A radical feminist expressed pain that I painted my toe nails while having pretensions to being a real person. One of India’s brightest young designers sat at my feet, amazed that I could wear a saree, grey hair and a jooda with “attitude”. People stereotype you by what you wear. No wonder that the unconfident react to fashion trends like sheep or lemmings.
In the 60’s, in our snobby, arrogant teens, only Bombay girls and Gujeratis from East Africa wore dresses. They were frankly considered incredibly “pap” – on par with oiling your hair or leaving your legs un-shaven. The rest of us wore sarees – tied low hipster style, belly buttons coyly see-through our chiffons and Finlay voiles. On picnics or pillion on our boyfriends’ Lambrettas we wore pedal pushers a la Audrey Hepburn in the film Roman Holiday. Occasionally we wore kameezes (not kurtas then); cut without slits so they hobbled at the knee: so tight they had zippers down the side. But most of the time we stuck to sarees.
Today’s young kids all have Marutis – they wouldn’t be seen dead on a scooter. And sarees have become a no, no dead end for the contemporary Indian young – teetering uncertainly between Western punk and Western yuppie for their fashion options. The ready-to-wear that comes here, designer labels notwithstanding, is passé export reject before it even reaches Indian shop shelves, but the equally passé Star TV soaps and shows beamed on our screens persuade us they are extremely trendy.
In a recent issue of Filmfare, a magazine devoted to information on Bollywood stars, there were 57 photographs of female film stars. Only three were wearing sarees. In the TV ads too, where most Indians pick up what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’, the only women in sarees are the obedient bahu frying wafer-crisp puris, the saas demanding a Sani-Fresh toilet or the plain girl with acne, BO and bad breath. The message is clear – only the dull, the dumb and the unsuccessful wear sarees.
Since I’m an anarchic type who follows instinct rather than the dictates of a style pundit’s sound bites, I still wear sarees. I wear them while bussing it in Bihar, climbing the Eiffel Tower or climbing ladders doing our Dastakar displays. I wore a sari all the years I had my mini motor bike and when I crossed the Banni on a camel. I wear a sari when I go out for my early morning business with my lota on field trips. I wore one when I danced with the Prince of Wales. (He was already engaged to Diana but didn’t mention it!)
I’m certainly not trying to make any statement. I do wear trousers, kurtas, kaftans, – even a bikini on occasion. But they have always been fancy dress. A sari is what I really find comfortable and me. What other dress is both so sexy and sensible? It hides everything you don’t want to show while suggesting that what’s hidden is incredibly oomph. And for someone who is always traveling in the boondocks, it’s brilliant and discreet for that road-side pee. Try scrambling out of a tight pair of jeans in the bushes while the truck drivers thunder past and your bladder is bursting.
.Jaya Jaitly and I slept using our sarees as sheets on a table in the 2nd class waiting room at Mathura railway station. When I had my morning bath at the well on my sojourns in Sherpur Village, my landlady Jumna and her daughters would hold up my sarees as a screen. A sari pallav can be a shawl, a sun shade, oven gloves, a baby wrap, even a hand towel. I’ve never gone quite as far as an American friend who’s now so native she even blows her nose on it.
Once, eating dessert at an Embassy party, the groping hand of a septegenarian American Cardinal pulled out all my pleats while earnestly talking of third world poverty. It turned out he was shortsighted and had mistaken my chikan sari for his dinner napkin! And on the Tokyo subway, an equally earnest and elderly but more inquisitive Japanese unspooled most of 5 and a half metres, accompanying his quest for knowledge with guttural cries of “gotsui, gotsui…” (amazing, amazing). But by and large, a sari gets you through anything. It inspires confidence in your credentials and respectability in police men and government officials, takes you through the customs Green Channel, makes men in railway compartments offer you the lower berth and carry your luggage.
In India today, trying madly to catch up with the rest of the world and the 21st Century, we sometimes seem anxious to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It would be sad if we succumbed utterly to minis and T shirts when – straddled comfortably with our feet in two cultures – we can afford to have the best of both worlds. Ray-Bans look equally good with our sarees. A midriff looks just as great in a choli as in a Bennetton skimpy.
Sad then that film stars, career girls, air hostesses, activists and teeny boppers alike, all seem to have abandoned the sari. Squeezing themselves, sometimes unsuitably, into spandex, sequins, split skirts, tracksuits and trainers when the splendour and simplicity of a sari would suit them much better.
I’m sticking to my sarees – they are even easy to pack.
First published in First City
– a version of this article appeared in Cosmo Magazine in 1997.