Okay, let me confess right at the outset – I am a Sabyasachi fan-girl! Never mind that I cannot afford to buy any of his creations. I love to watch and admire his designs from a modest distance. I liked his styles way before he made it big. Even way back then, when he was a fledgeling designer, he was very different from the rest. It comes as no surprise to me that he’s an internationally renowned designer today.
However as much as I drool over Sabyasachi’s saris, I beg to differ over his Sari shaming comment.
“I think, if you tell me that you do not know how to wear a sari, I would say shame on you. It’s a part of your culture, (you) need (to) stand up for it.”
It brought me back to my days as an Assistant Professor at a city college, where the mandatory dress-code was a sari. Before leaving the college, one of the female colleagues went out of her way to appreciate the fact that I wore a sari every day despite not being used to it. I found her appreciation unwarranted because the way she put me up on a pedestal for wearing the sari and upholding our tradition or culture was highly amusing.
We moved back to India from the USA in the middle of June 2016. And within three days of our arrival, here I was teaching final year management graduate students in one of the graduation colleges in the city. I took it up more for the experience of ‘going back to college life’, and more so as a challenge, as I had no teaching experience at all. Give me a challenge and I cannot resist it. So, here I was in this college, teaching 16-25-year-old somethings, all about management.
While the teaching stint was absolutely fantastic and memorable, my biggest challenge of the job for me was the mandatory dress code for the female faculty. A sari! My concerned husband insisted that I remain firm about not wearing a sari. My understanding mother-in-law, a teacher herself, rued that they should exempt young women from such daily torture. And my friends, well – they asked me if I was working in a government school or college. Anyway, there was absolutely no bargaining on that one with the Principal. I tried but it was a mandatory rule – the sari dress code.
To begin with, I barely had 10 saris. And, most of them were not fit for college wear. Either they were the expensive richly ornate pure silks and heavyweight bridal and party wear, or the simple, lightweight breezy chiffon and georgette sarees. And almost all my blouses were sleeveless. So, you can say that the sari for me, was strictly occasional wear reserved for those very special occasions.
So, the first thing I did was borrow all my mum and mum-in-law’s saris as well as blouses. I got the blouses tackily adjusted. So for more than a month, I went to teach in those ill fitting blouses and borrowed sarees. Till one day, I realised I could no longer wear those blouses as I had narrow shoulders compared to my mother and my mother-in-law. Finally, I invested in some basic blouses in the shades of black, brown, maroon, cream and green. I also stitched a gold blouse for college functions. I would interchange these blouses in classic colours with a variety of sarees. That was my faculty wear.
I have a love-hate relationship with saris. I love how they look on me. They are very flattering on the Indian figure type. It enhances your beauty and you feel feminine and sexy. Little surprise that in all our movies, the dream song always involves the heroine in a sari. The sari is always my first choice for a party, wedding, anniversary or any formal function. It looks regal, classy and timeless. The sari is simply a beautiful piece of creation. Much like stamp collecting, sari collecting has become my new hobby. I absolutely love going to these handloom exhibitions for their mind-blowing range of saris. Last year, I bought a Bandini sari, Mangalgiri cotton and I plan to include more styles in there in the coming years.
But as a wearer, I can vouch for the fact that as beautiful as a sari is, it is one of the most impractical outfits that has ever been created. I hate how the sari feels like less of a garment and more like bondage for womenkind. Especially as a work dress code, it should be kept optional and not mandatory. Those who are comfortable and love to be in a sari all day long should just go ahead and do so. But for those far and few in between, why should the majority of women employees suffer in the bargain?
So, let me do the honours and list out why the sari is a sorry tale for some shameful women like me:
“A sari commands the respect of students,” I was told. Which, I personally disagree with. If only it were that easy to garner the respect of students. I think gaining respect is a lot deeper than draping a nine yard piece of cloth around your body. Today’s generation of students is very different from when we were in college. They are a lot bolder than the previous generations ever were. Including the girl students. They are way more aware, outspoken and individualistic. To gain their respect is definitely not as simple as draping a sari and commanding respect.
A sari looks dignified and respectable. Okay, agreed partially. But that again stems from either a rigid cultural mindset or being a historical ignoramus or both.
The sari is the epitome of modesty, value and respect in the Indian culture. But, it is deemed indecent in different countries. And mind you, what we have is the highly watered down version of the original saree. The modern day saree is still too racy in many cultures and countries. Like, say, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and even our very own Manipur.
For the historical ignoramus, the sari was never designed to be decent, dignified or modest as per today’s societal standards. It was designed to be an all-out tease. The midriff, the navel and the back were meant to be exposed. The navel especially was meant to be flaunted to attract attention. The navel was to be displayed proudly as it was symbolic of Lord Vishnu’s navel, which was the source of all life, fertility and creativity. The original sari had no blouse.
Coming from the land of the Kamasutra, the creation of the sari was definitely not meant for the purpose of covering up and being modest. It was meant to tantalise and evoke interest and desire. Visualize Mandakini in “Ram Teri Ganga Maili”, Zeenat Aman in “Satyam Shivam Sundaram”, or Kareena Kapoor in “Ashoka”! Take one good look at the women portrayed in ancient Indian temple sculptures, and you will realize that our ancient Indian women enjoyed maximum freedom. The sari was an unabashed celebration of womanhood and its beauty.
The process of covering up and being more modest started with the Mughal invasion and it intensified during the British Raj. It is only then that we had petticoats and blouses and the watered down version of the modern day sari that we have today.
I would say that the modern tame version of the sari is still a tease. It is not uncommon to see bra straps through thin blouse material. Unless you are careful about choosing thick blouse material, the regular blouse materials are thin and semi transparent. The way the sari is designed, it is bound to attract attention to your midriff, your back, and the side view of your entire upper body.
All that you can do in a sari is eat, walk and sleep. Climbing steps is a pain. Doing any form of exercise apart from walking is unthinkable. Forget jogging, running up the stairs, doing those flexible yoga poses, jumping or just being physically free! Going to the restroom to answer nature’s call is in itself an event. And it is sheer misery during that ‘time of the month’. You are leaking down there while sweating profusely in a garment that has zero air circulation. Torture on a wholly insane level. Is it really worth living your whole life in that piece of bondage they call a ‘sari’?
In this era of smart phones, smart watches, smart technology, smart people, smart everything, the sari is anything but smart. A lot can be done with the touch of a button. How I wish that it worked the same way with the sari!
For starters, the draping, undraping and the folding of a sari are all laborious rituals in themselves. God save you especially if you are a working woman who is also married with school going kids. For this outfit is a perfect recipe for disaster. I am not saying it is impossible, but why invite further problems and bottlenecks to your morning rush. Work smart, not hard!
Yes! This is an outright rant and my call for gender equality and justice.
Why should saris be made compulsory for women employees, and men conveniently made to get away with more comfortable, practical and mobile western wear such as formal shirts and pants? Why aren’t they being subjected to draping a dhoti and wearing a turban and coming to work everyday? Why are only we women supposed to uphold Indian tradition and culture and values while our male counterparts get to make all the rules for us and escape scot-free?
There are so many options for women to choose from nowadays – smart professional looking salwar kameez which are way more decent, covered and comfortable than the sari, or smart looking western tops paired with pants and a blazer and more. There are thankfully more practical and smarter outfits that the sari.
Yes, there are women who have carried off the sari beautifully and with utmost grace. For me, I admire and love all the saris worn by Sushma Swaraj, Sonia Gandhi and Amala Akkineni. They look classic, cool and very sophisticated. In the glamour business, Rekha is my undisputed Sari Queen. Nobody comes close to this goddess of beauty when it comes to adoring the sari. Her gold kanjeevarams, red lips and jasmine flowers are an all-time classic favourite.
Well, the great news is that Sabyasachi has finally apologised.
“I once again apologise for the distress caused. My intent was to call out those women who proudly proclaim that they don’t wear saris and simultaneously shame others who wear saris by saying it makes them look older, backward, or culturally repressed.”
The moral of this story is, “Let the choice of the sari as work wear (or any wear) be made by the wearer of it – the woman herself and not any male authority. Let women decide how often they want to drape the saree to their workplace or any other place – be it everyday or occasionally.”
A version of this article was originally published here.