These days I don’t instantly respond to any angry statement shared by the media. I wait for the whole story to reveal itself, the anger to cool down which makes things easier to grasp. Designer Sabyasachi made a crude statement and I was wondering why a normally polite person would make such a spiteful remark. I waited, and sure enough, the whole story revealed. ‘Shoot from the hip’ statements ask for a similar reaction. And he got a taste of it soon enough. But what triggered him?
A woman had asked him, “What to explain to younger girls, when they say a sari makes you look old.”
Frankly if I was in his place I would have simply told the woman, “Don’t wear a sari. Wearing a Sari, carrying one and caring for one, requires a certain amount of patience and respect for the garment. If you love it enough then a sari ceases to become a piece of unstitched fabric and it will love you back by draping you gracefully and become a part of you. If you feel it is a bandage,then it will become bondage. If a garment doesn’t appeal to you, seems uncomfortable, cumbersome, expensive, too much hard work, then why push it… don’twear it. No need to give explanation, justification or any kind of eulogizing or repackaging. Similarly no need to feel guilt or shame for choosing or not choosing a garment.”
But, of course. Sabya was angry and he flew off the handle and reacted emotionally. Maybe because he is too touchy about it. He lost his cool and his choice of words were crude enough to backfire.
Anger begets anger and immediately angry reactions to his statement were flying all around social media. He is one of the foremost designers who has been trying to promote, repackage and take away the prejudices associated with Sari to help people wear it more often, and help the weavers sustain our rich handloom tradition. I’m sure he’s regretting his words now, because by making such a thoughtless statement he has pushed his own endeavor a few notches back.
Sari is not the universal dress for every Indian woman. It is not compulsory to know how to wear one or even own one. Women are free to wear whatever they choose, but if they disrespect or foment prejudice against a garment then that is not right either.
I have lived my adult life in North India and am fond of wearing Saris, Mekhelas, Chupas, Set Mundus, Naga skirts etc. I have faced innumerable disparaging, ill-informed and sometimes outright stupid statements dissing the sari. Some people wouldn’t even call it a sari, instead for them it is a ‘dhoti’. In this land of Salwar kameez and lehenga choli, Sari was the rare garment which only the elderly, matronly women wore. With the availability and freedom to wear western formals, Sari was added to ‘Behenji’ category. The direct association of the word ‘Behenji’ being, those who wear saris are old,uncool or not fashionable enough.
It wasn’t a problem, until strange associations started cropping up which pushed the patriarchal thought that – “A woman’s clothes make her sexy or younger or vice versa”. Women believed and fed this thought even more by not accepting the Sari as a graceful garment, instead pushing it away as — ‘A sari is un-sexy’, ‘A sari makes you look old’, ‘A sari makes you look fat’, ‘A sari is dowdy’, ‘A sari is old fashioned’ etc. etc. You either wear it or don’t wear it… but constantly creating a myth about “how difficult and cumbersome it is” only adds up to the apprehensions making it unpopular among younger girls.
In my case luckily I am surrounded with people who love wearing it. Though at times it was funny how one would admire how easily or quickly I could tie one and wear it, run in it or dance in it at a party without any trouble, yet there were deep seated biases about respecting it. God forbid if I landed at a party or gathering, where everyone else is was in western formals…. usually it would begin with a compliment, ‘Wow! Nice sari’… followed by a string of BUT, ‘But I can’t wear it, but I didn’t have the time, but I didn’t have one in this color or for this occasion’, ok cool it… I didn’t even ask for so many explanations for you to not wear a sari… and sure enough came the final nails which listed down the disadvantages of wearing a sari. By the end of it, I would really feel sad that I chose a sari instead of a dress. The whole guilt blame cycle some women are good at.
There can be a debate on why would a woman feel older if she wore a Sari? Is looking more mature or older not appealing enough? What are we appealing to when we want to appear ‘sexy’? Why would we want to look young all the time and do our clothes make us appear younger or is it our attitude? Are we constantly trying to look younger and not our true age and why so? That will reveal a whole new set of worms about our concepts about youth and beauty.
Some designers started promoting and repackaging the Sari with so called ‘Sexy’ blouses, a bustier, a halter etc. Feature after feature in women’s magazines, gave guidance to young women… “How to turn the ‘dowdy’(sic) garment into a sexy one”, “Or how to make it more fashionable”. Inherently pushing the idea, that a5.5 yard fabric is not graceful enough. Reinforcing the statement that — “A woman’s clothes make her sexy or younger or vice versa”.
Of course it is just a piece of fabric – what you make of it is up to you.
Although Sabyasachi himself has taken the so-called ‘sexy’ tag out, by pairing saris with t-shirts and shirts, where androgynous is the new feminine, mismatched put together looks are the new sexy. But still, all this repackaging to make it interesting for people will have its own fallout. Sabyasachi could dump the puritanical attitude of “Pride and Shame” etc… and maybe think out a proper response for such questions because they will come from newbies.
I think people should be left to choose their own garments and there shouldn’t be any kind of explanations for them. So those who don’t wear a sari should not feel a compulsion to give an explanation and neither should they make judgments on those who choose to wear sari. Specifically do not try to force or coax someone to wear a sari, if they don’t want to.
Feminism is about liberty from dogma, which one must practice through every walk of life.
By Sangeeta Bodhi Das
Sangeeta is a published writer and illustrator. She currently works as a consultant with an NGO in New Delhi. Apart from that, she also works as a storyteller and a creative writer for English and Bengali language. Sangeeta has previously been a Jury member for Bal Bhavan’s nationwide competitions for children.
She has illustrated and designed books for Pratham Books and NAZ foundation. She has also published two stories as part of the collections – ‘Lighthouse in the storm’, published for the ‘Book Therapy’ project of AWIC (Association of Writers and Illustrators for children) and the anthology, ‘One Big Family’, Published by the National Foundation for Communal Harmony. That apart, Sangeeta also writes about women and gender issues.