Burn the Sari or Save the Sari? Dress as a Form of Action in Two Feminist Poems

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Abstract: This essay analyzes two poems that examine the sari's materialization of gender norms and the degree to which the dress may be used to subvert such norms. Jayaprabha's Telugu poem "Burn the Sari" appeared in 1988 (with an English translation in 2002), and Dalit author Jupaka Subadra answered her with "Kongu, No Sentry on my Bosom" in 1997 (English translation in 2009). The works were penned amidst the strong wave of political and social activism that occurred over the last two decades, and each poem articulates an intensely emotional and energized feminist discourse. Together they illuminate an important turning point in the contemporary history of Telugu women's activism in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Over the past few years, one item of women's clothing has received much international attention. After the United States entered into war with Afghanistan, and then Iraq, journalists and scholars have provided countless images of the Islamic veil. Islamic veiling traditions have received extensive discussion in a number of arenas, albeit of varying quality; by contrast, relatively little worldwide attention has been paid to the meanings of another highly visible garment that conveys national and gendered identity: the sari. Ancient references to the sari abound in Indian verse, (1) and in poetry the sari often appears in childhood memories, symbolizing a mother's loving presence. (2) In recent decades, two poems have used the sari to consider the constrained experiences of women, using a familiar material item to articulate an emotionally charged discourse about social justice. Although the sari has generally been a lauded object, in 1988 a new feminist poem forcefully rejected the dress altogether and, in 1997, a powerful and memorable poetic reply was mounted.

This essay argues that Jayaprabha's "Burn the Sari" (1988) and Jupaka Subadra's "Kongu, No Sentry on my Bosom" (1997), poems written by Telugu women writers, deserve scholarly attention for several reasons. Each poem reported from an underrepresented (and thus rare) perspective, contributed to a turning point in the contemporary history of Telugu women's activism in Andhra Pradesh, and intervened in Brahmin-influenced discourse about purity, chastity, and dress. Furthermore, "Burn the Sari" positions the sari as a symbol of conformity and as inseparable from confining gender norms, and calls on listeners to abandon the garment in protest of these norms. In contrast and reply, "Kongu" reclaims the sari as a treasured possession of hard-working women and, in the process, achieves the activist goal of redefining women's bodies as not merely tough but unstoppable.

Geographic places often become marked through dress. Just as Scotland is known for the kilt and the Western U.S. for the cowboy hat, India and Indian women are commonly represented as a figure draped in a sari. Before looking closely at poetry about the sari, it is fitting to sketch in the history and cultural importance of this internationally recognized garment. Prominent among the many contributions of the Indus Valley civilization (3500-1700 BCE) is the domestication of cotton and the technology to dye it. Artisans, weavers and other skilled workers established India as a flourishing textile center, though waves of European traders, particularly the British East India Company, arriving in the eighteenth century, quickly damaged the export economy. Cotton mills in Bombay and Ahmedebad, which were built in the 1850s, as well as British taxes on locally made products, led to a drastic decrease in returns for local artisans. By the late nineteenth century Mohandas K. Gandhi and his followers chose to make the swadeshi (homegrown industry) movement central to the process of winning independence from British rule. Citizens, particularly women, were encouraged and expected to weave and wear their own cloth; soon, many women displayed their khadi saris as a symbol of national pride and autonomy from foreign intervention. …