The Soft Power of the Sari

The prestigious Design Museum in London – named European Museum of the Year in 2018 – is currently staging a landmark exhibition, The Offbeat Sari, all about this item of dress and the clamour of attention it is enjoying.

London Calling: How does India look from afar? Looming world power or dysfunctional democracy? And what’s happening in Britain, and the West, that India needs to know about and perhaps learn from? This fortnightly column helps forge the connections so essential in our globalising world.

The curry has conquered the world; the sari less so. It is, in concept, the most simple of garments: a single piece of unstitched fabric. In execution, it’s really tricky to wear for those who don’t have the knack. All those pleats – the tucking in – and then the blouse and petticoat which are part of the ensemble. Quite a palaver.

When western women wear a sari – often as a perhaps misguided token of cultural respect – you often wish they had stuck to a trouser suit. And in its heartland, the sari is nothing like as ubiquitous as it once was. Among young urban Indian women, as far as I can make out, the sari is saved for high days and holidays.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Yet the elegance and versatility of the sari, as well as its timeless quality, have caught the attention of fashion gurus and designers, desi and otherwise. The prestigious Design Museum in London – named European Museum of the Year in 2018 – is currently staging a landmark exhibition, The Offbeat Sari, all about this item of dress and the clamour of attention it is enjoying.

The display is devoted to the contemporary sari and the revival of this venerated garment for everyday wear, as red-carpet haute couture, as political statement (think Gulabi Gang), and even adapted for cricket or skateboarding (no, I’m not too convinced about that last point either).

It is a symbol of Indian womanhood which became tarnished by Bollywood’s fixation with ‘clinging saris [which] fetished the female body as the object of the male gaze’. The exhibition’s premise is that the sari is staging a comeback – as a symbol of female empowerment. As well as a stunning array of eye-catching saris from across the sub-continent, there are also a few photos of men in saris – as a protest or provocation or as part of a personal manifesto.

The Design Museum aims, in the words of the event’s curator, to explore the sari as ‘a site for design innovation and an empowering vessel for self-expression in India today’. The very fact that a major global institution is holding such an ambitious celebration devoted to a single item of dress is itself a statement of the sari’s global status.

‘The Offbeat Sari’ exhibition. Photo: Andy Stagg/Design Museum

Unquestionably, the sari is part of India’s soft power – one of the cultural and aesthetic signifiers of a country which enjoy attention and esteem beyond its borders, add lustre to a nation and so boost its profile and influence. The formal indices of soft power seem to be stacked up to boost the west – one bizarrely put Germany in third place, and positioned Canada well ahead of India – but I would argue that India has more going for it than perhaps any other nation.

As well as the cuisine (everything from popadum to dosa, from mango chutney to chicken tikka) and the fashion (salwar kameez, shawl, sherwani and chappals also have a global footprint), there’s yoga, the sitar, cricket, the Taj Mahal, attar, agarbati, and a rich vein of modern literature and fine art.

Oh, and did I mention Bollywood – not simply huge across South Asia and its diaspora but in regions as diverse as Nigeria and Uzbekistan. And then there’s the more difficult to define civilisational legacies – reflected in scripture and architecture but also in the sense of spiritual quest which has been such a large part of India’s global appeal. And India is one of the few countries able to assert that its nationals, or people of Indian heritage, have over the years been awarded the Nobel prize in all six categories, from peace to literature.

‘The Offbeat Sari’ exhibition. Photo: Andy Stagg/Design Museum

Once I would have added that strange and successful mix of secularism, political pluralism and robust democratic instinct which India both epitomised and championed. I wouldn’t trumpet this aspect of India’s soft power quite so loudly of late. But I’ll happily sound a conch shell for the sari.

 For those who can get to it, The Offbeat Sari exhibition at the Design Museum on Kensington High Street in London continues until mid-September.

Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India Correspondent.