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Who in India wears the sari?

Regional rather than religious influences determine the sartorial


choices of most Indian women, shows a Mint analysis of data from
an NSSO survey
Last Published: Wed, Dec 13 2017. 03 46 PM IST
Udayan RathorePramit Bhattacharya

The share of households purchasing saris is higher in rural India at 85%. In urban India,
74% households reported purchasing saris. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

New Delhi: A New York Times article published last month attracted
widespread attention because of its claim that fashion in India was being
driven by a nationalist agenda. The article by Asgar Qadri argued that India
has witnessed a state-led promotion of traditional attire in general, and the
sari in particular, as part of a broader attempt to “project multi-faith India
as a Hindu nation”, ever since the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) rose to power in 2014.

But the central premise of the article about the sari being a Hindu attire is
not backed by data. A Mint analysis of data from the last round of the
consumer expenditure survey conducted by the National Sample Survey
Office (NSSO) shows that the sari enjoys broad appeal across religious
groups, with a majority of Christian and Muslim households reporting
buying at least one sari in the year preceding the survey. This survey
covering more than 100,000 households across the country was conducted
in 2011-12, well before Modi became India’s prime minister (see chart 1).
Click here for enlarge
Overall, eight out of every 10 households in India reported purchasing at
least one sari. The share of households purchasing saris is higher in rural
India at 85%. In urban India, 74% households reported purchasing saris.

Among Sikhs, the share of households which bought saris is very low. But
that seems to have more to do with geography than with religion. Most
Sikhs are from Punjab, where the overall share of households purchasing
saris is very small.

The sari is almost universally popular in the south and parts of eastern
India, with an overwhelming majority of households reporting purchasing
at least one sari. It is far less popular in the north-western states, where the
overwhelming majority did not report the purchase of even one sari in the
year preceding the NSSO survey (see chart 2)
Click here for enlarge
In fact, once we account for regional differences in sartorial preferences,
the differences in sari purchases across the two major religious groups—
Hindus and Muslims—almost disappears. The share of Muslim households
reporting purchases of saris is high in states where the figure for Hindu
households is high and low in states where the figure for Hindu households
is low, as the scatter-plot shows (see chart 3).
Click here for enlarge
Apart from the six in the fourth quadrant, all other states lie on either the
first or the third quadrant, indicating a broad linear relationship between
Hindu and Muslim consumption of saris.
The sari also nearly manages to breach the class divide in the country. The
share of households belonging to the top decile which reported purchasing
a sari at 77% was only slightly higher than the comparative figure for the
bottom decile (72%). But the poorer income classes spent proportionately
more on saris than the rich. The top and bottom deciles refer to the top 10%
and bottom 10% of households respectively, when ranked according to their
overall annual consumption expenditure (see chart 4)
Click here for enlarge
The NSSO data also shows a sharp regional skew when it comes to other
outfits for women, such as skirts and kurta-pyjama suits. While the former
is more popular in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the country, the
latter seems to be more popular in the north and the west. In some
northern states such as Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, the share of
households reporting the purchase of the (female) kurta-pyjama suit is low.
But that appears to be because most households tend to purchase cloth for
these items rather than ready-made suits (see chart 5 and chart 6).
Click here for enlarge
The class divide in the purchase of both these outfits is sharper than in the
case of the sari. 35% of households belonging to the top decile reported
purchasing a female kurta-pyjama suit but the comparative figure for the
bottom decile was much lower at 6%.
Click here for enlarge
Similarly, the share of households belonging to the top decile which
purchased skirts (or frocks) at 27% was 15 percentage points higher than
the share of households belonging to the bottom decile which made similar
purchases.

Overall, geography and wealth seem to have a far greater influence on the
sartorial choices of Indian women than religion.

This is the first of a two-part series on what Indians wear. The second
part will examine the sartorial choices of Indian men.

Udayan Rathore is a research associate at the Indira Gandhi Institute of


Development Research, Mumbai, and Pramit Bhattacharya is editor
(data) at Mint.