The youngster in denim and T shirt felt at ease in the Kerala Legislative Assembly but the security guards would not let the intruder through the door reserved for legislators. The next moment one of the officers corrected his colleagues and profusely apologized to the unlikely visitor.
The visitor was Hibi Eden, the Congress representative from Ernakulam. He instinctively knew that the confusion was caused by his choice of dress. After all, the people of Kerala have grown up seeing their leaders in white mundu. Would he have a rethink after the embarrassment on Tuesday morning?
“Certainly not,” said Eden. “I won’t change my style no matter who blocks me.” The young leader, however, admits that clothing out of the norm presents an “identity crisis”. “Sometimes people do not recognize us.”
Eden belongs to a new crop of politicians who choose to dress “normally”. Shafi Parambil, V T Balram, Roji M John and Muhammed Muhsin wear the costume of their choice inside and outside the assembly.
Cutting across party lines, these young leaders are challenging the unofficial dress code of politicians - the solemn mundu. While most of the Malayalis drape a mundu around them on special occasions such as Onam or the first day of Chingam, politicians are forever condemned to the traditional attire.
The legacy of khadi
Congress leaders still swear by khadi, which weaves together memories of the national movement and freedom struggle. Ask Bobby, a tailor at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram, and he would tell you the sartorial preferences of the who’s who in Kerala.
He has trained under the legendary Sadashivan Nair, who has clothed stalwarts of Kerala politics including former chief minister K Karunakaran. “The “Leader” preferred his mundu and jubba stitched from the same cloth,” Bobby said.
“This dress plays a big role in our acceptance among the people,” opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said. He is never seen in public without a khadi mundu and long-sleeved shirt.
His party colleague and former chief minister Oommen Chandi is known for his simplistic look. He would not mind going around in a torn or crumbled look.
The legislative assembly still has three men who only wear white jubba - V S Achuthanandan, K M Mani and K Vijayan Pillai. Achuthanandan’s body-hugging jubba is a butt of jokes in Kerala but his tailor in Alappuzha is not amused. “Nowadays, he prefers slightly looser clothes,” Cardos said.
Mani is so particular about personal hygiene that he changes his clothes twice or thrice a day.
T M Thomas Isaac, who succeeded Mani as the finance minister, is more colorful. He likes to stand out in the crowd in his Fab India kurtas. Stylish kurtas have another votary in O Rajagopal, BJP’s only MLA in Kerala.
Matter of habit
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan is never spotted in anything but white and white. His comrade Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has chosen the same attire ever since he was elected to the assembly in 1982. “Once you start wearing white and white, you will not be comfortable in anything else,” said the state secretary of the CPM.
Most of the CPM MLAs pair double mundus with branded shirts. “I am used to dressing neatly since my days as a student,” said speaker P Sreeramakrishnan. “I don’t think we need to have a uniform in the assembly. At the same time, I would like to see the Malayali dress around me,” he added.
CPI central secretariat member Panniyan Raveendran loved his mundu so much that he wore it to his wedding. All the Muslim League MLAs join their CPM counterparts in making the house a colorful place.
V K Ebrahim Kunju, however, is an exception. He still goes around in white and white.
Congress MLA V D Satheesan has a different take on the preferred costume of politicians. “Khadi used to be a symbol of simplicity. Nowadays the quality of the cloth, style of stitching and the care of maintenance have made it a luxury.”
Many of the leaders wear leather shoes along with the mundu. Pinarayi Vijayan, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Ramesh Chennithala and Satheesan like wearing shoes in their daily course of work. Apparently, shoes works better in a crowd where people could step on your toes.
Congress leaders V M Sudheeran and Aryadan Muhammed buckle up with a belt around their waist for added protection.
Former defense minister A K Antony and CPM politburo member M A Baby are known as the brand ambassadors of mundu in New Delhi. The humble garb has an even more influential ambassador in New Delhi. Vice president M Venkaiah Naidu is a stickler for dhoti.
Wish someone counseled the red mundus and saffron mundus of northern Kerala on the unity of mundu wearers.