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No, Sabyasachi, if an Indian woman can't tie a sari it's none of your business

For the last time, women do not wear clothes to meet the standards of self-appointed custodians of culture.

 |  3-minute read |   12-02-2018
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In the space of a week, men have told Indian women that they are like demonesses when they laugh, it is worrying if they have beer, and should be ashamed if they cannot wear a sari. The week before, we had men certifying what “real vaginas” feel, experience and should say.

The latest guardian of Indian culture-cum-rebuker of Indian women was designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who, at the Harvard India Conference on February 10, said: “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 stand up for it.”

The saree is not dying out, but men anyway don't get to lecture women on it. Photo: PTIThe sari is not dying out, but men anyway don't get to lecture women on it. Photo: PTI

With this, Mukherjee has betrayed another trait inherent in Indian culture – men assuming they get to tell women what to do, and shame them if they don’t conform to their notions of conduct and culture.  

At the Harvard event, the designer even tried to explain to women what wearing a sari is like. “It’s a relationship of misunderstanding. It’s easy to wear a sari. Wars have been fought in sari. Grandmothers have slept in sari and have woken up without any folds to it,”, though, in a rather contrarian strain, he added: “Indian women have kept alive the sari, but the dhoti is dead.” 

The statement has led to outrage on Twitter, with many pointing out that the comments were a bit rich coming from a man whose "designer saris" are priced firmly beyond the reach of most of humanity, of whatever gender, and whose concern for the garment’s popularity might not entirely be driven by love for Indian culture. 

They are not completely right. Mukherjee seems to recognise that his products are not the most accessible, and in 2014, had launched a low-budget, CSR initiative actually titled Save the sari. That collection began at the “low” price of Rs 1,800.

People also pointed out that while Mukherjee accepted that the dhoti was dead, he did not think of shaming men for it.

However, had the designer created extremely affordable saris and attacked men too, would it have given him the right to criticise women for their wardrobe choices? No.

Whether or not a woman learns how to tie a sari is her business alone, and Mukherjee or anybody else does not get to shame her for it. He also does not get to define what “Indian culture” is, and what one needs to do to “stand up for it”.

The designer also gave an explanation for why women are ditching the sari – they are becoming “socially insecure”, he lamented. “Women and men are trying very hard to be something that they are not. Your clothing should be a part of who you are and connect you to your roots,” he added.

Reductive attempts to define “Indian culture” have become all too common in recent times, but remain uniformly wrong – there cannot be one language, one religion, one garment that defines Indian-ness. Saris are not “rooted in tradition” in Kashmir or Punjab. Should women there take draping classes to be Sabyasachi-certified Indians?

Reams have been written on how the nine-yards are being lost, how women are turning their backs on this glorious piece of Indian tradition only to be seen as “westernised”, “modern” or “equal to men”.

They ignore two fundamental points: the lament of the lost sari suffers from the blindness of proximity – a garment cannot be in danger of extinction only because it is no longer the default dress for urban upper-middle class women – and that wearing clothes is an individual choice – women do not maintain wardrobes to please self-appointed custodians of culture.

Women have fought – and are still fighting – a long and hard battle against a patriarchal society that tries to police every aspect of their lives, including their clothes, and the “Indian culture” stick has been an oft-abused one to beat them up with.

When can we expect Indian men to mark a break from this tradition?

Also read: Have questions over Rafale deal made Nirmala Sitharaman lose her sheen? 

Writer

Yashee Yashee @yasheesingh

Senior sub editor

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