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Back Off NYT, I’m a Sari & I’m Not a Tool in the Hands of Hindutva

Author: Nishtha Gautam
Publication:  Thequint.com
Date: November 16, 2017
URL:    https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/my-name-is-sari-and-im-not-a-tool-in-the-hands-of-hindutva

An evolutionary scientist would tell you better than me that the human brain is hardwired to see the rope as a snake to trigger our survival instinct – something we have carried forward from the primordial chaos. Our “cognitive bias,” or the way we subjectively register, process and remember events, has a bearing on our ability to survive. However, when one begins to see snakes everywhere, something is amiss. The sari may not be the snake you are perceiving it to be, The New York Times.

The government’s aim certainly has been to produce a popular fashion aesthetic that matches the broader political program of Hindu nationalism.

Asgar Qadri, The New York Times


For a piece that ends on a note of certitude, it is a crying shame that it meandered from claiming sari to be subterfuge in the nationalism project to artisan distress to communalism, making the attire in question take the real beating. In its urgency to publish an India piece that sits well in the publication’s problematic gaze, all nuance was washed out, quite like an inefficiently-dyed sari.

Touting sari as a cog in the fast-spinning wheel of the Hindutva agenda, the author has managed to discredit a substantial number of sari-wearing Muslim women not only in India but in the larger subcontinent, whose sartorial choices were not suddenly altered post 2014. One also begins to wonder what the lakhs of Muslim women in Bangladesh, the birthplace of gems like Tangail and Jamdani might be thinking about this ‘Hindutva’ label. And what about the women in the Jinnah household?

When Hermès chose to sell saris with a $6000-10000 price tag in India in 2011, I doubt it had the Hindutva agenda in mind. Even if we believe that the French luxury brand was in cahoots with the Indian deep state with its nefarious designs, the move was ill-advised anyway. After all, proselytising rarely succeeds without free gifts.

In 2015, Indian social media was draped in the myriad hues of the #100SareePact. Women of all ages, communities and socio-economic backgrounds made a pact to choose sari as their attire of choice for at least 100 days that year. The hashtag is still alive.



Niketa @nikaytaa
18 women. 18 drapes. One common love: The Sari #100SareePact #Saree
1:11 AM - Sep 6, 2017

The NYT carried a report on the same and did not find any such agenda then. Full disclosure: I, too, was featured in the report with my Kashmiri Ari hand-embroidered sari teamed with a paisley-motif Banarasi brocade blouse. The story back then was about personal histories, culture, and, above all, love for the sari.

Before becoming a politician, Ms Irani was a household name as a soap opera star. Tulsi, the character she played in “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because the Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law)”, popularised her as a traditional Indian daughter-in-law draped in sari.

Asgar Qadri, The New York Times

Indian women are making a departure from traditional sartorial choices, thanks to their slowly increasing participation in the workforce. But there is a flip side to it. It would have done the author little harm to find out that sari remains a no-no for girls in the same Hindu communities that want to ban jeans, mobile phones, chowmein among other things for them. Sari reveals the midriff, remember? Shalwar Kameez is the sanskaari sartorial choice. But, if sari is Hindu, shalwar-kameez is Muslim and voila it’s a conundrum! Where do we go from here?
As if we do not have enough conundrums to deal with, the NYT piece offers us one more. Sample the following:

Since then, there have been frequent state-sponsored fashion shows and exhibitions, most recently the “Symphony of Weaves,” a fashion showcase for the country’s textiles, held in July in Gujarat, all with the aim of promoting traditional Indian clothing styles.

Asgar Qadri, The New York Times

And now this:

During his campaign, Mr Modi had promised to revive the tradition of the Banarasi sari and to help its weavers, a significant percentage of the constituency’s electorate. The weavers, who are mostly Muslim and following a family trade, largely live in poverty. In late October, I visited Varanasi to learn whether anything had changed in the three years since Mr Modi came to power. Mohammad Bashir, a wiry middle-age man who was my guide, led me through the narrow alleys of Saraiya, a village about 10 miles from the city. There were open drains clogged with thick black sewage, and half-dressed children played nearby. As soon as we reached what looked like a community center, about 50 men, old and young, gathered around. A few told their stories on behalf of the group: Nothing had changed for them.

Asgar Qadri, The New York Times

The convoluted logic of the NYT piece demands that the woes of weavers in Banaras, mostly Muslims, should be gotten rid of without canvassing for the saris they produce. So yeah, pull the artisan out of abject penury without encouraging people to buy their goods.

Pierre Bourdieu noted in his seminal essay ‘Haute Couture and Haute Culture’ that the dominant class’ fashion becomes the mass fashion –in line with the Marxist idea of hegemony. The case of sari, however, defies this formulation. With a vast repertoire of drapes and fabrics, which may not be without some kind of class signalling, sari largely remains a neutral piece of garment with distinct regional tassels, if you please. Those tassels, too, have transcended their cultural moorings. The most standardised drape seen across North India, for instance, is the nivi-drape that is said to have originated in Andhra Pradesh.

You pick a sari not because you belong to a community but because you want to know about the others, or simply because it is purple in colour.

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