I have always had a fraught and complicated relationship with the saree, I must confess. I grapple with it, the length overwhelms me. I am too disorganized to have matching blouse and petticoat at hand when I need them and must pretend that not matching was a deliberate style statement I am making. I can never find safety pins when I need them unless they’re open in the handbag and poking an unwary finger to septicemia. And I would die a million deaths at the thought of the Michelin man tires around the waist being on glorious display.
Mom’s sarees of choice were the Bengali sarees that the traveling salesman brought home twice a year, an indulgence she saved for. Dhakais. Jamdanis. Tant. Jamdanis. Shantipuri. Phulia. And more that I forget.
This is ironic because throughout her working life, my mother, who first taught in a school and then joined a nationalized bank on compassionate grounds when my father passed away, wore a saree every single day to work. In five minutes flat, she would drape her saree, fold and pin all the relevant pleats, and be out of the door, impeccable in her starched cotton. Sundays for me, all through my childhood, are immutably locked with the memory of her cotton sarees, washed and starched, hanging out to dry across lines she would put out through the bedroom. We lived in a pokey one BHK, as they’re called in Mumbai, and every weekend was the house being converted into a dhobi ghat.
Mom’s sarees of choice were the Bengali sarees that the traveling salesman brought home twice a year, an indulgence she saved for. Dhakais. Jamdanis. Tant. Shantipuri. Phulia. And more that I forget. For every day, she had fine cotton, with a delicate weave, starched to crisp perfection, in soft shades of biscuit, pista green, mango, off white, the motifs in a contrast color, dull gold, scattered through the weave, subdued, elegant. The monsoons would see her switch to her stash of practical nylons with floral prints that dried quickly and efficiently. Come winter, or what was just the little token dip of the thermometer we had during the short span between Christmas and the first week of January, and she would bring out her precious little stack of silks. Mysore crepe, tussar, printed silk. Rich and unembellished, they were to me, the earliest introduction to how elegance never needed to shout, just a whisper was enough to make its presence felt.
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I didn’t take to her love for sarees, much to her dismay. The first time I ever wore a saree, the then-boyfriend now spouse took me out on his trusted Bajaj and I returned home having dutifully shredded the pallu of beautiful black crepe with red roses Mom had trusted me to wear, by getting it entangled in the rear wheel. She was just grateful I hadn’t strangled myself, the remains of that saree were converted into a long dress for me that I wore often and happily. That was the end of sarees for a while for me. Until my wedding day.
There is a metamorphosis in every garment, you are never the person you were when you first wore it. With the wedding saree, all the more so, you change in an irrevocable way.
I wore a traditional maroon Banarasi silk for my wedding ceremony. With small bootis and an embellished bottle green border, it was simple yet elegant. I have it mothballed away in my saree case, airing it occasionally, to let the folds out, to marvel at how this length of silk defines such a vital transition in my life, how my life had forever become segmented into a before and an after on the wearing of this saree. I wore it as a girl, and when I changed out of it I was a married woman. There is a metamorphosis in every garment, you are never the person you were when you first wore it. With the wedding saree, all the more so, you change in an irrevocable way. Sitting there in front of the holy fire, I had as the poet said, “dropt the playthings of her life.”
Sarees were every day. They still are. I see friends and family flitting around looking most comfortable in sarees and envy them their confidence. I wear sarees like a borrowed carapace, terrified of being stabbed by errant safety pins in delicate parts, of the entire garment unraveling in a public situation leaving me in tears, gathering it all back to me, in a bundle. I grappled with the length in Mumbai summer, I dreaded having to wear it during the monsoon, and I shivered at the thought of bare skin touching air in Delhi winter, admiring those who braved the season at Delhi weddings in blouses that were barely there, while I wrapped myself into thermal wear and shawls enough to drown out the beauty of the saree I was wearing. The sarees in my wardrobe languished, neglected. I wore them occasionally. Family functions. Weddings. Festivals. Slowly, I gave that up too, slipping easily into blingy salwar kameezes that made their retina assaulting apologies for my lack of draping skills. And there were my sisters in law, made of sterner stuff than I was, determined that I would not lose touch with the garment. They would, for family functions and weddings, drape me, pin me into the saree and ensure I was all comfortable, more so given the assurance that they were close at hand to rescue me in the unforeseen mischance of an unraveling mishap. I had almost given up on the saree. The saree though was made of hardier stuff. It would not give up on me.
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Then there came the fabulous 100 Saree Pact on Facebook and Insta. The sarees, the stories, the memories, the beauty of the garment and the sheer breadth of the varied fabrics, designs, drapes, weaves was overwhelming. I would read the stories behind the sarees and know, regardless of my personal equation with the saree, I would always be fascinated by it. And I would safely ignore designers like Sabyasachi shaming Indian women like me who were awkward about the draping of it. I knew that when I did wear one, I owned it. The saree wasn’t awkward about me like it isn’t awkward about anyone. It was made for my body, like it is for everybody, no matter the age, no matter the physical proportions. It is an equal opportunity garment if anything. It covered, it revealed, it contoured, it was forgiving, it was all-embracing, it was a garment that wasn’t just a drape, it was belonging to. And it belonged to everyone who wore it.
The saree wasn’t awkward about me like it isn’t awkward about anyone. It was made for my body, like it is for everybody, no matter the age, no matter the physical proportions. It is an equal opportunity garment if anything.
Over the past couple of days, #SareeTwitter has taken over our twitter timelines and how. Women across ages, cities, professions, have all been sharing pictures of themselves wearing sarees, everyday wear, occasional wear, celebratory wear. Regular women, celebrities, politicians, news anchors, corporate women, and more. Everyone was comfortable in their skin, comfortable in their sarees. Owning them. This is why the saree will never go the way of the kimono. And what #SareeTwitter has done, is to renew my resolution to wear more sarees. The saree, I realize, is always more than just an everyday garment. A saree is an identity, a comfort, a statement, a growing into. A saree is finally adulting. You wear it in the knowledge that you are now irrevocably grown up. You wear it with pride, knowing you wear the heritage of the weave, the magic of the fingers of the craftsmen who worked on it, the centuries that went into perfecting the art, the motifs, the techniques.
I won’t fall down and smash my nose in, I tell myself reassuringly. I will manage to drape it without the edge of the saree a foot above the edge of the petticoat. I am also now of the resolute age when I give no words that begin with an F about the lardage on the waistline. And most importantly, I now know that there is no perfect way to wear a saree, nor has there ever been. Each wearer drapes it to their comfort. And in its imperfection, the individual quirkiness in the draping, the way the folds of the fabric embrace the wearer, is where its perfection lies.
Picture Credit: Polinahar Greaves.com
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Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.