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HOW  KURTAS CAME TO AMERICA AND ULTIMATELY

INSPIRED INDIANS TO ADD COLOR TO THEIR NATIVE DRESS

 

 When I went to India in 1956, I planned on wearing Levis; they were sturdy, the kind of clothes for knocking about.  You had to buy them several sizes too large for when they were washed, they shrunk    However, they were not comfortable for India, for Indians, for the most part, sat cross legged on the floor, and Levis can be very binding when you sit that way for long periods.   Westerners aren't used to sitting crossed-legged on floors.

 

Aware of this problem my Indian brothers wanted to get me out of my Levis and into something comfortable.  At their suggestion I bought some cloth at the local fabric store and had a tailor, whose shop was cabinet and a sewing machine under a large tree, make me my first Pyjamas and Kurtas.  For fabric I chose what I believed to be a sturdy cloth called Khaddar.   Two sets were made for me, one out of brown and the other out of grey. 

 

I did not know at the time that this cloth was for workers.  I was a Westerner and my Indian brothers did not like my choice of material. They made this fact clearly known to me.  Indian men usually weare Pyjama and Kurta or Dhoti, which is a sheet gathered at the waist to hold it up.  They were also in the habit of covering their heads.  Sikhs wore turbans and others a small cap called a Topi.   I did not have much success in winding a turban from this long piece of cloth that was used for that purpose, so I wore a topi.  An Indian brother, a Sikh,  took a liking to me and would give me his turban.  He wrapped one especially for me so that after that we only had to exchange turbans.  Each one was of a different color.   Below you see me with a topi and a turban.

 

One day I  went before my guru in the garden.  He made no remark about my clothes; however, when Dr. and Mrs. Fripp and I were guests at his family home in Sirsa, he suggested we go shopping.  Our purchase was white cloth.

 

                                                          

 

 Master had his tailor measure me and also Dr. Fripp.   Dr. and Mrs. Fripp were two very conservative English people who thought I had gone native.  And they were not about to.  However, since Master had Dr. Fripp measured for a Pyjama and Kurta, he could not refuse to wear them once they were made.  At this time some Indian ladies got Mrs. Fripp into a Sari.  When Master saw her, he commented upon how beautiful shet looked in it.    From that time on Mrs. Fripp would wear only Saris, Dr. Fripp and I with our white Pyjamas and Kurtas   Later on we would take apart my Pyjama and Kurta in order to make patterns to be used for making a version adapted to American.   This version would not be white, grey or brown, on the contrary, we would choose bright, colorful fabric which was being created at the time.  Below you can see me with Dr. and Mrs. Fripp in our Indian dress and my wife, Maria, in our shop, Polly Glotz, working with the patterns we had made.  These patterns would later serve for making Kurtas for The Strawberry Alarm Clock rock group, also our Kurtas would inspire large department stores to make what they called meditation shirts.

   

 

On the boat from Colombo, Ceylon to New York, I read an article about a movement which was taking place in America.  Lawrence Lipton had written a book, called The Holy Barbarians,  which was about a group of people who were rebelling against the materialism of the 50’s.  An article appeared in the magazine section of  the Los Angeles Times.  A Bingo Parlor from early Venice, California, became a hang-out for these people whom Lawrence Lipton called "Holy Barbarians" .   It was called The Gas House.  The term "Beatnik" was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on 2 April 1958, a play on the name of the recent Russian satellite Sputnik.   

 

THE GAS HOUSE, Venice, Califonria                  Beatnik Tom      COEXISTENCE BAGEL SHOP, San Francisco

The several floors of the former casino are not shown.

 

Since I spent my early childhood in Venice, I was interested in learning more about this movement especially when I learned that these people were interested in the philosophies and religions of the East.  I had just returned from India and could, thereby, sympathize and feel a kinship with them.  I looked upon all of their sex, drugs, wildness, alienation as symptoms of a soul search for truth.  They were just looking in the wrong direction.  This observation was correct for a number of former Beatniks and Hippies are now very devoted to spiritual ideals and are living very clean lives.

 

My father had a house in Venice which was in great need of repair.  Apparently, people on drugs had been living in it for it was crawling with cockroaches.  They covered the drapes, the curtains, the floors.  Wherever one looked, there were cockroaches.  You cannot believe unless you saw it when we opened the refrigerator, they were several inches deep.  In addition of this, the house smelled of urine.  It was my father's house and I need a job.  So it fell to me and a friend, Len Duval, to put the house in order for the next tenant. 

 

Neighbors are curious.   They were happy to see that something was being done with the house.  They had felt like burning it down.   Just after we had started to work in the morning, a lady from across the Speedway came over to enquire what we were doing. In her conversation with Len Duval, it was learned that she had had some connection with Paramhansa Yogananda and was in search of a particular book..   Francis Williams, who had been a nun for twenty years, had some books left over from a philosophical book store.  Len Duval was a friend of hers and told the lady  from across the Speedway that perhaps Francis might have the title she was looking for.  This conversation resulted in a short mention of the spiritual path we were following.    It so happened that several neighbors in Venice from across the Speedway were interested in philosophy, and when they learned that Len Duval and I had a master in India, we were invited to tea that afternoon.  They were very anxious  to learn more about this spiritual path, which was not Self Realization or any other organization they were familiar with.  Our work required that we stay in Venice for several weeks.  In the evenings we visited the Gas House, Venice West Café, which at that time was run by John Kenevan and Cafe Positano on Pacific Coast Highway.   Many coffee houses had philosophical book stores connected with them..    While the adults went to bars, the children went to coffee houses.  The Unicorn on the Sunset Strip had a bookstore and became well-known like the Bodhi Tree.   Beatnik writers, like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg popularized moving around the country. 

 

In San Francisco the most  famous meeting place was The Coexistence Bagel Shop.  Across the street was The Coffee Gallery. and a little further down Grant Avenue was Cassandra's.  The common thread which united the Beatniks was a disaffection with the current society and its values.  Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean expressed the frustration many young people felt because of their sense of alienation.  The outrageous actions of many of these people hid a sincere and deep desire to know the truth and to discover values which would not change with the times.   It was not uncommon to see a copy of Steppenwolf or Siddhartha in the back pocket, or a volume of Sufi poetry, or writings on Zen.  I seemed to sense a spiritual hunger that I had not seen in my fellow Americans before.  I was familiar with artists and bohemians, but this group of people was different.  Having just returned from visiting an ashram in India and having seen the people there, I believed that many of these Beatniks would one day take up a spiritual path and that which they were looking for without consciously realizing it was a living spiritual master without feet of clay.  After observing the sadness and apparent desperation of some of the visitors to the Coffee Gallery, I did not feel I could go up to one and say, "Hey, this is what you are looking for!  Who would listen?"   One young fellow was picked up by the police on Grant Avenue and in spite of the fact that he had Traveler's checks in his pocket, he was charged with vagrancy.   So I wrote a poem, Beatniks of the World---Unite!, but I never showed it to anybody.

 

Facing the problem of looking for work, it occurred to me that promoting Indian Pyjamas and Kurtas might be a successful business if they were made out of colorful fabric.  A talented Beatnik, Ron Koepke, had a friend who was a seamstress.  We decided to buy fabric to make up some samples.  Upon returning from Los Angeles with the fabric, we rented a vacant shop on Grant Avenue.  Ron used it as a temporary crash pad. until we could get it in order.  However, owing to a lack of discipline Ron ended up in jail in Santa Cruz for having dated an under aged girl he had met at The Coexistence Bagel Shop. .  Our project with the Kurtas died before we could make up any samples.  I never lost the vision, however.

 

In the late 50’s a former Beatnik and his wife, Marvin and Pamela Babin and I opened a  vegetarian restaurant which we called The Little Prince.  It was in a small shop on Edgemont Avenue just north of Fountain Avenue.  It was also just down the street from Self Realization Fellowship on Sunset Boulevard.  Self Realization Fellowship had a very fine restaurant as part ;of their facility and often the renunciates from there would visit us on their night off, Monday.  

 

The mother of my partner, Marvin Babin, could sew and with her kindness made the first three Kurtas out of colorful fabric.  We did not commercialize the Kurtas at that time for our partnership broke up.  I went to Europe and Marvin carried on The Little Prince with another partner, Joanne Doyle.    In England I visited my friends, Dr. and Mrs. Fripp, after which I went on to Italy.  In Italy I visited a friend who was an actor.  We discussed plans for making a movie in India and for this project I bought a Volkswagen bus.  For some reason the plans fell through and I returned to the United States and opened a small foreign language book store.   Using a play on words, I called it Polly Glotz.  A polyglot is a person who speaks many languages.    Two or more become polyglots.  In a short space of time Polly Glotz expanded from a foreign language books to became a boutique offering items of giftware and later clothes.  In 1966 I got married to Maria.  For the ceremony I wore one of the prototype Kurtas made by Marvin's mother.  Maria liked the idea of Pyjamas and  Kurtas so we decided to make them for sale.

 

A friend of  my wife, Maria, was Marc Warner.  He and his wife, Kathy, visited our shop one day.  They told us they were interested in making clothes and were considering something along Spanish lines. I brought out the three samples which they liked them immediately.  As a result, the four of us decided to collaborate in their production.  We purchased outlandish material and started sewing.  We used the Kurtas I brought back from India to make the original patterns.  We promoted our wares by wearing them everywhere.  As you can see below.
 

                

 

                 

In addition to the Pyjamas and Kurtas, we also made Angel Dresses.  Marc suggested we make gigantic pillows, which we did.  You will see members of The Strawberry Alarm Clock are sitting on them on the album cover below.

 

Polly Glotz was a small shop in an alcove off Western Avenue.  It was a very peaceful place with a giant Indian rubber tree.    From a commercial point of view it was probably not the best location for a boutique, but it was a wonderful place to be during this Hippie time.  We developed a loyal clientele.  People loved the shop after they found it.  It was just down the street from the Cinema Theater which had special screenings of all kinds of savant guard movies on Saturday night which was called Movies Around Midnight.  When the regular programming was over, it was followed by this new special program which consisted of movies from young film makers as well as avant grade and films which could be called "esoteric".    One night Tiny Tim with his ukulele performed between the movies.

 

 

            Polly Glotz on Western Avenue, Los Angeles, California 1967

                    

 

Marc and Kathy felt that the shop on Western Avenue was too secluded and too hidden from the public view.  Also they had two friends who wanted to get into the action and who talked them into pulling  away from Polly Glotz.   With these friends they decided to leave Polly Glotz and open their own shop on Westwood Boulevard.  They called  it Sat Purush.  Sat Purush means True Person and is used to refer to the Supreme Being.  It reflected their spiritual orientation.  They filled their store window with meditation pillows and allowed people wearing Kurtas to lounge on them. 

 

Earlier two Rock groups visited Polly Glotz.  One was The Association with Gary Alexander and the other was one headed by Bud Mathis' Sunset Trip   We suggested to both of them that they outfit their group with Kurtas, but they did not pick up on our suggestion.

 

With the Kurtas on display (out in the world) on Westwood Boulevard, they caught the attention of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, who decided to use them for their group.  Later major department stores picked up the trend and created meditation shirts.  Pyjamas and Kurtas were now being sold at both Sat Purush and Polly Glotz.  One day we decided to go to India overland and closed our doors  

 

Thus ended our involvement with both Sat Purush and the Kurta movement until within the last year or so, Tom and Maria Curtis received a call from Kathy Scarms asking if we still had the patterns for the Kurtas.  She said that she was interested in making them again. and requested that we send them to her.   In addition to the patterns, we sent her the prototype Kurta in which I was married, the one which Marvin Babin's mother made for me back in the early 60's.   

 

You now know how the Kurta, the traditional Indian dress, ultimately came to America to end up on the cover of a rock group album, The Strawberry Alarm Clock and mention in media publication such as Life and Look and influenced the Indians to add color to their national dress.

 

Advertisement in Los Angeles Oraccle, May 1967   Advertisement Los Angeles Free Press  1967

 

 

 

                     Album cover The Strawberry Alarm Clock

                                                          

 

                                                                                                                           Tom Curtis

                                                                                                                     ( All rights reserved (c) 2009

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