A simple 6-yard length of fabric in an astounding range of weaves, fabrics, colours and designs, not to speak of draping styles — the saree can be called a civilizational garment, worn not only by Indians cutting across regions and communities but also by Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Sri Lankan women. Before those who want to split hairs and ask about the timeline of the saree, let me tell them, “Chill! Freeze right there!”
Such a wonderful garment seems to have been relegated to the second spot behind the salwar kameez today, with the jeans close behind – but only if we ignore the hinterland of our vast country. For the majority of women in many Indian states, especially in small towns and villages, are still saree-wearers. They wear it to work, for shopping or to go to the kids’ school—not just occasionally for a wedding or official celebration, as their metro counterparts are wont to do.
As little girls, women of my generation would beg our elder sisters and mothers to let us wear one. I got my wish early as my conservative family wouldn’t let me wear any of the many dresses which my friends wore as a teen – and had to settle for a saree at the age of 16. Years later when I could choose to wear anything I wanted, the saree had assumed the pride of place in my heart and I didn’t want to wear anything else, save for the severe winter months of Delhi and Chandigarh when I used to wear the salwar kameez.
Many of my contemporaries have switched over to western wear to either fulfil their childhood yearning or for convenience. At the time when the transition was happening, it was seen as a worthy replacement for the saree, as it covered the body, was comfortable and had a dupatta, that substituted for the pallu in a saree. Some argued that unlike the latter, it didn’t even bare the midriff!
However, this post is not about the merits of the saree. It is about my concern that it might be slowly on its way out. That is not the only thing bothering me either, but also the fact that the saree has become a victim of the class and age divide like never before. Let me explain.
The saree is increasingly being perceived as an old-fashioned, regressive and patriarchal garment – almost on par with the burqa. But while the latter has gained global currency as being ‘empowering’, thanks to the ‘liberal feminists’, the saree gets the brickbats thanks to the same influential group! The international media and the westernised national media pitch in vigorously to perpetuate this narrative, because to them, anything traditionally Indian is anathema or worse – regressive and patriarchal. Never mind that their narratives are motivated by commercial concerns or plain Hinduphobia. It would appear that the latest weapon in their arsenal is the saree.
Little wonder then that modern young women shudder and roll their eyes when the saree is mentioned as a dress option. Besides, they feel that the saree would make them look like ‘ammas’ or at least older than they want to appear if they wore a saree! Young mothers prefer wearing western outfits while taking their toddlers to the park, because ‘only the nannies wear sarees!’ To be seen wearing a saree in an upmarket locality in any metro would instantly mark one out as ‘amma’ or ‘behenji’, unless of course she is wearing an obscenely expensive handloom or silk saree preferably from Cottage Emporium or Fabindia, and looks suitably fashionable. A granny blouse helps and draping the saree awkwardly adds to the acceptability quotient too.
This, added to the large scale secularizing of festivals and religious celebrations has seen to it that the young are growing up completely disconnected from their cultural roots, which includes the saree. Not to be left behind, even women in small towns and villages are scrambling to give up the saree to be ‘modern’ and ‘young’.
So, when a Lata Kare runs and wins a marathon in her nauvari saree, it is a novelty and freak occurrence. And when two elderly women are seen astride a mobike, they are splashed across the internet as another freakish sight to be ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over. Who is to tell them that millions of women across the country are still doing all sorts of physical labour in the various regional versions of the glorious saree?
In an aside, the traditional styles are very convenient, as they are tucked between the legs and so drape the legs separately, making movement easier. If worn perfectly, it is almost like wearing trousers or a salwar with the same ease of wear. Whenever I wear the Tambrahm style 9-yard madisar for religious functions, I keep it on for the entire day as it is so comfortable.
Of late, there have been concerted efforts to fight these narratives and popularise the saree, by showcasing the warps and wefts of our glorious handlooms. SM initiatives like #100sareepact and #sareeswag have managed to not only showcase the saree but also highlight the stunning weaves, some of them little known, yet others almost extinct. These had once been promoted by the erstwhile royal families and wealthy zamindars but had slowly fallen to disrepair.
While these efforts to bring our handlooms into the limelight and improve the lives of the neglected weaver-communities are commendable, they are probably unintentionally pitching the saree as a heritage garment or even a designer one, putting them in the ‘classy’ bracket. The hashtags only reinforce these images. This has the danger of deepening the class divide of saree-wearers as it brings about snobbery on the one hand and defensiveness on the other, sometimes leading to giving it up altogether.
Let me share my experience. I wear all kinds of fabrics, not just cottons or handlooms. And as a rule, I don’t wear expensive ones, which automatically excludes silks and expensive weaves, though I admire them immensely and even buy them for others. I get pointed stares from the collectors and connoisseurs at the odd function I attend. They weigh the fabric and its worth in one glance, some even saying rather loudly, ‘Look at how they make even polyester look like real silk!’ I am a pro and so smile and let it go.
It is this snobbery that makes it difficult to stop the exodus towards westernized dresses, despite aggressive SM initiatives. I can just visualise the saree becoming a glamorous designer garment like the kimono. Today hardly any Japanese woman wears one, save for traditional functions like weddings maybe.
Already we have international designers creating monstrosities like saree gowns and saree mini-dress. All that these ‘designs’ can boast of is the use of saree-length fabrics with no connection whatsoever to the original graceful drape. Just a few days back the Bollywood diva Kajol wrapped herself in one such ‘creation’ and made waves in the glossies. At this rate the saree, as we know it, would have vanished before we can even begin to say ‘Saree.’
If a saree needs to be classy and expensive to be considered as good enough wear, it rules out a large chunk of women from picking up one. And here, I am not talking of only the working-class women, but middle-class ones that include those like me. The machine-made, inexpensive sarees, even synthetic ones might not be works of art as the handlooms and the linens, but are easy to care for, affordable for women belonging to all strata of society, are available in stunning colours, designs and a whole range of materials.
The house-helps for instance: look at them, walking to and from work, looking beautiful in their sarees, in bright shades and vibrant prints, with fashionably cut matching blouses, many carrying handbags, wearing accessories — mostly trinkets bought from street-stalls or train hawkers, their animated chatter interspersed with bursts of laughter. And each one of them, no less gorgeous than any of the #sareeswag crowd!
Let’s face it: A woman clad in a handloom saree is most elegant and graceful, but the sarees are difficult to care for and are not practical for a lot of working women including our house-helpers for example. These are the women with the real #sareeswag and are the true saree ambassadors if you ask me. They will keep the saree alive for decades and centuries if only we could make them feel special and cherished. To my mind, any ‘Save Our Saree Movement’ will be incomplete without these real-life divas.
We need a saree revolution that would showcase the SAREE itself, as a great dress, if we have to stop the saree going the kimono way – not just exotic weaves and patterns. And to achieve this, we have to stop looking at the saree from two extreme angles – one as a heritage garment and another as it being infra dig. We need to bridge the class and age divide to make this happen.
Any ideas, how to go about it? Calling all those with zillions of followers on social media who are ready to take up the worthy cause of saving the saree. Treat this as an SOS—Save Our Sarees!
Little girl saree: https://www.utsavfashion.com/
Sitting pretty : Nowshad Arefin
Top: Bangalore women running for Breast Cancer Awareness
Other pics: Fabindia, Garden Vareli. Asian Age