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).

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)

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).

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)

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).

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%.

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.

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