Women in India swear by the saree for any occasion. As Indians, many of us have grown up seeing our mothers and grandparents wearing the saree on a daily basis. While the younger generations may find the six or nine yards a pain to drape and carry around for more than a few hours, the fact remains that it continues to be the everyday attire for a large number of women in the country.
Now, what if someone told you that the saree is actually a political symbol for the ruling BJP government’s Hindu nationalist agenda? It wouldn’t go down well, especially when many have simply woven saree into their wardrobes over the years, regardless of the government in power.
Unsurprisingly, an article in The New York Times is under fire for suggesting that promoting traditional attire, the saree being one, is part of the ruling government’s propaganda. “The effort aligns with the party’s broader political program: to project multi-faith India, a country of more than 1.3 billion, as a Hindu nation,” Asgar Qadri wrote for NYT.
The article then points out how Modi’s “effort to restore Indian-ness in Indian fashion” has manifested in fashion exhibits, with top fashion designers promoting sarees in partnership with the government.
It also talks about the weavers of Varanasi, who are yet to reap the benefits of Modi’s promise to revive the Benarasi saree. “The weavers, who are mostly Muslim and following a family trade, largely live in poverty,” the author writes.
The article, which was published on November 12, has been severely criticized on many grounds on social media. Imminent journalists have also weighed in calling the NYT piece poorly researched. Many have also pointed out that their love for sarees is not political.
Read some of the reactions here:
This kind of idiotic story in the New York Times confirms the Modi government’s suspicion that foreign newspapers lie about it. pic.twitter.com/Xoj0oeL7Lc— Tavleen Singh (@tavleen_singh) November 13, 2017
Dear @nytimes next time do better research before making saree a political point! Do research on Pupul Jayakarji&Indira Gandhiji before slamming our traditional wear! I wear a saree with pride&yes am not sorry!— Priyanka Chaturvedi (@priyankac19) November 14, 2017
Hello @nytimes, whether or not there is communalism in the saree, I think we can all agree, there is plenty in you editorial policy.— Neha Srivastava (@neha_aks) November 14, 2017
Hijab: Asserting a Muslim Fashion Identity https://t.co/1fTeLCV6Pa
Saree: Fashion has become a nationalist cause https://t.co/WF8EbhrEZz pic.twitter.com/t1X9xpzBUy
Coverage on India by That World is colonial & ill informed. What is the future of coverage on India with new realities?Only 'time will tell'— madhu trehan (@madhutrehan) November 14, 2017
This @nytimes piece is absolutely ridiculous. It is badly argued & badly researched. Trying to make a story where there isn't one & unnecessarily communalize the issue of saris (& Nehru jackets!) https://t.co/jWUFq4vfIz— Tanvi Madan (@tanvi_madan) November 13, 2017
During my time in India I met any number of Nehruvian socialists, Trotskyites and anarcho-syndicalists in saris! And I wore a sari myself. I saw no political correlation. To me, these garments are Indian.— Ellen Barry (@EllenBarryNYT) November 15, 2017
There's a real lack of understanding of India in the rest of the world, and vice versa. More academics & policy scholars ought to enter journalism, maybe.— Mohamed Zeeshan (@ZeeMohamed_) November 13, 2017
Simply shocked that @nytimes now thinks that wearing our tradition clothes is some sort of bigotry. Next up - eating Dosa, biryani or chaat instead of hotdogs is unacceptable. Sickening attack on our way of life:https://t.co/pkw9CiUqQ7— Sanjeev Sanyal (@sanjeevsanyal) November 14, 2017
Everyone wears the Banarasi saree @nytimes this is incredibly biased writing. "the Banarasi sari, the traditional garment known for its fine silk and opulent embroidery — and primarily worn by Hindu women."— Kiran Manral (@KiranManral) November 14, 2017
There were a few others who argued that the saree was not the universal traditional garment in all of India and hence, Asgar’s argument should be seen on a macro level, and not just with respect to the politicisation of sarees.
1. If I am correct, the writer of the saree article in NY Times is a Kashmiri.— Omair Ahmad (@OmairTAhmad) November 16, 2017
Kashmir is an area where the saree is largely an alien garment (as it is in some other areas of India).
The reactions - "how dare the NY Times suggest a saree can be imposed?" are thus illuminating.
2. At one point of time I used to be a fan of the word "Indic". It seemed non-denominational, could fit in anything - Syrian Christians, masala chai, toddy, and fried beef.— Omair Ahmad (@OmairTAhmad) November 16, 2017
Then I thought a little more about it. The questions is not what can fit in, but what you exclude.
3. So a saree is "Indic" and to suggest it isn't, is offensive. But it isn't the dress of everybody in India.— Omair Ahmad (@OmairTAhmad) November 16, 2017
It's a bit like saying tabak maaz/kavargah is "Indic", but most Indians haven't heard of it, much less tasted it.
4. Thus, like many other generalisations, what something like "Indic" does, is paint a certain dominant culture as the defining culture. "Oh, all of us dress like this. ALL of us."— Omair Ahmad (@OmairTAhmad) November 16, 2017
With the unsaid underlying statement that if you don't, you're less.