V for Victorian

Every time the VHP or some other Sangh organization, or anyone else for that matter, starts talking about the degradation of Indian culture and Hinduism, I silently curse the British. Because, along with the English language, Indian Railways, Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and associated bureaucracy – things that benefited India, they left behind the infamous Victorian-era prudishness; Indians simply changed their culture by incorporating Victorian morality. One thing the “immoral police” have no respect for is the human body. They would like people – women, rather – to cover themselves from head to toe not only in real life, but even on screen (television and cinema) and in paintings and drawings; they are fighting against “obscenity”.

In Sorry, No Sari, Arun Bhatia says “saris in the modern sense simply did not exist more than two centuries ago. In fact, ‘for millennia’, Indian women went about bare from the waist upwards.” Something supported by the origins of the sari described on Wikipedia-

One point of particular controversy is the history of the choli, or sari blouse, and the petticoat. Some researchers state that these were unknown before the British arrived in India, and that they were introduced to satisfy Victorian ideas of modesty. Previously, women only wore one draped cloth and casually exposed the upper body and breasts. Other historians point to much textual and artistic evidence for various forms of breastband and upper-body shawl.

In South India, it is indeed documented that women from many communities wore only the sari and exposed the upper part of the body till the 20th century. Poetic references from works like Shilappadikaram indicate that during the sangam period in ancient South India, a single piece of clothing served as both lower garment and head covering, leaving the bosom and midriff completely uncovered. In Kerala there are many references to women being bare-breasted, including many pictures by Raja Ravi Varma. Even today, women in some rural areas do not wear cholis.

We also had our very own Raja Ravi Varma who indulged in the “great cover up” by painting women wearing full saris (something similar to Dan Brown’s theory of “The Great Castration”), though I am not too sure if he can be accused of prudishness. Well, whatever the history, censorship – mainly of the “body” – and particularly in public, is here to stay. And so is Victorian Hinduism.

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  • Abhishek  On September 2, 2008 at 3:50 am

    That’s a great point, and one I frequently tried to explain to my prudish friends back in India. Unfortunately, while England herself has moved on, this Victorian prudishness lives on strongly in the Indian penal code, as we see by the continued existence of Article 377 and similar laws.

  • you12  On September 2, 2008 at 10:54 am

    More than morality its the hypocrisy so far rooted in our society that is worth a concern.

    For example take the case of Bar dancers VS. Film actresses or Kingfisher models. But I guess They are not comparable since Bar dancers are not as rich or physically attractive. Or for that matter the hypocrisy in choosing a marriage partner and a partner before marriage.

    Thanks for pointing out the origins of sari, I didn’t knew that women wore clothes only from the waist down in ancient India. Ironically IPC doesn’t consider the nudity in ancient sculptures as obscene but I guess we are just too tired of discussing the futility of IPC.

  • aristotlethegeek  On September 2, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Hypocrisy and morality always go hand in hand. But people could always follow Schopenhauer who said that a philosopher need not be a saint and a saint need not be a philosopher. And that it was strange to demand that “a moralist should teach no other virtue than that which he himself possesses”.

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