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PAST & PRESENT

The spread of the salwar

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

How and why has it become so popular, regardless of caste or religion?

R. RAGU

One Punjabi artefact that has taken South India by storm.

AMONG the most curious of the "culture shocks" I have received was while flipping through the pages of the Islamabad telephone directory. I was in the Pakistani capital for an academic seminar; but had arrived a day earlier than scheduled. This was back before the days of email, so I could not inform my host (the economist Tariq Banuri) of the change beforehand. Thus I was at the airport, looking through the telephone book for the name of "Banuri". When I found it I also noticed the entry just above, which was of the "Banaras Sari House".

That, certainly, was not the kind of establishment one expected to find in the heart of an Islamic state. When Pakistan was ruled by a woman, Benazir Bhutto, she only wore the salwar kameez. So, as I was to observe, did other women in Pakistan. Besides, Banaras was a holy city of the Hindus. How then was there a "Banaras Sari House" in the Pakistani capital?

Alas, in the three days I was in Islamabad I was too busy to find out. But later enquiries revealed that there was a time when the sari was very widely worn by ladies of the Pakistani middle and upper classes. Look at the pictures of the founding of the nation, taken at midnight on August 14/15 in Karachi. Mohammed Ali Jinnah is being sworn in as Governor-General; next to him, wearing a chiffon sari, is the country's official First Lady, his sister Fatima Jinnah. Fatima always wore a sari in public, as did Benazir's own mother, Nusrat Bhutto.

A question of culture

The sari is, without argument, the most graceful form of attire invented by homo sapiens. That is why the Begums Jinnah and Bhutto wore it on formal occasions, to be followed in this respect by the less privileged women in their society. They would have worn the salwar kameez too, but in the home. Over time, however, the salwar came to replace the sari even in public. Was there a larger significance in this? The respected Pakistani columnist M.B. Naqvi thought so. I remember reading a fascinating piece by him on how Pakistani society was torn between identifying with West Asia or South Asia. Naqvi suggested that a woman's choice of dress intimately embodied this dilemma; thus to wear a sari was to see oneself as part of a wider subcontinental culture, while to don a salwar was to place oneself in an Islamic world alone.

The sari was once viewed as something that could be owned by all Indian women, Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Parsi. The salwar, on the other hand, was viewed by some as a dress worn exclusively by Muslims. Thus, when my wife and I went to see Nirad Chaudhuri in Oxford in 1994, the great little writer asked how I had permitted her to wear what he called "this Islamic dress". (He added: "In Bengal, we would never allow our women to wear it.") I was too polite to disagree. But I knew, from my own childhood in northern India, that the savant was not being entirely accurate here. Hindu and Sikh women I knew often wore the salwar kameez. At the same time, the Muslim women in my home town, Dehra Dun, were quite happy to wear the sari.

Salwar Islamic, Sari Hindu?

Nirad Chaudhuri's equation of the salwar with "Islamic" is the mirror image of the equation — made by many Pakistanis today — of the sari as "Hindu". After Jemima Goldsmith married Imran Khan and went to live in Lahore, she was visited by her close friend, Diana, Princess of Wales. Soon afterwards, Jemima and Diana were photographed wearing the salwar kameez. Sections of the Pakistani press saw this as evidence of the superiority of their own culture over the Indian. "Would Lady Di ever wear a sari?," they crowed.

The correct answer to that question probably was: No, because it would be a hell of a job teaching her how to get into one. Still, the way the question was asked made it clear that the salwar was seen as a Pakistani dress, the sari as an Indian one. Fortunately, the reverse is not true. For in recent decades the salwar kameez has spread to parts of India where it was never worn (indeed never seen) becore. I cannot speak for Nirad Chaudhuri's Bengal, but in the State where I now live, Karnataka, the salwar is worn now by many more Hindu women than Muslim.

The victory of the salwar

The victory of the salwar is most conspicuous not in big cities like Bangalore, but in the smaller towns of the hinterland. Two months ago I was driving from Mangalore to Manipal, on a road dotted with schools, inside which one could see plenty of girls talking or playing in the salwar. Last month I was in Dodballapur, a weaving town north of Bangalore, speaking to a group of college students. The girls, all clad in salwar kameez, sat on one side; the boys, all wearing pant-and-shirt, lined up on the other. It struck me that 30 years ago many of the boys in the town would have worn a dhoti; while the girls would have worn the pavade, a kind of long skirt sometimes called the half-sari. Yet within one generation they had so easily, and comprehensively, shed an older, so-to-say traditional, form of dress for a previously alien one.

Dodballapur was the home town of D.R. Nagaraj, the brilliant Kannada scholar who died young. My talk was in memory of Nagaraj, and meeting those students made me wish, more than ever, that he was still around to guide us. For "D.R." uniquely combined the skills of the social historian, the cultural anthropologist, and the literary scholar. And to properly tell the story of the spread of the salwar one needs all those talents. Is it better to see the salwar as a peasant dress, worn by women in the Punjab countryside because it made their work easier, rather than as a specifically Islamic dress? What is the significance of the Bengali term dhoti-panjabi? When did the salwar first come to rural South India? What has been the role of television and film in facilitating its spread? And how and why has it become so popular among young girls, regardless of caste or religion?

These questions call for serious investigation, by a scholar interested, as D.R. Nagaraj was, equally in history, culture, and language. I can here only answer, very tentatively, the last one. Why has the salwar become so ubiquitous in a region where it was unknown only a generation before? The answer must be that this is a dress not seen as "Western" or immodest, and yet a dress that allows one to go to school or college, and to participate in the work force. Jeans and tops can be worn in cosmopolitan Bangalore, but in Dodballapur they would be quite unacceptable. The salwar is suitably "decent", yet it allows far more mobility than either the pavade or the sari. One can walk in it, one can bicycle in it, one can even run a 100-metre race in it.

The South Indian has a generally prejudiced view of Punjabis and Punjabi culture. But here is one Punjabi artefact whose successful conquest of the South can only be welcomed. For it has greatly enriched the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of young girls. In viewing the sari as Hindu, Pakistanis pay a price which is merely aesthetic. But in refusing to see the salwar kameez as a North Indian dress, the girls of Dodballapur, and other such towns, garner benefits that are economic, social, and — in the broadest sense of the — political.

Ramachandra Guha is an author and historian based in Bangalore. E-mail him at ramguha@vsnl.com

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