “Forty per cent of my clientele is male,” says Luthra. “And they come from all walks f life, juicewalas, shopkeepers, executives. Not wives alone, their kids pressure them to come to us, lose weight. ” She's not complaining. Seven parlours opened in six years since 1991. Total investment: Rs 1.75 crore.

Muscles are one thing. Mugs quite another. Indian men seeking to cast their faces in Narcissus' mould are lapping up fashion drivel in fash-trash magazines like Femina, Mantra. Snitching tips on concealers, exfoliaters, lipshades, prewash creams, cleansers, perms, the finer points of afro, dashiki, wedge, clippered Caesar, Yahoo Yanni, crew and mushroom cuts. At their eponymous Mumbai parlour, popular with models and filmstars, Nalini and Yasmin busily filt around giving the Bryan Adams look, the Bon Jovi haircut, the soothing facial to male regulars, advising them they need to take good care of themselves “just like their wives”.

Riding the crest of the hair wave in Delhi: Style Sultan Sylvie of Sylvie's. Female to male clients ratio in 1987: 10:1. Now males constitute 60 per cent of his clientele. Turnover '87: Rs 20,000 per month. Turnover '97: Rs 1,20,000 a month. “I have clients flying in from Ahmedabad for haircuts. With 30 channels showing well-groomed men, how can Indian men not be obsessed with appearances?” he laughs. Ambika Pillai and Mohit Agarwal of Delhi's Vision parlour got 10 male clients a month when they opened four years ago. “Now I get six guys a day,” gloats Pillai, even as she reveals how they demand to get their underarms waxed. Far cry from the days when men in Handa's parlour would demand curtains be drawn while they furtively got their hair dyed.

In Mumbai, hairstylist-beautician Kshitj Edwankar's lectures on skull structures, colouring options that match skin and eye colour, texturising/fattening of superfine manes are lapped up by his “paid entry only”, all-male audience. Many come back to him for groom's makeup to look good on D-day. As they do to Handa in Delhi: “It's not unusual for wedding couples to come together on the day of the sangeet, engagement, cocktails, wedding, to get their hair and faces done. They seem to be competing as to who would look better on the Big Day. When you spend Rs 50,000 on a wedding outfit how does an extra Rs 5,000, spent on ensuring you look good in the same, hurt?”

Milking the vain-man-mood of the moment for all it is worth are designers and couturiers. The Guddas, Sonis, Vallayas, Dhakas, Dattas, Khoslas, Hindujas, Sanchitas and Cherians are at once presiding pantheon and progenitors of the new Romantic Cult of the Self. In the Age of Eros where sex=power=personality, where the superficial scores over the substantial, where self-esteem is not about what you DO but how you LOOK, the Indian man's raging obsession with apparel and appearances translates into dizzy balance-sheets for Delhi's design deities. Menswear accounts for 40 per cent of Rohit 'Gudda' Bal's Rs 1 crore annual rake, 50 per cent of JJ Vallaya's Rs 75 lakh slice of the fashion pie. In Calcutta, Sharbari Dutta, dresser to Dilip 'Shobha' De and cricketer Ravi Shastri among others, can't cope with the flood of orders for her Rs 20,000 kurtas. In Bangalore, fashion's own Higgins, Prasad Bidappa, tirelessly promotes his Brat Pack Pygmalions: Manoviraj Khosla, enfant terrible, handpicked designer for Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher Line to be launched nationally in '98; Munish Hinduja, one-time Jean paul Gaultier apprentice, owner Scandale, who “does clothes to have sex in”; Sanchita Ajjampur Rossignoli, Milan couturier who does “drop dead smart” Rs 16,000 suits; and Jason Cherian, whose “minimalist” line is snapped up faster than he can produce it for Ffolio: one-stop-shop for Bangalore's Bold and Beautiful.

Some take the salon/stylist route, other the scalpel/sexologist route to looking and feeling good. Mumbai-based cosmetic surgeon Narendra Pandya confirms 50 per cent of his liposuction patients are men. Delhi surgeons say male clients queues for facelifts are as long as the female ones. Sexual vanity's natural adjunct? Physical vanity. In Mumbai, sexologist Prakash Kothari has a long waitlist for his Rs 5,000 per sitting “sexual performance” counselling sessions.

Clearly, vanity rageth among the kouros of kamasutra land. To understand the when and why of this vanity, one has to go beyond both the present mood and the moment. Kohl in the eyes, wax on the whiskers, sensuous sandalwood and turmeric paste 'ubtans', long-drawn oil baths, perfumed cotton wad in the ear, pristine white shirt, starched 'n' pleated dhoti were always the hallmarks of classical Indian dandydom. So when did Indian men lose the healthy vanity they are just beginning to rediscover again? During the British rule, actually. Soldon-swadeshi, simple-living-high-thinking, frugal, freedom-fighting types discarded past plumage for khadi kurta pyjamas. Conversely, colonially hungover WOGs did the same in favour of the stolid plainclothes, trouser 'n' shirt uniform of their Protestant masters. In which swadeshi/serfdom state of sartorial stasis we remained stranded well into the '60s when American flower children liberated us.

But, Look-Good vanity really started in the Feel-Good '80s. Age of buoyant stockmarkets, bulging wallets, fashion Rasputins a la Rohit Khosla. Penury was a memory. Plenitude was the promise. Dispensable incomes were not the exception but nor. It was time to celebrate the Self. Which Indian men of all sizes, ages, professional persuasions, proceeded to do with aplomb. In extravagantly embroidered, exorbitantly priced, jodhpurs by Rohit Khosla, shirts by Chirag Din, ties by Zodiac, haircuts by Habib.

Raiment was the Indian male's chosen medium for the reconstruction of a new identity. Everybody had money and money never had a caste. Class was the new caste system and clothes its new emblemata. As visual metaphors for chosen identities they made new money look old, served as tools for arriviste posturing, attention-seeking, startling, engaging, captivating in a world that was increasingly about heisting and hustling.

And reinventing oneself. Indian men used clothes, sometimes discarded them, to make statements of personal originality. Contradiction, jibe, irony, exaggeration, sex, role play, gender ambivalence: all the complexities of the male situation, the shifting tensions and ambiguities of their lived worlds, found expression and articulation on their person. There was more than met the eye to those revivalist drapey chogas, angrakhas, angavastras, swishy salwars, swirling Moroccan ensembles that metropolitan Donatellian Davids were affecting through the '80s and now the '90s. “The incestuous constellation of sexual personae Indian men were carrying within them suddenly became visible,” points out Delhi-based designer David Abraham. Designers only intuit, express, articulate, identity instabilities they see around them. Alternate galaxies came into view because alternate lifestyles came into view. They gay subculture, forever on the periphery of Indian consciousness, suddenly assumed seductive centrestage in the form of flamboyant fashionocrat designers. Yesterday's pariahs became today's role models.

Nothing has contributed more to the surfacing of the Indian male's nascent narcissim than the general sexing up of the Indian environment over the last decade and half. Male, in-your-face sexuality is visible like never before. “That distinction between male vanity to make,” confess sociologist Veena Das. Television, tabloid, film, advertising…levels of sexual explicitness have risen to unprecedented highs everywhere. Rivolta underwear ads (blurbline: 'undress code for men”) tell you why you should wear them. So women might undress you mentally.

The bronzed, Bruno underwear model, all bicep 'n' beefcake, positively leaps out at you from between magazine covers. Models with voluptuously post-orgasmic expressions pose for Kama Sutra condom ads whose prurient sexual naturalism is both invitation and exhortation for emulation. Get the bronzed muscular body, wrap that rump in Rivolta, and Pooja Bedi lookalikes will make a beeline for your boudoir is the unstated promise/message/moral of these ads. Mumbai-based Maureen Wadia's Gladrags magazine runs scintillating centrespreads of brawny, bikini-briefed men strutting on ramps during its annual Manhunt contest. Nobody reaches for smelling salts when Adonis Man of the Year Sachin Khurana lisps of list his two best features: “My smile. My butt. ” And screen sex siren Akshay Kumar's clothes seem to have always gone to dhobis each time he has to be photographed. Icons shape imaginations and today every impressionable Indian male's mind is peopled by images of him as Sachin, him as Akshay…. You could call it narcissim. You could call it the Man Bhi Madonna syndrome.

Indian men's vanity has to be understood in context. “These are men not overlaid with role-play oppression, exploring quintessential, often neglected, selves. They're relishing their new recklessness, revelling in a fashion environment where they make and break their own rules. And there is something hugely exhilarating about that,” observes Delhi-based dancer Navtej Singh Johar.

Finally the new male gaze has surfaced because the female gaze has surfaced. Those women standing on their toes in stilletos, cheering ruttishly, screaming for more beefcake at the Man Hunt Adonis Man of the Year contests are emblematic of a whole new breed: the female who has unabashedly come into her desire. The new sex object is man. “The power dresser wants her poodle, duly lotioned, potioned, perfumed and pomaded,” quips Bangalore-based playwright Mahesh Dattani. “Very simple,” says Johar, “women like to see, men like to be seen.”

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