Why Nirmala Sitharaman’s Saris Matter

Why Nirmala Sitharaman’s Saris Matter

Not a Khadiwadi, not a Gandhiwadi, not a badge-wearing Hindutvawadi, not a Mylapore maami or a Lutyens’ Delhi memsahib, the FM is an uncommon sari soldier  

This morning, July 5, as rain played hide and seek with Delhi, the sahibs of the political heartland stretched out their arms to embrace #Budget2019 and the country’s commoners set aside Friday morning engagements for live telecasts, prompts and tweets from Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s maiden budget speech, the lady of the moment arrived in Parliament with a red cloth folder in hand.

Derived from the “bahi khaatha”, a traditional Indian accounting notebook tied with a string, the national emblem on it in gold, this folder held by India’s first full-time Finance Minister, created a palpable shift in the long held idea of the FM of India. Meaning and metaphor, branding and optics, all moved around and regrouped themselves.

A woman at the helm. Minus the black power suitcase that would carry precious papers holding the country’s sanity and vanity inside it. Sitharaman didn’t bring a ladies’ handbag, a kerchief, or a phone sling either. She invited her parents and daughter. Clad in a warm pink, gold sheened, gold bordered Mangalgiri sari with thin gold stripes, her blouse half an inch looser than her upper arm fit as always, a gold chain that disappeared into her sari folds, tiny diamond earrings on her ears and a bindi on her forehead, Sitharaman smiled a little more widely than she usually does. Resolute in her stride, clarity prancing in her eyes, the cheer of her mood matching the Mangalgiri that should land up in Delhi’s National Museum in the years to come, Sitharaman gave every news piece on Budget 2019 a pink takeoff.

Photo: Instagram/Nsitharaman

Indian Minister Of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman (C) arrives at Jamnagar air base.

Till recently also the country’s first full-time woman Defence Minister (Indira Gandhi held the defence and finance portfolios during her reigns as Prime Minister) and the Union Commerce and Industry Minister before that, Sitharaman remains stoic in her admiration for the handloom sari. A crafts conscious purist—the distance between her and synthetics firm and decisive—she does betray her love for saris from the “South” if you follow her every outing. But it is done with such measured understatement that her Kanjeevarams don’t scream, her Gadhwals don’t glare, her block printed silks don’t take away from her firmness as a political leader.

Photo: Money Sharma/AFP

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu (L) shakes hands with his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman before inspecting a guard of honour at the Ministry of Defence headquarters in New Delhi on December 13, 2018.

It is her wardrobe arithmetic that gives her appearance a distinct stamp. Her sari blouses are thoughtfully mismatched somedays—a Kalamkari print with a Kanchipuram cotton, a striped silk blouse with a woven sari, the black cardigan that she wore for instance with a cream and gold Banarasi sari on Martyr’s Day this year. Not to mention the Ikat blouse with a plain sari for the swearing-in ceremony of the Modi 2.0 cabinet in May.

Photo: Money SHARMA / AFP

Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (2L) talks to Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat (2R) at Raj Ghat, the memorial for Indian independence icon Mahatama Gandhi, on Martyr’s Day to mark the 71st anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, in New Delhi on January 30, 2019.

Wearing restraint with every garment, you do not see her tripping over, ever. Not on swagger, not on power.

Photo: Money Sharma/AFP

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (R) and Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (L) walk ahead of a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on October 5, 2018.

Sitharaman is not a Khadiwadi, not a Gandhiwadi, not a badge wearing Hindutvawadi, not a high society lady, not a Mylapore maami, not even a Lutyens’ Delhi memsahib. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s adherence to nationalist dressing, led by the Prime Minister’s branding of the kurta-churidar and jacket as a power suit (with the Modi jacket the hero piece of the BJP wardrobe) is a political statement of the party. But Sitharaman remains who she was. A well-dressed, minimally decorative, handloom clad Indian scholar and political leader with a doctorate, a slow and steady story of rise to success and two very powerful portfolios in her open closet.

Lest this sound like a piece written in the (p)ink of sycophancy that would fade soon as power dynamics change, let me rewind.

Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

In this photograph taken on April 9, 2019, Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks with an AFP reporter at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi.

In October 2014, one late evening, I visited Sitharaman, then the Union Minister of Commerce and Industry as a journalist from Mint newspaper to interview her about her views on luxury. In her North Block office, Sitharaman got out of her minister’s chair to sit across me face to face and talk about why she felt exhibitionism was different from experience. Why inclusiveness, rural crafts, artisanal talent and rarity needed to be disentangled from their perches on luxury malls and expensive price tags. That day she wore a beige and purple Gadhwal, telling me that a block print designer had especially printed the field of the sari for her thus making it unique. She talked about her love for saris from her region (Hyderabad and the handloom rich clusters of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), her admiration for “pattu” silks (Kanjeevaram)–she had lived in Tamil Nadu as a college student. And why neither luxury nor asceticism has been decried in our culture which had place for both.

Sitharaman spoke rather passionately about hand-knitted crocheted laces made by women in Narsapur in West Godavari district as luxury that had little support and promotion. And why that should change.

Later, when she came to inaugurate Mint’s Annual Luxury Conference, she wore another beautiful handloom but it was the way she held her head high and her power low that caught attention.

Photo: Money Sharma/AFP

Indian Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman arrives to attend the cabinet meeting in New Delhi on May 31, 2019.

In the current political climate when the BJP government’s emphatic thrust on nationalism is seen with skepticism (as it should be), Sitharaman is a moderate. Her saris say so. Her demeanour says so. If you are looking for one more reason to wear a sari next week, let Sitharaman be your influencer.

Banner: Nirmala Sitharaman (centre in sari) with Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur (3L) on as she poses for a picture with her staff before leaving for the Parliament House on July 5, 2019.