Save women from having to save the saree

VINUTHA MALLYA writes: In a recent column for the Sunday Times of India, titled “Save the sari from a sorry fate“, Shashi Tharoor appealed to the women of India to Save The Saree. By this, he meant, wear it to work, wear it at home, wear it everywhere, but don’t give it up for “utilitarian” reasons like rushing to catch a bus. His plea would have won more sympathy from me, one of “today’s under-30 women”, had he extended this appeal to under-30 Indian men to save the mundu, dhoti, and lungi too.

As a young woman and a journalist turned publisher who proudly wears the saree, mundu neriyathu, salwaar kameez, trousers, jeans and business suits, as befits the occasion, I completely disagree with Tharoor’s views which have been formed “on recent visits home to India”.

Compared to the saree which is “practically none in the workplace,” the mundu and its many forms are nonexistent in the workplace, and they enjoy the “practically none” status in the temples and weddings. Whereas, at least the saree turns up in those places in great majority, in many forms and textures.

I don’t blame Tharoor for this oversight. His premise that for a woman to be “stout” and “thickwaisted” is a “handicap of nature” and a saree can correct that by “concealing” these handicaps, smacks of his own deep-rooted Indian male chauvinism, which has no qualms about judging the beauty of a woman on the basis of her looks and body-type. When a lady reviewer and book critic had judged his mode of dressing once, he had objected to her unkind judgment with a caustic essay in Bookless in Baghdad.

Tharoor falls in that same narrow-minded category of people who think that the burden of preserving everything ‘cultural’ and ‘traditional’ should rest solely on the woman. Otherwise he should have noticed and commented on the attire of the male journalists in his press conference in Trivandrum, where he noticed and commented that only one of the dozen women journalists wore a saree. He forgets that the terms of reference for women have changed significantly in the last two decades, more recent than when it changed for men in the early 20th century.

While my mother, a district-level sportsperson when growing up in a small village in Dakshina Kannada was winning athletic events dressed in langa dhavani¸the Kannada equivalent of the pavadai, she never expected me to wear it when I was growing up myself.

The scene has now changed in Mulki, her hometown, and younger women wear the salwaar kameez without being trapped in regional chauvinism which seems to prick at Tharoor’s south Indian identity.

We celebrate our national diversity in India with the cultural offerings of the “Punjabi-ised folk” in the form of salwaar kameez, paneer tikka and mehendi for weddings, with great élan, not with a sense of loss, but by adding it to our existing repertoire of cultural substance.

If my mother had the same choices as I did while growing up in Delhi and Bangalore, she might have settled for the more comfortable salwaar kameez and trousers not only for her athletic pursuits, but also for day-to-day movement. Which is why, she understands, more than my father does, my need to wear my trousers and salwaar kameezes sometimes, without being constricted in the folds of my saree.

What Tharoor calls “a self-imposing handicap” is therefore an irresponsible phrase which makes the women seem as though they lack an understanding of their situation, which is not true at all.

My problem with Tharoor’s point-of-view that “putting on pants, or a Western woman’s suit, or even desi leggings in the form of a salwar, strikes them as more modern,” is the utter lack of fairness towards the woman’s position in modern India.

Even if we ignore that the same principle might guide a young man’s choice of clothing, young women are discovering that they can make choices about something as personal as clothing. And they are. They are realizing that true liberation means the right to make a choice, by their own standards, and not by those set by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’. Women have not yet broken away completely from culture or tradition, but they are making adjustments to their individual identities which have been defined by age-old social mores.

The “utilitarian” criterion while choosing her attire is very real for a woman who is juggling her responsibilities as a homemaker and combining it with her role as breadwinner. Her public space has dramatically expanded, due to many factors including a liberalized economy and the country’s greater thrust on girl child education.

What Tharoor calls “patience for draping a saree”, many women would call “a luxury of time” which they might not be able to afford. Women in cities now own personal transport, making it easier for them to move around, but the poorer young urban women, and our small town and rural counterparts are not so lucky. Comfortable clothing for increased mobility is doing wonders to the possibilities for and the self-confidence of Indian women.

The college-going youth may exercise their choices being governed by a new sense of social pressure which they encounter through mass media and peers. This, again, is as true of girls as it is of boys. This debate is entirely different and cannot be simplified into the ‘save the saree’ argument at all. It would require discussing the effects of globalisation and the globalised mass media on Indian youth.

No one can deny the fact that for women, traditional attire is associated with cultural assumptions. Deviating from these cultural reference points have also traditionally earned women derogatory tags of being “too fast”, “mod”, and “fashionable” and local versions of “tart” to name a few, which came up because of how they chose to wear the saree.

Either the pallu did not cover her breasts completely, or her cleavage was showing, or the saree was worn low enough to show her navel—anything could tickle the man to arousal. This made her a woman of “loose character”.

Very early on, every Indian girl is taught by her parents how she should dress ‘respectably’ and ‘modestly’, akin to Victorian standards. She is watched over by the male members of the family to make sure she does not ‘overstep’ the line. Men notice these things much more, and by commenting about other women severely, condition the women in their families to stay within the line that society has drawn. Even in a matrilineal state like Kerala, patriarchal views govern the life of women.

The woman has had no right to feel good about her self, nor could she show it if she did. Not a lot has changed in the way men think. The younger men learn from their role models to pass scathing remarks on women, but in metropolitan cities, women have stopped caring. Those who like to flaunt their bodies do so, whether by wearing a spaghetti-strap blouse with a designer saree, or by wearing a mini-skirt.

The point is that the women have a brain, which is discovering the right to think as it chooses fit. And they have the money to turn around and tell the men to take it or leave it. If this means the saree is meeting a sorry fate, so be it. The tragedy of our situation is that men have not kept up with the changes that some of the women are undergoing, nor are they able to fully accept their crumbling power over women.

It would do Tharoor good to remember that the sari has itself been changing in form and texture in the last 20 centuries. The way our mothers wear it now was not always how it was worn since the beginning of time. From cottons and silks to chiffons and georgettes, the warp and the weft have been weaving new choices in fashion for women.

Culture is dynamic, and new influences and needs will determine changes in society. Coming from Kerala, Tharoor should know best, how women belonging to different castes and communities wore the sarees differently, some with and some without blouses. Even men never wore shirts traditionally. Shall we go back to those days, to show that we can be modern “without disowning the past”?

Why does Tharoor choose Gandhi as the sole example of this form of modernity, and not Sarojini Naidu, Kasturba Gandhi or Aruna Asaf Ali who articulated political ideas at the same time in their sarees, as much as the next man in his mundu or dhoti?

For every Karunanidhi, Achyutanandan and Chidambaram today, there are Jayalalithas, Gowriammas, and Sonia Gandhis. A better example for this argument and perhaps more familiar to the author would be the many lady IFS officers, women ambassadors and high commissioners who wear the saree for official meetings in their postings abroad. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, choose to wear business suits, relegating the traditional mundu to holiday attire when visiting India for holidays in summer.

I know very few people who do more than lip service to the claim of proudly feeling modern in traditional Indian clothing. My role model is my dear friend, former boss and environmentalist, Kartikeya Sarabhai. He has addressed UN-level and international conferences on environment and sustainable development whether in New York, Rio or Nairobi in kurta pyjama, the same attire which he wears when he goes to his office at the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad. Even if it means that post 9/11, he gets checked several times at the ports of his disembarkation.

Both, the late P.V. Narasimha Rao and P Chidambaram, who gracefully flaunted their south Indian identity in Delhi, could not carry it to as far as the United States or the United Nations, nor did Vajpayee stick to his dhoti always when he traveled abroad as prime minister.

My job takes me to Southeast Asia very often, and like Tharoor, I have been struck by the absence of any form of national attire in the day-to-day life in places like Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These places might even have a single national dress, whereas in India we are lucky to have choice of attires, by being part of a diverse culture. Each time I visit these places, I feel happy that in India we mix and match our current influences of a more ‘Western’ variety with our traditional clothing.

Tharoor should remember that ever since he left India to live abroad, “our sense of authenticity” has shifted a lot. One cannot simply reverse it with choosing traditional attire alone, without reversing the processes that have brought about changes in our way of life. But that would mean making our culture stagnant and not dynamic.

The answer to Tharoor’s question “what will happen once the generation of women who grew up routinely wearing a saree every day dies out?” is that a new generation of women will take over, who will respond to their unique situation and needs, with or without the saree. It is up to them.