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How Can One Piece of Cloth Mean So Much? 11 Sentimental Glimpses of the Sari

By Pooja Pande
Women drying a sari. Photo Courtesy: Fulvio Spada via Flickr

The personal is political. What could be more personal, or more political, than the sari?

But, it’s just a piece of cloth, isn’t it? Literally even, owing its etymological origins to the Sanskrit word ‘shaati’, meaning ‘strip of cloth’; a word that was “corrupted” by more modern Indian usages.

And yet, it’s more, much more. A sari can make you feel special (sexy/festive/Bollywood diva-ish); demand unreasonable attention (it’s official that nobody has cracked the most effective way to store them proper); single you out as a cult member (“Tera jhola kahaan hai, Fab India par chhod aayi kya?”); brand you for life (“She always wears saris to these dos”); subject you to surreal body-consciousness (“It makes me aware of my slouch”, “I love how it doesn’t force my stomach to behave”); incite mock-complaints (“I’m always worried it’ll come off”, “How does one pee in these things?”) and despite all that you may just wear it like any other regular garment or outfit.

But is it just any other regular garment?

How does one piece of cloth come to mean so much? Manage to cause such a damn brouhaha around national identity, gender politics, and capitalism?

Pooja Pande became a little too determined to find out.

Prologue

Plain black, sheer chiffon. A red pallu – the kind of red that demands the adjective ‘bold’. And the body of the sari dotted with red polka dots. “In patchwork, not printed dots”, she qualifies. My mum.

It is 1972 and Prabha, in final year college, is thrilled at having struck upon nothing short of a treasure chest: A trunk full of “diva’s reject saris.” Those saris that were discarded/never worn by yesteryear actress Rehana Sultan have arrived all the way from the sets of a film Prabha’s father has just wrapped up to their modest home in Matunga. She decides to wear the “bold-red” sari to Ruparel college the very next day.

In 2018, my mum still remembers how she felt when she’d draped that sari around her 21-year-old self the next morning – glamorous, invincible. Even her older cousin brother’s comments, archetypal patriarchy masquerading as ‘protection’ – “Surely you’re not planning to go out in that. It’s practically transparent” – did not deter Prabha who had a definite spring in her step that morning.

Sari in silhouette. Photo Courtesy: Blue Barnacle via Flickr

A spring in her step from years before that 26-year-old Alka recognises in 2018 as she walks into her office in Delhi with a knowing smile on her face. As she tells me in this interview later, “Meri chaal sari mein, western wear waali chaal se alag hoti hain. (Saris and western wear – I have different styles of walking in both).” It is Women’s Day, and she is taking part in the Women’s Day pact in solidarity with the sisterhood in her all-women office in recognition of a day that means something to them – she is wearing a sari. As they take selfies together and caption them ‘W for Womaniya’ on Facebook, Alka is transported, for a few moments, back to Moradabad, on a day marked as the red letter on the calendar of every womaniya worth her north Indian salt – Class XII Farewell.

“Bhai ne aunty bolkar chidhaya. Kuch teachers ne kaha colour bahut hi alag hai, aur kuch ne kaha vidhvaaon vaali sari kyon pehni hai! (I remember my brother referred to me as aunty all day. Some of my teachers appreciated my look, saying how offbeat my choice was, while some questioned it, demanding to know why I’d opted for a widow’s colour!)” The sari in question was an off-white chiffon with “some light zari work”, she recalls.

This Class XII sari is the one sari everyone I have ever met recalls to date, age regardless. Try it as an exercise the next time you’re in north India, until then, skip to the end for a detour trip.

Sahodra stands under the harsh sun in Angarhuda village in Chitrakoot, a district in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, her phone camera held tight and taut at half-an-arm’s length – just as she’s been trained – the record button on. The subject of her filming is a woman standing outside a hut, the makeshift home of a family that has been awaiting its awas since 2015, which is due to them under the Prime Minister Awas Yojna for the BPL Antyoday. The woman is telling Sahodra about the distress they face living without shelter – the rains, the storms, the heat, the jackals. Both Sahodra and the woman have their heads covered with the hems of their pallus.

As Sahodra switches the phone camera to selfie mode, she tugs off the pallu, pats her hair down, and presses record to tell her viewers – a rural audience of 2 million and counting – about the story she’s doing, a news report she’ll be filing for her news channel. She can endure the harsh heat for the length of a PTC (piece to camera), after all – or even find a shadier spot.

It isn’t for nothing that Sahodra’s sari-wearing styles and blouses are the topics of conversation amongst her peers. From choli-cuts to the criss-cross threads, Sahodra’s from the if-you-got-it-flaunt-it school of thought. “I don’t always wear them for fieldwork,” she says, and qualifies, “Although I do try and wear saris when going to the local administration for bytes.” Something about being taken more seriously in the sea of men that is the field of journalism in U.P. – a serious perk for a woman reporter in rural U.P. or urban Delhi, for that matter.

As Shabani puts it, that catty wearer of saris with belts – a popular sight at Delhi parties, “… Come to think of it, I do feel more powerful when I wear a sari…”

Sahodra’s sexy blouses. Photo courtesy: Pooja Pande

But if the sari can empower you, it can also box you in – sometimes dangerously so. As Sanjo of Gidurha village will tell you. Also from Chritrakoot, she’s been that rare species of a female Pradhan. As a member of a marginalised community in Bundelkhand, Sanjo or Sanjo pradhan as she’s affectionately referred to – even when she’s not officially pradhan – has long since abandoned her saris, or anything else that could establish her identity as feminine. Working in a dacoit-infested area, Sanjo gave up saris and her tresses, because in her nightmares, she often saw herself being pulled into the forests – by her hair, or her sari. It only made sense to not risk either.

Sanjo pradhan. Photo courtesy: Pooja Pande

As everyone’s favourite local social activist, Sanjo pradhan today prefers the look my Delhi friends would term “butch”. Mounting a Bullet – her travel companion – she wouldn’t bother explaining herself though. Why trap sexuality and gender in the folds of a sari, right?

Adding to the mix, speaking of gender and sexuality – especially sexuality – is Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, also a social activist, a star campaigner for transgender rights who identifies as hijra and can give all Bharatanatyam dancers a run for their money when it comes to a silk saree collection. Identified as male at birth, Lakshmi experimented with various identities until she discovered the perfect fit – the drape of a sari, it seems.

Ma Laxmi. Photo Courtesy: Pooja Pande

She often proclaims her soul as hijra, transcending rigid boundaries of gender, but the sari is here to stay – and yes, it does make her feel sexy. “When I meet men who’re flirting with me and dying to, you know, I can sense the eyes of their wives and girlfriends on them, and me”, she’d said, in her characteristic, dramatic fashion, speaking to this writer for her 2016 tell-all memoir Red Lipstick. The sari, for Laxmi, is like her armour – it’s a snug fit as she lobbies for the Transgender Rights Bill in Delhi, and it’s the perfect attention-grabbing device when she walks into yet another party.

In her most recent avatar, as Ma Laxmi – she’s been elected the head of the kinnar akhara at the Maha Kumbh – the saris have become even shinier and brighter. As she sits on her special blessed cushion, she makes sure her pallu is right in place, wrapped around her face. “Ashirwad” is her new thing, after all – this is serious new devi business.

But is the sari only meant for those who identify as women?

Himanshu Verma aka Saree Man. Photo Courtesy: Red Earth Facebook

Not if we listen to Himanshu Verma a.k.a. SareeMan. He who shocked and awed an entire Dilli into silence when he wore a sari to a masculinity festival he curated, when the politics and the history of the drape became so clear to him. It was 2006, Himanshu recalls, “… remember that wave of urban metrosexuality?”, and Himanshu’s statement was entirely political, “This idea of how men have suddenly become more in touch with their feminine side was a very Westernised one – you know, pedicures, pink shirts, and capitalism. So, my agenda in wearing it was my self-expression of being in touch with my feminine side. To say that, in India, there are many more ways of being feminine that are accessible to a man. I wanted to draw attention towards that.”

Meanwhile, Afia Aslam gets ready for a night-out in Karachi and chooses a thing of beauty in gold. I admire her obvious panache at draping that which eludes me so and immediately WhatsApp her in true Dilli-time-pass style – the “Nice Pic! Hottie! XOXO!” sorts. In her 40th year, Afia is enjoying the attention that comes her way, “I’ve always got compliments in saris, but a head of silver hair gives an edginess to the sari look, and a different quality to the compliments. I’ve really enjoyed that.”

When I ask her if they wear saris a lot on “the other side”, she texts back with a grin and a Yes. But, as I learn later, therein hangs a tale of Politics and Partition.

Class XII Sari Memories of the North

Artika, 30, communications professional, now a Bangalore resident: “It was chocolate-brown, a georgette with silver laser print on it. In fact, it was actually dress material that my mama had picked up for my mother on his visit to France when she was still in college.”

Anuja Chauhan. Photo courtesy: Pooja Pande

Anuja Chauhan, 47, writer: “An orange and brown sari – a light, easy to wear silk-poly-mix – I wore it with a golden necklace tied like a kamarband around my waist which I felt was a huge innovation. Our school had house farewells, I was in Yamuna House and it was a big day for me, because I got crowned Miss Yamuna, with a sash and flowers and everything!  I remember feeling very pleased with myself though my mum basically looked rather bemused at how I had draped the thing!” 

Shabani, 37, filmmaker: “A purple/blue shot silk saree with no border or pallu and I wore it with a blue blouse. I’d patiently waited to wear a saree till Class XII because I didn’t feel I deserved to wear it before then since I wasn’t…woman enough. I remember distinctly, that when I looked in the mirror, I felt like an imposter because I’d straightened my hair and basically, alongwith the saree, I looked like not-me. When you are 17, feeling not-me was a great feeling.”

Swaati, 36, culture writer: To emulate her (my favourite teacher who taught us Art), I wore a starched Bengali taant sari… It was from my mom’s never-ending office-wear collection: A yellow with a blue-purple border, with a yellow sleeveless blouse. I didn’t like myself in it – I was skinny as hell, and so didn’t look like the hourglass figure I had seen sari-clad heroines in (although funnily enough, back then I thought I was fat). I remember looking at my pics later and thinking, ‘Damn, I look like Bharat Mata.’ And it was sticky September, so the petticoat and pleats were chipko-ed to my legs and I could barely walk. Nevertheless, I managed the day without uprooting the pleats like most of the teacher-girls I knew did, so, I was fairly pleased with myself.”

Mine was a plain yellow chiffon and I’d “left my hair open” as a nod to Chandni, obviously, though it was not deliberate at the time. I do remember pretending my name was really Chandni when I was I think, I hope, 10 years old. It evoked glamour, and not a clamour (of temple bells). About the D-Day, I recall hankering after a “citation” they gave some other girl that I thought belonged to me – Ms. Sense Sensibility. (I do not recall what my citation was at all. Maybe it was Chandni.)

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