“Dada, ekta cha (Brother, a cup of tea),” Pushpak Sen says to a roadside tea seller at Kolkata’s Sovabazar. Startled to see a bearded man wearing a saree, shopkeeper Prakash Das takes a few seconds to process the scene, and then pours the hot brew for him. As he enjoys his cha on a hot sultry day by the Ganga, he smiles to himself as whispers around the stall grow louder. “Kichu bolben? (Do you want to say something)?” his question is usually met with silence, and this time is no different.
Sen, 26, likes to wear sarees to challenge gendered dressing and has been garnering a lot of attention of late on Instagram. “It is easier to be an ‘activist’ online or to break binaries online but that helps almost nobody. So I am trying to bring the whole conversation right out of the virtual jungle into the real world,” the fashion student says, pushing forward the conversation about androgynous dressing.
“The more people see me, the more they would get used to it and therefore, would not get shocked when they see people existing just the way they are,” Sen adds while talking to indianexpress.com. Although he has been gaining popularity as an influencer, the young man says he has an issue with the word. His bio on the app clearly reads, “I am not here to influence.”
From muted tones of Bengal handloom weaves to vibrant purple of an opulent Benarasi, Sen has a way of carrying any style of saree effortlessly, as it all comes down to his mantra of owning it. “In my 26 years of existence, I’ve come to learn that if you’re confident and do your thing with adequate sophistication, the world will admire whatever you do,” he adds.
For Sen, the journey began rather coincidentally, but it’s not quite the same after one year of doing it. Although he has 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 the way most women do.
“I had carried six sarees in order to drape them as dhotis on special occasions,” Sen says. “I saw a significant South Asian population there – dominated by Indians and Bangladeshis. However, not one of them would wear anything ethnic ever. It made me furious,” he adds. “We as Indians have a tendency to suddenly become Europeans or Americans or whatever-cans, and this disappoints me. When I was in Italy, a fashionably forward country, I had to represent and not to blend in,” he argues.
Saying that the piece of clothing is beyond just a garment, Sen adds: “The artistry and craftsmanship, is our country’s heritage, pride, and no less than a crown jewel.” So, to tell the story of each beautiful creation, he says the only way is to wear a “saree as it should be worn traditionally.”
Be it in Milan or in his hometown in Kolkata, the young man says “people stare” no matter what. Asked if there’s a difference between the two, he replies, “Abroad, mostly the stares are out of curiosity and intrigue. Here, in India, the stares, like gender, has a huge spectrum.” From being absolutely shocked to being irritated or amused to being inquisitive, he has seen it all. “The range is huge, and honestly, I live for it.”
Walking down the street in heart of Kolkata on a Monday afternoon, he surely makes heads turn with his bright saree, kohl eyes and a top knot. But there’s also a bit of confusion. “Eta chele na meye…naki onno kichu (Is he boy or girl…or something else),” a group of women by a public tap wonder.
Reacting to people’s hush-hush attitude, he says he is used to people talking about him. “I identify myself as a cis-gendered man who loves anything feminine. My masculinity or sense of existence is not that fragile that it would get shattered by a piece of clothing or makeup,” he says, overhearing a person mistaking him for a transgender.
“Clothing has no gender. Sarees have no gender. Gender is a conspiracy that needs to be put down as soon as possible,” he continues. At the nearby tea stall where Sen stopped for tea, an elderly man, however, looks on with admiration.
“We see hundreds of people coming here every day, particularly young women for pre-wedding photoshoots, but he can carry a saree better than them,” Amal Maity speaks in approval of Sen’s poise.
As Sen sits by the ghat to catch a glimpse of the sunset over the river, 65-year-old Sarada Devi couldn’t stop glancing at him going down the stairs. While most remain silent, the senior woman stops to interact, while lauding him, “Besh bhalo lagche. Nijei porecho? (Looking really nice. Did you wear it by yourself?)” she asks. As the two converse by the Ganga, others on the bank continue to judge.
“This is exactly why I’m doing this,” he says. “People like me, who refuse to fit into a particular box have been bullied. We’ve been discriminated against all our lives and that has given a lot of us enough trauma never to exist in our truest and honest selves. I wanted to break that tradition,” he explains.
“In 2022, no adolescent child should go through any kind of trauma for their behavioural traits or sartorial choices, along with many other things. I’m just trying to set the tone for the upcoming generations to exist the way they want to,” he says.
As he’s been gaining 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 globe, and click pictures there wearing my Bengal sarees,” he says beaming with excitement. The fashion student says, he would also love to partner with independent artists, craftsmen, artisans and to all those who are shy to express themselves. “I also dream of starting a foundation where we work towards saving, reviving and reproducing endangered or extinct art forms, craftsmanship and artistry,” he says.
And along with those aspirations, he candidly adds he would “love to be in a Sabyasachi campaign someday, and also create a fashion editorial with Rekha Ji and Deepika Padukone.”