In earlier times, knowledge was a luxury. It rested with a few, especially with scholars who were attached to religious institutions. This held true for most societies. However, as time passed and knowledge grew to become a more accessible commodity unaffiliated to religious or social rankings, the significance attached to the ceremonial graduation regalia has also changed.
The origin of the graduation gown can be traced back to the first European universities, which were founded by the clergy in the 12th and 13th centuries. The tradition of wearing an academic dress started as a necessity rather than as official wear to the rite of passage, and was worn regularly as a uniform rather than only during the graduation ceremony. Historians believe that scholars wore long robes and hoods to keep warm in the unheated university buildings of the time.This attire thus grew to signify their religious and academic status, marking their difference from the lay-people of the town in which they studied. As Columbia University points out in its history of the regalia, that means the origins of “town and gown” divides were quite literal.
What we see today is an evolved version of that practice, passed down from generation to generation. Today, it serves as a ceremonial decorative piece on the special day, when a student is finally awarded their hard earned degree after years of toil and hard work, and serves to symbolise their ‘commencement’ into the real world and the next phase of life.
In recent times, with a rise in nationalist sentiments across our country, narratives have begun to be challenged. While being historically seen as a good practice, people now are taking a look at this established custom with a different perspective, and ask us to not view it through a tinted lens. The major argument put forth in these discussions is that conventional convocation attire symbolizes the British era, as a relic that reminds us of the colonial times. It should be noted here that British influence across the world spread well after the 16th century, and came to India further down time, during the 19th century, which was much later than the popularization of the attire. At best, the British brought a trend which was already widespread around the world to India.
This discourse became prevalent in 2015, when the country’s regulatory body, the University Grants Commission (or UGC) issued a letter to vice chancellors of all universities, in which they were “requested to consider” shifting to handloom fabrics for costumes to be worn on special occasions. The letter underlined the Prime Minister’s appeal for revival of Indian handlooms and specified that ceremonial robes made from Indian fabrics would be a source of pride. The response to this letter has been mixed. This was seen as an important way to promote and revive the dying handloom industry of the nation, and some universities gladly embraced the idea. However, some like University of Hyderabad, erupted in protests, citing that this was an attempt to ‘saffronize’ the practice, and that it would take away their freedom to wear an outfit of their choice.
In July 2018, in what could be seen as an attempt to put a rest to the controversy, the UGC called for professional designers and students across the country to pitch in their designs which would “depict Indian culture and tradition… An expert committee will evaluate and select designs for suitable adoption by the Higher Educational Institutions.” But not everyone is on board with this one-country-one-dress idea. Many have made the argument that each university has had their own distinct attire over the years which is in line with the university’s identity and culture. As both sides of the aisle make reasonable arguments to support their stance, the debate continues.
Our societies change and progress continuously with the inevitable passage of time. As we evolve, the significance and meaning that things hold also evolve. For example, marriage used to serve as a transfer of power from one family to another, with the woman being ‘given away’ to a new family, and to allow for ‘lawful’ procreation. Today, the meaning of marriage is wildly different. This holds true for almost every ancient practice which is seen in different light today, be it the graduation gown or anything else at all.
We were gifted with globalization, a mass-movement that helped the world come closer and intertwine multiple traditions. As much as we try to protect and preserve our own culture, it is impossible to completely veil it from the influence of globalization. What we stand for today, is an exchange of culture and values. While we welcome them, we shouldn’t forget that this is a two-way street. As much as we preach the world our values, it is not an indignity on our part, to learn from others or to pick a thing or two from other cultures.
It has been 70 years since we gained independence. But the very idea of Hindustan rested (and continues to rest) in an amalgamation of cultures from around the world, lending us a distinct cultural identity which is diverse and magnanimous. In this rests our much acclaimed glory.
So let’s take a step back, remember our motivations, read our history, learn from it, remind ourselves of our cultural outlook and then think about our convocation dress.