The relevance of the sari in the modern world

Hold my pleats

The relevance of the sari in the modern world

For this generation, draping and carrying around the traditional attire is a pain, while for their mothers and aunts, it came naturally, writes Snehlatha Baliga

It all started when the woman I was sharing a room with at a family wedding pulled out a set of grand saris,  seeking my opinion on which one she should wear to the reception. “Go for the silver and pink one,” I said.

“Oh, that one? It’s beautiful, but too cumbersome to drape. You have to help me!” she said. And the next 45 minutes saw me checking the length of her pleats, pinning the pallu and adjusting the borders even as my arthritic knees protested.

If you ask me what is the biggest challenge that most contemporary women, young and old, face during functions, I would say draping the sari and carrying it for the day. Amidst all the fun and gaiety associated with a celebration, there lurks the nagging worry about managing the sari (the degree is directly proportionate to one’s closeness to the host).

While the new generation tries to wriggle out of the compulsion to don the traditional attire, the older ones forge tie-ups with sari draping experts in the family to help them out, or even rope in reluctant helpers. One lady, for instance, coaxed her octogenarian husband into holding her pleats!

“In our times, it was a different dilemma, altogether,” says Madhu. “For us, the problem was which sari to flaunt at the next opportunity and which ones not to repeat.”


Is the sari so complicated to wear and carry that even people of the generation that grew up wearing them, worked in them and loved showing them off shy away from them? By the way, who trained the women of older generations in sari draping? No one.

“We took to it like fish to water,” says Lalitha, going back decades. “I picked it up by observing the women of my family. Trends changed: the short pallu of the late 60s pinned at the shoulders gave way to the flowing ones of the 70s and later, the pleated and pinned ones of today; so too did the pleats. These were pleasurable experiments we did with ease and grace.”

Did we have any other options? very few, as far as the conservative pockets were concerned. Salwar kameez was just trickling into south Indian colleges and jeans and trousers for girls were a strict no-no everywhere!

Globalisation has merged the different aspects of world cultures, clothes included, which our globe trotting young lap up happily. Branded clothes spell class  and higher disposable income make them accessible. The new-age slip-on, zip-up and pin-up dresses remain in place unlike the traditional sari that needs lot of manoeuvreing.

“In such times, should we still hop in and out of buses or flit about in busy offices in flowing saris that threaten to trip us every few steps?” asks Hema, a young software professional.

“Certainly not! But couldn’t the beautiful saris be given a few hours of exposure during traditional events – after all someone probably spent a fortune on them – instead of hankering after new, costlier outfits? It may be relevant at this point that the sari is still in the dress codes of many airlines, reputed shops and educational institutions. Active, busy and eminent personalities like Sushma Swaraj, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, to name a few – and Usha Uthup, who makes the stage come alive and agog – appear gracefully draped in them. And Kerala’s Kalaripayattu exponent Meenakshiamma trains her students in saris, considering the attire the strength of women and not their weakness,” poses Radha, who has a newly-married daughter.

The question whether antiquity, tradition, modernity and fashion could, or rather should, co exist is best left to the experts, but Hema’s feelings were reflected in my experience too during my visit abroad. 

Ahead of my trip to Japan to visit my son, people around raised their eye brows. “Are you going to wear your usual saris over there?” they asked. I was unsure at first. But once I was there, people’s reactions to my attire blew my mind.

My saris earned me appreciative glances and a few “namastes” and served as a GPS for my son. In the unfamiliar land where no one spoke my language, my son’s colleagues frequently remarked “A lady in a sari was crossing the bridge along with a gentleman. They must be your parents!”

Luckily for the endangered apparel, it’s length and design serve numerous purposes. Old saris get converted into dresses, pillow covers, drapes etc. Another great thing about saris is that they need very little stitching or alteration. They also conceal many flaws – both in themselves and in the wearer – and highlight the plus points. All you need to do is to tuck in or pleat it in the appropriate places!

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