Who cares if you can't drape that sari?

I would call Sabyasachi India's most "modest" designer - he likes his sari blouses long sleeved and necklines are never too low.

By Sujata Assomull

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Published: Sat 17 Feb 2018, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 17 Feb 2018, 11:20 PM

Celebrated Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee was in news recently, and for all the wrong reasons. "I think, if you tell me that you do not know how to wear a sari, I would say shame on you. It's a part of your culture, (you) need stand up for it," Sabyasachi told Indian students at the Harvard India Conference just a few days ago. The renowned designer was called out for shaming women, and Twitterati immediately was up in arms, many calling him a male chauvinist. Now anyone who knows Sabyasachi will understand that this is one thing he is not.
At first I felt bad. This is second time he has found himself in the middle of such a controversy. The last time was during Cannes Film Festival in 2013 when Bollywood actress Vidya Balan wore a white and black ensemble designed by him and decided to cover head with the dupatta (stole), which made her truly look like a subservient bride. The look angered a lot of feminists. While it was purely Vidya's decision to cover her head, the designer gathered flak for it. The fact is the outfit was not intended to be worn that way.
I would call Sabyasachi India's most "modest" designer - he likes his sari blouses long sleeved and necklines are never too low. This belief in modesty comes from his respect for women. Even when it comes to his muses, look at the famous women he has worked with - Vidya Balan (that is, of course, pre-Cannes dupatta debacle), Rani Mukerji and Kalki Koechlin. It has never just been about the glam girls for Sabyasachi. So, most in the fashion industry would have been happy to jump to his defence after his 'shame' comment. But they were not given a chance. Sabyasachi decided to take things into his own hands, and play the social media game. He once again proved that he truly is a marketing genius, who knows if you play the 'I was misunderstood' card, it always works.
Over a series of three posts on Instagram called "Open Letter" he made a long, rambling apology. The statement is almost 900 words (longer than this edit.) Sabyasachi makes sure it is known that he has worked with the sari for 16 years and that women are at the core of his management.
He also talks about the circumstances, his statement (it was in reply to a question from a young women on the cultural taboos as society tells them that saris make them look older). He says, "My intent was to call out women who proudly proclaim that they don't wear saris."
I could not agree more. Wearing a sari should be a matter of cultural pride for an Indian woman, but it is also a personal choice. And in many ways it is the responsibility of Indian fashion industry to ensure the sari is kept relevant and adapts to modern day life. 
Sabyasachi has done some innovation on this front. In fact in 2009, he introduced something called 'the Chottu' - a sari that ended six inches above the floor. At the time, he had said the idea was to make it easier for young women to wear the sari, especially first-time wearers. (I have to say, this was not one my favourite Sabya silhouettes, nor do I believe did it encouraged the young to start wearing the sari.)
Almost a decade later, things have changed. Now social media campaigns are popularising saris (remember the #100day sari pact). Bollywood or fashion designers are experimenting more with the sari look. Gaurav Gupta, for instance, has introduced 'sari gown', Shivan and Narresh have a 'bikini sari'.
Therefore, I would argue that sari is actually having a better moment than it has for a long while with the young. But of course Sabyasachi needed to play on the age card. How else could he turn the backlash into a pat on the back! Perhaps, Harvard may want to call Sabyasachi for talk on crisis management.
For the record, I do know how to drape one, though I'd like to improve my draping skills.
Sujata Assomull is the Consulting Fashion Editor at Khaleej Times

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