The nun who was my Class II teacher, the Bengali Muslim cleaning ladies that troop through my colony’s gates every morning, friends in journalism, friends in large consulting firms, Bollywood actresses and public figures and politicians like Mother Teresa, Indira and Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Sushma Swaraj and Smriti Irani. If you’re looking for proof of the sari’s persistent ubiquity, all you have to do is look around.
On November 12, the New York Times published an article that claims the Narendra Modi government – steered by textile minister Irani – is promoting Hindu nationalism by popularising Banarasi saris, which according to the author, are mostly worn by Hindu women.
Modi supporters are irate that the article takes a negative tone on the promotion of Hindu nationalism and the liberals are miffed with the ignorant assertion that the sari is a Hindu garment.
Twitter and the media have erupted with criticism. To begin with, there’s the rather obvious fact that the sari doesn’t lend itself to neat identity-based boxes – women wear it regardless of their religion, nationality, caste, class or region of origin. And the Banarasi sari, in particular, has always been, and remains, an aspirational addition to the trousseau and wardrobe of most brides with means.
Additionally, the piece ignores the crippling effect that demonetisation and the poorly-implemented Goods and Services Tax have had on Varanasi’s famed weavers, along with other craftsmen and cottage industries across the country. As it is, the unorganised sector has been unable to compete with mechanised production in India’s post-liberalisation economy.
There’s no denying that the handloom industry is struggling and has been for a while. There aren’t very many places in the world where traditional clothing still remains a part of regular life, yet the sari – and other garments like kurtas, salwars etc – have resisted such sidelining. In part because the market has produced affordable, mass-produced versions of these garments for ever-eager consumers. The commercial commitment to saris is not limited to the lowest common denominator either; high-end stores like Fabindia have always emphasised the rustic, earthy origins of their products, and even higher up the ladder, bridal fashion (invariably traditional) is the major driving force behind India’s fashion industry.
The handloom industry’s economic hardship was a reality well before Modi came into power, and definitely before the government sought to revive the Banarasi weaver industry. But the government is far from being the only kid on the revivalist block.
Chinna Dua, who runs a popular Instagram account chronicling her extensive collection of saris, is also part of a large group of sari enthusiasts who came together to boost the flagging handloom industry across the country. The NYT article is correct in that the sari, though far from absent, is definitely not as prevalent in offices and other places as it used to be. As Dua explained, she got together with her fellow sari-enthusiasts “not because saris have gone out of fashion, but because handloom has.”
Dua works hard to raise awareness about the various handloom traditions across the country through her Instagram posts. Each picture is accompanied by a long caption that narrates her personal, emotional connection to the featured sari, along with its geographic origins, materials and weaving technique.
When asked if she thinks of the sari as a Hindu garment, she uttered an emphatic, “Utter nonsense!” She promptly drew attention to the fact that her group includes women from Karachi, Pakistan and that saris are common in majority-Muslim Bangladesh as well.
Another quick glance through celebrities’ Instagram profiles and you realise the sari, in varying degrees of fanciness, is not going anywhere. Vidya Balan has exclusively appeared in saris for years now, Deepika Padukone is often pictured wearing elaborate creations by designers like Sabyasachi, and on the other end of the spectrum, Kalki Koechlin and Kiran Rao seem to love the lighter linen and cotton creations from designers like Anavila.
As Laila Tyabji, who is a renowned crafts revivalist and founder of Dastkar – a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation – wrote in The Ladies Finger earlier this year:
One of the sari’s extraordinary strengths — contributing to its survival as a wearing style, even in an age of globalised culture — is that each wearer’s persona becomes unique, and in a way that cannot be copied. Priyanka Chopra is a sensuous sex-bomb, while Indira Nooyi, is the epitome of corporate power.
Additionally, the sari’s popularity is not limited to a particular ideological group. Liberals, Hindu nationalists, the rich, middle class, wage workers, professionals, home-makers, celebrities, politicians all continue to wear it.
In addition to the various materials that make the sari a versatile style, its resilience can also be credited to the many variations of draping styles – it’s too dynamic a garment to be homogenised. In October, Border&Fall released the Sari Series, an archive of videos that shows viewers how to drape saris in 80 different styles. On their website, they explain, “We are increasingly seeing the sari worn for occasion wear and moreover in a single draping style. The Nivi drape is the most commonly associated drape of sari while in fact, there are over 100 that exist.”
The project, started by Malika Verma Kashyap, advised by Rta Kapur Chisti, an authority on saris and a textile scholar, and put together with a host of other designers and filmmakers, aims to revive other, regional ways of draping to usher the sari into contemporary Indian wardrobes.
Dua, Kashyap and their contemporaries are part of a contingent that love the sari but also recognise that it’s currently popular form is not the most convenient. Dua, for example, says she cannot live in a sari the way her mother did. She prefers other clothing for activities like cooking and travelling. Kashyap, on her website, points out that the most common style requires a petticoat and “15 safety pins”, making regular-wear a task, whereas there are several other styles that require neither petticoat nor a handful of safety pins.
Kashyap’s labour of love is also a part of Google’s massive new Arts and Culture initiative. Featuring 148 items, the archive takes you through the evolution of saris from 1799 until the present day. The description on top tellingly identifies the sari as a garment worn in the Indian subcontinent, with origins that stretch as far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation. The brief, single-paragraph introduction itself is surprisingly informative. For instance, the Nivi style of draping (the common over the shoulder one we all recognise instantly) originated in Andhra Pradesh. Any random click on any of the featured pictures is likely to yield a fact that disrupts a nation-based understanding of the sari.
Maybe the author of the New York Times piece is right and the Modi government is trying to push a nationalist narrative through the sari. It has definitely been done before – scholars like Partha Chatterjee have done a fair bit of scholarly work on how women were entrusted with being the custodians of ‘Indianness’ in the private sphere during the independence movement. And traditional Indian clothing definitely played a role in the bolstering of this ‘Indianness’ as it created a clearly delineated identity from the colonisers. However, it wasn’t about a Hindu identity then, nor is it now.
The NYT piece fell into a tired old trap – the same one that tells us Muslim women who wear a hijab are all oppressed under barbaric regimes without asking any of the concerned women what they actually think. I can’t help but think that he would have come up with an entirely different narrative if he’d bothered to ask the women around him.
If there’s a story worth telling about the sari, it’s about our entire subcontinent’s enduring love for it and the various people working to ensure that the sari never gets relegated to the ‘special occasion only’ part of our wardrobes. Unfortunately, that’s not the story the NYT wrote.
Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.