Tuesday, 9 August, 2022
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Why is Sabyasachi shaming women who can’t drape sarees but not men who can’t tie dhotis?

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Castigating Indian women is convenient, lazy and unpleasantly paternalistic.

At the Harvard India conference last week, fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee said it was a shame if Indian women did not know how to drape a saree. He later, however, commended Indian women for keeping the saree alive while the dhoti was ‘dead’.

A Youtube search on ‘how to wear a saree’ fetches 4.19 lakh results while ‘how to wear a dhoti’ only brings you 63,800 posts. It is clear who has been making the effort to ‘preserve culture’ Mr Mukherjee, but why no disparaging remarks for our male counterparts?

The history of saree policing, for me, dates back to the early days of my parents’ marriage. My mother, who had married a man from her hometown in Manipur commissioned into the Indian Army, was expected to wear the six-yard garment to unit functions and cocktail parties. The saree has been a de-facto formal wear for women in India since we came under the structure of a State.

Having grown up in a liberal tribal society in the valley-hill district of Churachandpur in Manipur, Jenny was used to wearing bell-bots, long flowing maxis and short skirts when she wasn’t wearing khamtang, the traditional wrap around skirt of the Thadou tribe. She ruefully remembers not being able to wear the wardrobe she brought with her to my dad’s station.

“The boys are checking out your legs, your dad would say. I don’t understand how is saree more conservative when you’re baring your midriff and back?” she once told me. While I acquired quite the love for sarees in my adult years, till today my mom sees the saree as nothing less than a hassle.

My personal preference for wearing a sari on non-occasions notwithstanding, I’ve had it up to here with sari being enforced as the highest moral and cultural dress code on women in India. I say women in India since many do not identify themselves as Indian and reserve the right to self determination, which goes beyond religion and culture.

While a NYT piece on saree as a symbol of Hindu nationalism made everybody cringe, including liberal Indian feminists like Barkha Dutt, I didn’t take particular umbrage to it except the fact that it has always been a symbol of nationalism. It’s what you can expect women to be seen wearing in weddings, your school farewell and even, panel discussions. Yes, I already hear you arguing that Catholic women in Kerala wear it in their church weddings, as do Muslim women on a regular day or for special occasions in north India. In fact, the saree is such an impressionable symbol that it allows women assigned male at birth to transgress gender barriers, as I discovered while doing a story on Jogappas in North Karnataka. When the Goddess Yellamma troubles a “boy”, fortunetellers advise the family to make their son wear a saree.

To indulge in some whataboutery, what about Assamese Mekhela Sador or the Meitei Phanek? Or just the scores of other indigenous tribal women (Christian, Hindu or animist) who drape a rich variety of textiles, which is only seen as exotic and appropriate in a museum or a fancy costume show. Although there might be more than a hundred ways of draping a saree, which reflects how it has been mainstreamed by a diversity of communities of Hindu origin, it still has a representational problem.

Beyond the saree, what irks me most is when the likes of Sabyasachi Mukherjee exercise their self-entitled authority to remind women in India of their values, culture or whatever else have you. Given his stature, we assume this is coming from a place of aesthetics and cultural concern, as many savarna cis-gay men in the fashion business are prone to dispensing. The difference (and effect) is all the same whether it’s Sabyasachi, an MP telling you not to wear jeans for better marital prospects, a magazine in Kerala running a story against leggings or Assamese TV news slut shaming women in Guwahati for wearing shorts. All these remarks carry the assumption that you have something more appropriate in your closet. You know what they’re hinting at.

If there’s anyone he ought to be reprimanding, it should be Sanjay Leela Bhansali for covering Deepika Padukone’s midriff in Ghoomar, an utter insult to the designer’s creation. Maybe then I would have taken Sabyasachi more seriously as a connoisseur or protector of saree or Indian women’s clothing.

Castigating Indian women abroad is convenient, lazy and unpleasantly paternalistic.

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  1. Whatever anybody may say – one thing is absolutely clear and that is – If Narendra Modi is defeated in 2019, take it from me that our country will plunge into turmoil of instability, chaos and horse-trading and Pakistan would be the happiest country to see India bleeding.

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