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Of Saris and Dhotis

About a decade ago my sister-in-law Penelope, who is British, remarked, “it will be a sad day for India when to see a woman in a sari a person will have to go to a ‘Folk Arts Museum’!”

Not Quite a Sari Revival

That day is coming sooner than I thought, though several people have assured me there is a ‘sari revival’ in many Indian towns. I see fewer women in saris. In fact a day after my cataract surgery – my eye surgeon forbade screen time or reading – I sat in my front room observing the wonderfully varied clothing of neighbors and tradespeople walking down our lane.

There was the ‘knife sharpener’ with a wheel on his back, the broom seller, the ‘idli man’ with shining stainless steelware, the devout Parsi gentleman and his white ‘dagli‘-tied bows in the front. Many women walked by, in salwar-kameezes, blue jeans, or slacks and tops. Not one wore a sari.

A Rite of Passage

My cousin was almost apoplectic when she learned that some of her younger nieces did not even know how to wear a sari! It used to be a rite of passage into adulthood to learn to wear one with ease.

My mother wore the same un-ironed, unstarched sari all day at home. When going out, she changed into a sari without a ‘fall’ ( meaning, it had no extra lining at the lower edge to drape well). She looked as elegant as could be.

Bengali, Gujarati, or Maharashtrian

Every so often I see a woman in a 6-yard sari, worn with the palaav thrown over the left shoulder in the modified Bengali style, or in the Gujarati style which better displays an intricate palaav as it drapes the front.

Only once in a 10 week period in Mumbai, did I see women draped in the stylish and stately 9-yard Maharashtrian sari. The two graceful ladies were my friend Meenal’s Aajis (grannies), Changuna Sanzgiri and Satyabhama Kamath. Their daughters abandoned the 9-yard sari for the 6-yard one; as for their grandchildren… well!

Only for the Rich and Famous

Now I only see gorgeous handlooms and the intricate regional weaves on the rich and famous at celebrity events.

Maybe the sari isn’t practical any longer and handlooms are very expensive. But surely, most formal occasions and even some informal ones call for a sari ? It’s both elegant and forgiving on the wearer!

I say to the sari what Dylan Thomas wrote in another context:

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Jean-wearing Priests

As for the dhoti, it appears to be near extinction! One rarely sees a man in a dhoti in Mumbai. Even Shastris (Hindu priests) seem to be performing religious rituals in jeans! At school many of our teachers wore dhotis to work. So did the men of Western, Central and North India. But not anymore.

I understand that many men from the Southern states wear a lungi or mundu at home, but do their young ones?

Whenever I chance upon some hapless North Indian man I demand, “Do you know how to wear a dhoti ? Invariably the answer is ‘No’ to which I respond in Hindi,
“येह तो बद शरम क बात है (this is a matter of great shame!”)

Even Bapu went to High Tea in a Dhoti

You might not wear one but at least you should know how to wear it! At times, out of exasperation I add, if it was good enough for Bapu – Gandhiji – to wear a dhoti to Buckingham Palace for tea in 1931, surely it’s good enough for you!

Bindu Desai calls herself the Self-Appointed Preserver of the Subcontinent’s Sartorial Traditions. She can wear a sari in the modified Bengali or Gujarati style with ease and perhaps some grace!

But, she has yet to master the Maharashtrian 9-yard one!

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