“Dada, ekta cha (Brother, a cup of tea),” Pushpak Sen told a roadside tea vendor at Kolkata’s Sovabazar. Surprised to see a bearded man wearing a sari, shopkeeper Prakash Das takes a few seconds to process the scene, then pours him the hot brew. As he enjoys his cha on a sweltering hot day by the Ganges, he smiles to himself as the whispers around the stall grow louder. “Kichu bolben? (Do you want to say something)?” her question is usually met with silence, and this time is no different.
Sen, 26, likes to wear sarees to challenge gender dress and has been getting a lot of attention lately on Instagram. “It’s easier to be an ‘activist’ online or to break binaries online, but that hardly helps anyone. So I try to take the whole conversation from the virtual jungle to the real world,” the fashion student says, pushing the conversation about androgynous clothing forward.
“The more people see me, the more they will get used to it and therefore won’t be shocked to see people existing as they are,” Sen adds while speaking to indianexpress.com. Although he is gaining popularity as an influencer, the young man says he has a problem with the word. His bio on the app clearly states, “I’m not here to influence.”
From the muted tones of Bengal hand weaves to the vibrant purple of an opulent Benarasi, Sen has a way of wearing any style of saree effortlessly because it all boils down to her mantra of owning it. “In my 26 years of existence, I have learned that if you are confident and do your job with the proper sophistication, the world will admire everything you do,” he adds.
For Sen, the journey started a bit by chance, but it’s not quite the same after a year of doing it. Although he experimented with sarees as a dhoti for years, it wasn’t until last year, when he moved to Italy for his second masters, that he started draping the six yards like the do most women.
“I had worn six saris in order to drape them in dhotis on special occasions,” Sen explains. “I saw a large South Asian population there, dominated by Indians and Bangladeshis. However, none of them would ever wear anything ethnic. It made me furious,” he adds. “As Indians, we tend to suddenly become Europeans or Americans or whatever, and that disappoints me. When I was in Italy, a fashionable country, I had to represent and not blend in with the crowd,” he argues.
Saying that the garment is more than just a garment, Sen adds, “Art and craftsmanship is the heritage, the pride and nothing less than a jewel in the crown of our country.” So, to tell the story of every beautiful creation, he says the only way is to wear a “sari as it should be worn traditionally”.
Whether in Milan or his hometown of Kolkata, the youngster says “people are watching” no matter what. When asked if there is a difference between the two, he replies: “Abroad, most of the time, the looks are out of curiosity and intrigue. Here in India, looks, like gender, have a huge spectrum. From being absolutely shocked to being irritated or amused to being curious, he’s seen it all. “The range is huge, and honestly, I live for it.”
Walking down the street in the heart of Kolkata on a Monday afternoon, he is sure to turn heads with his sparkly saree, kohl eyes and top knot. But there is also a bit of confusion. “Eta chele na meye…naki onno kichu (Is he a boy or a girl…or something else),” asks a group of women near a public tap.
Reacting to people’s silence, he says he is used to people talking about him. “I identify as a cisgender man who loves all things feminine. My masculinity or my sense of existence is not so fragile that it would be broken by clothing or makeup,” he says when hearing a no one takes him for a transgender.
“Clothing has no gender. Saris have no gender. Gender is a conspiracy that must be suppressed as soon as possible,” he continues. At the nearby tea stand where Sen stopped for tea, an elderly man, however, watches in awe.
“We see hundreds of people coming here every day, especially young women for pre-wedding photoshoots, but he can wear a saree better than them,” Amal Maity said, approving Sen’s assurance.
As Sen sits by the ghat to catch a glimpse of the sunset over the river, 65-year-old Sarada Devi couldn’t help but watch him descend the stairs. While most remain silent, the elderly woman stops to interact, while praising him, “Besh bhalo lagche. Nijei Porecho? (It’s really pretty. Did you wear it yourself?),” she asks. As the two converse beside the Ganges, others on the bank continue to judge.
“That’s exactly why I’m doing this,” he says. “People like me who refuse to fit into a particular box have been bullied. We have been discriminated against all our lives and it has caused many of us enough trauma to never exist in our selves. the truest and most honest. I wanted to break that tradition,” he explains.
“In 2022, no teenage child should experience trauma for their behavioral traits or clothing choices, as well as many other things. I’m just trying to set the tone for future generations to exist as they do. want,” he said.
As he gains a platform to influence if not inspire, he has a dream when asked what’s next. “I want to visit as many iconic places around the world and click pictures there wearing my Bengal sarees,” he beams with excitement. The fashion student says he would also like to partner with independent artists, artisans, artisans and anyone who is shy to express themselves. “I also dream of creating a foundation where we will work to rescue, revive and reproduce endangered or extinct forms of art, crafts and art,” he says.
And alongside these aspirations, he candidly adds that he “would love to be part of a Sabyasachi campaign one day and also create a fashion editorial with Rekha Ji and Deepika Padukone.”