Saree controversy – is it nationalism or sartorial allegiance to conformity?

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Woman sitting on the banks of the Ganges river, in Benares, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo: Dreamstime.

NEW YORK – The New York Times article written by Asghar Qadiri, headlined, “In India, Fashion has become a Nationalistic Cause”, has been met with wide-spread outrage by acclaimed Indian journalists, thinkers and writers.

The article states that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to reinstate Indian-ness in Indian fashion has led to state sponsored fashion shows and exhibitions to promote the Benarasi saree, known for its fine silk and embroidery “worn by Hindu women” to advocate traditional Indian clothing styles. And, thereby, the author postulates that it has become a standing symbol of Hindu nationalism.

Not to be outdone by such allegations by The New York Times, Suhel Seth, in Republic World, writes in defense of the saree: “The attack is on the hapless saree, which Indian women (including many Western icons) wear with pride not to announce their nationalism but instead their affection for this enduring clothing icon.”

Hapless or not, the saree is not divorced from its social and political surroundings. And, undoubtedly, it is a symbol of continued tradition, conformity and culture which ritualists believe women have an invested power to uphold and persevere.

Therefore, whatever the woman wears becomes inseparably a part of her identity and a public declaration of either affirmation or a disruption of status quo.

In a proud and secular country, where the unthinkable has occurred with government interference—the beef ban, attack on couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, the revision of history texts to ramp up Hindu pride, the recent slander on the iconic Taj Mahal and a number of journalists attacked for espousing radical views—nothing really rests without a political color.

Such a politically revved environment will, inadvertently, transform the otherwise mundane symbols and ideas to acquire a powerful resonance that will inevitably be translated into myths and leitmotifs of a nation.

Every step of its citizens then manifests itself as a vote for a certain principle or ideology which under ordinary circumstances would not be worthy of a second look.

Liberalization becomes simply a window-dressing to hide other agendas. And the right-winged political hue becomes a glaring banner when it comes to a definite article of clothing.

Historically, clothing has been a powerful symbol of political allegiance or opposition and has been used, extensively, as a means of political combat.

During the Indian independence movement, the hand-spun khadi and Gandhian topi became a crying symbol of nationalism and a rallying force against British imperialism. As the Swadeshi movement grew in waves and momentum, it became imperative to abandon imported cotton goods and wear clothes made in Indian villages.

Although it originally started as an equalizer of the masses, it soon yielded itself to subtle differences denoting status through fabric quality and style. Under the increased pressure by the swadeshi workers to wear this fabric, the very poor struggled to afford clothes spun out of khadi of any quality as it was very expensive.

Thus, the original message of empowering the Indian people by wearing home-made items was lost under this imposed uniform of nationalism.

Sarees lined up in a store, in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Photo: Dreamstime.

Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Ghare Baire and Feroz Abbas Khan’s movie Gandhi, My Father explore this theme of how the initial khadi movement, focusing on self-reliance, took a different turn when it swerved into a large-scale crusade, making it mandatory on everyone to wear khadi regardless of the price tag.

Tagore’s novel portrays how peaceful protests become violent when individual freedom and choices of poor villagers are over-run by the swadeshi revolutionaries for what is deemed to be a greater good for the country.

Khan’s movie similarly demonstrates how the struggling son of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Harilal, fails to eke out an average living for himself and dies in abject poverty and neglect whilst living under the pioneering shadow of the Indian Independence movement.

Sans-Culottes, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity

And this surge towards the humdrum wear of the peasant, the proletariat and the average citizen started with the French Revolution which began the whole process of democratization of western society.

During the French Revolution, public and private life in arenas such as dress, femininity and languages were transformed to promote the agenda of equality and diminishing class distinctions.

Change effected through dress was a public indicator of social class.

Silks, lace, velvets and ribbons which were aristocratic ideals of the Old Regime were rejected in favor of cotton, darker colors, modest styles and coarser materials.

The historian, Lynn Hunt writes, “True republican sentiment could be identified by a man wearing the red cap of liberty, the short jacket and loosely-fitting trousers.” In other words, the clothing “revealed the public meaning of a man’s private character.”

The proponents of the revolution believed that social equality could not be achieved if status distinctions continued to be expressed through dresses.

This shift away from the monarchy was known as the “sans-culottes movement,” translating to “those without culottes,” which were essentially fine silk pants.

The Bolshevik Cultural Revolution

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia too marked the transition towards basic and ungendered clothing. The workers and peasants who became fighters for the Red Army in February 1918 wore plain civilian clothes since they could not afford the soldier’s uniform with only a red armband to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Aprons, rough cottons, rural dresses won over the ornate styles of the bourgeoisie.

However, it would be a mistake to presume that only ordinary and unembellished dressing is the established universal logo of protest, of worker’s rights and class struggle.

1960s Flower Power

In the 1960s, the baby-boomers’ rise against cultural conservatism, parental authority, Vietnam War protest and women’s suppression were marked with the debut of the mini skirt, daring hemlines and the breakout of the British model Twiggy fashions.

The “blue jeans” was unanimously adopted as the apparel catapulting towards establishment of workers’ rights in the decades between 1950’s and 60’s. The hippie movement popularized the bell-bottom jeans, the tie-dye, paisley prints on bohemian peasant tops and batik fabrics.

It was innovative, bold and brash – a tone set by the social anarchists rebelling against establishment and mainstream styles.

The voice of the generation was the battle-cry of the music band, Sex Pistols: “No future – no future for you and no future for me.”

But above all, it was the mini skirt that made the mega statement of the decade, flaunting sexuality and individuality.

It was liberation from the uncomfortable, restrictive and matronly apparel of the fifties.

Turkish Girl in Red

In 2013, the “Girl in Red” with a white tote bag became a symbol of protest against the authoritarian and conservative government of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Wearing red cotton, short-sleeved dress, the girl stood face to face with a policeman with a pepper spray canister. While onlookers covered their faces and turned away from the spray, the “Girl in Red” stood alone absorbing the assault, instantly becoming the face of defiance against police brutality in Turkey’s small-scale equivalent of the tank at Tiananmen.

To the Swedish photographer, Paul Hansen, who captured the photo, it was the “contrast between the aggressive posture, gear and action of a policeman, and the young woman in a red dress, looking like she would be on her way to celebratory event or something,” that caught his attention.

An American woman in a saree. Photo: Dreamstime.

In recent times, the 2016 US elections saw the emergence of Hillary Clinton’s pant-suit becoming a power symbol for the candidate and her female supporters.

Refusing to budge to the assault of criticism and verbal abuses directed against women, Clinton determinedly brought out more and more pant suits for every occasion turning her clothes into a statement about a woman’s right to self-determination.

By stepping out in white—the color of the suffrage movement since 1908—on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, she sent out a spiraling message to women around the United States who supported her that there was a movement still waiting in the curtains for them to pick up and to begin the fight again.

Whether it is a Trayvon Martin hoodie or a mini-skirt, the shift dress or the nine yards saree – anything can become a metonymy for social and political proclamation. And intuition is the key to grasp the message being conveyed.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)