Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Sari Story: A Male Perspective

The year: 1987. The cinema theatre.
A voice crooning, “Kate nahin kat te ye din yeh raat…,” Sridevi, and a wet blue sari. Can we ever forget that? That is possibly one of the most iconic cinematic images of our hormonal teenage growing-up years. I can’t say for sure, of course, but that Alisha-Kishore song, and most importantly, the imagery, might just have been the spark for the lifelong fascination with the 6 to 9 yard garment known as the sari.

Flashback to: 1975-1980. Childhood.
Of course the sari has played a role in my life throughout - both before and after Sridevi, apart from cinema. Most of the earliest memories for Indians are entwined within the saris of our mothers and grandmothers. How safe those folds of my granny’s sari were, how warm and inviting - a place of repose, rest, and recuperation. A place where I could hide from strangers, and place from where play peek-a-boo with friends. A normal accepted ritual was wiping my hands with my granny’s pallu after washing my hands. It was as if no matter how much soap I used, the cleansing was complete only with the soft touch of granny’s sari. For many growing-up years the sari was a secular garment, representing only the daily and the mundane, the safe and the trusted. It was something every older (a generation older than me) woman around me wore daily - a functional, even slightly mundane dress.

Then the teenage years, and the hormones, kicked in. The sari would never be the same again.

The year: 1987. School.
I blame Mrs. Mathur for changing our view of the sari totally and irreversibly. No fault of hers really, when I look back and think about it. She was the junior English teacher at our school. I am sure she walked and talked the same way for the many years we knew her. I am even sure she wore the sari exactly the same way. But wonder of wonders - suddenly one day she looked different. The hitherto purposeful walk seemed feline, the so-far straight posture seemed louche, and the sari, from being a practical, usual dress, suddenly seems artfully draped to tease us with that louche felinity, with brief glimpses of skin - a sleeveless shoulder here, a bare waist there. It was suddenly almost too much to bear. In front of our very eyes, Mrs. Mathur had metamorphosed from a fairly unremarkable, sweet lady into a menace to hormonal teenagers’ educational prospects.

Then came Sridevi and the song, and the blue chiffon. Sigh.

Forward to: 2002. College hostel. Saraswati Puja in Kolkata.
This was the one occasion where we were allowed into the girls’ hostel (and vice versa), ostensibly to view the idol and pay our respects so we could all get a good education. As it turned out, the most awesome education on the occasion was driven the fact that all the girls wore saris that day. A frisson of disbelieving excitement ran around the room. Where was the pimply girl who we liked to make fun of? Where was the fashion disaster who would wear large bindis with jeans? What happened to the girls in skirts but with hairy legs? We gaped with open mouths - the girls we met every day in college, and frequently ignored, suddenly seemed to have been replaced with magazine models in their colorful and distinctive saris! What a revelation for the gangly, awkward, sweaty boys wearing mismatched clothes! Saris actually made women look even better than they normally did. In fact saris made them look beautiful! Sounds obvious now, but at the time I (and I would bet most of us), suddenly felt unworthy to be standing before such a collection of statuesque, unattainable beauty. It was a sober, bemused lot that came out of the girls’ hostel that day.

Year: 2005. University days in Pune.
I could barely believe it. Two amazing things had happened. First, I had a date for New Year’s Eve (someone actually agreed!). And second, she was wearing a black sari (yessss!), when we went to pick her up in my friend’s car on our way to the RSI Army Ball. I was also dressed smartly for a change, but how proud I felt to have that lady in beautiful black silk dancing with me that evening. She just stood apart from the usual skirt and dress wearing girls – resplendent and statuesque. I got a renewed respect for the sari that day. Of course she didn’t have much to do with me after that, but while my memory of her has faded, the memory of that sari remains distinct.

What explains this fascination men have for saris? The short answer is - I don’t know. I am sure experts will be able to provide psychological, Freudian, Jungian, Oedipal explanations. But what I know is this – there is no other dress that enhances women’s intrinsic beauty like the sari does. And it doesn’t ever get old. How can it? Look at the variety! Look at the styles! Imagine in your mind’s eye, Malayali women in cream and gold huddled around a rangoli celebrating Onam, and then the Bengalis celebrating Durga Puja in their white and red bordered saris, smearing sindur on each other. Imagine Gayitri Devi in the finest silk and Rekha in a Kanjeevaram; remember Indira Gandhi in handloom weaves, and Raja Ravi Verma’s ladies in Paithanis.

It’s been a long relationship - saris and me, and I still cannot get enough. Of course I might be open to charges of sexism, and I have been told so by women occasionally, because I extol the aesthetic virtues of the sari apparently without caring for the difficulties women face in wearing and getting around in them.
In my defence, while the sexism is unintentional, the aesthesis is ingrained n the male gaze. I cannot help it. Long live the sari!

A version of this article was published in eSakal in November.