Saree-Not-Sorry: Why Sabyasachi Is Not Doing the World a Favour
“I don’t think Indian brides feel complete without wearing the colour red in one of their functions,” wrote the hallowed designer of celebrity wedding wear, Sabyasachi Mukerjee.
The ‘sindoori’ red Mukherjee is talking about is of the (now famous?) Benarasi saree donned by new bride Anushka Sharma at Virushka’s Delhi reception.
Hardly anyone was surprised that the Virushka wedding was (mostly) a Sabyasachi affair.
This included myself whose knowledge of the Sabyasachi brand is limited to casual forays into articles on celebrity fashion and roaming in Chandni Chowk ki galiyaan with soon-to-be-married friends to find the closest copy of a specific lehenga.
This time, however, curiosity got the better of me. It was the Virushka wedding, after all! Emotions were running high.
So, I decided to
stalk research the Sabyasachi Instagram account. What I found there left my knickers petticoat in a twist.
Lehenga of Desire
Sabyasachi’s social media manager is a force to reckon with. Their words add chaar-chaand to each Instagram post. Here’s an example.
For her Mumbai reception, Anushka wanted to wear old world glamour... Hand beaten silver thread, textured sequins and cut organza flowers were assembled on an embroidered tulle base to create an ethereal lehenga.Sabyasachi Mukerjee on Instagram
That’s a mouthful! The array of adjectives make the lehenga sound almost like a delicacy and, if I may be allowed to read between the lines, create a desire for it.
A brief lesson on capitalism: It converts ‘wants’ to ‘needs’ and traps you in a cycle of incomplete satisfaction, such that you desire more and more.
The Pleated Narrative
But wait... There’s more to this carefully pleated narrative.
The designer had some big claims to make about the role of Bollywood and the fashion industry in promoting indigenous Indian crafts.
Bollywood can play a major role in spreading awareness about Indian textiles and handlooms... I know copies of this saree will flood the entire country... which also means that a million weaver’s children will be back at school.Sabyasachi Mukerjee on Instagram
That’s not it, the designer went a step ahead, narrating the story of how he landed in Peeli Kothi in Benaras in 2001 and what inspired him to create the look.
My mother got married in a Benarasi saree... I landed in Peeli-Kothi in Benaras in 2001 looking for that saree. It took me a few years to find it... The Benarasi was dying... It took me 14 years to get it back on track... I was reviving my identity.Sabyasachi Mukerjee on Instagram
Perhaps it was great brand strategy on Sabyasachi’s part to evoke the personal, build the nostalgia, and earn all the corporate social responsibility points.
To me, however, it all sounded a bit too high-brow and self-celebrating.
Urban’s Claim On the Local
If this narrative were to be believed, then the Benarasi saree is a dying trade, “decaying under piles of cross pollinated textiles and human greed” (Sabyasachi’s social media manager strikes again!), its glory lying in the past.
The brand takes pride in bringing the craft back from the dead; the trade is no longer stagnant but thriving under the label’s guidance. In the process, the label has also created jobs, sent kids to school, and brought about significant social change.
All this sounds suspiciously familiar, pardon my academic self, to the narrative of colonialism. It is the same narrative that hits me every time I walk the lanes of the ‘urban village’ of Shahpur Jat in south Delhi, where the encroachment by new and expensive brands on the local is only too obvious.
#RevivingBenaras. Oh Really?
Here’s a question: What are brands like Sabyasachi reviving? The saree is one of the most commonly worn garment in India and the Benarasi saree has never lost its prominence. Open your mothers’, your grandmothers’, your aunts’ wardrobes and you shall find at least one Benarasi saree.
Sabyasachi writes that “every Bengali woman getting married wore one during her heydays.” The Benarasi saree, my Bengali friends tell me, has been a favourite among Bengali women through the years.
I even made a few calls to popular saree stores in Delhi where managers and sales executives told me that the average sale for Benarasi sarees has been consistent, with individual stores selling upto 60 sarees in a month during peak season.
Here’s another question: Who is buying these Sabyasachi revived Benarasi sarees? A very small percentage of people who probably don’t even wear it a second time.
Also, who are the karigars making these sarees? How much are they being paid? A Facebook user, Neha Srivastava bought the same saree that Anushka Sharma wore from Delhi. Srivastava had a point to make.
Its an unfortunate habit of Indian designers to take credit for the art & hardwork of nameless/faceless Indian weavers... pay them next to nothing and jack up prices 5 to 10 times for just their “brand”... Claiming credit for perhaps the most standard motif there is for Banarasi saree.Neha Srivastava on Facebook
Another brief lesson on capitalism: It makes labour invisible such that only the product matters (commodity fetishism). Who makes, for whom do they make, and the time taken to make are made obscure in favour of the monetary value of the final product.
So, amidst the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that Virushka’s Sabyasachi attire scored, if I am not entirely impressed, nor nearly convinced, I am saree-not-sorry.