Ever since I was a teenager who started wearing saris for holidays, weddings and other functions, my mother would struggle to drape me in the six yards, but still ensure we were on speaking terms by the end of it.
Most young women have lived the scene. Mother and daughter attached and yet, at odds over long, colourful fabric. Ma starts to pleat and tuck and then stops and says, “Wait, my right, your left, right?”
And then she throws the cloth down and says, exasperated: “Isn’t there somewhere you can go to learn how to do this? I can put it on myself but not you.”
Enter the Sari School.
Run by sari and textile expert and author Rta (yes that’s how she spells it) Kapur Chishti, the school aims to bring back to daily life at least 100 ways of wearing a sari. It operates out of a basement in New Delhi’s Jangpura Extension, a drab space given life by the bright materials hung on rods.
The good stuff
In each of the Saturday sessions, Chishti explores a different region, its textiles and styles. This instant history lesson is the best part. I was lucky to be there on the day that Maharashtra was explored and loved the explanations of poor women tying two saris together; how a sari worn higher signified division of labour, from fields to fishing. She shows slide shows of people encountered in her research, from the weavers praying to textiles as the source of their livelihood the day after Diwali to the patterns laid side by side to give them meaning. For example, a stack of bricks really does resemble the criss-crosses on a cotton number. The border alone on one sari really does take after the cotton flowers of Vidarbha.
Anand Kabra: At last month’s Lakme Fashion Week .
I also never know what sari vendors are speaking of when they talk thread counts; the explanation was helpful. Lower thread counts are more rugged and durable, proportioned to the economic class of the wearer; think of poorer women who need to store things in their pallus, for example.
I appreciated the homey nature of the class and the sheer exposure to someone who had lived and breathed textiles and sari-wearing as both an art and a way of life.
This professor is anti-petticoat. That could be a good thing, but it felt a little unrealistic to me. The saris we tried on were all cottons, which felt great on skin but unrealistic to the social gracer that I am. Participants are encouraged to bring their own to try on, but as soon as I took out a few “rougher use” saris (say, for a puja or a nephew’s feeding or naming ceremony) and a purple crepe number, I could see them judging the lack of purity (silk to style).
The styles taught were customized, for sure, but the main theme of Maharashtra’s look was the one where you bring the cloth through your legs like pants. Great, for dancers, peasants, fisherwomen. Not great for me.
To her credit, Chishti sensed my dissatisfaction and suggested a few more styles, which I actually might try, from Chhattisgarh and Kerala. But finally, I asked the unthinkable, “What about just wearing it normal?”
She laughed and gave me a primer in 5 minutes. Maybe it was because she’s not my mother, but I learnt.
Well, learning how to wear a sari might cost more than the price of one. One 3-hour class is Rs1,500. But the Sari School offers a discount of Rs4,000 for four sessions with the promise that no style will be repeated.
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