Friday, August 14, 2009

Indian Saris in the Italian newspaper, La Stampa

Valeria Fraschetti, an Italian journalist working for the Italian newspaper La Stampa recently approached and interviewed for making an article on how Indian fashion is changing and less and less women are wearing saris nowadays. Her questions and the answers are shared here;

VF: Many young urban girls nowadays look at the sari like an impractical "grandmother's garment". Is this because of the growing "westernisation" of Indian fashion trends? Or it may also due to the availability of cheaper garments than saris?

VSK: Yes. It is true to a great extent that there has been westernisation of Indian fashion trends especially amongst the younger generations. Perception of saris in traditional sense has been more as an element connecting within a scheme of cultural ideology and philosophy that represented a traditional way of life. After the medieval period of India, the notion of 'fashion' as understood by younger generation of today, has neither been the approach nor the aspiration of most sections of Indian society. In the subsequent era, the age-old cultural dynamism weakened and social norms became increasingly rigid.

Since independence, western model in education, rapid urbanisation and enhanced awareness through multiple means of communication have been the factors that are fast modifying the individual notions of progressiveness and modernity. The perception of many young people has changed towards the way they dress up. As they see affluence of western ideas, many are inclined to consider western fashion synonymous to freedom and liberation. Ideas of fashion also come to discarding things that are old. Research on this subject reveals -- though many among urban youth consider the sari impractical as everyday wear-- they are giving up saris more due to a desperate search for new identity that identifies with being 'cosmopolitan' and 'global'. Many amongst youth no longer want to be associated with some specific old customs and values that have plagued the Indian society since long. Western fashion is in a way their sense of protest against the rigidity of unjust social norms that are often seen resisting the change.

Cost factor does not have much relevance in this case as a range of equally cheap saris have always been available in the market. Nowadays also the market is full of printed and power loom produced low-cost saris.

VF: Though many Indian women still love to wear saris at formal occasions such as wedding, would you say that sari is going to be a dying garment?

VSK: Despite odds, the use of saris continues amongst many Indian women. The market size is still very large. They are worn by the women who either value the aesthetic nuances of complex Indian culture (as in case of educated urban class) or by the ones who need to comply with established norms of their immediate social environment (as in case of most women from rural India).

Sari represents the elements of diverse cultural identities in collective sense. Though there are many influences that have been assimilated in the culture and social structure —as we witness in history of India — traditional cultural practices down the ages are considered to be a personal privilege by most Indians. It would be perhaps too paranoid a view to consider it as a dying garment. But we can easily say that it is under transition and transformation; much more than ever before. While the dimensions and format of sari have now become standard, modes of its surface ornamentation have become varied and experimental. Sari that was once only handcrafted, with the developments in technology and fashion, is now being experimented with many ways of production processes and drapes. While many other forms of traditional costumes have gone in oblivion, sari continues to withstand the pressures of modern lifestyles. Its survival is also due to the intrinsic style statement that connects a sari flawlessly to both traditional mindset as well as modern outlook. With the progress in economic terms and in education, there is renewed interest of Indian women seen in saris. I am keen to add that it’s only the demand for cotton saris, which were used for everyday wear, has sharply declined. But at the same time, the demand for many exquisite varieties has gone up as women having more disposable income prefer to buy expensive sari for occasional wear. Even the women who seldom wear saris keep buying them as a precious possession in their wardrobes. So in certainty it is not an end for saris. As Indian fashion and design industry matures, we may soon witness new trends with saris.

VF: The handloom weaver community famous for their saris, such is the one in Varanasi, are facing a hard time. Imports from China and shifting taste in fashion have their share of responsibility for this situation. In your opinion, what can be done to help those weavers meet the changing fashion taste in Indian society?

VSK: The key character of traditional creative industries in India such as in hand looms has been evolution through innovation. Most traditional sari weaving centres, such as the one in Varanasi, are facing difficulties due to frozen attitude towards the innovation. The inherent dynamism is lost to a great extent. It’s not so much for the flagging capabilities of weavers or competitive open markets but more due to recurrently constricted policy framework that lacks vision and nurturance from the support mechanism that is devoid of innovation-led dynamism. While traders and qualified ones gain more control in the matters of hand looms, the weavers await much needed recognition and returns for their creative labour. The systems need to recognise and facilitate the weavers through appropriate modes of intelligence and creative means of entrepreneurship. Most existing institutions set up for this purpose lack the necessary talent to do so -- or they still need to inculcate sensitivity to deal with creativity and culture driven industry. Awareness, promotion and distribution are some important issues besides many other challenges that need creative solutions.

VF: Is there still a language of saris? How much can a sari design or way it is folded tell about the cast or the economical status of a woman? Can you make a couple of example, pls?

VSK: As far as design styles of sari are concerned, despite some overlaps, fortunately the design language of most traditional styles still remains distinctive. But its draping styles have come to be more uniform. It is the 'ulta-pallav’ style that has become very popular across India. 'Sidha-pallav’ style is seen amongst elderly, economically weaker sections and in rural parts.

Distinctions in draping styles based on the caste have now nearly become extinct, essentially as most people do not wish to be associated with a particular caste. Some interesting styles can be seen on religious and ceremonial occasions of tradition loving communities. For example, kachcha style of drape amongst Maharashtrians, and the distinctive drape styles of Tamil Aiyer and Aiyanger community women. Many tribal communities across Bihar, Chattisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa are upholding their traditional and unique styles of drapes. What is changing rapidly in case of tribal cultures is that the cheap mill printed synthetic saris are replacing the traditional hand-woven saris due to economic compulsions.

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