New Delhi: For Indian women, dressing up in the old days meant picking the right sari for the occasion, whether for work or a wedding. Learning how to wear one was a rite of passage and with experience came expertise. But the garment fell out of favour across India—who has the time or the inclination to get wrapped up in all that fabric with not a fold out of place when rushing to get the kids ready for school, running for the bus, train or Metro? And even at weddings, where the silks reign, its supremacy was toppled by the lehenga—easy to wear and tres chic.
But the sari, superbly elegant when you get it right, but prone to horrendous wardrobe malfunctions if you get it wrong, has been making something of a comeback. And where better to spot the emerging trend than at weddings: everybody’s looking for help wearing their sari. Not to worry—help is at hand.
One of those who spotted this niche early on is Dolly Jain, 37, who’s been a professional sari draper in Kolkata for 10 years now. Her experimentation with the six yards of fabric has proven popular with clients. Jain is almost constantly travelling thanks to the clamour for her expertise—she knows up to 125 different styles of wearing the sari. She has draped as many as three saris on a bride, capturing the beauty of the garment and helping it regain its old glory.
“Each client has a different requirement and comes with very specific ideas,” Jain said. “I try to work with that and give them a style they can carry off with ease and comfort. Everyone wants to look her best and everyone wants to look different.”
The more reputed sari drapers can earn as much as Rs 5,000 per client.
Now that it’s not so ubiquitous as it used to be, young Indian women are warming up to the sari as an outfit for just about any occasion. It helps that over the years, the sari has evolved manifold, primarily because of experiments with materials, embroidery and prints.
Traditional block prints are juxtaposed with brightly coloured chiffon, transforming the sari into a vibrant canvas. Designers mix and match sustainable fabrics such as jute with rich zari work, making them attractive to younger women who had written them off as dull and cumbersome. The advent of the new-age sari has seen the professional sari draper coming into her own.
Jain started her career in 2001 with four students—all girls about to get married. They came to her with specific ideas that she developed. Now she caters to more than 800 people a year, including clients in Dubai and Bangladesh as well as smaller cities such as Indore and Rourkela.
She said this increase in business is because designers are creating “young” saris. While the traditional Banaras or Kanchipuram silks are venerated as classics, the new saris attract a younger clientele. “Designers these days are making saris more available to youngsters. They design saris with intricate yet trendy borders, two pallus or a mix of traditional embroidery on fabrics that are easy to wear,” she said.
Style guide: Kalpana Shah at her home in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The women who usually sign up for Jain’s courses in sari draping are between 25 and 35. Some are about to get married; others come to brush up their skills and learn newer ways of wearing saris.
Jain even offers them the option of wearing saris with trousers or skirts to make the prospect more appealing.
One of her closest competitors is Kalpana Shah, 55, who dominates the Mumbai market, the country’s fashion hub. Though Shah started off as a beautician, what appealed most to her clients was her style of draping saris. She said her greatest inspiration is her clients, who constantly push her to innovate.
Shah said the market for professional drapers is more active than ever.
“I feel the current generation has started appreciating India’s traditional and cultural roots. They have sensed that only wearing a sari, which is indeed the cultural symbol of India, portrays the elegance and grace of a woman,” she said.
Shah has used various traditional styles from states such as West Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra to elaborate on the ways a sari is traditionally draped.
She also plans to launch a coffee table book that showcases her journey as a stylist and draper and offers an illustrated guide to wearing a sari—The Whole Nine Yards.
Shah believes that draping a sari is a skill that should be available to women who like to dress well and innovate on their styles, and that the garment should not be discarded for lack of innovation.
Professional drapers are becoming popular even in smaller cities like Kanpur where Anita Avasthi, 34, has been helping people wear saris for more than five years. She used to teach daughters of friends who came to her in search of styles that were both trendy and elegant. She started with demonstration classes and today is one of the most-sought-after drapers in the city.
In a three-day crash course, Avasthi starts from scratch and works with students on styles that suit them best. With six-seven students in each batch, Avasthi is able to individualize her styles. “Initially, we would go to people, but now they come to us,” she said. “Since Kanpur is a small city, eventually everyone began recognizing my work. My business has grown dramatically over the last few years.”
Avasthi keeps a look out for what designers are doing and how the students can use that.
Jain said working with the garment allows her to give full expression to her imagination.
“As I drape one sari, my mind begins to visualize a different style—I have found a comfort zone in these yards of cloth,” said Jain.
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