Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s comment on the sari at the Harvard India Conference — “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… stand up for it” — has drawn people into the eternal debate of what is Indian and qualifies for a national identity.
Both the dhoti and the sari owe their existence to common ancestors. “For a long time, men and women in ancient India just wore the antariya (lower garment) and uttariya (upper garment) — both rectangular pieces of cloth which were draped in various styles,” says fashion historian Toolika Gupta. The Indian subcontinent was a multitude of kingdoms and cultures. “There are parts of the country where people do not largely wear the sari, for example in Rajasthan where there was the lehenga, choli and odhani. Saris were largely worn in Bengal and all over south. But even here in many cases the upper part and the lower part are different,” says Gupta. This is true of Kerala’s mundu veshti and Assam’s mekhela chador.
Even the morality associated with the sari-blouse is a relatively modern idea. A Sanskrit manual, The Guide to Religious Status and Duties of Women, written in Kerala between 400 and 600 BC directs married women of a high social status to wear a bodice, women from the middle strata to not wear a bodice, but cover their breasts with the loose end of their sari, and women of lower status to leave their breasts uncovered. The practice was observed in Travancore until the arrival of the Christian missionaries in the 19th century who brought with them what could be understood as the concept of shame or the freedom of covering oneself or both.
Indian tastes in clothing underwent a massive change in the colonial period, marking the entry of cultural values and fashions of Victorian England. The Tagores of Bengal and the Parsis of Bombay were wealthy, elite classes who frequently interacted with the British. From them, the trend of wearing a particularly kind of sari — with blouse and petticoat — spread downward.
Jnanada Nandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore — brother of Rabindranath Tagore — is famously credited with popularising the use of Victorian-style blouses, jackets and chemises and modern style of sari among circles of middle-class Bengali women. She is said to have arrived from Bombay “dressed in a civil and elegant attire” in imitation of Parsi women which was hailed as an “integral combination of indigenousness, decorum and modesty”. Her style was quickly adopted by the Brahmo Samaj women — came to be known as Brahmika sari — and also gradually gained acceptance among Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh brahmos as well as non-brahmos.
Dressing the Indian woman appropriately became a colonial and a nationalist project. Sociologist Himani Bannerji states that while a minuscule among the upper classes started wearing gowns and saris were experimented with — the sari won. The Indian woman absorbed the western (Victorian) morality, without fully embracing western fashion.
The symbol of the sari became further charged under the Swadeshi movement which spurned European clothing. In this period, it got elevated from its diffuseness and variety of its historical origins to a distinct and precise national emblem. In independent, modern India, it has been revived and redefined by modern designers as a garment that is cultured yet highly fashionable, chic, and hence in sync with modern aspirations.
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