In Defence of the Sari


In Defence of the Sari

Doctors dismiss the ‘sari cancer’ scare. It only boils down to how you tie the cord.

Sari cancer. When this catchy coinage surfaced recently in sections of the media,eyebrows shot up. It was attributed to the Journal of the Indian Medical Association which had published an article,co- written by Dr GD Bakshi,associate professor of surgery at Grant Medical College in Mumbai with Dr Ashok D Borisa and Dr Mukund B Tavade. The doctors had reportedly diagnosed three women,all above 40 years of age,with the same problem. It was described as “chronic irritation along the waistline which could result in scaling or pigmentation and turn malignant.” The article put focus on the petticoat cord,which,if tied too tight around the same place on the waist every day,could spell trouble.

A curious bit of news alright,it amounts to unnecessary scare-mongering. In a country where millions of women wear the sari regularly,amplifying the diagnosis of three cases with waist dermatitis as sari cancer is fraught with over statement,a veteran oncologist told me. “I have never heard of or seen such a case in my entire practice,” said Dr Alka Gujral,a senior gynaecologist from Delhi. Gujral,who wears a sari herself everyday,agreed that tying the cord too tightly could lead to some discomfort but argued that it was no different from a salwar with a drawstring or men’s pyjamas which have a similar cord.

What unravelled were anecdotes of women’s personal negotiations with the sari drape. Predictably,a majority believe it is the most dignified garment. Through trial and error,they have found ways to drape it comfortably for everyday use. Anjali Bisell,vice-president,communica-tions and public affairs,at Delhi’s Apollo Hospital,calls the sari her security blanket. “I have been wearing saris since I was 25 years old,” says Bissell who wears a sari every day to work,even when she visits construction sites. “I don’t tie the cord too tight and have no marks despite wearing it for years,” she says. Others agree. “I have never heard of anyone in the hospitality industry having a sari-related medical problem. Even women who have had Caesarean operations revert to wearing saris,so it all depends on how you tie it,” says Seema Nanda,assistant spa manager at The Radisson MBD,Noida. Sari is Nanda’s uniform but she wears one even when she is not working.

It is all about how you tie the petticoat cord,and manage the pleats and the pins. That’s what Subhashini Ali,member of the Communist Party of India and president of the All India Women’s Democratic Association,said. Ali is always seen wearing the sari with a seedha pallu,commonly known as the Gujarati or Parsi drape. “I have been wearing the sari for 40 years. I find it comfortable to wear it with a seedha pallu and have never used a pin to fasten it,” she said,adding that she knew a lot of women who tied the cord too tight which could lead to problems.

That is why,Rta Kapur Chishti,sari historian and author of the book,Saris: Tradition and Beyond,says she never wears her saris with petticoats. “None of the 108 traditional draping styles necessitate a petticoat,” she explained,adding that the skirt-like undergarment only came to India with the Parsis. “It is a European addition and wasn’t around till the 1860s,” said Chishti who runs a sari school at her Delhi studio to teach draping styles. She made another pertinent point. “Synthetic materials or coarse fabrics like jute bunched into a tightly worn petticoat could lead to skin problems for regular wearers. That’s why in earlier days emphasis was laid on pure cotton textiles as well as vegetable-dyed or medicinally treated fabric,” she explained,citing the instance of Telia Rumaal (the Andhra Ikat),originally an oil-treated textile.

But in modern India,natural,hand-woven textiles are out of bounds for working classes. Labelled as organic and sustainable,they are not only expensive but also elitist. As are designer saris. Made from fluid fabrics,many are pre-stitched and can be slipped on like gowns. They come with gossamer or satin petticoats,with zippers and elasticated waist bands,making the cord redundant. Yet these new and comfortable draping solutions are unaffordable for most working women.

That’s not all. Cotton is not seen as “fashionable” among the middle class who prefer heavily embellished synthetic saris with industrial embroidery in artificial zari and cheap sequins. Called “TV saris” in retail markets of small and big towns,they are all the rage. But they could lead to trouble. Artificial,untreated zari as well as cheaply sourced embellishments are proven skin irritants,say doctors,explaining that even chemical dyes that run and pigment the skin could be harmful.

As it turns out,even in modern India,the sari remains a symbol of social class. What it also indicates is that all future research to establish or disprove what’s being loosely termed as sari cancer would necessitate a deeper study into the economic status of patients. It would help nail down the culprit.