In India, women are getting millions of views for videos of them pulling off unconventional stunts while wearing a saree, a traditional Indian unstitched cloth.
Earlier this week, a video of 24-year-old Indian gymnast Parul Arora doing a triple backflip in a saree went viral. Arora, who is a national level gold medal winner, previously went viral in August last year, for a similar video of her performing gymnastics with a friend, while wearing a saree.
“It took some practice, and I fell down thrice,” Arora told VICE World News. “It was especially difficult because I had to keep lifting the saree to run, which was unusual for me.”
The young gymnast who hails from the northern Indian city of Ambala has trained as a gymnast for 15 years and has participated in 35 tournaments. Videos of her doing stunts in a saree have almost a million likes on Instagram compared to an average 5000 likes for videos in other attire.
“Women appreciate the saree videos because for many, even walking in a saree or doing basic movements is tough. So it inspires and motivates them,” the young gymnast explained, talking about why her saree videos tend to overperform. “By doing backflips and cartwheels in a saree, I want to motivate girls who may not wear western clothes that just because they wear sarees, doesn’t mean they have to be housewives.”
She isn’t the only one propelled to internet fame almost overnight with a saree stunt video. There have been at least three such viral moments over the last year.
From October 2020 onwards, 17-year-old Mili Sarkar, an international yoga gold medallist from India gained massive traction for videos of her doing backflips and other stunts in a saree.
Similarly, in September last year, 24-year-old dancer Eshna Kutty became an internet sensation following a video of her dancing with a hula hoop wearing a saree.
“I used the saree to add familiarity to an art form not native to India,” Kutty told VICE World News, explaining that the saree was a key element to make her dance video relatable. “In the average Indian household, most women wear sarees, so my video was especially relatable to the older demographic. Like musicians who make interesting songs using classical music, this is a way of keeping the [Indian] culture alive.”
Historically, the saree evolved from an unstitched cloth draped around the body without any blouse or petticoat. However, the British colonial rule considered this “uncivilized” and the saree was banned from clubs. While elite members of the society first adapted the saree to include the blouse, it became a symbol of oppression for some lower caste women, who were prohibited from covering the top half of their body and forced to pay a breast tax if they did.
“The reality is that the saree is not movement-friendly, and can even be dangerous while doing things like riding a bike,” Payal Arora, an anthropologist, author and professor at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, told VICE World News.
Pointing to the dichotomy in India, where a sarees is either a symbol of women being subservient or a progressive garment depending on how it is draped, Arora said these stunts could push out an unattainable agenda.
“These women [who wear sarees while doing stunts] have managed to establish their agency in the male-dominated sports industry while retaining their modesty.” She compared the emergence of saree stunts with that of women in Saudi Arabia performing skateboard stunts while wearing their Niqab. “But we are in a political time where there’s a nationalistic sense of feeling passionate about Indian, especially Hindu, culture, and these [saree stunts] allow women to make modern choices while retaining the virtue of the society.”