My experiments with the saree: pushing the boundaries of crossdressing

'Androgyny offered a space away from rule-bound masculinity and femininity.'
My experiments with the saree: pushing the boundaries of crossdressing
My experiments with the saree: pushing the boundaries of crossdressing
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By Vqueeram Aditya

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My tastes are unconventional for the middle class boy I was raised to become. Androgyny offered a space away from rule-bound masculinity and femininity. I worked hard on an appearance that explored men doing femininity differently than what was available to me.


I did not agree with the drag aesthetic whose primary, or at least overwhelming, relationship with femininity was caricature, a repetition of patriarchal violence. It was when I read Judith Butler's thesis on drag that the possibility of doing femininity without collapsing into womanhood opened up for me. I was, and am, not interested in solidifying into either masculinity or femininity, or now an equally colonising trans*.

I wore kurtas and churidars with dupattas in the summer and shawls in the winter, or t shirts and skinny jeans with calf-high boots, some kohl for accent, right through my MA. My mother with whom I lived did not have a problem with this or perhaps understood it as eccentricity at best and teenage-y nonsense at worst.


A photo posted by Vqueeram Aditya Sahai (@vqueer) on

Tension only grew when my mother lost her mother, solidity and permanence started to become comfort. Relatives who came to offer condolences only aggravated the scene. I had no relationship with my brother. His training into masculinity and heterosexuality offered no help.

My doing the Delhi University Gender Studies Group panel on LGBTQ as a queer person soon after did it for my mother. I was asked to choose between following her rules and my desires.

Having only recently stepped into a personal-political relationship with queerness, I decided to move out.

My ambivalence with femininity continued nevertheless. I wore my first sari out of protest and hurt not some new found freedom. On the verge of the Supreme Court judgement on 377, a convoluted conversation on the Delhi Queer Pride list led to us being asked not to go to court on the day of the D-day, but to gather at Jantar Mantar instead, to celebrate/protest depending on the verdict.


A photo posted by Vqueeram Aditya Sahai (@vqueer) on

Despite some compunctions, I capitulated. However, when one switched on the news everyone with a lawyer for contact or entitlement was at the court. Then we were told to come to Jantar Mantar in the evening wearing black to mark our anger. My housemate Nikita had just got a bright red sari with a shimmering gold border. I wore it to the protest not only to mark queer anger but also the hurt, now caused by my own movement.

The next time I wore a sari was to go to my Department (Political Science, University of Delhi) and the Head of Department turned his back to me. I had begun to lose friends even in the kurta-churidar-shawl days but with the sari I lost almost all of them in the Department, or they had nothing to say.

Since I do wear crisp cottons or silks, the sari too, over time, has become acceptable. It was against this tolerance that I began wearing saris with bras instead of blouses. Even the tolerant liberals then do not know how to respond.  All respectability that comes with looking the part of the teacher immediately gets challenged.

Be that as it may, I take strong objection to the ocular approach to clothing and gender, something trans* politics is sadly more than complicit with.


A photo posted by Vqueeram Aditya Sahai (@vqueer) on

My clothing is not just about how I look. My aesthetic comes from my mother and my grandmother, two working women who wore saris all their lives. Sure, they first chose a sari for its colour but the next thing they always did, and do, is to touch the fabric, examine the weave. The sari has to last till the end of the working day. It has to feel good even when crumpled at the end of the day.

I am a working person too. I am a walker. I need to walk in my sari. I take long strides and walk fast. I need to climb up and down stairs, run if I am late or I feel threatened in an unsafe space. Seeing yourself in the mirror in the morning in a sari and looking glam is for five minutes. You spend the rest of the day in the sari. 

Yes, my sari is draped nicely but that is because I have to walk in it. If you drape it badly, you cannot walk. I do pleat it on the wrong side, I do not pin it. Femininity, in its pinned and bourgeois form, makes no sense to me. That immobilises you. It is for this reason that I rarely wear them with heels. My mother strode in kolhapuris with her cottons and Pakistani jutis with her silks, and I do too, just without her grace.


A photo posted by Vqueeram Aditya Sahai (@vqueer) on

The sari is also about memory for me, about the death of my grandmother, about loss, about trauma but not only that. Trauma is never just one thing. Often, I buy saris thinking about them, sometimes as gifts for my mother that never reach her. The sari has come to me through the lives of single, independent, working women. It has very little to do with men – to attract them or in opposition to them.

Of course, none of this is easy as whim. One of the attempts of this femininity has been to think about violence critically. How to do one without collapsing into the other? I have tried very hard to not let violence colonise the aesthetic's relationship to the political.

Moreover, I am careful to not speak only oppositionally of violence. One has to build a relationship with various forms of violence. After all, gender is a violent form of subjectivation – whether male, female, or any other. As someone brought up male, I do not carry around the fear of rape all day as women do. There is fear, yes, but not of rape as centrally. Even when I think of rape, I think less of bodily integrity and more about pain.

I was beaten up by the police a few months ago, I had men on a bike pull out my juda pin on the road after a late night show, I have been stopped in the campus I study and asked for my ID card, I have been stopped at the gates of the University I teach, I was not allowed in at a single bar in Connaught Place one evening recently because I was wearing a feminine top, jeans and kajal. The stares are, of course, part of daily life.

But my critique of violence is not the liberal one: we must prohibit violence. We must struggle to engage with violence. After all, do we not occupy violent subject-positions to do politics? We call ourselves Dalit or feminist or queer and not lower caste or women or gay. Isn't that the crucial stuff of political selves – to recognise hegemonic frames and the violence that keeps them in place but to resist them and their framing?

Politics then asks us to be out of place. I am out of place and that is where I always want to be.


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