June 02, 2015

On the Wearing of Sarees

(Note: Contains references to violence.)

I’ve had sarees wear me far more often than I’ve had myself wear sarees. I can’t see the grace or the elegance of a person, myself specifically, that so many rave of whilst wearing a saree. Possibly because I see neither grace nor elegance in myself. Perhaps because I’ve been told one time too many that I look like a monster, that I’m too short, too thin, too everything that’s ‘wrong’. Feminist theory and a measuring tape that testifies to an hourglass figure doesn’t enable me to see anything in the mirror except, occasionally, the point of very expensive foundation. A camouflage.

Sarees themselves though, I do see. As works of art that take skill to create far beyond what many a contemporary, upper class artist can lay claim to, even if the artistry of the weaver isn’t acclaimed in the way the supposed talent of the well-connected urban artist is. As part of a larger whole, with a history often connected to exploitation and casteism but, still, essentially stable and predictable. As a testament to endurance and longevity which has, almost unchanged, survived the centuries. As a connection to a continuity, reaching back through the generations, which makes minor everyday turbulence fall into place simply by making it seemingly inconsequential.

The wearing of a saree: armour, almost shroud, disguise, convenience. I may not see the elegance of a saree on myself but I am definitely cognizant of the practicality of not feeling obliged to shave my legs while I’m wearing a saree and of, what is to me, the sheer delight of having subverted a time-consuming social expectation (that I have little use for) without having made the slightest effort to do so: to me, the wearing of a saree isn’t an effort. It’s usually less than a two-minute investment of time; far less time than it would take me to wear anything else I could wear. And being able to turn any saree into a chrysalis in seconds should the need arise, hiding myself beneath its folds till no one sees anything of me beyond what I want them to see, makes for sanctuary.

There is, of course, the well-entrenched idea that the wearing of a saree lends a woman, particularly the visibly young(ish) urban woman, gravitas. Beyond that though, the ability to virtually remould one’s image or to simply disappear at will is often underrated. The ability to be vastly outrageous and to verbally challenge social norms in a manner which would almost never be accepted from a woman in any other attire. Simply because the saree can be used to create the perception of being non-threatening, of respecting tradition – even the most regressive tradition and even if one doesn’t have an iota of respect for it – of supposedly being ‘on the same side’ as some of the most conservative people around. The saree is as much weapon as it is armour.

It is, for me, also tangible reminder of the life I’ve lived; often the story of having lived life through male violence. So many of my sarees are marked with memories of men, invariably unpleasant. A cream tissue when a man chose to ensure he could use me by pouring whiskey down my throat. I was grateful he didn’t tear the saree. A mauve crepe marking a man telling me that he liked the idea of spoiling me, and proceeding to do just that. Or his definition of it, anyway. A navy pashmina on a day I enraged a street creep by ignoring his asking how much I was (selling myself) for. He didn’t pay. I haven’t discarded any of those sarees. They are a constant reminder of what I have survived, of what I now know I can survive. Of who I am.

The memories are not all ghastly. There are sarees from people I’ve loved, who’ve loved me. Sarees which, even if they’re now unwearable, once belonged to people who matter to me and which I’ve spent a relative fortune restoring because the sarees are all I have to touch, because letting go of the sarees could feel like letting go of a part of them. Sarees that remind me of people I’ve loved; most recently, a saree from Dharwar. Not a place I’ve ever been to but a place meaningful to a man, now dead, of whom I had not one tangible reminder with me. A saree I wanted with a desperation indescribable and which, providentially, I found at a bazaar some 1800 kilometres away from Dharwar. Sarees which, through the people I associate with them, remind me that there is a point to it all, which call out to me, and which, when they wear me, are pure unadulterated joy.