I have written before about the general strangeness of certain exquisitely weird and quaint practices that we see in school, such as Mass Drill.
The recent enthusiasm shown by my fellow Indians in celebrating Halloween by wearing outlandish and terrifying costumes, as well as celebrating Diwali be wearing even more outlandish and terrifying costumes, reminded me of another abominable ritual seen in schools - the fancy-dress competition.
I mean, who thought up this stuff? "Wait, I know! Let's make little kids dress up in ludicrous costumes, give them prizes, and we can all have a good laugh. And, even better, we can embarrass them in front of their friends during their teen years by digging up and publicly displaying oh-so-cute photos of them dressed up as peacocks, drunkards or Michael Jackson. Hooray!" some evil genius must have squealed in delight, pleased to have come up with a brilliant plan for humiliating innocent children for hundreds of years.
However, for kids like me who never really took part in fancy-dress competitions, it was two things.
1. A learning experience.
2. A hoot.
Firstly, our school fancy dress competitions taught us that there was no such thing as a level playing field. No matter what everyone else heroically attempted, it didn't matter - S.Sivaram (as Veerapandia Kattabomman) would win, thanks to his elaborate costume and impeccable dialogue delivery. (Or, to be more accurate without disturbing the alliterative quality - monologue mastery) A few minutes after S.Sivaram went on stage and began his performance, if you were to go backstage, you would invariably find an assortment of glum Gandhijis, disappointed doctors and pessimistic pirates, now certain that they would at best win second prize, earning them a plastic tiffin box for their efforts. In fact, the only years when S.Sivaram did not win first prize dressed as Veerapandia Kattabomman were those years when S.Sivaram won first prize dressed as Chhatrapathi Shivaji. The others stood no chance.
Fancy-dress also taught us that there was no room for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. I remember when one smart kid had the misfortune of completely forgetting about the fancy-dress competition to be held that day, and turning up in regular school uniform. In an unforgettable display of quick thinking, imagination and dedication to duty that any modern manager would rightly applaud and reward, he decided to turn his weakness into a strength - and took part as 'The Invisible Man'. He pulled off this remarkable feat by simply not bothering to step on to stage, and introducing himself and making 'footstep sounds' on the off-stage compere's microphone. The audience went wild, but the judges gave him 0 points for 'costume', and instead gave the first prize to S.Sivaram, as Veerapandia Kattabomman (or maybe it was Chhatrapathi Shivaji, I don't remember). A travesty, without doubt.
There were also some inexplicable things. Year after year, at least three kids would come dressed as a 'mobile departmental store', whatever that was supposed to be. The basic idea was this - you wore a kind of sack, with a hole for your head to emerge through. Then, you'd pin assorted things - chocolate, water-bottle, comic book, paper plates - that you'd ostensibly get in a departmental store, on to the aforementioned sack. And you'd hope that the judges liked your costume better than S.Sivaram's. I never understood this - nobody dressed as a 'mobile departmental store' ever won any kind of prize, but yet every single year someone would think it was a tremendous idea to come as one. People are weird.
Of course, as my son grows up, I'm tempted to unleash all sorts of evil through his fancy-dress competitions. In the recent past, I've considered sending him dressed as such abstract things a mathematical expression, the morning news, a cold morning in July, or a joke about Suresh Kalmadi. That should seriously raise the bar for the competition. If there can be abstract painting, why can't there be abstract fancy-dress? See? I have no idea why my wife disagrees with this - she violently objected when I suggested sending my son dressed up as the Clark's Tables for this year's fancy dress.
For fancy-dress to remain relevant and useful in modern times, it must change and adapt. There's no point in persisting with the old ways - and continuing to dress up as boring old policemen, mad scientists and disco dancers. It's time to bring on edgier, more meaningful fancy-dress, where kids are instead dressed up as more current characters - such as incessantly chattering news anchors, social-media 'experts' and cricket bookies.
Even though it is a rather pointless tradition, a tradition it undoubtedly is - and hence fancy-dress must be preserved. It is our duty to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities to publicly embarrass themselves and be subject to ridicule from their peers as we did. It's only right that we keep fancy-dress competitions alive, so that we can prepare the children of today for the staggering humiliation they must face in later life- as they inevitably grow up and become reality show contestants.