Saturday, March 8, 2003

Is the saree on its way out?
Zoya Das

IS the saree dying a slow death? Australian style guru Garry Newman would have Indians believe so when he announced at a recent gathering of fashion experts in New Delhi that the six-yard wonder was already on its way out!

"It came as a shock," says Vinod Kaul of the Fashion Development Council of India (FDCI). "It shook us out of our smug assumption that the saree will stay forever and not go the way the Japanese kimono did. But Garry was so right."

Indeed , the popularity of alternative clothing like western trouser-tops and salwar-kameezes has knocked the bottom of what has for long represented the cultural identity of the Indian women. Even in villages, women are increasingly taking to "dresses", rather than uphold the dignity and elegance of the saree.

The reasons are obvious. As any college-going girl or working woman would point out, sarees are not only expensive, cumbersome to wear and difficult to maintain, they can scarcely match the "convenience and comfort" of salwar-kameezes and the more stylish western wear.


As Rita Chisti, a well known textile historian, points out: "The switch from saree to salwar-suits is not an aesthetic choice, but one of mobility and function. Women who have to frequently use buses or other forms of public transport can do so easily in salwar-suits.

Clearly education, the tendency of women to pursue careers outside their homes and above all, exposure to fashion trends, have accounted for this sartorial revolution. To many, draping a saree is considered unsmart, dowdy, dumb and being unsuccessful in life.

Many blame the media for this change of perception. "On cinema as well as television, there is a clear line of distinction between stars who wear sarees and the younger lot who rarely wear sarees, unless it is a very formal occasion," Chisti explains.

Already, handloom weavers have begun to pay for these influences. The regularity at which Pochampalli weavers are committing suicide in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh has become a frightening reality — all because there are no takers for their ikat sarees.

The Andhra Pradesh Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society, or APCO in short, is already hard-pressed with an estimated Rs 200 million worth of unsold stocks. Worse still, more than 80 per cent of the weavers who have been creating those exquisite sarees for generation, want to quit the profession.

"There can be no stopping them," says Chintamani Suresh, a doctor working among these weavers. "At first, the invasion of cheap, mill-made synthetic sarees threatened their livelihood. Now even mill-made sarees are not selling. Half the saree shops in Hyderabad have switched over to selling salwar-kameezes."

The same situation prevails in all Indian metros — from Mumbai to Kolkata and Delhi to Chennai. In small towns too, it is not uncommon to see a mother in saree and her daughter in salwar-kameez. It is only on ceremonial occasions (if at all) that all the women of the house turn out in sarees.

"The saree is fast turning into a costume dress, more appropriate for weddings and other formal occasions than daily wear," explains NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) director N.V.R. Nathan. "Women under 40 seldom wear a saree these days and those under 35 never."

Oddly enough, no sociologist or cultural activist is over-concerned about the demise of the saree. One reason could be that over the past 2000 years, the drape has reinvented itself several times, such that the earliest sarees bear little resemblance to the present attire that goes by the same name.

Historians point out that the saree of yore was a little more than a cloth draped diaphanously over lower half of the body, leaving the bosom bare. With every wave of invaders from the northern and western parts of the country, a fresh layer was added to this basic drape, starting from the blouse and petticoat to the meticulous pleating invented in the mid-nineteenth century to suit Victorian prudery.

The most common form of wearing the saree we see these days is actually of Bengali origin. It bears no resemblance to the way Coorgis, or the Maharashtrians or Manipuris tie their sarees. Each region has its own distinctive style. And the Parsis gara is altogether different.

Adding to this cross-cultural confusion, there are fashion designers churning out pre-stitched hybrid dresses. Shaina N.C., for one, takes pride in inventing 30 ways of draping the fabric. Little wonder, nobody would miss the "real saree" when it becomes history. (MF)