Shashi Tharoor and the sari

A lot many bloggers (many of them listed here) have taken note of Shashi Tharoor’s recent post in TOI regarding the sari. My take on it :

For centuries, if not millennia, the alluring garment, all four or eight yards of it, has been the defining drape of Indian manhood. Cotton or silk or the more modern polyester/terrycotton, shimmering or with the political party karai, the dhothi has stood the test of time, climate and body shape. Of all the garments yet invented by man the dhothi did most to flatter the wearer.

Unlike every other male dress on the planet, the dhothi could be worn with elegance by men of any age, size or shape: you could never be too fat, too short or too ungainly to look good in a dhothi. Indeed, if you were stout, or bowlegged, or thick-waisted, nothing concealed those handicaps of nature better than the dhothi. Men looked good in a dhothi who could never have got away with appearing in public in trousers (with the shirt tugged-in).

So why has this masterpiece of masculine attire begun fading from our streets? On recent visits home to India I have begun to notice fewer and fewer dhothis in our public places, and practically none in the workplace. The khakhis, the chinos, the cargos, the jeans and even the Western suit have begun to supplant it everywhere.

At a recent press conference I addressed in Thiruvan-athapuram, there were perhaps a dozen men journalists present. Only one was wearing a dhothi: the rest, all Keralites without exception, were in shirt-trousers. And when I was crass enough to ask why none of the “young gentlemen” present wore dhotis, the one who did modestly suggested that he was no longer very young.

Youth clearly has something to do with it; very few of today’s under-30 men seem to prefer the dhothi, and few of them seem to think it suitable for the speed with which they scurry through their lives. (“Try rushing to catch a bus in a dhothi” one young man pointedly remarked, “there is every chance that you will slip. And you’ll switch to jeans the next day”) But there’s also something less utilitarian about their rejection of the dhothi for daily wear.

Today’s younger generation of Indian men seem to associate the garment with an earlier era. Putting on pants, or a Western man’s suit, strikes them as more modern. Freeing their legs to move more briskly than the dhothi permits is, it seems, a form of liberation; it removes a self-imposed handicap, releasing the wearer from all the cultural assumptions associated with the traditional attire.

I think this is actually a great pity. One of the remarkable aspects of Indian modernity has always been its unwillingness to disown the past; from our nationalists and reformers onwards, we have always asserted that Indians can be modern in ancient garb. Political ideas derived from nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers have been articulated by men in mundus and dhotis that have not essentially changed since they were first worn 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. (Statuary from the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation more than 4,000 years ago show men draped in waistcloths that Mr Karunanidhi would still be happy to don.)

Gandhiji demonstrated that one did not have to put on a Western suit to challenge the British empire; when criticised by the British press for calling upon the King in his simple loincloth, the Mahatma mildly observed, “His Majesty was wearing enough clothes for the two of us”. Where a Kemal Ataturk in Turkey banned his menfolk’s traditional fez as a symbol of backwardness and insisted that his compatriots don Western hats, India’s nationalist leaders not only retained their customary headgear, they added the defiantly desi ‘Gandhicap’ (oddly named, since Gandhiji himself never wore one). Our clothing has always been part of our sense of authenticity.

I remember being struck, on my first visit to Japan some 15 years ago, by the iniquitousness of Western clothing in that Asian country. Every Japanese man and woman in the street, on the subway or in the offices I visited wore suits and skirts and dresses; the kimono and its male equivalent were preserved at home, and brought out only for ceremonial occasions. An Asian ambassador told me that envoys were expected to present their credentials to the Emperor in a top hat and tails.

This thoroughgoing Westernisation was the result of a conscious choice by the modernising Meiji Emperor in 1868. One sees something similar in China today: though the transformation is not nearly as complete as in Japan, the streets of Beijing and Shanghai are more and more thronged with Chinese people in Western clothes. In both Japan and China, I allowed myself to feel a perverse pride that we in India were different: we had entered the 21st century in clothes that our ancestors had sported for much of the preceding 20.

Today, I wonder if I’ve been too complacent. What will happen once the generation of men who grew up routinely wearing a dhothi every day dies out? The warning signs are all around us now. It would be sad indeed if the dhothi becomes a rare and exotic garment in its own land, worn only to temples and weddings. Perhaps it’s time to appeal to the men of India to save the dhothi from a sorry fate.


12 Responses to “Shashi Tharoor and the sari”

  1. Emma Says:

    Loved it! Truly, this is such an intelligent retort to what Shashi Tharoor had to say.

  2. maxiblog Says:

    Thanks, Emma 🙂

  3. Cee Kay Says:


  4. angry fix Says:

    This is a superb take!

    Thanks a lot for putting things in perspective – I mean the sheer ludicrousness of his argument.

  5. fragrance Says:

    well though i m not too contrary with Tharur’s view but still ur take is really wonderfull…Good

  6. maxiblog Says:

    thanks, everyone!

  7. unmana Says:

    Cool! I hope you sent it to Tharoor!

  8. Gurdas Says:

    My response to Shashi:

  9. Naresh Kumar Agarwal Says:

    While Shashi Tharoor’s arguments are not without basis, they are definitely sexist – along the lines of leaving it upto the women to uphold the traditions of the country, as it has always been.

    By putting this piece on the dhoti, it presents the same arguments but shows how the sexist Indian man put the onus only on the women.

    Do please send it to Shashi Tharoor! It will hopefully allow him to think beyond his particular view.

  10. Inya Says:

    People! Lighten up. Shashi was only expressing his opinion. Yes, sarees are cumbersome, but come on, it is a great invention. No matter how a woman draps it, she still looks good. Tell me, how many of us look good in a gown/pair of jeans? I wear western clothes to work, am in salwars at home, only because they are convenient, not because i look good in them, or they are great. I always wear a saree to occasions that matter to me, both Indian and western. So please, take a break and leave Shashi alone.

  11. abhaya Says:

    ofcourse it as an elegant one ,hmm hatz off u sir

  12. Paul Kooros Says:

    Dear friends, don’t have a stroke over this! Everyone should wear what they like for their comfort and convenience. There is something to be said however about keeping culture alive. Culture is just as much in clothes as in literature, art, poetry and music. My father, who came from Iran, was lamenting the loss of so much clothes-culture for practical and political reasons. For example, hats: In his youth there were hundreds of different hats, and you could know each man’s region and village from his hat. It gave you an connection to people, a community that you could know immediately someone from your home town, or home region. That’s what culture is about, connecting people in a unifying fabric (a sari?) they can enjoy for its own aesthetics.

    Unfortunately, in Iran, the king’s Government made it illegal to wear any hat but the Pahlavi cap, like a French gendarme’s hat — a symbol of modernization, in the fassion of Ataturk. It quickly eliminated an enriching hat culture. I would hope that all good parts of any culture, the enriching parts, can be kept, without being at the expense of practicality and progress. In the case of the king, the oppressed people forced to change their dress were resentful, and rose up against not only the dress, but also regretably against the modernization it represented.

    Those who would resist modernization need not be made to feel the threat of losing their culture in the process. The Quebec French feel their culture is so threatened by the English they have “language police,” and their stop signs say “ARRET”. In Paris, not as threatened, the stop signs say “STOP”. Don’t underestimate the danger of the reaction of the threatened conservative (e.g. Iran, Geo. W. Bush) to modernization.

    How much better to just be free, dress as you like, and still love and cultivate the good parts of culture. Perhaps Shashi Tharoor was being too romantic in wanting to promote the everyday sari. But clothes culture, when not oppressive, is a great treasure; a unifying force in society, giving a sense of common destiny, and a foundation for a bright future.

    Love to India from the U.S. – Paul (Denver, Colorado, USA)

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