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.

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37 Responses to “Save women from having to save the saree”

  1. Prakashr Says:

    To Answer the last question ..everyone will wear shorts .
    To identify someone from behind will be very difficult .

  2. Hanuman Says:

    Here this guy goes again! Shashi Tharoor should keep quiet for a decade! He has opened his mouth so often and he made himself unpopular to the extent that he was passed over for the Secretary Generalship of the UN. Some close to the UN says that he is much too talkative to be the highest executive of the UN. For Bush cronies at the UN who held the ace cards Tharoor’s verbose support of Kofi Annan whenever opportunity presented (he should have realised that Kofi Annan’s son Koja Annan which his suspicious business deals is a ‘no no’ for America’s UN ambassador), his foray into areas that are uncomfortable for them and his books in which he expresses opinions which are at best strange ( as for example about Nehru, whom he hardly knew as perhaps he was a baby in his diaper or a kid with dirty shorts) did not win even Indian friends, and eventually the threat of veto by Americans was enough for the permanent members of the Security Council to go for the South Korean.

    Shashi Tharoor is of the wrong gender to talk about attires that is of no immediate concern to him. He should leave the Saree issue to those who are best placed to comment-the Indian women, there are plenty of them who can articulate saree-related issues better than him.

  3. Hanuman Says:

    I read again Mr Tharoor’s article, and my disdain for him now has increased by over two notches! Just as he did not do enough work to understand Nehru, he has done not enough in respect of Karunanidhi. I suggest to him to dig up the newspaper archives of late 1960s particularly the items which showed the ever dhothi-clad Karunanidhi wearing a suit ( albeit with a Nehru -type jacket) when he went to America to have his eye operation done at Johns Hopkins or to London for the same in the previous year. The problem with Tharoor is his mouth and he tends to put it when it does not belong.

    Tharoor is a crafty guy and acted as a good ‘chamcha’ for dear old Kofi Annan hoping that it would further nhis career prospects which it did for some time at least. I get the feeling that reference to Karunanidhi is for a future favour- the words of the old wily guy from Chennai go very in central cabinet. Tharoor must have noticed that how Maran then a vagabond in Thousand Lights district of Chennai is now a central minster hobnobbing with Bill Gates.

  4. H.R.Bapu Satyanarayana Says:

    Boy, Tharoor must have known better than take on women of India on the saree issue. He has lived so many years in USA he seem to be out of touch with what is happening in India. They have come out of the centuries of subjugation and are standing up to be counted. Why not, men are beginnig to get paranoid for whatever they can do the women are showing they can do better. Best thing for Tharoor is to do a quick NRN and apologise for his comment for some may say banish him from India for he has insulted womanhood which is worse than dishohouring National Anthem!

  5. Ganesh Shenoy Says:

    What about our own H D Deve Gowda? He is 24/7 panche wearing leader.
    He used to wear only panche even when he was the Prime Minister for 11 months. He even addressed UN General Assembly (Sept 2006) in Panche…….. He addressed the nation from Red Fort on 15th August in Panche ………..

  6. Prakashr Says:

    On a side note
    ‘Save Women from Hanuman’ yaake andre
    Kapi ge na na cheste .

  7. Hanuman Says:

    # Prakashr Says:
    April 14th, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    On a side note
    ‘Save Women from Hanuman’ yaake andre
    Kapi ge na na cheste .

    So you agree with Tharoor about what an Indian woman should wear in this 21st century, a rather subjugation attitude on would say.

  8. Indu Ramesh Says:

    Come on, we are not going to stop wearing salwar kameezes or jeans or business suits just because Shashi Tharoor tells us. Every woman has the freedom to wear what she feels comfortable in. However, I do feel it is odd to see young women in jeans or even the salwar kameeze in te,ples and religious functions. Somehow it takes away the sanctity of the place and the occassion. May be women themselves should bring in some kind of dresscode so that we wont see women dressed up as if for wedding reception in offices and prostrating before the Lord,wearing tight jeans. My mother learnt to swim and ride the bycycle wearing a saree(in the 30s of the lst century), but I am sure ,if she were alive today,she would not tell my daughter to do the same.

  9. mouna Says:

    right on the nail!! the responsibilty of preserving anything indian, does not lie on the femalefolk alone. a girl is expected to wear a saree on the day on the day of her wedding, while the men are permitted to wear western attire, what about the sanctity of the occasion? and what about preserving our practises, even when trousers are worn on a traditional ceremony?

  10. Hanuman Says:

    I beg to differ that sanctity of an occasion is best preserved by wearing jubba and dhoti or saree. For some one like me who studied Hindu religious scriptures for six years, I find no problem at all if a woman in tight jeans prostrates before let us say Ganesha. Bhakti is in mind. I feel that modesty in dressing is more important than a prescriptive dress of some sort.

  11. Prakashr Says:

    HANUMANtha ..nimma post odhidhe.
    AAdu(goat) muttidha soppu yilla …HANUMAN maadidha kelasavilla.
    Neevu maadriva kelasa ..Odhidhu yella yestu suLLo yestu NijanO

    yaar yenu helidhru..adhella neevu avaru chaddi hakkoLovaaga maadirtheera

    oLLE OLu Manushya

  12. Hanuman Says:

    Prakashr

    Is that what you can contribute? Fine!!!

  13. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Dear All,

    This is my personal bias: frankly I agree with Tharoor. I cannot bear to see our South Indian women in Salwar Kameez! Better if they are in sarees which gives them a graceful appearance. The salwar kameez makes them look ugly and downright silly. They should wear pants (trousers) which gives them better mobility and more ‘empowerment’.

    I detest the ‘Punjabification’ of our saree culture. Just close your eyes and imagine Ravi Varma’s paintings and view his women wearing salwar kameez–I am sure all right thinking men will vomit in a microsecond. Our south Indian long plaited oily hair and plenty of flowers in the hair and many pieced rings will look good only in a saree…so sorry!

    Even trousers don’t make our women look ridiculous but salwaar kameez does!

    DB’s final advice to women: wear pants in the family for faster empowerment. Drape yourself in a saree so that your attractive bits are always attractive to your near and dear ones. Don’t wear the slovenly three-tent salwar kameez!

  14. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Hanumanji

    Tharoor lost out because he was too clever! Besides who needs a Leftist outside WB and Kerala?

  15. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Dear All,

    Sorry my earlier comments on Saree did not post…so here goes…

    Frankly I support Tharoor on Saree. The salwar kameez is such an ugly dress. IMHO SK is totally inappropriate for South Indian women–long oily hair, flowers, many ear rings just clASHES WITH sk!

    . SK exaggerates the worst bits ON South Indian women and hides their best bits–SK is like a 3-piece tent suitable for ‘dombarata’ kind of dance. Also, SK makes women look more slovenly and silly. I hate this ‘punjabification’ of dresses in South India!

    Saree gives South Indian women more graceful looks, hides blemishes, and enhances the attractive bits–cleavage and waist and do so on.

    DB’s advice to South Indian women: Please wear trousers instead for faster empowerment if you don’t want to wear a saree! If you want to upset somebody, go ahead and wear a tent!! aka SK.

  16. N Niranjan Nikam Says:

    I agree with all that Vinutha Mallya talks about and her take on Shashi Tharoor. But at the end if the saree which is quintessential Indian, is really relegated by women for whatever reasons that would be the saddest day. However, as she has rightly pointed out the women diplomats and other high flying Indians still use it as an attire at formal functions and they are none the worse for it because all of them look so elegant. Long live the saree.

  17. Smita Says:

    HRBS, Mouna – :-) yours were the only replies i could relate to… Thank you for that!

    Hanuman – i was almost with you on everything you said about dress codes, but was disappointed with the last note on modesty being more important than a prescribed dress code!! (Who defines these so called limits of ‘modesty’? Aren’t we back to square one then?)

    Indu – am too annoyed to say anything on your condescending remark about ‘young women’ and ‘appropriate dress sense’ and a self-imposed ‘dress code’

    All the others – i guess such forums are the only places you can now express your frustration on any loss of control you feel over dictating what women should or shouldnt do. Go ahead amuse yourselves!!!

  18. Naveen Says:

    WoW!! D buddi – You are real Vintage ! – includes your thoughts too!

  19. rvaidya Says:

    Dear girl/ lady/Woman/Madam
    Wear Saree or Salwar or Suit or Jeans– It is your birth right to choose what to wear , when to wear and how to wear–

    But think twice before wearing that low hip jeans and high hip t-shirt and attempting to pick up that surf packet by bending down –from the lowest shelf — at the local Fabmall.

  20. rustyvagabond Says:

    rvaidya, peeking into the girls’ backsides at the local fabmall, are we? why not? they dress like that so that you can peek in and see which brand of underwear they wear. the underwear companies get free branding, and you get a sneak peak. the low hip jeaned and high hip t-shirted get cheap thrills…it is all one viscious cycle. somehow when the local boys wear crotch hugging jeans and body hugging t-shirts and don’t think twice before taking their shirts off anywhere and everywhere, i feel disgusted. don’t even want them to think twice. they don’t even get cheap thrills. they simply feel it is their birthright!

    take a walk outside and see the number of men who might disgust the women by the way they dress. and then later please ask the girls to think twice. notice the number of men who don’t button their shirts to show off their hairy chests (but oh, they feel hot, don’t they?). not just young boys, we are talking about middle aged men. look at the way they look at any girl passing by, never mind if she was covered from head to toe. do you think the way a woman’s clothes herself has really mattered when it came to the male gaze taking a sneak peak like you did at the local Fabmall?

  21. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Naveen

    Thank you! Vintage is good, isn’t it.

    But I don’t agree with RVaidya! Cuz I am a proponent of low-hip jeans. Only Taliban types will object to this lovely garment of our recent times:)

  22. Smita Says:

    R Vaidya – why does picking up the surf packet also fall under a lady’s ‘scope’ of work i wonder!!! (whether clad in low-hipped jeans or a high necked, full sleeved blouse and saree – your perception about women and their role and place in scoiety needs a serious re-look!!!)

    Rustyvagabond – You’ve stolen many of my thoughts – and beautifully said too! Thank you! I just want to add the disgusting, but compulsive other behaviors that seems to be entirely acceptable to this group of people who speak of modesty and appropriateness – the indiscriminate scratching of self in public and public urinating (and if we took a poll here, it might be interesting to see how many men vouch not to have ‘indulged’ in this ever)

    Doddi buddi – key kodadu saku ri! You are not humourous anymore – just obnoxious…

  23. raja Says:

    Wow, I can’t believe! Being an educated man, Shashi Tharoor does not know how to mind his own male ego!!! I live in USA. I wear pants or skirt to work, salwars, chudidar when I chose to wear and I proudly wear saree to formal functions. I wonder, if this Mr. Shashi Tharoor wears his lungi, churidar and other Indian attire to his work place or day to day living. I BET he does not! We have more problem in this world with poverty and and other disasters than worrying about what other people wear. I think as long as we dress decently and mind our own business in this matter , it will be great!!!

  24. Dheerendragopal Says:

    I remember a song from P.Susheela ( actress was Kalpana ) which goes ..

    Mana Mucchi koLalu kelavrige batte yilla
    Poorthi mai mucchalu kelavarige manassilla….

    yedhena sabhyathae yidhenu samskruthe..

  25. Dheerendragopal Says:

    Its Good to see Indian Women in Saree ..and all other women in Bikini .
    By saying that ‘The PALLU dropping’ should only be limited to Indian Movies .

  26. Dheerendragopal Says:

    Phew ..I read all the above comments and felt I shouldnt have posted my latest ones ( Its not humourous any more )

    Deviyo aur Sajjano Wear whatever one feels ..its your birth right . Except if one is not travelling in Middle east . Its a free and fair world for one and all .

  27. Anonymous Guy Says:

    Shashi tharoorge burkha haki vapas kallusbeku.

  28. Sindagi Says:

    Wow,The responses seem to be more intresting to me than what Shashi Tharoor said…..Well its is a our birth right to wear whatever we want !
    People have changed their trends and thats not only becoz they want to be fashionable…I wud prefer wearing a jeans and tight T shirt than salwar kameez with dropping dupatta or a pallu in a Lab where I have to bend 100 times .Wearing a salwar and doing this wud bring evrymans work at standstill …I think women shud prefer to change their attire only if ur work culture needs one…and justify people like Shashi Tharoor .
    Wear whatever u want ,just carry urself in a dignified way …

  29. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Smita, Rusty Vagabond and Crossdresser Raja!

    India is a hot humid country and Indian men need to cool off once in a while. Women a majority of them being ‘less’ hirsute need not resort to these cooling methods:) But in the Punjab, the saying goes…where men are fierce and women fiercely hirsute! :)

    I think IMHO low-waist jeans can be a show stopper or lingerie flasher depending on the person wearing it. Hope springs eternal in all males–low-waist = high expectations but sadly not true.

    I am surprised none of you appreciated my Raja Ravivarma paintings joke! How the artistic standards have fallen! Sigh…

    Cross dresser Raja or is it Rani,
    Feel free to wear what is appropriate for your taste and ability! Assuming you are a ‘real’ Rani please don’t be small-minded. A flash of frontal assets will do wonders to the team spirit. Be a team player! Unless you are deficient in that department!

  30. Doddi Buddi Says:

    DG

    Neevu Mannina Maga song quote madidhree! 40 plus years have passed Saar! People prefer to dress less for more!

  31. Smita Says:

    It is often the strategy of street side bullies to hit below the belt (or above the belt as in the case of you KANTRI BUDDI),knowing that others will not stoop so low and hit back. At the risk of getting both of us ousted from this forum for ‘inappropriate’conduct :-), i am not going to make it easy for you to do that!!!

    So this is just to say, you may want to restrict your advise for helping ‘cool’ off hiruste (and therefore virile???) Indian men, to the women in your home – your mother/sister/daughter???! I am sure they have learnt to tolerate an MCP like you. You may want to find out what their opinion is about flashing their frontal assets for such a noble cause. (Or is it just a case of ‘mane-alli ili, bidi/ churumuri alli huli????’)

    some of your preoccupations with the human body and functions have a distinct hint of pathological disturbance – seek help in good time. This sometimes has to do with fixations during early developmental years, that one has not matured enough to get over…

  32. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Smita

    You are a real star! Please wear a SK and be happy.

    Frontal assets are meant to be flashed as also nice legs. If you don’t want to that’s OK. Looks like you are deficient in the brains department as well.

    Thank you.

  33. Smita Says:

    Tsk Tsk Tsk! Someone doesnt seem to be able to take a joke on himself as well as he makes it on others!! (someone mentioned artistic standards having fallen some time back….??)

  34. Doddi Buddi Says:

    Smita

    Speak for yourself! If you had confined your witticism to my earlier observations, then it’s OK–the joke was on me:)

    But then you went the whole nine-yard Saree and called me a KB.

    Oh I am so KB!

  35. Dheerendragopal Says:

    Sadhya there bithalla yee vishyakke.
    yenu vikopakke thirugithu .

  36. Krishna Says:

    Well my 2 paisa view on the question of why only girls should go for tradition india wear but not the guys to wear traditional indian dresses is that i think our respective ancestors got the things right for female dressing but messed it up for us guys.
    I mean just look how graceful, sensuous and beautiful a good saree, salwar-kammez, lehenga-choli etc looks on a girl but just try to think of a guy in dhoti-kurta, mundu, lungi :(

  37. Aila Says:

    I would say that on one side, traditional dresses represent the culture of the country as saree represent india all over the world so keep wearing it gracefully. But on other side, its a free world, let everyone decide what they want to wear. Every dress has its own grace.

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