Like most young women in the country, I have, on occasion, been known to spend hours mooning over Sabyasachi's exquisite creations. I would have denied it till I died, but even as I joined my woke friends in criticising the vulgar ostentatiousness that is the The Big Fat Indian Wedding, a part of me always secretly imagined walking down the metaphorical aisle in a Sabya lehenga or saree. The girlfriends would sigh and be appropriately envious of the Sabya-sized crater I could afford to burn into my bank balance and I would smile coyly at it all. In the last decade or so, I've watched at least a dozen friends plan their entire weddings - the décor, the drapes and their partners' sherwanis - around their own original, first copies and sometimes even embarrassing imitations of Sabyasachi designs. For a man who has spent a large chunk of his career working closely with and for women, witnessing some of their most vulnerable and emotional moments, you would think he'd have picked up a thing or two the tumultuous relationship we have with our bodies, and the clothes we choose to cover them with. But if he has, Sabyasachi seems to have left all his lessons at home while addressing students the Harvard India Conference on February 10.
Among the several strange things he said that day, one was, "If you tell me that you do not know how to wear a saree, I would say shame on you. It's a part of your culture, (you) need to stand up for it."
As a not-so-secret Sabyasachi fan, I was dismayed, upset and angered by his entirely unwarranted rebuke to women who chose not to wear sarees, for reasons best known to them. As a die-hard lover of the garment, his uncharitable comments made me want to roll my eyes in frustration at how mulishly wrong my saree idol was, on the subject.
As a woman who will happily wear a saree every chance she gets, I can vouch for the sisterhood that wrapping ourselves in the reams of fabric has little to do with preserving someone's arbitrary idea of 'culture' or standing up to the demons hell-bent on destroying it, and everything to do with how it makes us feel, on a very personal and individual level, being enfolded in one.
Like every lover of the ubiquitous saree (the wearers, not the ones who fantasise about unwrapping it!) knows, one of the primary reason the garment holds a special place in our hearts is for the loving welcome it extends to women of all shapes and sizes, anywhere in the world. The saree does not discriminate. It does not exclude. You could be four feet nothing or six feet something, and the saree pallav will snake down your back with equal grace and élan. Your curves could resemble any new-fangled definition or fruit's proportions, but the saree will find a way to hug them lovingly, with a strategic tuck here and a vigilant fold there. It will cover your bosom with dignified care, regardless of whether you decided to go braless, blouse-less or are wearing it with your beau's shirt to work. Heck, we wouldn't even be (too) surprised if Ranveer Singh, the man happily riding the ungendered fashion wave, decided to show up in sarees next, after his multiple outings in ghagras, sporting septum rings!
One only has to search for the delightful #100sareepact on Instagram to see column after column of photographs as evidence of the saree's benevolently accommodating nature. In an industry that largely thrives on the misery of women feeling excluded, not good enough and chasing impossible standards of what's desirable, the saree is one of its few redeeming garments, accepting all those who embrace it, whatever be their reasons.
And that, if someone would only tell Sabyasachi, is the saree's true heritage and charm. Judging someone harshly for not wanting, or knowing how to wear it is as unjustifiable as judging someone else for wanting to wear it; and both are equally contradictory to everything the saree stands for, as an article of clothing.
In another rather illuminating (not) part of his complain-cum-monologue, Sabyasachi earnestly tries to explain the experience of wearing a saree to women, joining the ranks of all the mansplaining champions that women encounter daily.
"It's a relationship of misunderstanding," he says. "It's easy to wear a saree. Wars have been fought in saree. Grandmothers have slept in saree and have woken up without any folds to it... Women and men are trying very hard to be something that they are not. Your clothing should be a part of who you are and connect you to your roots."
No Sabya, it's you who has so completely misunderstood women's relationship with clothes in general, and, more specifically, to the garment you claim to love, and want more of us to love.
And no, clothes aren't proof of personhood, they're simply pieces of fabric mankind uses to protect the body from the ravages of nature. While some of us use them as a form of expression and art that we carry on our person, others have a purely functional relationship with them. And that's okay. No one gets to use clothes to turn women's bodies into yet another ideological battleground.
As a child in a bustling joint family filled with women and girls, one of our chief pastimes was sneaking into the closets of the women of the house and pulling out their delicate silks and sturdy cottons to play dress-up with. I've lost count of the number of times my cousins and I were been thwacked by them for our efforts. At the time, we didn't know what a contentious relationship our mothers shared with the garment. Even as they gloried in its beauty, they knew exactly how it was being used to make them submit to the patriarchal values of their time. The 'roots' Sabyasachi so nostalgically spoke about, represented by the saree, were like shackles for so many women from my mother's generation, given that it was never a choice, but a compulsion for married women in her day. It's easy to gloss over the oppression wreaked on generations of women by way of the saree, in light of today's romanticism, but it's an intractable part of the garment's narrative for an overwhelming number of women in our country.
I will never forget the first time my mother stepped out of our home, not wearing a saree. She was horribly uncomfortable and self-conscious, and changed her mind at least half a dozen times before my sister finally yanked her out of the front door. I'm sure it set tongues wagging about how she was committing a crime against the precious Indian culture, and not respecting her 'roots'.
As a grown woman, I still sometimes raid my mother's closet, filled with sarees that tell stories of her past, hungry to become a part of the stories in my future. Like I said earlier, sarees don't discriminate. They don't begrudge my mother her freedom to not choose them, or mine, for choosing them on occasions that don't 'warrant' dressing up to the nines, so why should anyone else?
There are days when friends and family comment on the irony of me showing up for family gatherings in sarees, while my mother and aunts are happily lounging around in roomy salwars and Patiala pyjamas. I wouldn't change a thing about a culture that finally, at long last, allows its women to choose what they put on their bodies.
So Sabya, I'll leave you with this: it is freedom and choice that marks the evolution of a culture and its people - not clothes, never clothes.