In a small suitcase that is gathering dust in my loft lie a few exquisite pieces of India’s rich textile heritage. Wrapped in soft cheese cloth to prevent damage from friction, they are traditional, handwoven saris which were a small but integral part of my trousseau. Almost two decades since, they have hardly seen the light of day.
There should be an elaborate manual on how to wear one, I tell myself. And how does one walk in a sari without tripping over its numerous pleats? And who has the luxury of time to spend on wearing it right?
Over the years, what validates this sense of incompetency is the fact that I have rarely come across another Indian woman who doesn’t feel the same. In spite of Bollywood stars wearing saris on the red carpet, and global fashion industry’s A-listers finding inspiration in its flowing silhouette – Jean Paul Gaultier’s recent collection is a case in point – the sari has not managed to make it to the front rail of an Indian woman’s wardrobe.
The result? The traditional six-yard attire unfortunately is relegated to being just bridal wear. And what’s worse is that it either gets turned into another outfit, the ubiquitous salwar kameez for instance or, even worse, into upholstery.
But there is hope and it lies in the resolve of some 150 UAE-based women from varying backgrounds, who are all members of a private facebook group called Gulf Saree Pact – Threads That Bind Us Together.
I recently met nine members of the group, each wearing exquisite examples of traditional weaves, to find out if their love for sari began at first sight or if it evolved over a period of time. In the process I was also curious to know if they too, like me, ever felt overwhelmed while trying to wear it. There is no harm in looking for empathy, right?
From left: Sruti Karthik’s hand-painted Kalamkari sari is an example of a lot of skill and hardwork. Being an artist, Sridevi Diwakar loves this sari by Ethicus, an initiative committed to fair trade. Shubhoshree Sinha had a say in every aspect of this Kantha sari’s making.
‘Like you, I too used to find it cumbersome to wear a sari,’ admits Priya Vishnu, who grew up in a family where women wore saris and only saris every day.
Now, however, for this mother of a teenaged daughter and a freelance training consultant for bankers, sari is the first choice of attire every day, even if she is sure she would be in a room full of men and women in crisp suits and jackets.
So how did the shift occur?
‘I was always fascinated by colours, textures and the way it would make me look all grown up. But what I did not enjoy was the process involved in draping it. Now, over the years and with practice, I can wear it in no time,’ she says.
What encourages Priya are the ‘compliments I receive plus the immense pride I have in wearing a piece of India’s rich and varied textile heritage,’ she says, caressing her black and yellow Bomkai sari.
It was to celebrate this handloom heritage that Priya joined Gulf Saree Pact, a group who not only make it a point to wear saris as often as they can but invite experts to educate the members about the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into making every handloom sari.
‘Each handmade sari is truly like fine art,’ says Effie Thomas, the founder of the group who has made it her life’s purpose to learn as much as she can about the unique techniques, embroideries, motifs and patterns that weavers from different parts of India use to create each sari.
For instance, Priya’s Bomkai sari, she says, has a rare mix of tribal art and elements of nature, all representing pomp and prosperity.
For Radhika Subramanian, another member of the group, wearing a sari is a way of expressing her identity. A teacher by profession, Radhika enjoys the attention she gets from her students every time she wears a sari to school. ‘The compliments I receive are instant mood boosters,’ she says. Wearing a stunning Korvai Kanchipuram silk sari in vermillion red and ripe mango yellow, Radhika says she chose it for its fascinating weave. ‘Although the border, the body and the pallu (the flowing end that falls over the shoulder) of the sari each has a different colour with a different pattern, it is perfectly interwoven to become one cohesive piece,’ she says.
From left: More than its rare pattern, Sindhu Prasad loves this Pochampalli Ikat for the memories associated with it. Priya Vishnu’s Bomkai sari is a rare combination of patterns and motifs. Radhika Subramanian loves her Korvai Kanchipuram sari for its craftsmanship.
Until recently, this intricate school of manual weaving, which has its roots in southern India, was threatened by saris mass produced in textile factories. ‘But of late, Korvai Kanchipuram is seeing a renaissance of sorts, thanks to a resurgence of people’s love for handmade saris,’ she says.
This renaissance is much needed to save the weavers from eventual penury, Effie explains.
For example the traditional Patan Patola sari that Effie is wearing, is considered to be an epitome of craftsmanship. ‘The complex geometric patterns and motifs made using extremely precise tie-and-dye and weaving techniques, the vibrant colours and the fact that both sides of the sari are identical, make Patan Patola a marvel that cannot be replicated by a machine,’ she says.
‘The art of making these saris is a closely guarded secret known to only three families in India and is passed down only to the sons as daughters, after getting married, become a part of another family.’
Each sari could take almost a year to weave – a reason they are highly valued and can cost around at least Rs100,000 (Dh5,742). Some go up to Rs700,000 and take about two-and-a-half years to make.
Explaining more about the Patan Patola saris, Effie says, ‘These saris are made in silk only as it lasts for at least 80 to 100 years. A cotton sari’s lifespan is no more than 50 years, so the weavers feel it is not worth their time and hardwork to create something that does not last long. And the vegetable dyes that the weavers use have a lifespan of about three centuries.’
In a bid to do their bit for weavers, members of the Gulf Saree Pact have resolved that they will buy and wear only traditional weaves thereby supporting the traditional sari makers and ensuring their skills will continue to thrive.
Weaves are not the only highlights of a sari.
Shubhoshree Sinha’s six-yarder, for instance, is an extraordinary example of one of India’s oldest embroidery styles called Kantha. ‘One of my favourite saris, this was created by the artists of Shanti Niketan,’ she says. In 1940s, this prestigious art school in India’s eastern state of West Bengal was instrumental in saving this centuries-old skill from extinction.
‘This sari was a gift to me from my aunt when I was getting married 19 years ago but I chose the colour combination and the pattern. It took the artists about a year to translate what I had in mind into this amazing piece,’ says the homemaker who dreams of owning a sari from every state of India.
Explaining the complexities involved, Shubhoshree says that traditionally the pattern is never drawn on cloth. One artist first embroiders the pattern that becomes the outline, then other artists come together to fill in with a variety of stitches, all belonging to the kantha school of embroidery. ‘However, nowadays traditional kantha that is pure in its form is rare. Several other styles of embroidery like Kashmiri and cross stitch can also be found on the same piece of cloth,’ she says.
It is to ensure the continuity of the traditional designs and styles that the UAE sari sisterhood of sorts attend regular meetings sharing information and inviting experts to talk about the intricacies of the weave and weft, thread and design.
‘It is imperative that we do all we can to preserve the purity of every school of weaving and embroidery to prevent it from going extinct,’ says Effie, who takes long-distance courses, attends webinars and goes on textile trails across India to not only keep herself updated about the heritage but to spread the word among anyone who is interested in knowing more about the superior craftsmanship that lives in remote villages of India.
‘We not only want to educate the members about the intricate method involved in weaving each sari but want to spread the joy that wearing a sari can give,’ says Effie who organises blood donation camps and several charity initiatives across the UAE where members, all wearing saris, participate to generate interest in the garment.
The effects are beginning to be felt.
‘It’s only after I joined Gulf Saree Pact, did I come to know that, for instance, the sari I’m wearing is a rare Pochampalli Ikat,’ says Abu Dhabi-based Sindhu Prasad. ‘While most Ikat saris nowadays have patterns and motifs that are Indian inspired, this one is true to the designs that originated in Indonesia and Cambodia, the birthplace of Ikat, making this sari a rare piece.’
That it was a gift from her husband 26 years ago on their second wedding anniversary makes it more special.
‘Patan Patola in fact is a form of Ikat,’ says Effie. Explaining more about the intricate work that goes into making Ikat saris, Effie says that a form of resist dyeing is employed where yarns are dyed keeping in mind the end pattern on the sari before they are even woven.
‘Unlike other forms of resist dyeing such as batik and tie-and-dye where the woven cloth is dyed, in Ikat it is the yarn that is dyed. This ensures both sides of the cloth will have the pattern and the colours will be of the same intensity.’
While there are innumerable sari-weaving techniques and schools that are on the brink of extinction due to lack of patronage and financial support, a handful have achieved iconic status. Kanjeevaram is one of them. Anuradha Rajagopalan’s 18-year-old Kanjeevaram is an example why this weave is hugely popular. ‘The motifs, colours, overall richness and the almost instant elegance it adds to your demeanour once you wear it are reasons this style of sari is my favourite,’ says Anuradha, who has almost 100 saris in her wardrobe and no longer waits for an occasion to wear one.
From left: Anuradha Rajagopalan’s Kanjeevaram silk sari is 18 years old. Bindu Nair wears a Mundum Neriyathum, a two-piece sari that is said to the oldest form of sari. Effie Thomas’ Patan Patola sari is a tribute to the weavers’ artistic as well as mathematical skills.
Splendour is an integral part of making a traditional sari. Bindu Nair’s sari for instance has pure gold threads woven together with coloured threads, a combination that creates a stunning shimmer every time she moves. ‘It is a Mundum Neriyathum which is typical to the south Indian state of Kerala,’ says Bindu, a boutique owner who is passionate about the attire. While saris are normally one long piece of garment, Mundum Neriyathum has two pieces. The piece that goes around the waist is called Mundu and Neriyathum is the piece that covers the torso going over the left shoulder. ‘I love this sari’s subtle sophistication,’ says this mother of two who hopes one day her daughters too will love to wear a sari and would be keen to inherit her’s the same way she inherited her grandmother’s handwoven saris.
However, not all saris are about weaving techniques. Sustainability is an important factor too. Sridevi Diwakar’s sari, for example, is by Ethicus. ‘I was attracted to the philosophy behind the brand,’ says this painter who has held exhibitions of her works and creates artworks on order. Ethicus, Sridevi explains, is a farm-to-fashion initiative that not only uses 100 per cent organic cotton or silk, eco-friendly colours and traditional weaving methods, but is committed to fair trade to ensure the weavers, farmers and all those involved in the chain get their due credit and recognition. ‘And being an artist, I feel a connection to that philosophy,’ she says.
So, is this is her favourite sari? ‘No, actually I love kalamkaris,’ she admits, pointing towards Sruti Karthik’s sari.
Why? ‘Being a painter, I understand how difficult it is to paint one,’ she says. ‘In the group, I’m in fact called the kalamkari queen for the number of kalamkari saris I have,’ she says.
A close look at Sruti’s sari and one can understand why Sridevi is so enamoured by this school of sari-making.
Completely hand-painted, it is stunning in detail. ‘Kalamkari saris are from south India and the pattern is not drawn using a template or block-printed. The artist first draws a free hand sketch using a pen made from a piece of bamboo and then fills in the colours, a process that is extremely laborious as the artists need to ensure the colours don’t bleed when the sari is washed,’ explains Sruti, a HR professional.
‘But my favourite is a Shibori Chanderi sari that I recently bought. It looks as if it’s spewing fire. Every time I wear it, I feel like the dragon queen from the Game of Thrones series,’ she says with a big smile.
It is evident that for these women, a sari is not merely a piece of cloth but an intricate weave of memories and associations, an affair to remember.