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26.07.2017

It’s difficult to say anything new about the sari, and a video that went modestly viral last week didn’t really try. Viewed by almost a million people and shared hundreds of times, this little piece of Facebook-bait by the women’s website Vagabomb portrayed five young women “challenged” to wear the sari everyday for a week.  

The result: each part of the sari became a problem. The blouse was “suffocating”; the drape was “puff-ball” like; the garment slowed them down every morning (five-minute dressing routines take forty-five minutes) and tired them out at work. Back up, we thought, frustrated with the dual erasure of fun and history that the video projected. 

Over the last couple of years, there have been multiple attempts to “save” the sari, mostly in the form of pacts, promises, and challenges. Many of these have been viral hits, and have added great aesthetic value to our visual canon (and our Instagram feeds). 

The trouble, as indicated by the Vagabomb video and its more rapturous reviews, is that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to. Instead of normalising the sari, we might be fad-ifying it further.

Ikat Feel My Face 

The Vagabomb video is perhaps too easy to get upset about. In it, actors imagine the sari as something from the past that does not fit the progressive, modern spaces they imagine themselves occupying. (Having had enough by mid-week, one girl “betrays” the pact, switching out her sari for a dress: “I’ve tasted freedom!” she exults.)

In 2015, when the #100sareepact was born, it, too, was framed as a “challenge” to get women to wear saris 100 times in a year. It became an absolute rage; designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee came on board as a project partner. His own ongoing mission to ‘save the saree’ – often compared to saving the tiger – appeared to be a natural ally. Many die-hard revivalists applauded this venture, which claimed that saris were a way of remembering “mothers,” and the “aromas and textures” of the past. It was about “evoking memories – some odd, some sad, but all memorable.” 

#100sareepact couldn’t be further from the Vagabomb video at first pass, yet there are similarities. Instead of something that is part of everyday life, sari-wearing becomes a game-show - the centre piece of an Indian episode of Survivor. The fiery, film-ready format in which we talk about saris makes them a pass/fail experience; the practice of living with and in the sari seems an impossible feat. Normalcy - just wearing the sari without scoring points - is impossible.

Furthermore, here the sari represents something that hasn’t caught up with the times. (For Sabyasachi, catching up is out of the question: his interest is in mourning its endangered status.) 

Here the sari represents something that hasn’t caught up with the times. (For Sabyasachi, catching up is out of the question: his interest is in mourning its endangered status.) 

Improper Patola 

There are other, more useful sari documentation projects, such as Border and Fall’s drape anthology film series, said to have received an impressive one crore in funding. This is undoubtedly more visually sophisticated than projects before it, and successfully corrects many misconceptions about the sari. 

But the narrative, again, is one of loss. The whole premise is that “we” are losing a form of sartorial knowledge, because “we” do not think of drapes beyond the Nivi as “relevant to today’s context.” Highly educational as an instructional, how-to-wear series, this project complicates its own mission - to normalise sari-wearing. It excludes the millions of women across India who do wear the sari daily, while simultaneously solidifying the boundaries around “we” who must, naturally, feel a great sense of loss based on the little we see.

There is thankfully no challenge here. But as always, there is the desire to save something that is presumed lost, and can be rescued only by English-speaking urban folks.

Adam & Weave 

Perhaps as a reward for lasting the week, the women in Vagabomb’s video feel compelled to conclude with a scene where they play different characters in their saris: political campaigners who promise “azadi” for “period blood,” a veiled rustic who imagines her “Pappu” is cheating on her, and so on. These women are scary, undesirable, only able to communicate their troubles from behind a ghunghat. “We may be killing the sari with our dignity,” as The Ladies’ Finger once said, but these jokes don’t quite land, either. 

Is it so difficult to normalise the practice of wearing a sari that even the best efforts fall short? One answer is probably that there may be no way of to normalise it at all, at least for those who begin with an interest in salvaging it. 

If our sari-savers turned to people who actually wear the sari regularly, we could perhaps begin to de-fadify the practice. Perhaps, if we revised our tone to talk about saris in the same way as we talk about other everyday stuff - the weather, jeans, jackfruit tacos – we might lose the long face and the game-show attitude. And maybe that’s when something good will happen. 

This piece was contributed by Meher Varma, a Delhi-based anthropologist who works with fashion and lifestyle brands.

Image credit: Instagram / sabyasachiofficial

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