A pact between two women leads to a nationwide conversation on the sari and what it means to Indians
“A woman in a sari is a woman in control. If you can control the six yards around you, you have learnt how to deal with the world," smiles Anju Maudgal Kadam, a television professional who along with her friend Ally Matthan, a perfumer, started the “100 saree pact".
The pact, which as the name suggests involves donning the drape a hundred days this year, started off as nothing more than an agreement between the two Bengaluru-based women.
“It started with a phone conversation between Ally and me where we were talking about how we owned so many saris but never wore them," says Kadam. “We just wanted to honour the saris that lay in our wardrobe, bring them out and show them some love."
On 1 March, both the women wore their saris and posted pictures on social media. Before they knew it, the pact went viral, “We decided to just wear our saris and tell the stories around them. And people just decided to join us," laughs Matthan.
Log into your Facebook account today and more likely than not, you will find a photograph of a woman (there are 2,846 members in a Facebook group titled Do 100 Saree Pact), draped in her six yards of memory, with a beatific smile on her face. Beneath the photograph, as intrinsically a part of the garment as the silken threads of a Kancheepuram pattu, the delicate embroidery of a Lucknow chikan, the floral magic of a jamdani or the opulent zari of a Banaras sari, will be the story behind it.
And that is what the pact hopes to evoke. “The sari has become the medium of communication and belongs to whoever decides to embrace it," says Matthan. “The stories that emerge because of it are our legacy here."
There are many sorts of stories here—stories of love and learning, of beginnings and farewells, of little pleasures and precious memories, of identity and struggles and indulgences.
For Sreemoyee Tarafder Chattopadhyay, an academician and clinical psychologist, based in Kolkata, the off-white and red cotton dhakai she wears, bought from Chittagong, Bangladesh, is “an integral part of Bangaliana (being a Bengali)".
She is not the only one who wears her identity on her sleeve, literally. For entrepreneur Lopamudra Mohanty, her handloom ikat sari known as a nuapatana khandua pata comes from a small village called Nuapatana in Odisha. “The sari, a gift from a friend, talks about my love for Odisha, for dance, for telling stories to children," she says.
Yet the sari, though certainly as representative of a state’s individuality as its food and language, is hardly restricted by geography.
Pam Kaplan from Washington, who is in India on a work stint agrees. “Even an American girl can wear a sari. The sari I am wearing belongs to my neighbour Anita and she taught me how to drape it," she says, adding that by teaching her how to drape a sari, Anita wanted to help her create a memory of her time in India.
Another memory: professional Kosana Beena Naidu bought her first designer sari when she started working in the hospitality industry. “The black Satya Paul sari was an impulse buy," she says, adding that the sari was a classic that was worth the investment.
And while a sari is not perhaps an investment in the truest sense, it is something we don’t mind splurging on because of the sheer nostalgia associated with it. It is almost a rite of passage of sorts for an Indian woman—the equivalent of a prom dress for an American.
“I don’t think the sari ever went away anywhere. All of us have memories of wearing that first sari on a special occasion, at graduation for instance," says Kadam.
One of her favourite memories of the sari is far more recent. “There was this sepia-toned photo of my sister, mother and grandmother in my home when I was growing up. And I have always told my mother, I want a photograph like that when I had a daughter," she says.
So, when her mother came down, she marched both of them to a studio and took the desired photo—all three of them wearing saris. “My mother wore saris all the time while I was growing up. It was a stricter, harder time but I think there was a lot (of) romance around the garment which perhaps in our rigours of day-to-day life, we have given up on. I’m trying to bring that back," she says.
Matthan adds, “When I put on a sari now, it becomes very personal. It feels like I am embracing the best part of me. Before this, I would just hang out in scruffy shorts and T-shirts, so for me it’s a huge change. It’s also become my new LBD (little back dress). An LBD does not speak the same story as a sari. I can even wear it to a disco today without feeling awkward."
The two friends plan to wear their 100th sari on 21 December. “21 December is a special day for both of us," says Matthan, though she refuses to disclose why exactly it is, at this stage.
And what after that? “Well, we are going to continue wearing our saris," says Kadam. “The sari for me is a metaphor for change. It has certainly changed my life."