Our many sari selves
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The sentimental spark and emotionally warm responses that the sari evokes in contemporary India and among its non-native admirers are irrefutable. The fact that fewer young (or middle aged) women from all classes now wear it regularly but only as a celebratory or ceremonial garment is equally irrefutable. Evidently it seems there is a bridgeable gap between these two realities and that if we work in the right direction, we can close that gap.
Border&Fall’s proposal to make a series of digital films on the dozens of different ways to drape the sari is certainly a step in the right direction. Malika V. Kashyap, the founder of Border&Fall, has put her commitment to crafts and cultural conservation and conversation to work with her efforts to raise Rs.1 crore through crowd funding, (approximately Rs.50 lakh have already been raised) to produce these films on infrequently referenced sari drapes. Their Kickstarter campaign, which was announced on 17 October and will continue till 13 November, initiates a digital anthology on sari drapes, 80 odd, that exist in a couple of books but have never been accessible online. They have thus been inaccessible to those—presumably the younger generation—who can give the sari a new grammar and boost its current relevance.
These how-to films will be freely available. Three short films by filmmakers Pooja Kaul, Q and Bon Duke will additionally address the sari’s past, present and future laying a contextual map for this project’s vision. Border&Fall’s advisory board includes the matriarch of regional drapes, Rta Kapur Chishti, the author of Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond.
In her interviews to the media, Kashyap challenges and argues around the Nivi drape, the most common way of tying the sari with the pleats in the front, the pallu on the left shoulder worn with a blouse and petticoat.
That to me is not where the sari’s entire story falls. To initiate a “conversation on cultural documentation as well as dress and identity”—Kashyap’s words—some pertinent questions may need to be asked. The first perhaps is: has the sari lapsed out of frequent and popular use because of its Nivi drape? Will tying it in any or many of the 80 other drapes learnt through 90 short films as the project proposes restore its popularity and functional ease? Let’s say we tie the pallu like a belt, do away the pleats to create a ghaghra-like skirt with the fabric, wear the sari like a dhoti with a knot at the waist instead of a petticoat, will these historically available options essentially make the garment more functional as a contemporary garment?
Fashion experimentations with the sari-blouse in fact have worked as a bright solution—used for multiple brand and personality statements, distinguishing one designer’s sari politics from the other as have some imaginatively designed petticoats.
In the interviews the Kickstarter campaign shows of Border&Fall’s study on the sari, conducted with male and female respondents, what stands out is nostalgia laced with sentiment. Also dignity, allure, significance and Indianness that the sari stands for. It is revered as an institution, which it is. Yet nobody argues why different age groups of women would rather dress like Priyanka Chopra at the Emmys instead of Rta Kapur Chishti at a sari seminar. What are fashion’s cues and clues to make the sari compete with the current craze for industrially created forever new collections, easy to don and easy to dump? I am not quite sure if the drape is the culprit and that by tying the sari like a gown or like the tea pickers of Assam with white sneakers we offer solutions of wearability, washability, ease of packing for travel or wearing for bar hopping in New York?
I am a sari apologist. I wear the sari to work even on most days when I am abroad for work or holidays. I spend hours every week, sorting my saris for hand washing, dry-cleaning, ironing and keep monitoring their edges, falls and stains. Khadis or Kanjeevarams, they require attention, discipline and time. It is tough to drag them when it is snowing in Washington DC or raining in Paris. It is easy to understand why they are tedious to wear and to maintain for women or girls who are constantly on the phone, who travel on metros and work long, unrelenting hours, straddling Twitter, TV, toddlers and tantrums, their own and those of others.
The sari’s somewhat lapse may not just be a simple narrative of wafting away from tradition, it may also be a willing transition to the democracy of choosing something else than what our mothers and grandmothers always wore. Responding to dressing choices that underline the diverse strands of our global-local existence. Many women manage to keep traditions alive without once wearing the sari. For others, it is liberation almost from a garment to enter new territories of thought and choice. The sari is incidental, it is instead the lure of new markets, new silhouettes, new freedoms, new options, new role models, the “with it-ness” of contemporary life that makes women choose.
Recently, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee told me how he encounters more and more middle aged women, mothers of brides-to-be, who want to wear gowns at weddings. Is that older Indian woman rejecting the sari because of its drape? She selects perhaps the road not taken.
Kashyap’s project, a meaningful step in documentation of what’s lost (without which all these arguments would be irrelevant anyway) is to applaud for. But whether it will work as a clarion call for women on the move to wear the sari more often or as easily as a jersey dress or jeans, it cannot be said.