There’s been much furore over an ignorant article in the NYT on our beloved saree. While it’s easy to get all riled up and go hopping mad, it’s a good opportunity to see beyond the myopic ‘religious’ colour. As a secular nation, we enjoy a freedom to practise any religion as we see fit. But, what about the fundamental religion of being human? Do we walk the talk?
Quite recently, the husband and I were at a prominent jewellery store in the city, one known for it’s contemporary styling. I was the only one in a saree besides the sales staff. Initially, the salesman attending us was not very enthusiastic and quite dismissive until he figured out that we were potentially a reasonably high value sale. It was a first hand experience of how a saree clad woman is expected to fit into the slot of submissive, dependent, non-English speaking etc. As someone who is comfortable in her skin, it didn’t matter to me except perhaps from a sociological perspective. But, I could see how it might have played out for a person struggling with self image. A younger me would probably have doubted myself but thankfully that time has passed.
Sadly, in urban India, the saree is usually at two ends of a spectrum- either the high profile saree wearers in luxurious handwoven drapes or the domestic workers with their cheerful synthetic yards. Interspersed are women from professions that usually see a saree being worn, like teaching etc. The bulk of our urban women remain strangers to the saree except as occasional wear.
Back to the issue at hand, the bigger problem more than making the saree a religious symbol is making it a regressive one. I believe that it can see a shift when regular women like you and I start with wearing the six yards more frequently. It’s just a matter of wearing it continuously for a few days before you are swept in its melody. And then, there is no stopping the powerful voice with which it sings.
It has been a personal experience of empowerment through the humble saree. Initially, I was hesitant to wear the bright colours and patterns after decades of being in jeans and a shirt/tee. I was conscious but there was a tiny sprout of finding my feet as I started to drape them more frequently until it became a daily habit. It’s almost nine months since the saree was reintroduced in my everyday and now it’s who I am. Will it change? I don’t know but I like to think that this will endure. Unlike other garments, these handwoven beauties tug at you making you wonder and admire the many lives wound in its warp and weft. It’s hard not to be enamoured with the unique art that they are and discover a little more with each wear.
Much before feminism became a thing, the strong hands of our foremothers worked hard, raised families as they went about their lives in these same unstitched yards. Warrior women with steady eyes, an open heart and hardworking hands. And that sometimes is what it is all about- absolute assuredness.