Bohemianism as a lifestyle emerged in post-Revolution France. What started as poverty and the political rejection of the aristocracy, became an affirmation, an intellectual counter-culture to mainstream norms, embraced by the artists and writers of the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) of Paris. This included poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the artists Braque, the young Picasso, Modigliani and Leonor Fini, and the writers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.
The term, Bohemian, was initially associated in France with the gypsies, who migrated westwards from the northwest of India over 1,000 years ago and faced rejection wherever they tried to settle. The exception was Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.
In 1423, the Holy Roman emperor and the king, wrote a letter to the head of the gypsies, stating they had the same rights as other citizens and that they would be allowed to follow their own culture and social rules. The gypsy love of independence, music, dance, colourful clothing and eclectic accessories, and their own brand of spirituality, resonated with the creative community of Paris.
Bohemian clothing was the most visible aspect of this lifestyle. It was not uncommon for a poet, artist, musician or a writer to wear the same coat for five years, as Jean Paul Sartre did. Simone de Beauvoir dressed creatively with materials and accessories from local and peasant materials from all over the world. It was not about being financially down and out, but a graceful defiance of materialism. They were the vivants — feeling alive and celebrating their individualism.
Bohemian as a fashion statement took on a life of its own, inspiring the Beat Generation of the 1950s, the hippy style of the 1960s and 1970s, the grunge fashion of the 1980s and, now, ‘Boho chic’. In 1966, the fashion guru Yves Saint Lauren said, “I had had enough of making dresses for jaded billionaires,” and created a new line inspired by bohemianism.
Bohemianism is also an attitude. A bohemian would be more excited with the smell of the first monsoon rain than by window shopping in a mall. They can make their home look beautiful on a shoestring budget with the creative use of found and recycled materials. A bohemian is not an angry rebel, but rather a person who, as Ada Clare says, gracefully steps over rules guided by their own personal principles and aesthetic taste.
As a mindset, bohemianism reflects unconventionality and independent thinking. Journalists of the American Civil war called themselves bohemian to describe what Andie Tucher refers to as “their shared conviction that they were different from everyone else around them.” In 1872, a group of artists and journalists established the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Ironically, it soon became an exclusive club, including rich industrialists, high-ranking military officials and politicians, including the likes of Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
While bohemianism is seen as a deeply personal and private set of beliefs, a few public figures may fit the image. The Nizam of Hyderabad, considered the richest man in the world until 1950, entertained his guests with gold cutlery while he himself ate out of a tin plate and was even known to wear second-hand clothes. Gandhi greeted world leaders while wearing a loincloth. Princess Abida Sultan of Bhopal had a man’s haircut, rarely wore jewellery, flew planes and played polo. The world-famous philanthropist Abdus Sattar Edhi retained his drab office in Karachi’s old district of Mithadar, always wearing his signature grey clothes.
Some politicians also challenge the norms, though they would not hardly be seen as bohemian. Theodore Roosevelt became a war-time president while confined to a wheelchair. Donald Trump’s tweets bypassed his White House staff who had to accept them as official statements. Vladimir Putin fans are treated to images of the shirtless president riding his horse in Siberia. Jacinda Arden wore a headscarf to show solidarity with her Muslim citizens. Imran Khan thrills the man on the street with his international speeches that bypass the rules of diplomacy. Pope Francis regularly sets aside Vatican conventions. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, challenged conventional economics by establishing microfinancing, as did Dr Amjad Saqib, founder of Akhuwat Foundation.
Elizabeth Wilson says we live in a world where, “a web of mass distraction” is designed “to smash the diamond of an individual’s will into a thousand smithereens of tweets and trivialities.” But the French novelist Maurice Barrès reminds us that, “Nothing passionate exists in the world without bohemianism.”
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist.
She may be reached at
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 12th, 2022