When I think of my mother, who died when I was 13, I often think of her saris. The freshly starched handloom cottons for the overwhelming heat of an Indian summer, the patchwork riot of intricately hand-woven colored silk for winter, the shimmering brocades for a big wedding and the pastel chiffons made for official functions. She would complete each look with matching glass bangles that ran from her wrist to her elbow and an assertive stripe of tinted vermilion powder in a sharp line down her forehead. Wrapped in the swaths of those five to nine yards of every sari were our memories. My abiding regret as a 45 year old remains that I cannot carry a sari as elegantly as she could.
That’s why, like so many Indians, I was appalled by the daft commentary in the New York Times this week that linked the sari to politics and Hindu nationalism.
In India’s highly unequal and stratified country, the sari is the most democratic clothing; it cuts across classes and castes, regions and religions, albeit with delightful variations in weave, fabric and style of draping. Of all the different kinds of clothes women can wear — dresses, shorts, skirts, gowns, kurta pyjamas — it’s also the most empowering to the female form; its one-size-fits-all style is wonderfully non-hierarchical about weight or body type. There is probably no woman in India who does not own a sari; the villager who walks 10 miles to fetch water for her children, an earthen pot perched precariously on her head, has one, as does the chief executive of the biggest corporate firm. In the weave of the sari, our history, culture, collective consciousness and identity are tied together.
The New York Times piece is a gross misrepresentation of what the sari means to us. Though apparently written by an Indian writer from Kashmir, the meandering article claims that “The [Indian] government’s aim certainly has been to produce a popular fashion aesthetic that matches the broader political program of Hindu nationalism” and quotes a social anthropologist who says, “There is a clear connection between the rising Hindu nationalism and the aesthetic production of leading Indian fashion designers and the country’s luxury industry at large.” Such inanities raise grave questions about how the New York Times’s editors let it pass.
I usually don’t agree with how prickly Indians get when we are chronicled in American media — but this time I felt enraged. The article underscores the lazy tropes, the broad cliches and the forced narratives of so many foreign newspapers and channels when it comes to India — our country is frankly way too complex for their unthinking labels and boxes. (There are some honorable exceptions, like the New York Times’s former South Asia correspondent, Ellen Barry, who captured the zeitgeist of India brilliantly.) If in the ’60s and ’70s the Western media came in search of snake-charmers and saffron-robed spiritual gurus, in 2017, they are still trying to force-fit us into their preconceived idea of India as a communal, underdeveloped third-world country.
Now let’s question the flawed premise of this piece, and so many others that reflect the same way of thinking: the assumption that tradition and modernity are antonyms. Are jeans from Gap, shirts from Zara and dresses from Banana Republic supposed to be the inane index of our progressiveness? For the moment, I am ignoring the irony that most of those companies’ clothes are produced in Asian factories. My question is more fundamental: Are we all meant to be culturally flattened by the homogenizing bulldozer of Western capitalism in order to call ourselves modern? For all its economic advantages, why should we allow globalization — which is really just Westernization — to reduce us to indistinct sameness, so that our food, our clothes, our language and our music are all-American and reassuring to foreign media?
Our fabrics and clothing have always been part of our national assertiveness. In pre-independence India, Mohandas Gandhi spun Khadi, a hand-spun, hand-woven natural fiber, to make a statement against the British. It became a symbol of protest. In today’s post-colonial India, we are hard-wired to proudly resist cultural imperialism. That doesn’t make us nativists; it makes us citizens of the world who are rooted in our own layers of tradition, rejecting some and strengthening others as we argue and evolve.
The New York Times piece seems to accuse the government of promoting the sari — as if that were a crime. But India’s best-known designers have also urged the Modi government to protect handloom weavers, cut back on taxes in the sector and save our endangered artisans and hand-weavers from power-looms and marauding market forces. If anything, we criticize the government for not doing enough. There are also citizen-run social media campaigns such as the #100SareePact to encourage younger women to wear the sari more often. Not one of these has a narrow political agenda.
The suggestion that the sari is about Hindu identity is rubbish; if anything, the sari has an appeal across the South Asian subcontinent. The two female powerhouses of Muslim-majority Bangladesh are almost always draped in one; old photographs of a young Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister, catch her in many sari-clad moments as well.
This piece on women-centric clothing was written by a man; all but one quoted interviewee is a man. In the worst example of mansplaining, the New York Times article patronizes both Hindu and Muslim women by presuming to speak on their behalf. There is not a single interview with Indian women on what we feel. Laila Tyabji, a respected crafts revivalist who is female and Muslim, and who writes a stellar “Sari Diary” on Facebook, alleges that the author interviewed her but “wiped my views out” of the article. Columnist Namrata Zakaria says she had the same experience. How did this meet basic editorial standards?
To fabricate a conspiracy theory around our beloved sari is not only Orientalist; it’s just plain stupid. And poor journalism to boot.