Concealed fashions

The Sari
December 5, 2003

There is a story in the Indian epic The Mahabharata , in which the villain tries to humiliate Draupadi, the virtuous wife, by pulling off her sari. The gods make her garment never ending, so he can not disrobe her. The story is repeatedly shown in India, in the folk theatre and on television. As a result, the sari is still seen as the most reassuring and dignified garment for an Indian woman. It is also baffling for many horny young Indian men, until they are guided by women to a simple short-cut revealed on page 88 of The Sari .

The authors, both anthropologists at University College London, have written this lavish book to explore the sociological evolution of this unstitched piece of material, approximately 550cm by 120cm. They look at the sari "not as an object of clothing, but as a lived garment". Along the way, they discuss the intimacy between wearer and worn: as a third arm, as a precious possession, as a fashion statement, as a power dress and as reliable raiment for concealing ugliness and enhancing beauty and eroticism.

Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller interviewed men and women from varied walks of life about sari wearing. They present their thoughts as a collage so as to generate ideas on how and why the sari has survived for so long, reinventing itself to suit changing lifestyles and fashions. They also delve into the production of the material, from handloom to powerloom, and its worldwide distribution, from village peddlers to international outlets.

But the regional varieties of the sari receive only passing mention. The authors concentrate on the most popular forms of draping, such as that invented by Rabindranath Tagore's sister-in-law, Jnanadanandini (whose name is wrongly spelt in the book). She was the first Bengali woman to come out of purdah, and she invented the new style for the governor-general's Christmas party in Calcutta in 1866.

Anecdotes in the book reveal many responses to the sari. A famous actor is said to have paid a prostitute handsomely to wear one without a foundation petticoat or blouse. Certain painters in Bengal at the turn of the 19th century were preoccupied with the wet sari - a style that "Bollywood" later enthusiastically adopted. And yet the sari also stands for all that is noble and sacred in an Indian woman, from the favoured wedding dress to the blockbuster Mother India . Mother Teresa chose a sari for her Missionaries of Charity; Indira Gandhi glamorised it for the world; Cherie Blair dutifully dons it for British-Asian occasions.

However, it is now under threat in India. As women become more emancipated, they challenge conventional notions of feminine garments and consider alternatives: the ubiquitous jeans and T-shirt, and the Islamic trouser suit, the shalwar kamiz. Judging by the interviews in the book, western clothes pose no lasting threat, though the shalwar kamiz is definitely becoming more popular with the young. The sari is re-emerging in the shape of "designer outfits" for the burgeoning wealthy class and more attractive, easy-care synthetic saris for working women. As long as sophisticated urban Indian women remain confident of the charm, grace and hidden power in the sari's mysteriously suggestive drape, while resourceful village women trust it to filter out bacteria from drinking water, it will endure.

Krishna Dutta is a writer on Indian culture, specialising in Bengal.

The Sari

Author - Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 6
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 1 85973 732 3

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