Delhi University ditches ‘colonial’ black robes at convocation for ‘angavastras’: What are they?

The Delhi University (DU) will be ditching the conventional black robe worn by students during convocation for Indian attire.

The varsity, which will hold its 99th convocation on 25 February, will see students and officials wearing ‘angvastras’ “inspired by Indian culture”, PTI reported citing a senior DU official.

What is this ‘angavastra’ that will replace the “old colonial gowns”? What is the history of the academic dress worn during convocation? How has the debate over academic dress gripped India? Let’s take a closer look.

What is the ‘angavastra’?

Angavastra is a stole-like garment worn over the shoulders that Delhi University will provide to graduating students as well as officials.

For the officials and guests, attire will be made of khadi silk, to promote Indian traditions and culture, as per PTI.

“The robe or gown had been there for quite a long time. The university felt the need to change the way. Students will be dressed in ‘angvastras’ and officials in an outfit made of Khadi silk, it is like going back to our roots,” DU vice chancellor Yogesh Singh told PTI.

Explaining the reason behind the move, DS Rawat, Dean of Examination told Indian Express, “We have been planning this for quite some time. We wanted to change the colonial issues, so we spoke about changing the academic costume. In the meetings held, we decided that the administration will wear different Indian traditional dresses and the students will wear angavastras (stoles)”.

“The symbol on the back of the costumes for both officials and students is the tree of life and the university’s logo in purple in the front”, Rawat added.

The colour of the stoles will also differ for undergraduate (UG), postgraduate (PG) and PhD students.

The move comes around two months after the DU Vice Chancellor formed a convocation committee that suggested ideas for the apparel. The designs were then approved by Academic and Executive Councils, Indian Express reported.

History of robes and caps in educational institutes

Many academic institutes around the world have adopted black robes and square caps for their convocation ceremonies after being inspired by esteemed Western universities.

The origin of the dress remains unclear, with some saying the robes were worn by Islamic scholars in West Asia and North Africa and the apparel made its way westward, as per an Indian Express report.

The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and The West‘ (1981) by George Makdisi says that the tradition of wearing robes first began in Egypt’s Al Azhar madrasa, established in the 10th Century, the report added.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the tradition goes as far back as the 12th Century when the first universities were coming up in Europe from religious organisations.

Gowns and hoods were worn by clergy and this apparel was also adopted by scholars, according to the Columbia University in America.

The gowns provided warmth in unheated buildings and also set the “student apart from his fellow citizens”.

According to Colorado State University, the hoods covered the shaved heads of the clergy — until “superseded for that purpose by the skull cap.”

“In England, in the second half of the 14th century, the statutes of certain colleges forbade “excess in apparel” and prescribed the wearing of a long gown. In the days of Henry VIII of England, Oxford and Cambridge first began prescribing a definite academic dress and made it a matter of university control even to the extent of its minor details,” the university said in its article on the history of academic regalia.

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These English academic traditions followed colonists in the United States, as per The Washington Post.

By the 1700s, many universities across the US started adopting academic gowns for scholars.

For a long period, Columbia students used to wear caps and gowns daily while in residence, as per the university.

The academic dress has undergone several changes over the years. Pixabay (Representational Image)

According to Columbia University’s history of academic garb, in 1894, an American Intercollegiate Commission settled on black as the colour for all robes and also standardised the academic dress.

This academic attire has undergone many changes over the years, including changes in the colour of the robes, with variations depending on the university.

The cap has also changed throughout the years, with mortarboards or square caps coming much later.

The tossing of the caps in the convocation is believed to have started in 1912 with graduates from the US Naval Academy starting the tradition, as per National Geographic.

Debate continues in India

The debate over these robes is not new.

As per Economic Times, as universities were set up in India, they tried to “Indianise academic robes”.

In 2010, the then Union minister Jairam Ramesh removed the gown he was wearing as a guest at the convocation function of the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal, calling it a “barbaric colonial legacy.”

“I still have not been able to figure out after 60 years of Independence why we stick to these barbaric colonial relics,” he said, as per Indian Express.

Many Indian universities have started replacing conventional robes and caps. AFP (Representational Image)

“Why we cannot have a convocation in simple dress instead of coming dressed up as medieval vicars and popes,” the Congress leader asked.

In 2013, students of Sampuranand Sanskrit University in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi walked out of the convocation ceremony to protest against wearing the conventional convocation gown.

The students at the University of Hyderabad protested when they were asked to wear Indian dresses instead of ceremonial robes for the convocation in 2015, once again stirring the debate over the academic garb.

In 2019, the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a circular asking all universities to replace the Western graduation robe with traditional attire made up of Indian handloom.

“With changing times, everything changes. Indian universities have been carrying on the British style of wearing a robe during convocations. It’s high time that we change the tradition and make it localised,” a senior UGC official was then quoted as saying by The Print.

Many Indian Institutes of Technology including Roorkee, Bombay and Kanpur have already adopted traditional Indian attire — sarees for women and kurta-pajama for men.

The University of Mumbai received flak from some quarters when it discarded ceremonial robes and hats for convocation ceremonies in 2019.

With inputs from agencies

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