PRINT March 1986


in America, love means never having to say sari.

THROUGH THE FLURRIES OF SNOWFLAKES on Fifth Avenue this winter, the sleek images of richly dressed mannequins glowed and glimmered in shop windows, murmuring to New Yorkers of golden summers and islands in the sun. Bergdorf Goodman was celebrating India—and why not, when the Brocade Brigade was further up the Avenue at the Met, and a rented elephant from New Jersey was padding up and down the cold pavement outside El Morocco before the paparazzi blew in? India is big in the Big Apple, and naturally the sari is big too. It hasn’t been around with such a vengeance since the summer of 1967, when Air India, in collaboration with the New York designer Elisa Daggs, promoted a paper sari—“six yards of Kayce!, the newest and most sophisticated of paper fabrics, for $4.95, plus postage.” Cheap, of course, and disposable. Yet for that price, the majority of the female population of India—some 350 million women—buy coarse cotton saris, wearing them day in and day out and making them last a couple of years.

Should there, could there be more to a garment than it reveals when draped on a mannequin on Fifth Avenue? Of course. The sari has been around, identifiably and in one piece, since at least the third century BC, and the paper version, or Nancy Reagan’s sari-style dress by Adolfo, or the Bergdorf model, or a little tailoring—a zip here, a pin there, gathers at the waist, flounces at the shoulder, tucks under the arms and darts along the lower leg—won’t do it much harm. It’s just that these concepts are as alien, absurd, and futile as that of easing the pain of Bhopal’s gas victims with a bombardment of American lawyers, or of solving the problem of feeding India with a blitz of beef steak. Amended and adapted, draped in a hundred different ways, the sari proper is still a single piece of cloth, an unstitched garment whose survival and symbology derive from the fact that it is functional, egalitarian, and as free flowing as Mother Ganges, the river that most Indians revere. As the Indian writer Gita Mehta once pointed out, the sari will always be worn by Indian women because of the universality of its form and the function of its style.

Contemporary Indian weavers may incorporate television antennae into their patterns instead of the traditional fertility symbols of leaping fish, mating swans, and the ripe mango fruit from which the paisley motif derives, but the essence of the garment remains—its untailored purity. Many traditional Hindu rituals are interwoven with this structural purity: men don the simple dhoti to bathe in the Ganges, and the dead are covered in widths of plain cotton or wool before cremation. The colors, textures, and motifs of Indian clothes, and not just of the sari, possess intricate systems of significance. They vary from region to region: in Rajasthan, when a woman has conceived a child, she punctuates the flaming yellow of her head covering with splashes of red; in south India, when a schoolgirl adds a layer of cloth over her simple long skirt and blouse, it means she has reached puberty; in the north, the wearing of the color saffron heralds the coming of spring and a rich harvest. Circular motifs like gold coins are symbols for eternity, zigzags for lightning, the triangular shapes in a Kanchipuram sari for the ramparts of a fort. A bride wears a sari of red and gold.

None of its complexities have cluttered the untailored simplicity of the sari proper, or reduced its grandeur. They have only enriched it, through all its fluctuating manifestations of taste and style. This is a tribute to the Indian weaver, who produces for both utilitarian function and special occasion with a devotion and inspiration that cannot fail the wearer. Mahatma Gandhi clearly understood the importance of his compatriots’ clothing to their independence when he encouraged Indian nationalists to weave homespun cotton as a vital catalyst in the campaign for self government. So when Bergdorf tears up the cloth to achieve a plunging neckline or a full-waisted skirt, remember: in America, love means never having to say sari.

Sunil Sethi is a writer who lives in New Delhi and is on the staff of the Sunday Mail.