02 February 2023

Fashioning Delhi

In her doctoral research, Suchismita Chattopadhyay conducts an ethnography of private grooming institutes in the “world-class” city of Delhi, India. She shows how the grooming industry promises different classes of people a “polished transformation” and the production of new subjectivities via language, soft skills and appearance, while simultaneously proposing the very discourse and aesthetics of a seemingly global urbanity. 

Why did you decide to study grooming institutions in Delhi? 

This research topic emerged from my everyday experiences of trying to fit myself into an all-women’s college at Delhi University, where I obtained my undergraduate degree. The idea of “fitting in” to this elite college went beyond academic merit. The aspiration to fit in and be urban and urbane required young women to embody an intangible aspect of taste. A certain je ne sais quoi which carried tangible consequences of judgment, access, admission and respect in many spaces and circles. I noticed that fluency in English did play to one’s advantage but it was not enough. I also understood that small-town-ness shone through our hair, clothes, shoes, accent, vocabulary, makeup or the lack of it. Of course, there were many of us who adapted and thrived without many difficulties and attributed that to our educational experience and exposure to the capital city of Delhi. 

My social science education enabled me to expand my gaze and pay more attention to these seemingly mundane things. I was immediately struck by the growing service industry of a rapidly globalising Delhi that was all about bodily transformation and the aspiration to embody a global aesthetic. I saw the countless number of young men and women in the hospitality sector who would be fumbling with English grammar and pronunciation, looking ill at ease in their new uniforms and high heels but smiling determinedly as they assisted their clients. 

It was evident to me that the service industry mandated extensive grooming of workers’ bodies, and this led me to look for such institutions in Delhi that went beyond makeup classes. I was not surprised to see their existence, but I was not fully prepared for just how organised the entire market of grooming and self-improvement was. They ranged from spoken English classes, personality development or soft skills courses, and finishing and etiquette schools for women to a relatively new profession called image management.

How did you formulate your research questions and what was your methodology?

I was broadly interested in two things: Who is the groomed subject and what are the main dispositions and orientations that they must adhere to? That is, how must a groomed and polished subject of an aspiring global city like Delhi speak, behave and look? What are the modes of urban aesthetics and possibilities of being, belonging and inhabiting a world-class city?

If I wanted to find out the modus operandi of the grooming schools, it made the most amount of sense to do an ethnography of the grooming terrain of Delhi. However, it was not very straightforward. Most of the grooming schools were reluctant to let me sit in their classes or interview them. I deployed a range of methods to access my field: I attended regular classes as a student in spoken English and personality development, became a client for an image consultant, attended career workshops on image consulting, doubled up as a spoken English instructor’s assistant and attended job interviews to be a communication skills teacher. I also conducted interviews, facilitated group discussions and hung out with my interlocutors after classes. Additionally, I perused the websites of various grooming schools in India, apart from studying the pamphlets and workbooks that were handed to me as part of my classes. In the meantime, I also could not discount the influence of popular culture and kept an eye out for grooming schools and their reporting in the media, while also watching Bollywood movies and Indian web series that featured spoken English, Delhi and grooming. 

Of course, I was not the most chilled-out ethnographer in the field. I must acknowledge my committee members Patricia Spyer and Filipe Calvão for being my best interlocutors over email as I ranted to them about all my dead-ends. Needless to say, those emails proved to be quite useful notes on methodological reflections when I was writing my dissertation. 

Can you describe your major findings?

I made three findings, which I can summarise as follows:  

  1. By drawing attention to the grooming terrain of the city, we see that the self-improvement industry is not only about the fashioning of a neoliberal global workforce but that the aspirational trajectories of my interlocutors are more diverse, encompassing the personal, the pleasurable and the mundane. 
  2. Grooming schools not only produce the urban subject but are simultaneously proposing the discourse and the aesthetics of that urbanity and what it means to be global. It is located in speaking English with a “neutral” accent and possessing the appropriate body language, etiquette, soft skills and appearance.
  3. Grooming entails practice and it also signifies a quality, as well as a qualification. It is a means to accruing symbolic and cultural capital. I view grooming as a political category that demonstrates how structures of caste, class, gender and linguistic backgrounds get articulated through practices of language, etiquette and appearance.

What could be the political and social implications of your thesis?

Politically speaking, the thesis offers a broader critique of the self-improvement industry and the postschool futures and the skill development programmes introduced by the states of the Global South and the private sector to make the youth market ready and employable. Socially, it is an extensive critical commentary on the seemingly innocent and personal choice of taste and aesthetics. 

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Suchismita Chattopadhyay defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in September 2022. Associate Professor Filipe Calvão presided the committee, which included Professor Patricia Spyer, Thesis Supervisor, and Associate Professor Carla Jones, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder, USA.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Chattopadhyay, Suchismita. “Fashioning New Selves: Grooming and Personality Development in Delhi, India.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office. 
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by limeart/