Why are women’s legs taboo in India? Why is baring your midriff all right in mixed company, but not your knees? Why is it ok to wear a saree even if it comes with a hanky masquerading as a blouse, but not a loose, full-sleeved dress? What is it about women’s knees that they should never be seen or heard of—in public? Are they an affront to other women? Or could those knobbly bits of bone and flesh be such a turn-on for men that they have to ravish the owner on the spot or perish trying to control themselves?
Actor Kangana Ranaut went to receive the National Award from President Pranab Mukherjee at Vigyan Bhavan last year, wearing an off-shoulder dress.
The previous year, she had received the award in a dress with slits at the waist. A few eyebrows were raised, since all the female winners in the past had showed up in sarees or salwar kameezes. But Kangana’s bare arms and shoulders didn’t receive one-hundredth the attention, or criticism, thrown the way of fellow-actor Priyanka Chopra for daring to wear a dress and, worse, sitting with her legs crossed, at an unscheduled meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin recently. “Look at the way your (!) sitting in front him,” snarled one critic. “Disrespectful, uncultured, devoid of common sense,” carped the others, and advised her to “remember her own heritage and culture”. Presumably, that meant she should have worn a saree.
Personally, I consider the saree the sexiest of garments. The fluttering pallu and the hip-hugging folds make the garment a double entendre of mystery and revelation. Not only does the saree lay bare the inviting curve of the waist and the navel, oft-times the pallu shifts to offer tantalising glimpses of a creamy bosom and the soft hollow of the throat. But that seems to be acceptable, presumably because the un-sanskaari legs are covered.
Remember when culture minister Mahesh Sharma advised female tourists to avoid wearing short dresses or skirts “for their own safely”, he didn’t say anything about the tops? Our much-celebrated `100-crore films have the item number girls cavorting in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cholis which leave little to the imagination, but invariably cover the legs with a lehenga.
So why this distrust of women’s legs? Is it a question of history? Is it because, even when women in many parts of ancient India went topless, their legs were always covered? In Bengal, for instance, many women did not wear blouses with their sarees till the advent of the British. In Kerala, only upper caste women covered their chest. The sculptures in Khajuraho and the Ajanta-Ellora caves show women leaving their upper bodies bare. Everyone, however, had their lower limbs clothed.
But that was then. I appreciate that there are occasions when a dress isn’t appropriate in India. Like on a visit to a place of worship that requires one’s legs to be covered, or at a formal function with a pre-determined dress code. But for the rest of time, surely women can decide what or what not to wear. Even if the outfit of choice brings viewers to their knees.