Back in the day, when Doordarshan was the sole news channel, women anchors dressed unfailingly in saris, read the news in their no-nonsense style and became unforgettable. Liberalisation brought an explosion in news outlets and somewhere along the line, the new look for anchors, at least for women on some channels, was deemed to be the bland (and frequently badly-stitched) pant-suit.
In an attempt to ‘give a more contemporary look’ to its flight attendants, Air India is following the path taken by news channels. Its new dress code includes kurtis, churidaars and trousers. While the sari will remain, it will no longer be the national carrier’s sole uniform.
It might seem tempting to write the sari’s obituary. Certainly, it’s easy to see why the more pragmatic and comfortable kurti and churidaar holds such pan national appeal. Yet, according to the ministry of textiles, the sari as a category clocked 8.8% growth in value terms between 1998 and 2006 and is now a nearly Rs 54,000-crore market in India.
On social media, two friends, Ally Matthan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, have launched a #100SariPact to wear saris twice a week in a movement that has quickly won followers who are wearing and posting photos of themselves in six yards of splendour. This, Kadam told BBC Trending, “is not a political statement to reclaim a way to dress because the sari never went away from the Indian psyche.”
Indeed the sari will never go out of style. Partly this is because of the way it keeps reinventing itself: Pre-stitched saris, newer fabrics like linen and, even, organic cotton and ahimsa silk that extracts yarn from silkworm cocoons without killing off the pupae. From shimmery silks to block-printed handlooms; from the half-sari of the south to the full nine-yards of the west, each sari gathers within its folds the tale of weavers and the aspirations of those who buy them.
The sari endures also because of our conviction that it is the most flattering garment for Indian figures; tucked higher or lower with demure full-sleeved blouses or daring backless ones, it gives women the freedom to decide how much, or not at all, to reveal.
But ultimately the sari will endure because when we Indian women want to dress up, when we attend weddings or festivals, when we want to feel special, the inevitable garment of choice is the sari. We are not the generation of our grandmothers and mothers who wore only saris (yes, even on the beach, alas), but our love and nostalgia for the draped fabric has seeped into our DNA from that lineage.
Most of us treasure our saris because many of them come to us as gifts on special occasions — the first salary of a newly adult daughter, at festivals from our mothers and mothers-in-law and, if you’re lucky like me, from husbands. Most precious of all collection is my mother’s wedding sari, a stunning red and gold temple silk. Back in the day, it cost Rs 500. Now fraying, its value is immeasurable. When I told my mother how much I had paid to get it restored, she rolled her eyes. But for me its value is incalculable because from it springs the new beginning of a life of hope and patience, love and duty.
My relationship with the sari began as a nervous 13-year-old in boarding school where it was mandatory to wear one on festivals. Even in those days of countless safety pins and undisciplined pleats, wearing a sari made me feel feminine and empowered all at once.
Air India’s flight attendants in their churidaars will probably welcome the ease and comfort with which they can now zip up and down the aisles. But for a generation that grew up on the legend of the Maharaja, this is not progress but an indefinable loss.
My grandmother wore only white. When she died, there, as instructed, was the new white sari in which she wanted to be cremated. In life and death it was only the sari for her.
The views expressed are personal.)