Wednesday, 10 August, 2022
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Sarees are not dying in India, but don’t trust #SareeTwitter to show whole nine yards

Sarees on Twitter doesn’t showcase the clothing’s multi-layered universality in the real India of traffic jams and back-breaking farm work.

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A sure shot way of knowing if something has become a social trend in India is when it becomes an Amul Butter billboard.

That’s exactly what happened with the #SareeTwitter trend on Twitter over the last week when the billboard said: Saree duniya dekh rahee hain. Actors such as Shabana Azmi, politicians like Priyanka Chaturvedi and even Congress MP Rajeev Gowda, who posted a picture of him playing Indira Gandhi in a play in school, participated with gusto to make hay while the hashtag shone.

But it isn’t all fun and games. Indians on social media take their saree very seriously as Priyanka Chopra recently found when she wore a saree without a blouse for a photoshoot. There was consternation on Twitter. How could she? All Chopra needed to do was to tell them how women wore sarees in India without blouses even as recently as the 1860s.

Also read: Priyanka Gandhi joins #SareeTwitter, ‘rhymester’ Piyush Goyal, & what PTI stands for

The first woman in Kerala, for instance, to have worn a nine-yard was Kalyani Ammachi, the wife of the maharajah of Travancore. What Kerala women wore was the mundu wrapped around the waist, and another piece of cloth loosely thrown over the shoulders (mainly among upper castes), if at all—because generally, no one, not even Brahmin women, covered themselves above the waist, said author Manu Pillai in an email to The Print.

According to Pillai, by the mid to late 19th century, however, the blouse made its appearance (including the rowka, which was popular among upper-caste women) and the loose upper cloth began to be draped in a way that started resembling the saree. That is, one end would be tucked into the waist and the other left loose, the middle length covering the torso from one side to the other.

It was from here that today’s nine-yard ‘Kerala saree’ evolved and it is an entirely 20th-century creation. Another style was the methukettu popular in Travancore from the early 19th century, where just as the mundu is wrapped around the waist, women wrapped another piece around the torso, and nothing went over the shoulder or was left loose, writes Pillai.

But this was not one of the styles we saw when #SareeTwitter was trending on Twitter through much of this week.

Also read: Avoid fashion, Tamil Nadu govt orders staff to wear saree, salwar kameez, dupatta, veshti

The many sarees of India

Several women uploaded photos of themselves on Twitter wearing sarees. But there was a remarkable absence of the diverse ways the saree is draped across India, even now. And therein lies the problem with these social media moments. They end up celebrating a uniform ideal of the plurality and multiplicity of a cultural artefact.

Most women posted photos of themselves wearing the sari in the conventional style. Bangalore-based creative agency Border & Fall’s Mallika Verma Kashyap talks of the 100 ways to drape a saree in a blog on the Google Arts and Culture website. There was none of that assortment on Twitter despite the rush to post pictures.

In any case, the saree looks in some danger of becoming regarded as costume rather than everyday wear. Which may explain the angst that greeted designer Sabyasachi when he said every Indian woman should know how to drape a saree.

The truth is, every Indian woman doesn’t. And if she doesn’t, of course, she cannot be saree-shamed.

Especially given that the modern way of draping the saree is itself a 20th-century invention credited to Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law Jnanadanandini Devi, who designed the eight-fold drape and paired it with a chemise jacket, a smart working woman’s wardrobe that suited the co-founder of Balak magazine and frequent essayist for Bharati magazine. She devised this style during a tour of Gujarat with her ICS officer husband, according to gender historian Malavika Karlekar. It was adapted from the style worn by Parsi women, with the pallu draped over the left shoulder, keeping the right hand free, according to Karlekar’s authoritative essay.

According to Karlekar, Jnanadanandini Devi even advertised in the monthly magazine Bamabodhini Patrika, offering classes in drapery. The introduction of the saree blouse (jama) and petticoat (shaya) was essential before upper- and middle-class Bengali women could come out in public, Karlekar writes. “In an article said to have been written by Jnanadanandini (using a pseudonym) in Bamabodhini Patrika, a women’s magazine popular in reformist circles, the author commented on a new mode of dress that took from English, Muslim, and Bengali traditions and yet retained a Bengali essence.”

Also read: Garden Vareli ads with three Miss Indias made the everyday saree a fashion statement

For instance, the author wrote that Jnanadanandini Devi wore shoes, stockings, bodice, blouse and a short skirt-like petticoat with a saree draped over it; when she went out she wore a chador (shawl) that could be used to cover her head if necessary. ”Blouses were elaborate,” she writes, ”modelled on current styles prevalent in the West: thus high collars with ribbons, frills, jabots, and brooches were popular from the 1870s till the turn of the century and a few women also wore mutton-chop sleeves, peaked at the shoulder. Shawls draped elegantly over one shoulder, closed shoes, brooches, and hair ornaments completed the ritual of Westernised elite female dress.”

While those from the Brahmo Samaj referred to the new style of wearing the saree with blouse and chador as the “Thakurbarir saree” (saree worn in the style of the Tagores), as more and more Brahmos started wearing the saree in this manner, it came to be popularly known as the “Brahmika saree” throughout India.

And that is only one style. As Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller write in The Sari: “Sharing of the sari by women otherwise separated by vast gulfs of social and economic circumstance is precisely what makes it a plausible emblem of India itself, something that can transcend the myriad differences and tensions of wealth, class and religion”.

Also read: Why is Sabyasachi shaming women who can’t drape sarees but not men who can’t tie dhotis?

Social media’s saree brigade

Social media movements in support of the saree are not new. In 2015, Bangalore based friends Anju Maudgal Kadam and Ally Matthan created the 100sareepact, where they decided to wear sarees 100 times before the end of the year.

There are rumblings of the saree becoming like the kimono, which Japanese women wear only on formal occasions—having switched to Western dress for daily wear. The kimono, said Banerjee and Miller, has fallen out of fashion because it lacks the versatility of the saree and was never accessible to all social classes in Japanese society. While the authors do not foresee the replacement of the saree by Western clothing, they do predict a gradual shift towards the salwar kameez for everyday wear because of its practicality. The saree will, in turn, be elevated into “an emblem of culture and tradition”. That was written in 2008.

The saree is a trending hashtag on SHEROES too, where women celebrate their saree looks. Even transwomen are posting their saree pics with pride. Merril Diniz, of the women-only social network, with over 900 communities, a chat helpline and other features exclusively designed for women, says: “We have a funky, chic school teacher in Bilaspur who started her own community ‘Fashionista’, who has encouraged many women to share their saree pictures. It has about 3,500 members and is a space to post candid, unfiltered fashion pics. Women of all ages and geographies post here and celebrate their style.” Ditto on Instagram, where sarees are used as forms of self expression by many women, from Singapore-based Swapna Nayak to New York-based Seemaskt.

Now, all it needs to do is to leave the virtual world and showcase its multi-layered universality in the real India of traffic jams, crowded public transport, multitasking lives, 9-to-5 routines, backbreaking farm work, waiting patiently in long lines for water and going about the difficult task of holding up half the sky.

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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  1. Saree is definitely gaining popularity as everyday dressing. It has been reinvented and revamped and more and more youngsters are adpoting it as the preferred outfit of the day. Various Facebook groups like SareeSpeak (boasting of a membership of over 112K women from across the globe) have played a major role in popularising the saree. The saree is here to stay! ❤️

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