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Why dress up the sari to death?


Designers Abraham & Thakore's Saree Silhouette, a black silk creation, worn with a black leather belt, was an interesting take on Indian handlooms and proportions. Bare yet stunning, it has been acquired by London's Victoria & Albert Museum. But sari reality in India is quite different. The rich wear saris studded with crystals, sequins and mukaish, killing the simplicity of the garment. The ease with which poorer women drape their saris, mix and match their blouses keeps the tradition alive.

Every morning, after my walk, I sit on my favourite park bench and watch the world waking up and getting on with the business of living. There are bird sounds and the night's drizzle of white frangipani flowers on the green lawns to contemplate quietly.

And then there is the steady stream of domestic help walking through colony gates. They are dressed in saris of different colours and prints, some with pallavs tucked briskly around their waist, others with the skirt hitched at ankle or calf length for ease of movement, with a simple anklet or a silver amulet on a black string as the only accessory offsetting their saris. Most don't have falls to their saris, their relationship with the passing breeze more spontaneous and less rigidly defined for that. The blouses are mismatched - sunshine yellow, parrot green or bright orange - and they have an independent conversation with the world, telling their own happy story.

Each woman has a distinctive style that is not a facsimile of another's when it comes to how the sari is draped, what length it is worn at, which blouse it is teamed with or how the pallav is played out. The average kaamwali bai (domestic help) walking into work early in the morning carries the sari off with far more beauty and elan than the average socialite trussed up for an evening in her designer sari. The rich, I think, wear their saris very poorly indeed.
There are many ways to kill a sari. Swarovski crystal is just one of them.

Chantilly lace is equally effective. As is zardozi. I can't remember the last time I went to a wedding and was able to tell one woman from the next - the wearers seem cannibalised by their own saris, their individual personas swallowed up entirely by the glitter of salma and mukaish, their limelight stolen by their own zari and zardozi borders, any delicacy they might possess outdone by the competing wiles of the diaphanous, too-transparent chiffon and georgette fabrics they seem to favour. And then there are the other excesses - the glossy make-up, the elaborate hairdos, heels, bags and jewellery - that put the final nail in the coffin in the dressing-upthe-sari-to-death saga. Of late, design interventions seem to be stifling the sari, making it increasingly less wearable. The sari along with the dhoti, the mundu, the sarong, the mekhla chaddar, the khasi jainsem and other unstitched clothing belongs to the group of costumes that historians describe as gravitational - garments that are draped and go with the flow, their shape defined by how they fall. In contrast to this are stitched garments such as trousers, blouses, jackets and shirts, which are defined as anatomic as their shape is defined by the human body.

As recently as a hundred years ago the sari was a one-piece garment, entirely gravitational. Readers of Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace will recall the incident where the Queen of Burma invites the young wife of an Indian civil servant in order to learn how to wear the sari with a blouse and petticoat. The real life inspiration for this fictionalised account was perhaps Jnanadanandini Devi, the wife of Tagore's elder brother, Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian to join the civil services. In Bengali circles, it is widely believed that her husband's desire to bring Devi out into the public domain led to the innovation of the blouse and the petticoat.

Diverse influences - the fashionable Parsis of Bombay, reproving Victorian governesses shocked at the lack of corsets and blouses on Indian women, and intrepid queens from the princely states who borrowed elements from the Rajput lehengacholi tradition - helped shape the sari as we know it today.

The 'anatomicisation' of the sari is just over a hundred years old. It happened in response to the need of the Indian woman to go out of the house and take on the world.

Today, the sari is more about showing skin and less about being comfortable in one's skin, more about aggression and less about being at peace with one's body, love handles, muffin tops, spare tires and all. When Priyanka Chopra dons one, her breasts showcased in a designer choli and an 18-inch waist on display, and swings to the tune of Desi Girl, it seems faintly ironical. The ensemble is about as desi as a bikini or a sequined mini-skirt.

There have been two major sari styling trends in recent years. The first has been towards excessive embellishment. So, at the high end of the spectrum we have crystals, zircons and embroideries and in the lower rungs there is fashion as decreed by the saas-bahu serials. In what is perhaps the most telling sign of how material our times have become, every day seems like Karwa Chauth on prime time television with women from eight to 80 years of age bespangled in bridal finery as they try and out-manoeuvre each other for TRP ratings.

The second trend has been a shift of emphasis from the sari drape to the blouse fitting. Encased in metallic conical bustiers and shining silver, copper and gold brocade, glinting variously, the wearer's breasts occupy centre stage - primed and polished like cannons, ready to fire.

So far so good. We're more materialistic, more aggressive, more overtly sexual, more in tune with international trends and our saris reflect that. But the question that begs to be asked is why then are fewer and fewer of us actually choosing to wear the sari? Women all over the country are rejecting the sari and switching to salwar suits, trousers and tracks.

Our recent fashion choices may have a lot to do with the imminent demise of the sari. The spirit of the sari is the spirit of peace, of letting be, of accommodating. The language of the times is that of dominance. Earlier modifications with the sari adapted it to the spirit of the times but the balance still weighed in favour of the drape, the flow, the yieldingness of it. Recent changes have tipped the balance to the point that it no longer works. Designers need to stop thinking of the sari as a cake which needs icing in order to be attractive or a pizza whose taste lies in the topping though the bread is just as good in all its wholesomeness and flavour.

If the sari is to survive beyond this decade what we need from our designers is fabrics that feel like our mothers' touch against the skin. We need blouses that we don't have to hold our breath for or suck our stomachs in to fit into. We need the freedom to team up our saris with cotton ganjis, cropped tees or short kurtis. We need cummerbunds that double up as money belts to carry our mobiles and car keys.

My 86-year-old neighbour tells me that she has swum, cycled, played tennis and ridden horseback in a sari as a young woman. She must have also cooked, nursed babies, gone shopping, maintained a household, made love and slept in those same saris. Wouldn't it be lovely if our designers could help us renegotiate our everyday relationship with our saris and lead us back into that state of all-encompassing grace?

Reader's opinion (3)

Roy.devjani Mar 30th, 2012 at 18:21 PM

lovely article.. just like Indian traditional sari..

Anuradha Gupta PradhanMar 27th, 2012 at 11:56 AM

I totally agree! Love the traditional sarees

Preeti Mar 26th, 2012 at 20:21 PM

Very good article. I totally agree with the writer. One missed point is that the craze of sequins, crystal etc. and predominance of Georgette/chiffon is killing the tradition of beautiful sarees like banarasi, patola, chanderi and other regional fabrics that can be passed on to generations.

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