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Guernsey to Ganji: How the island gave India a clothing essential

Guernsey to Ganji: How the island gave India a clothing essential

Sunday 25 July 2021

Guernsey to Ganji: How the island gave India a clothing essential


Pitamber Kaushik, a journalist, teacher and researcher based out of Bokaro, India, has explored how the traditional 'Guernsey' inspired a piece of clothing on the subcontinent that has become a "silent troop of the country's economy".

"Another excruciating summer is upon us. As the temperature here in Eastern India crosses the forty-degree mark, shirts are promptly discarded.

Sitting on the roof of my humble rural family home, waving a palm hand-fan I see my neighbours across roofs in all eight directions, all similarly disposed and armed, resigned to their thoughts, or so they would be, if it weren’t for the incessant onslaught of the temperature. They act as if the intensity of the Summer is somehow unexpected, half-wondering how it feels just as discomforting each year, pants and sighs interspersing their otherwise fixated reverie and unconsciously continual fan strokes.

The scene is what is best described as an “idyllic bustle”. All the males are identically clad in blue lungis (a reasonably airy men’s sarong) and white innerwear vests called “ganjis”, the latter rendered translucent due to profuse perspiration. We sit quietly, lost in our reflections, snacking, or quiet catharsis. Everyone is too occupied with the heat to interact beyond a few distant greetings. We sit in solidarity, the solidarity of seasonal victimhood. 

"The humble Guernsey jumper, or ‘gansey’, spread rapidly from its eponymous place of origin"

A cool breeze blows, snapping half of us out of our meditations to remark at it gratefully, and lulling the other half into deeper meditation.  Many stand and stretch in a bid to expose the maximum surface of their bodies to the airflow. One of them sits reclining on a dilapidated, creaking armchair, pandiculates. In doing so, he lets the still-intact tag stuck on the rear neck hem of his vest out in full view. The shiny sticker stands out of the otherwise plain fabric and yells at me “100% cotton”.

Made from carefully spun and woven cotton, the undershirt, a staple of the Indian subcontinent, worn on a veritably daily basis by no less than one in five men in the world, is extremely comfortable in the sultry tropical climate. It’s optimally loose, supple and flexible yet its firm, snug, and close-fitting knit makes it durable, comfy, and supportive, enabling it to be versatile and all-pervasive. The low-cut garment permits easy movement and readily channels and absorbs sweat by virtue of its shape and fabric. Its porosity enables the skin to breathe and the material and type of knit let the skin breathe, making it ideal for humid areas.

Barechested-ness in public view is considered rude, crude, immodest, and even indecent in suburban India, where the ganji offers a decent compromise for many public zones. In fact, it is the only upper garment that the majority of the economically underprivileged sections of the society, rickshaw-pullers to fruit-vendors, wear all their lives. It draws sweat away from the skin pores, prevents rashes due to clogging, and ventilates the body, as the sweat evaporates, cooling it in process.

All this is ironic, considering the cool, cotton innerwear ganji, in name and history, bears the ancestry of a woollen over-garment, intended to keep moisture and wind away, and keep the wearer warm. When we thank an evening gust for cooling us off, little do most ganji-clad Indian men know that we might have the wives of fishermen from the British isles, a quarter of the Earth across, to thank for it, as The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary points out.    

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Pictured: Pitamber Kaushik is a writer, journalist, teacher and researcher based out of Bokaro, India. 

The first use of the Guernsey, the well-known sweater from the eponymous Channel island, came in protecting British fishermen from seaspray. It fit the bill of being sailor’s clothing — it was warm and hard-wearing, yet comfortable even after prolonged usage. The hard-twist and tight-spin of the woollen fibres as well as the tight-knit stitching together lent the garment a finish that could “turn water” and hence resist seaspray, rendering it quasi water-proof. 

The humble Guernsey jumper, or ‘gansey’, spread rapidly from its eponymous place of origin, being widely adapted all over the British Isles. As its range grew, so did the variety and intricacy of knit patterns on it, however, the basic nature of the garment stayed unaltered. The ergonomic, practical design made it well-suited for a variety of uses in tasking, physical rigour-oriented professions.

To this day, the Indian Ganji bears the sailors’ marks ‒ the distinctive rib represents the ship’s rope ladder and the raised strap seam spanning across the shoulder symbolises a rope. The gussets lend strength to the garment in hustle-weary Indian streets as much as they did on the rough seas. Adherence to some of the more features such as the garter stitch panel, which is said to have stood for breaking waves, were, of course, traded off for the simplicity and pragmatism of mechanised mass production.

Ganjis often had half sleeves but the low-cut, shoulder-strap design has dominated in recent decades as urbanisation and westernisation of sensibilities led to a decline in its use as a standalone garment and brought about its transition to being an exclusively inner-worn staple undershirt. Although traditions (including the original seamless design and the circular knitting used) and elaborations were over time lost on the scale of bulk manufacture, the garment still retains most of its distinctive structural essentials.

Big innerwear brands in India have consistently drawn in top Bollywood stars for celebrity endorsements of their humble, homely ganji vests. Advertisements often feature overt machismo, kitschy swashbuckling, flamboyant over-the-top action, lurid fast-paced displays of masculine tropes, and increasingly explicit sexual undertones. Unlike its etymological forefather, which remains a prized symbol of culture, tradition, finesse, and workmanship, the ganji's popularity is markedly rough and pedestrian and at odds with its characteristic gaudy, attention-grabbing advertising, the only commonality between its on-screen portrayal and its real-world perception being its connotations of being loutish, boorish, uncouth, and lacking sophistication.

But how did the knitted pullover of the isle's transition to its largest colony’s staple innerwear? The answer is rooted, unsurprisingly, in the former’s Royal Armed Forces. The Guernsey was first deployed in the rating uniform of the British Royal Navy in the early 19th century. From this point onwards, as the British armed forces marched to occupy a third of the world, they took the garment, besides things such as tea and cricket, along with them. Given how diverse were the colonial territories of the world’s largest empire, it is thus no wonder that the humble gansey was diversely adapted in various niches, depending on the climate, profession, and status of its adopters.

A fine example is from Australian Rules Football; Yes, sports, of all places. The shirt worn by Australian Rules Football players is called ‘guernsey’, instead of the word ‘jersey’, which is used elsewhere, after the former’s place of origin’s eponymous neighbour island. Although the much more economical acrylic version has replaced the original woollen fabric, diluting the garment’s authenticity and cultural connect to the original, it still retains its association with challenge and toughness as evident in the phrase “to get a guernsey” being a figure of speech for ‘qualifying or being selected’ or ‘getting recognised for an accolade’ in Australia. Although, in general, the words ‘guernsey’ and ‘jersey’ are used interchangeably in the English-speaking world, they differ in their fabric’s yarn structure and knit.

Guernsey, likely via its alternative form ‘Gansey’, was taken to the Indian tongues through the East India Company, mostly on account of its soldiers donning ganseys or gansey-like pullovers. Since most major Indian languages have classically lacked a “z” (as in vizier) sound, any introductions of ‘z’ are almost always colloquially approximated and subsequently appropriated to a familiar, solid “j” (as in jungle) sound, as is frequently observed with many Urdu words.

Along similar lines, “gansey” became “ganji”(guhn-jee), the “ae” pronunciation of the ‘a’ in gansey again being foreign to most Indians, and the simple, primary ‘a’ (a as in ’afoot’, uh) being the default vowel in Hindi word-formation. 

The vest is commonly called sando ganji, said to be named so in wake of the legendary strongman and bodybuilder Eugen Sandow's influential visit to India. However, there seems to be little concrete evidence in favour of this connection.

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Pictured: A montage of advertisements of various ganji brands, made by Mr Kaushik.

The Kimono from Japan was introduced to Europe in the 17th century, where it inspired the creation of a dress that was a true fusion of the orient and the occident, a flowing, supple, one-piece-cut gown called “Banyan” (and misleadingly a ‘nightgown’) which was as comfortable as it was magnificent. The original Banyans were slip-ons, although certain versions were buttoned. In its hotter colonies, it was considered fashionable for British gentlemen to wear the lightweight yet classy Banyan in informal settings.

It gave the best of both worlds, appearing grand and splendid, preserving the air of majesty without being inconvenient and unwieldy. It was particularly popular with the intellectuals, literati, and members of the intelligentsia who considered this full yet light garment to be conducive to thought, intellect, and creativity. Many of them got themselves painted or were depicted in portraits as such, Sir Isaac Newton, Ward Nicholas Bolyston, Benjamin Rush to name a few. 

The British came to India as traders. The Merchants, Officers, and Merchant-cum-Officers of the East India Company brought (what would later be called) the Banyan with them to the sultry, tropical nation, where opting instead for the traditional full coat would have been torturous. The trading, business, and mercantile class in India is called “Baniya”. Baniyas were part of the third stratum in the traditional caste hierarchy that most of Indian society was strictly organised under. They were variously referred to by derivatives of the word “Vanij” meaning “trade” or “commerce”, including the word Baniya in most of North India and Vanikar or Vanigan meaning ‘Merchant’ in the South. It was common to see merchants to be dressed in fine, brilliant, vividly-coloured robes.

"The original Guernsey is often a keepsake and at times even a hand-me-down, two whole continents away"

The European name ‘Banyan’ likely came from the Gujarati “Vaniyo” encountered in Surat or the Tamil “Vanigan” encountered in Madras, and as R.S. McGregor notes in his The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary, the word Baniya led to the vernacular name “Baniyan”, a just as popular synonym of the Ganji vest in most Indian languages. Ultimately, of the various traits and associations of the British original, only the name, lack of seam, cut style, informality, and the comfort survive into its modern derivative, its exteriority, opulence, sophistication, and richness long ridden. Yet, it is safe to assume that the Malayali fisherman hauling his catch and the Punjabi tiller ploughing his field, both oblivious to the farfetched etymology of their sartorial staple, enjoy the same comfort donning a garment called a “Banyan” as the imperial merchant seated at his trading post who brought its first instance to the land.

Even today, a corpulent, sedentary stereotypical middle-aged Indian seth (a major seller, merchant, banker, or wholesale shop-owner, esp. an affluent one) seated all-day long at the storefront, nestled amid endless rows of cushions and boxes, counting bills, indifferent to the sweltering heat of his crammed shop, clad only in a perspiration-soaked ganji at the top, is a common sight in most Indian towns.

This is the story of how the loose, luxurious British merchant’s robe and the well-fitting, sturdy British soldier’s tunic made it to the breasts of almost every male native of the subcontinent — the outside-in journey of the one-piece maritime pullover, the gansey. The largest players selling the innerwear in India, including titans Rupa and Lux, began as Hosiery Companies. Wool was the definition of comfort in the boreal seas, in the humid, tropical India, it was cotton.

For the Channel Islanders, the goal was to repel the saline water, keep it away from their skin to keep the cold out while for Indians, ‘twas was to absorb the saline water, keep it away from their skin to keep it cool. In Europe, one needed to pull over a robe or jumper to be cosy, in the humid subcontinent one needed something to maintain their bare modesty, and just that, when they pulled off all else.

Today, a typical ganji may not have a lot reminiscent of its etymological parent garment, but the fact remains that it retains its soul ‒ humility, intimacy, protection, ease, equality, and bonding, in spite of being changed in material, mode of production, form, and purpose. That the former has comfort and ergonomics at its core, adapted to its environment, suited to its people is all its needs to have in common with the latter in order to be called its rightful heir in India.

The very fact that a dress originating on a dainty island three seas away (Guernsey, not Japan) inspired, nay, sired, a nondescript yet indispensable and inalienably internalised undershirt in the subcontinent, testifies the expanse, reach, and influence of the British Empire. It is a mark of the extent of its mercantile capitalism and imperial might. However, the British military didn’t merely play the role of a vector, a conduit for transmitting this piece of clothing. It continued to use it as it surely stood the test of time.

The woollen jumper was one of the few items of clothing to be highly-regarded by everyone from fishermen and seafarers to Admirals and the Royalty. In 2006, the 7th British Armoured Brigade ordered three hundred of these garments from a Guernesian company, all corps-customised and hand-finished. Various other regiments have ordered different variants of the dependable garment, solidifying its tough-and-convenient status and repute.

Ganjis are hard-wearing and durable just as their British namesakes, as is apt for fishermen of a rough island. It is a common sight all over India to see the economic bedrock of the society ‒ manual labourers, peasants, construction workers, vegetable vendors, carpenters, smiths, and rickshaw pullers wear the same vest for ages. It is usually several months before the first prominent perforations start to show and years before it is visibly worn-out, and even then it is fairly usable.

This is only fair considering how the original guernsey was (and is) often a keepsake and at times even a hand-me-down, two whole continents away. They have a high personal value to the wearer. In India, it is common for this overseas-inspired tantalisingly desi garment to be given as presents to kith and kin and as offerings at Hindu religious ceremonies (donated to the priest) such as marriages, yajna functions, and pujas.

"In its journey from the gansey pullover to the ganji singlet, Guernsey has only moved closer to our hearts"

Hindu codes of rites once strictly dictated using unstitched clothes, although this prescription is seldom observed now and has grown to include minimally-stitched garments. Yet, most partaking in such rituals refrain from using “Western garments” like shirts and prefer the traditionally single-cut ganji as the mandatory upper garment, as somehow the colonial introduction feels more traditional. It is common to see the bride’s family offering premium ganjis along with other newly-bought garments, to the groom, and be used for years, since. In the olden days, it was customary for prospective wives to knit elaborately-patterned guernseys to offer to their suitors in a bid to display their workmanship and testify their industrious nature.

Children in the subcontinent’s slums can often be seen in brand-new or time-worn oversized or time-worn undersized ganjis, having grown into or out of it or been handed it down through their elder brothers, as is half-customary, half-compulsive.

Ganjis are the silent support troops of the Indian economy. It is a subcontinental uniform for half of the workforce. Although the guernsey is traditionally hand-knitted and sturdier, the humble mass-produced cotton ganji is similar in being dependable and as socially close-knit as its fibre structure. In its journey from the gansey pullover to the ganji singlet, Guernsey has only moved closer to our hearts.

Pictured top: Images kindly supplied by Puvvukonvict Photography.

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