It’s just not fashion

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Chetan Chauhan, the newly appointed Chairman of the National Institute of Fashion Technology. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Students of NIFT at a handloom unit in Hyderabad. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Students displaying their project work at NIFT in Hyderabad on May 18. Photo: Nagara Gopal

AS news of the former India cricketer Chetan Chauhan’s appointment as Chairman of the National Institute of Fashion Technology trickled in, a seasoned media analyst said: “As a youngster I used to pray for Chetan Chauhan. Every time he neared his 100, I would pray to God to help him complete his century. Today, though, I pray for the students of NIFT and their future.” (Incidentally, Chauhan retired from Test cricket without a century to his name.)

Textiles Minister Santosh Gangwar gave Chauhan a vote of confidence and pleaded with the media to give him “at least three months” to prove his worth. “Chauhan has a fair idea of fashion as he is widely travelled,” Gangwar said. “The NIFT board has 11 members belonging to different walks of life, including businessmen and designers,” he added.

The board includes Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India; Ruby Yadav, a former Miss Asia; Balkrishan Goenka, chairman of the Welspun Group; and P.K. Gupta, chairman of the Sharda Group of Institutions and chancellor of Sharda University. There are three lawmakers too: Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi and Lok Sabha members Poonam Mahajan and V. Sathyabama.

Contrary to what Gangwar said, Chauhan, a long-time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader with two terms as a Lok Sabha member, has never shown the slightest interest in anything other than the affairs of the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA). He was said to be the man supporting Arun Jaitley in the latter’s no-holds-barred fight with fellow party leader Kirti Azad. Chauhan’s elevation to NIFT is being seen as a reward for his loyalty to Jaitley. Soon after the announcement, Azad saw a silver lining in the whole affair, quipping: “I hope now he will spend less time in the DDCA.” Chauhan himself claimed that he would divide his time between his new responsibilities, the DDCA (where he is the vice chairman) and his own printing press. “I will give 20 per cent of my time to my business, 20 per cent to NIFT and the rest to the DDCA,” he said, sparking off a series of tweets about the new Chairman not giving NIFT top priority. Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said: “The government wants to convert the National Institute of Fashion Technology into the National Institute of Cricket Technology.”

It prompted the seasoned fashion designer Ritu Beri to say: “The NIFT deserves 100 per cent attention. I would have liked to have someone with more time to take care of the institution.” Indeed, fashion designers have been less than lukewarm to his appointment.

The former NIFT student Rina Dhaka wondered what was wrong with the fashion fraternity that an outsider had to be given the top post. “I would use this moment basically to just say, why not us? We do have a plethora of talent.” She complained: “We have never had a professional from the field at the helm. I am not into stone throwing, but the government, like [those] in the past, has created a ceremonial head. The NIFT needs people closely associated with fashion. His appointment is not going to affect me. I can only wish him luck.”

Past NIFT chairmen include the retired civil servants Kiran Dhingra and R. Poornalingam and Venu Srinivasan, chairman of TVS Motor and managing director of Sundaram Clayton.

The designer Shaina N.C. reiterated the point, saying that the institute had never had a professional from the fashion world at the head.

There are others who question the wisdom of appointing somebody who is close to 70 years old to head the fashion institute. Chauhan’s elevation is part of the Narendra Modi government’s desire to fill the top posts in institutions of note with pliant men who may not necessarily be competent.

First, Gajendra Chauhan was put in charge of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, where sustained protests by students were of little avail. Then, Pahlaj Nihalani was appointed the Chairman of Central Board of Film Certification. Nihalani did himself no favours during the recent controversy surrounding the release of the director Abhishek Chaubey’s film “Udta Punjab”, by calling himself a chamcha (sycophant) of Modi.

The latest appointment clearly shows the intellectual deficit of the ruling dispensation, and many people say that these three appointments to cultural bodies and that of the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research underline the fact that the BJP is using these bodies to dumb down discourse.

NIFT was set up in 1986 and is today considered a premier institute that has the likes of J.J. Valaya, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Ashish Soni and Namrata Joshipura as its former students. Chetan Chauhan, however, takes over the reins at a time when the institution is facing multiple challenges, including stiff competition from private institutes and a lack of trained faculty members.

It takes in around 2,700 students for its bachelor’s and master’s degrees every year at its 15 centres across the country. In trying to reach every nook and corner of the country, it may have spread itself too thin. And that is what makes Chauhan’s ascension more debatable. Rather than plugging the loopholes of the past, the government seems intent on creating a fresh breach.

In his playing days, Chauhan was regarded as a gritty, gutsy batsman. He will need that same grit and guts to fulfil his new responsibility. NIFT may just be too much for Chauhan. As for the students, as the media analyst said, they might need a prayer or two.

Ziya Us Salam

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