Sari, Indian Culture and Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor, who I believe made a major faux pas in his column on the Sari two weeks back (about which I have written here), has now responded to the various brickbats he received from the blogging world here.


To a large extent I believe Shashi's response was confusing and amusing. Given the amount of criticism he received it seems as though he is desperately trying to make the best of the worst situation he already is in. Even as he concedes that all the points raised by his critics were indeed valid, he tries to get off by saying whatever was stated in the article was his opinion and that he is entitled to one. Somehow the whole argument does not hold water, especially with me. First, he advocates this whole theory about Indian women and the Sari, and when he is cornered he hides behind the whole notion of individual opinion and getting a male perspective to the table. In my opinion, without saying so, he does seem to admit that his views were indeed patriarchal; but then, he opines, that shouldn't really bother anyone else because those are only "his" views.


I find that terribly problematic. When you stand up there and ask a group of professional women journalists why they are not wearing a Sari, it is not an individual opinion any more. When you get all preachy about it, and write in the newspapers saying in the decline of the Sari as a attire you see the decline of Indian values and traditions and cultures, you have put the personal in the public sphere. And then, you cannot just get away saying "this is my personal opinion; and if you do not want to agree that is your problem". The fact is Mr Tharoor, Sari or any other feminine attire does come with a history, a history of burden and stereotyping more than anything else. And when you stand up there on a pedestal and promote the very same attire, questions will be raised, fingers will be pointed; you can't just get away now saying - oh this is all very personal! You obviously weren't looking to just state your views, else you wouldn't be elated by the response of individuals who said they were going to switch to wearing a Sari. You wanted the column to make an impact, as you yourself said, in the response of such people "lies the hope that my column will not have been entirely in vain...".


And as to why the same emphasis is not paid to men and their dhotis/mundus, even in his response Shashi is more or less silent, except to say that a "whatever the aesthetic merits of the dhoti or mundu, they pale in comparison with those of the sari". Again, in his first article about the Sari itself, the emphasis throughout was not on the "aesthetic merits" of the Sari alone in comparison to the dhoti, but on the intrinsic link between the Sari and Indian culture. If that is the main argument of your article, Shashi, I don't see how the dhoti or mundu doesn't fit into the picture. Isn't the dhoti a traditional attire of Indian men?


In Shashi Tharoor's response he also talks about why he is always seen in a western attire. He says he does so because "if I was to represent the United Nations to the world, I was expected to do it in a suit and tie." How conveniently does he forget the example of Mahatma Gandhi that he himself gave us in the last article! Let me quote his own words: "Gandhiji demonstrated that one did not have to put on a Western suit to challenge the British empire;" and then this, "Our clothing has always been part of our sense of authenticity". These words and statements and examples are used easily to suit his argument about why women should wear a Sari but are happily forgotten when asked about why he adorns a Western suit? Is that hypocrisy or what? If you are an Indian representative at the UN and to the world, isn't the onus to "wear" your authenticity on you?


At the end of the second article, I am even more disappointed and angry than I was before. Mr Tharoor, you come all out and say that everything you said about the Sari was a personal opinion - as though individual views and ideas are indeed important. Yet, you have a major problem when about half the population of this country makes a choice about what they would like to wear or not wear. Isn't it ironic?  


More by :  Yamini Ayyagari

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