(L to R) Rushikesh Sanap, Sumit Honwadajkar, Shraddha Deshpande, Akash Pawar.
He was sure his parents would not mind. Yet, Sumit Honwadajkar, a final-year student at Fergusson College in Pune, did not tell them his plan. They heard of it from a family friend a few days later. His father called to say, “You wore a sari to college? We saw the picture. Bahut achhe lag rahey thhe (You were looking very nice).”
On the “Tie and Sari Day” at Fergusson College on January 2, when girls turn up in the whole nine yards and boys look red-carpet ready, three boys and a girl subverted the gender norms. Honwadajkar, Akash Pawar and Rushikesh Sanap wore saris while Shraddha Deshpande suited up. The former accessorised with bindis, bangles and necklaces while Deshpande flaunted a firmly-knotted tie from her father’s cupboard.
“The message they portrayed, about gender equality, should go out strongly. I joined Fergusson College in 1984 as a teacher and, over the years, have seen some boys wear saris for Tie and Sari Day and girls turn up in suits. But, this time, the action was very prominent,” says Ravindrasinh G Pardeshi, principal of Fergusson College.
On the historic college grounds — where Lokmanya Tilak, one of the founders, would meet and debate with Mahatma Gandhi, among others — the boys came up with the idea of making a statement against gender norms while sitting around after a class. “At that time, we did not know that wearing a sari isn’t only about the sari, there are many other things you need, like a blouse, petticoat and lots of safety pins,” says Pawar. Deshpande, who studies history, assigned them their colours — an inky purple sari for the fair Honwadajkar, orange for the darker Pawar and a creamy silk for the bearded Sanap.
The group, all of them 20-years-old, has some advice for other men trying to wear a sari for the first time — YouTube is deceptive. In reality, you have to stand before a woman, arms stretched sideways, abdomen relaxed, turning as ordered, while the sari is tucked around your waist and the pallu pulled into place. “Men always say that women take long to dress up and, now, at least three men know why. We don’t just slip on a shirt and pull up our jeans, we drape, fold and tuck,” says Deshpande, who spent more than 90 minutes getting the boys ready.
On the day of the event, they went to college in Deshpande’s car. “We needed courage, so all of us took a deep breath and stepped out,” says Sanap. A throng of students was at the college gate to see what others were wearing.“Everybody’s eyes were on us and, like robots, their necks turned as we walked past,” adds Pawar.
The first person to speak to them said, “Kya yaar, kya karke aaye ho (What have you done)?”A few steps later, two classmates came up smiling and took selfies with them. “A lot of other people started taking photos with us. That’s how we covered the distance to the main building. A professor saw us and said, ‘Achcha hai,’” says Pawar.
That day, there were thousands of people on campus. “As we wandered around, we drew the attention of crowds everywhere,” adds Pawar. Not all responses were complimentary. Deshpande was told, “Ladki ho, ladki ki tarah raho (You are a girl, stay like a girl).” A close friend of the boys refused to acknowledge them. When somebody asked if the boys were queer, Pawar shot back, “What if (we are)?”. “These people, who are criticising a group of students wearing saris, what kind of lives do they lead at home? How do they treat queer people? Patriarchy is a rot that has set deep in the Indian psyche,” says Pawar.
What had worried them was that wearing a sari would harm their “image”. But, girls turned out in full support. “Even girls I didn’t know from other departments spoke to us,” says Honwadajkar, “In 30 minutes, everything felt normal. except when we walked,” he adds. It was very difficult to walk in a sari, even for a short distance. “Our legs were sweating under the folds. My pants were also slipping because I didn’t have on a belt,” says Honwadajkar.
Mainstream India continues to be suspicious about men in attire traditionally associated with women. A few days ago, a scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi was trolled online for turning up in a nose ring and bindi at a protest.
A short distance from Fergusson College is the Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir, dedicated to the great theatre artiste who played women’s roles on stage. “When Bal Gandharva used to perform in a sari, audiences would applaud, but when a student wears a sari, why do we criticise or mock him? I understand that the sari is an integral part of our cultural heritage but why do we feel that women should wear a sari all the time?,” says Pawar.
Deshpande adds that the fact that she felt confident and comfortable in her suit also pointed to how much more distance men have to cover. “Our books talk of gender equality. We study these books and get good grades but, if you see in reality, gender equality never gets implemented in life. It took our small initiative of a few hours for me to realise it,” says Pawar, while Honwadajkar adds, “Three things for guys out there — it is very difficult to wear a sari; second, it is more difficult to walk in a sari; third, to manage a sari for hours at a stretch is even more difficult.”