How the sari wove together Indira Gandhi's politics, Jayalalithaa's power and Mother Teresa's compassion
In the cases of Indira Gandhi, Jayalalithaa and Mother Teresa, the sari was more a proclamation of intent than style | #FirstCulture
Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee's recent comments about how Indian women who do not know how to drape a sari should 'feel ashamed' kicked up quite the row. While reactions tended to focus on 'oh look, another man telling a woman what to wear', it also brought up an interesting question — that of the relationship between an Indian woman and her sari. The sari has been fetishised, celebrated, overlooked, misunderstood (in perhaps equal measure), and our ties to it go back a long way. In this multi-part series, we take a look at the sari's whole nine yards — its history and how different parts of the country embrace it; the sari as symbol; and the politics of the drape. Read on...
A saffron sari with a black border lies within the glass display at the Indira Gandhi Memorial in Lutyens’ Delhi. The bloodstains on it are dull brown smudges; the holes in it are silent markers of the bullets that hit Indira Gandhi as she walked from her official residence at 1 Safdarjung Road towards her office at 1 Akbar Road on 31 October, 1984. The sari she wore on the day that she was assassinated by her bodyguards is an artefact, cocooned in glass, for busloads of tourists and school children to stare at. But that has done nothing to reduce its stature as the preferred garment of the country’s third and only female prime minister.
The blood-stained sari is a graphic historian; it tells of Indira Gandhi’s turbulent politics, her campaign against Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers, the summer siege of the Sri Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, and the hostility it spawned. It is a wordless chronicler of a milieu; as much a victim of the murder as its wearer. It is a tragic parchment of contemporary
history; a motif of sudden violence in a democracy teeming with factions.
The sari, draped around politicians, activists, and even missionaries becomes an insignia of their often tempestuous encounter with power or renown or rebellion or controversy. The hand-spun sari, in particular, represents the nationalistic fervour of our struggle for independence. Indira Gandhi has often been described as a connoisseur of the handloom sari. In her 2017 book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, Sagarika Ghose dwells on how the late prime minister’s saris were more a proclamation of intent than style: “The sari in all its varieties and colours was not just a personal statement of style but a garment of India’s history, both political symbol and aesthetic flourish. Since East and West coexisted in her persona with ease, she popularised the modern handloom-wearing look of the short-haired woman, with the elegant bouffant hairstyle, usually no jewellery or accessories except the man’s wristwatch and the occasional pair of high-heeled shoes.”
Coarse, hand-spun cotton or khadi emerged as a potent emblem during the Swadeshi movement. In 1915, members of the Sabarmati Ashram took the swadeshi vow; it was at the ashram that khadi was first produced in 1917-18. On 31 August, 1919 Gandhi addressed a meeting of women in Dohad, where he encouraged them to take up spinning: “If our poor sisters do a little spinning in their leisure hours, they can have a little income of their own, and give an impetus to a most essential indigenous handicraft. In order to spread widely the gospel of swadeshi, women’s earnestness is very essential,” (first published in Young India, 1919). On 31 August, 1920, Gandhi took the khadi vow, mentioned in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG, volume 18): “From today for life I declare that I shall purchase for my (wear) only khaddar cloth hand-made of hand-spun yarn, cap or head-dress and socks excepted.” In his 2012 book Khadi: Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion, Peter Gonsalves defines the word khadi: “Explicitly, it means the homespun cloth, textile or woven fabric promoted by Gandhi during his swadeshi movement. It also means the way it was used: as clothing, attire, apparel, dress or costume. Implicitly, it covers the pre-fabric phase of cotton cultivation, cotton picking, ginning, carding, combing, spinning and weaving.” Gonsalves elaborates upon the semiotic power that Gandhi invested in khadi. It represented “…eco-political independence, psycho-cultural dignity and socio-religious harmony. This was sartorial communication at its most creative, its most daring.” The spinning wheel was a central icon in the Congress national flag in 1921, representing not merely an instrument of cloth production, but a means by which self-reliance could be achieved.
Women associates of Gandhi, in particular Sarladevi Chaudhurani, who founded the Bharat Stree Mahamandal in 1910, appeared at public gatherings in khadi. In a letter published in the CWMG (volume 17), Chaudhurani describes a dilemma – to choose between a silk sari or a khaddar one, for a conference she is about to attend: “whether to be smart and fashionable as of old or to be simple and common only, I have at last chosen to be the latter. But it is taking time and trouble to assimilate the new method.”
While the khadi sari will always be a sartorial declaration of patriotism, emancipation, and self-sufficiency, other saris are protagonists in other narratives. The late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa is believed to have owned over 10,000 saris, which were seized during an income tax raid in 1996. Jayalalithaa’s saris are perhaps cyphers of decadence, and impending doom. She was assaulted on 25 March, 1989, in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. A skirmish between members of her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and those of the M Karunanidhi-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led to her being physically attacked. According to multiple news reports, the DMK minister Durai Murugan pulled at the loose end of her sari. Photographer Sivaraman, who worked for the Indian Express took a black-and-white photograph of her, distraught and looking through her torn sari. Her vulnerability (she supposedly compared her plight with that of Draupadi’s) and public shame stoked her ambition; she returned to the assembly as chief minister in 1991.
Green was reportedly Jayalalithaa’s favourite colour; it draped her in victory and in death. When she was sworn in as chief minister for two consecutive terms – in May 2015 and 2016 – she wore green saris on both occasions. She lay swathed in green (with a red border) during her final journey from her Poes Garden residence in Chennai, to Rajaji Hall on 6 December, 2016.
Jayalalithaa’s saris are perhaps emblematic of how the oppressed become the oppressor; how power seduces and corrupts and leads to many a misadventure. In striking contrast (but no less powerful) is the iconography of Mother (now Saint) Teresa’s blue-rimmed white cotton sari. The sari with its blue border pattern – three blue borders, the outer border a wider band than the inner two – was first worn by Mother Teresa in 1948, when she tended to the sick and destitute on the streets of Kolkata. The design is now a registered trademark – it was recognised as
Intellectual Property of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity on 4 September, 2016, the day the Mother was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church. The distinctive saris are woven at the Gandhiji Prem Nivas Leprosy Centre at Titagarh in West Bengal, run by the Missionaries of Charity. Love, perhaps, needs no symbolic representation. But the Saint who was born Agnes Bojaxhiu into an Albanian Catholic family in 1910, transformed the simple pattern of her sari into a universal motif of charity, by her acts of kindness and devotion. “We have to look to the past to understand Mother Teresa, to Saint Francis of Assisi who cured a leper by kissing him and was filled with an ‘untold joy’, to St Peter Clavier who licked the wounds of negro slaves, and to St Margaret Mary who sucked the pus from a boil,” writes Mark Tully in the 1992 picture book, Mother. The blue-bordered sari is perhaps the most powerful emblem of all, for it represents the incalculable depths of the human heart.
Read part one of the Sari story: Satyam Shivam Sundaram to Mr India, how the nine yards reflected Bollywood's favourite tropes
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