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How India’s spark lit the Camp fire

This is the land of Ranveer Singh, who thinks nothing of going out dressed up as a condom

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If there’s one event that encapsulates the best, the worst, and the downright questionable about fashion, it has to be the infamous Met Gala, held on the first Monday of every May. Is there any other soiree in the world that can charge you the princely sum of $30,000 per person (that’s an obscene 21 lakh rupees) and still reserve the right to entry, depending on who the Sorceress Supreme of fashion — Anna Wintour — deems worthy of breathing the rarefied air? The waiting list for invitations runs longer than the actual guest list, and no one gets in without Wintour’s approval. But it is what it is, and every year about 500 to 600 chosen ones make their way on the notorious red carpet in daring, attention-grabbing outfits, each armed with an increasingly theatrical bag of tricks, all in the name of charity. It is charity, really. All proceeds from ticket sales go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute to fund all its activities for the coming year. And in the 24 years since Wintour took over as the co-chair for the extravaganza, the gala has raised somewhere in the vicinity of a staggering $200 million.

This year’s theme was Camp: Notes on Fashion and was inspired by American writer Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Notes on “Camp”. In her iconic piece, she describes Camp’s outlandish, extravagant sensibilities as an indefatigable, yet esoteric art form.

“Many things in the world have not been named, and if they have been named, have never been defined. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of Camp… The essence of Camp is its love for the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” she writes.

Or, as I like to call it, just another day in the life of India.

I mean, seriously. It’s almost as if Sontag had pulled some kind of Jedi mind trick and travelled to the future to watch Balaji’s inexplicably hypnotic TV soaps, and Notes of “Camp” is really just her attempt to put to words her feelings of shock and awe over the explosion of eyeball-searing garish fashion that an assembly line of Balaji women have worn as uniforms. You cannot un-see or come away unaffected by the thickly lined eyes glowering under complicated bindis as long as Subway sandwiches that the vamps of Indian television wore like badges of honour through the 90s and the noughties.

India was Camp long before Anna Wintour gave it its fashionable nod. It’s woven into our genes, as much as our jeans, and into the fabric of our identity. We live, breathe, and roam our streets in Camp. And, in the case of television’s women, even sleep in it. We’d be lost without the art of exaggeration — it is, after all, an organising principle around which we structure large portions of our cultural identities. “Go big or go home” was the lesson every Indian baby learned in its mother’s womb before it became Camp’s battle cry. There’s a reason why, while Sophie Turner got married in a jumpsuit with a simple, wispy veil, Priyanka Chopra’s veil was large enough to envelop a children’s park.

To the rest of the world, the 2019 Met Gala might have outdone itself with the pomp and circumstance of the couture on display, but to the average Indian, raised on a steady diet of Bollywood and Balaji, it was all rather underwhelming. There was nothing there that we haven’t already seen.

Kim K made quite the impression in an outfit positively dripping with crystals. But if you’ve ever seen an Abu Jani - Sandeep Khosla bride in the flesh, you’ll know that when we decide to use sun reflectors in their outfits, we mean business. And Serena Williams may have been glowing with the ferocity of a dozen suns with her flaming yellow outfit, but she still doesn’t have a patch on my mum’s dear friend, Lalwani Aunty, from Sindhi Colony. Sorry, not sorry.

Billy Porter was carried onto the pink carpet by six brawny and bronzed shirtless men, dressed as he was like a golden pharaoh. But those of us who grew up dreaming X-rated dreams about Milind Soman after Made in India seared itself into our consciousness, know that he was just channelling his inner Alisha Chinai.

Zendaya’s Cinderella gown turned heads and made headlines when it lit up with a flick of her fairy godmother’s wand, but Amitabh Bachchan did illumination first, and did it better, with his light-bulb jumpsuit way back in 1981. And Ryan Murphy’s cape might have been encrusted with crystals and pearls, but it still lacked the flair and ambition of Crime Master Gogo’s cloak and its purposeful swirls.

When you’ve grown up watching Helen thrusting her pelvis aggressively in a flurry of fringes and features, it’s tough to be impressed by the watered-down whimsy of metallic rompers like the one Celine Dion wore. And Hollywood’s more courageous lot might have come wearing headdresses with varying degrees of drama this past Monday, but did any of them wear it with the natural ease with which Sridevi did it, as if she was to the manner born? Nope. Never.

If anything ever makes you question India and Indians’ stake to Camp, remember, they might have The Great Gatsby, but we’re the birthplace of the great Govinda, and the land that Ranveer Singh — a man who thinks nothing of being seen in public dressed like a human condom — calls home. Anna Wintour can make many celebrities do many things, but can she make them turn into icchadhari naagins, unironically?

(Sonali Kokra is a journalist and author from Mumbai. She writes on women’s issues, pop culture and the intersection of the two)

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