Among all the booths at the India Art Fair in Delhi earlier this month was an “in between" space where gallerists, gallery staff and their friends dressed in spunky sari drapes.

Delhi-based GallerySke and PhotoInk, galleries that share compound space with each other at their permanent locations in Delhi, decided to extend their “common ground" to the art fair as well. “We didn’t want it to feel like a cold, industrial trade fair. We wanted to create a bit of domestic space as well. So apart from the artworks, we had furniture pieces by Phantom Hand studio in Bengaluru and object art by Tiipoi. And yet we wondered, there’s this other space, our body, which can also be utilized to show someone’s body of work," says Sunitha Kumar Emmart of GallerySke. Emmart, along with PhotoInk’s Devika Daulet-Singh, invited two designers—Sanjay Garg and Rashmi Varma—who have celebrated the sari in radical, alternative and inimitable ways.

The final artwork that came out of this collaboration? Fourteen employees of the two galleries were dressed in saris, sari-dresses and other ensembles—on Day 1 by Rashmi Varma, and Day 2 by Sanjay Garg.

Varma’s sari-dress—first designed five years ago, it has seen several iterations since—is literally “a dress informed by the sari". Pre-pleated, fitted, silhouetted, it’s a dress with a zip on the side that you can slip into “in a second", says Varma. Samira Bose, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University and intern with GallerySke, wore the Interstellar sari dress with sujini handwork, while Pallavi Surana, a Lady Shri Ram College graduate, also an intern at GallerySke, wore a black Cosmic sari-dress, combining ari and sujini work with houndstooth.

Staff of GallerySke and PhotoInk, dressed in saris by Sanjay Garg. Photo: GallerySke
Staff of GallerySke and PhotoInk, dressed in saris by Sanjay Garg. Photo: GallerySke

Apart from the gallery staff, the designer’s friends and visitors wore sari-dresses to the art fair to show their support. Priyanka Raja, director of Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata, arrived in a shirred pallu sari dress. Akanksha Sharma, a young Indian designer working with the Swedish furniture maker Ikea, wore a silk twill sari-dress by Varma, belted and paired with boots. “The traditional drapes of the sari are so lovely, but I loved the concept of just being able to zip it up. It kind of locks in the silhouette. I think it’s a bridge between a sari and a dress, and it’s really fun," says Sharma.

On Day 2, the staff changed into saris by Sanjay Garg, with drapes drawn from The Sari Series: An Anthology Of Drape, films made by digital publication and consultancy Border&Fall that document the various ways in which a sari can be draped.

Varma, also co-author of SAR: The Essence Of Indian Design (with Swapnaa Tamhane, Phaidon Press, 2016), says the sari is the means of a personal, individual expression. “When we were dressing the gallery staff, we wanted to understand their personality and body type and give them something that would make them feel amazing. It was seamless and didn’t feel contrived at all," says Varma.

Given the conversation, peppered with phrases like “a bridge", “a common, shared space", “seamless and uncontrived", it appears that the sari is more than just a bipolar identity of tradition or modernity.

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