Sunday, August 7, 2011

The decline and fall of the sari

On a Friday, I entered my classroom and became as bewildered as the proverbial bull in that china shop.  (But I was not, I must hasten to add, rough and clumsy like that bull.)  What caused the bewilderment was the sartorial extravagance that lay before me: the girls in the class were draped in silk saris of vibrant colours and decked out with gold necklaces, bracelets and chandelier-like objects that dangled from their ears.  "Fascinating!  Absolutely fascinating!"  I said, wondering at the difference six yards of fabric could make to a dreary classroom, and asked them, "But what's the occasion?"  "Today is the first Friday of the sravana masam", they replied blushing and laughing.  It was all very pleasing – the saris, the chandeliers, the laughter and the blushing.

When I think about it now, I feel that there is something else that is much more pleasing: the thought that the sari is here to stay, and that it still enjoys a presence on campuses, however scanty the presence may be.  And with the sari stays its magic: I have always wondered how the sari manages to stay where it stays without a belt or band to strap it in place.  Defying the pull of gravity, I mean.

The sari story is at once heroic and sordid.  Its gallantry lies in its defying the attempts of innumerable ravagers – from Dussashan in the Mahabharata to his modern counterparts – and in its obstinate refusal for a long time to be replaced by the outfits that came with the invaders, the Moghuls and the Europeans.  But it has shrunk alarmingly – from 24 yards to 18 and from that length to 12 and to the present 6, the last of which is barely insufficient, if you want your sari to be draped not just round your waist but the entire lower part of your body, and tucked up between the legs, with a pallu that is long enough to go across or around the shoulder and come down to be securely tucked up into the folding round the waist.

There is nothing, however, sordid about the sari shrinking to six yards.  Convenience rather than perversion must have dictated it.  And aesthetic sense.  Imagine Aishwarya Roy being draped in an 18-yard sari!

When did the sari begin to decline and fall?   When its various possibilities began to be exploited in our films about four decades ago.  Two films come to my mind immediately.  One is Raj Kapoor's box office hit, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, in which there is a bathing scene with the heroine, Mandakini, draped in a diaphanous sari.  The second is a love scene in Mr India in which Sridevi dances in a sari that leaves little to the imagination.  With the navel-baring potential of the 6-yard fabric being fully exploited in the movies of the following decade, the sari literally declined and fell.

When the sari fell, the salwar rose – the salwar that seemed to represent a happy compromise between the inconvenient sari and the "indecent" western wear – and  rose to prominence.  It has already gained social acceptance even in South India, the last bastion of the sari, relegating the latter to the status of the "costume dress", to be worn on formal occasions like weddings and the first Friday of the sravana masam.

But is the salwar half as aesthetic as the sari?  "The apparel oft proclaimeth the man", said Shakespeare's Polonius.  It "proclaims" women much more loudly.  Now, what the salwar proclaims about a pear-shaped woman is not aesthetically very pleasing.  And the world seems to be so full of pear-shaped women!


  1. It gives me a sense of immense happiness and pride when I read your article about girls decking up for occasions in sarees. This tradition of dressing up for Fridays and Tuesdays is seen in most colleges in Vijayawada and it is a sharp reminder about the culture and tradition, which is forgotten otherwise.
    Ignorance might have been bliss once upon a time, but now, it is also a fashion. While there is some good amount of population who value their customs and traditions and behave accordingly, there is another lot that lives in a state of ignorance. Comfort, trendy are the words 'in fashion' now. The transformation of India's national dress from Sari to Salwar says it all. I hope it sticks with the Salwar and does not go modified any further.

    Not to forget, your description of it all is amazing sir.

  2. I don't know how I missed this comment which was made over four years ago. About an hour ago, when I revisited this blog post on the sari for a pedagogical purpose (for using it in a faculty review test), I came across the comment and was pleased to find that it was so perceptive. But, who is I WILL? I tried to find out, but it was not possible. Thanks, I WILL, all the same.