The ‘sanskari’ girl who is hailed as the upholder of Indian traditions is usually depicted as shy, obedient, and draping a well-pleated saree, complete with a modest, non-midriff-baring blouse. But what happens when we realise that many of the elements of the saree that we see today have been informed by colonial notions of decency? Does it still hold the same weightage as a part of our ‘sabhyata’? Read on to know more about the colonial legacy of the modern saree.
The word ‘saree’ has its origins in Sanskrit. It literally means “a strip of cloth”, but within the folds of the pallu lie deeper, darker secrets of colonial informed women’s oppression.
The modern saree blouse, as we see it today, is probably one of the most celebrated colonial legacies in our society. Given the climate of our country, our women never deemed it necessary to put two layers of clothing on their body. This idea that women in our society could divorce morality and modesty from their bodies baffled our colonists. The fact that women could dress comfortably in just a long piece of cloth and still be treated with respect was a concept alien to them. They believed that we were promiscuous, uncivilised perverts. The introduction of petticoats and chemises, which the white rulers believed was required to uphold decorum, introduced Victorian ethics and morals into the Indian saree story.
One cannot imagine draping a saree these days without the petticoat. Saree drapers usually tighten it to the point of suffocation—anything to prevent an embarrassing, accidental slip of that fabric that may range anywhere from 3.5 to 9 yards. But this petticoat is a symbol of a colonial hangover we are still under the influence of.
It came to India with the Europeans and was influenced by the numerous petticoats women would don in the early 19th century in Europe. Many petticoats would be worn under the over gown to show the great fullness of the skirt. The petticoat may also have found its way into the saree vocabulary due to the diaphanous material that was used to drape sarees before the Europeans came to India. The sheer material may have appeared too scandalous to the British, who, with their ideas of modesty and propriety, would have considered a petticoat underskirt along with the blouse necessary to transform a “vulgar” manner of wearing a saree to a “decent” and “appropriate” one.
The style of draping the saree did not escape colonial influence either. The Nivi drape, which has its origins in Andhra Pradesh, was combined with elements of the Parsi Gara style by Jnanadanandini Devi, a social reformer from the Tagore family. The style was further refined and gave rise to the Brahmika style, so called because it was mainly adopted by the Brahmo Samaj women. She was also the woman who first started the trend of wearing the contemporary blouse after she was denied entry to an English club because she wore the saree on her bare breasts. She was initially a follower of the Thakurbari drape of Bengal, which required no pleats, petticoats, or blouses.
The question that should be asked is if we should really tie our value to material artefacts left over from our never-ending colonial hangover, such as the blouse and the petticoat, and let these very tangible things determine how valuable we are to the general public. These Imperial gifts of objectification and sexualisation have been internalised by us and are now recognised as elements of our own culture, our sanskriti and our sabhyata. It’s time for us to begin unlearning our assumptions from the colonial era and reclaim the authority that has always been ours to possess and never the colonists’ to take away.
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Featured Image Credits: Jamini Roy