A garment worn by women across the Indian subcontinent has, over the years, within the diaspora anyway, gained a different outlook. A 6 yard piece of fabric (sometimes it can be as long as 9 yards, depending on where you’re from and the style you’ll be wearing it in) carries memories, migration stories, journeys and, inevitably, notions of belonging. The last point is an important one, for me anyway, as the sari is the first place where I played and also the place where I found safety because majority of the women who raised me did so in a sari. Many of the women in my family attached their house keys to the end of the anchal/asol and I’d hold the end and play with the keys. It no longer holds the same sacred space as it used to, I’d argue, because in the diaspora the sari has turned into formal attire and very few women wear it on a day-to-day basis. The sari has become highly visible during various ceremonies: mehendis, walimas, nikkahs, durga puja, navratri, and many other occasions. The saris are secluded to intimate life events and rarely appear in the public sphere, which is something I will explore below. It was far more visible in the streets of Tower Hamlets or Luton during the 70s and 80s when many mothers and wives were joining their husbands and sons here in the UK and wore it with a long trench coat. For this article, I hope to look at some historical events that shaped the sari’s role in society and the current negative attributions, with a particular focus on the concept of shame (laj/lojja), and how and why this has caused a reduction in its public visibility.
Laj refers to the concept of shame, which can only be preserved through the approved and already established clothing etiquettes accepted and produced by certain people. Dwyer makes a compelling argument using Bollywood as an example to illustrate the differing roles of the shalwar kameez and sari and argues how the latter, almost a form of rite-of-passage, whereby a girl enters womanhood thus transforming into a mature woman through marriage; whereas the former depicts and retains innocence and girlhood:
First we must look at the heroine, who is a perfect woman at least by the end of the movie if not the beginning. Usually well known as a star, she must be beautiful, young, virginal and innocent but ready to fall in love. She may begin the film by wearing western clothes or a loose interpretation of the salwaar-khamees, but by the end of the film will most likely wear a sari, if only for her wedding which ends the film, (Dwyer 2000: 150).
What is striking about the issue of modesty and the sari is that though the sari is worn by women from a variety of national, ethnic and religious backgrounds and does not hold an expressly religious referent, the argument is more often related to how much ‘skin’ is not concealed, which renders it ‘un-Islamic’ for the research participants I interviewed during my PhD. Moreover, the various conceptions of modesty and its relationship between women’s dress and her appearance in public is a factor that was also prevalent during the British Raj. Prior to the nineteenth century, and unlike their European counterparts, Indian women ‘of all statuses did not wear undergarments that confined or constricted their breasts, stomachs, and/or hips. When Indian women wore bodices or blouses (choli), in the later nineteenth century, they were made to be form-fitting and to accentuate the shape of their breasts’ (Cohn 1996: 137). Women with their waists exposed, and a semi opaque cover over their hips, is available to notice in a nineteenth century ‘painting by Varma, of two figures, Shantanu and Matsyasughandi, from an Indian myth’ (Sheth 2009):
Another painting by Varma portrays a different version of the sari, worn without blouse or petticoat (Sheth 2009).
Sheth (2009) argues that ‘the current version of the sari has been familiar in Western (mostly British) contexts for at least 200 years’. Since the late nineteenth century, the sari has ‘seen a series of changes that have rendered it more suitable to the “Western” gaze’ (Ibid) and now the sari is worn with a long petticoat and blouse, which was modified under British rule to help increase the ‘modesty’, and by correlation, to ‘reduce’ the sexual promiscuity of the women who wore saris by fashioning various auxiliary garments that would help conceal, veil, and shroud the bodies of these women. The introduction of various garments added to make the sari more ‘modest’ by the British is an example of the civilising mission in India, which was shaped by intervening and regulating the clothing practices of the population it was ruling over. This coerced institution of how a woman ought to dress is a dynamic present in the discussions surrounding the hijab, which will be discussed further in this chapter. Tarlo argues that ‘the widespread adoption of the blouse was probably the most noticeable effect of British influences on Indian women’s dress’ (1996: 46). However, today, the sari is seen as sexy and sensual because the waist, midriff and upper back are exposed, which I would argue has also taken place due to popular consumption of Bollywood and the overt sexualisation of the sari, despite the voluminous amount of material and the complexity of affixing it to the body.
Furthermore, the integration of the blouse into the sari created a polemic for the Hindus, as this new innovation was perceived as a ‘Muslim’ way of dressing. This meant one was trying to create more of a ‘sexual appeal’ through revealing less of the body thus eventually practicing ‘immodesty’. Imitating Muslims implied Muslims were not modest, which projected the Muslim woman as overtly sexualised, despite, or in this case perhaps because of, her often hidden form. Adding the blouse, it appears, became erotically charged addition to the sari by the idea of concealing rather than revealing. This additional covering demonstrates the elusive nature of clothes and how they became a site for various debates about tradition, culture and religious identities. Opacity and the seclusion of the body were not only represented a practice associated with Muslims but also with the British memsahibs. It was the latter group that unsettled the Hindus who did not want the colonisers to define how Indian women ought to present themselves in the public sphere.
Interestingly in Kerala, the Nair women, ‘who were the military and landholding caste in the state, and the untouchable ‘slave castes,’ who were bound to upper-caste landholders and the state’ (Cohn 1996: 139) though in a higher position than the Nadars (a lower caste) were ‘expected to be bare-breasted in the presence of brahmans and other high-status people, as a sign of respect’ (Ibid). Nair women in Kerala were allowed to cover their breasts with a light scarf. Nair and Devi explain the consequences for women who chose to cover their breasts in front of higher-caste officials in Kerala: ‘The proper salutation from a female to persons of rank was to uncover the bosom. On one occasion, a Nair woman appeared before the Zamorin of Calicut’s lady; with her breasts concealed, and they were cut off, as the wearing of a bodice before one belonging to such a higher group was considered immodest’ (2010: 36). Women, particularly those from lower castes, who wanted to cover their breasts in Kerala, had a tax levied against them. The women, from 1813 to 1859 led a revolt, known as the Channar revolt, for the right to cover their breasts. Nair, in her article titled Dress code repression: Kerala’s history of breast tax for Avarna women, cites Dr. K. Gopalankutty, the president of the South Indian History Congress, who explains that ‘clothing is a marker of one’s social identity, and the blouse took on a symbolic role’ (2016).
The above are merely a handful of examples of the evolution of the sari and its changes. The aesthetic decisions taken by women are interwoven with the socio-economic context they find themselves in. Arriving in Britain to join their husbands, the women were required to wear the sari and uphold the tradition of manifesting their womanhood via the sari, as the shalwar kameez denoted the status of a bachelorette, a girl. The sari functioned as a rite-of-passage for a girl to become a woman. How these traditions will be maintained among the next generation of South Asians is unknown but I remain optimistic and believe the sari will continue to transform women’s lives and shape their self-narrative.
- Cover photo credits to, Cheryl Braganza.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect South Asia Scene’s editorial policy.