That doyen of Urdu poetry, Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz says a lot when he speaks of the sari’s aanchal, as a potential tool of revolution. Tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achchha tha (If only your palla could turn into a flag). The kurta or the man’s shirt hardly makes it to the political page at the same frequency as a woman’s clothes. What women wear is seen as fair game for commentary, to read as shorthand for modernity or tradition.
There has been a lot of anger online over an article in The New York Times that boxes the sari as a symbol of Hindutva. There is annoyance and bewilderment at the Orientalist frame pushed onto the attire, which is so much a part of life of all Indians. But, it occasions an opportunity to examine how Indians themselves view the six-yards.
Of course, the sari is a totem signifying tradition and family values if you watch TV serials across languages. Also, saris worn by madamji, ma, or a local political leader underscores them as something that exemplifies traditional ideas of power.
The sari has meant different things. The only woman prime minister that India has had, Indira Gandhi, used handcrafted saris to display their embroidery, prints and weaves, making a statement of the compositeness of Indian society. She was seldom seen in anything else, underscoring her connect with the traditional, but with a strong twist. On the other hand, in abandoning the sari, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, suggests how the sari was pipped to the post by the salwar-kameez or cotton pants (now referred to as ‘tunic-trouser’ sets, perhaps to suggest a proximity with western wear and enhance its desirability, a sign of our awe about most things ‘western’).
While the chiffon sari worn by a Yash Chopra heroine in pouring rain does survive as a sex symbol, Indians have done much to freeze it. As the garment of India, it received further push when jeans were explicitly banned by khap panchayats. Jeans are to be frowned upon and so saris get seen as more ‘traditional’ (Jeans, like bicycles, for girls when they were just invented and made commercially viable in Europe, were seen as detrimental to social structures as it was deemed that girls would use them to just escape). Jeans are seen as garments that enable a mobility that saris, by definition, do not facilitate.
There are more than 108 ways to drape this unstitched garment. Says Rta Kapur Chisti, whose sariseries.com went online recently, “The sari is a contemporary garment. It is not a kimono. It is not structured. Once you get the sa re ga ma of wearing a sari, you can fashion it anyway you wish, make what you want of it, which makes it a modern garment.”
It is far from being only Indian though. In fact, it is embraced by an entire region, worn both in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. For those who missed Runa Laila in a sari at the opening of the Cricket World Cup in Dhaka in 2011, there was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, wearing the most delectable dhakkai.
But surely, as far as the last nail in the myth of the sari being a modest or boring garment, one has to just look at Victorian commentary on the sari with a bare midriff, as being frowned upon as one of the most revealing garments ever. And on revolution? It was just a year after the death of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that Iqbal Bano sang his poem Hum Dekhenge. As the anthem of South Asian revolutionaries echoed in a Lahore auditorium in 1985, the Zia-ul-Haq administration shut down the lights on it. The garment she chose to wear as protest? A black sari — saris were outlawed by the military dictator Zia as part of his drive to ‘Islamise’ Pakistan. An aanchal as parcham, and more.