How the drape holds meaning and memory for the desi mind, body, and soul. A series of interview-vignettes, showcasing uber serious sari love, brought out via passion, history, politics, through interviews with people across the spectrum who love to drape it, and also, talk about it! Catch up with Chapter One’s interview with impassioned crafts activist Laila Tyabji, Chapter Two‘s chat with filmmakers Shabani Hassanwalia and Paromita Vohra, Chapter Three‘s Sari Sisters Jaya and Swaati, and Chapter Four‘s focus on politics in the pleats with Sabika and Jasmine. Chapter Five shared a special chat with writer Anuja Chauhan, and Chapter Six a post in the voice of Himanshu Verma, aka Saree Man.
The fun of interviewing two almost-30 somethings on the sari was directly proportional to the mixed feelings I reserve for emojis that serve as answers. I totally get them, and I really quite love them, but then when I see one as a response to a long-winded, much-invested question, I find myself hating them, with all the passion one can whip up for an emoji. Considerable, as you can guess.
So, meet Artika and Alka — Artika likes to think of herself as an old soul in a recently-turned-30 body, and Alka thinks-writes-feels best in Hindi. And emojis, of course.
Artika Raj, ex-editor turned communications specialist, ex-Dilliwali lost to Bangalore (yes, another one), spent a chunk of her Class XII farewell analyzing “some of the rather risqué blouse designs around us” — She really is an old soul, we gush and giggle together. Alka Manral, who works as a video producer at a media house in Delhi, is a Moradabadi who remembers the Class XII farewell sari only too well, because “logo ne mujhse maang kar khoob pehni ;P (I lent it to so many to wear)”. No wonder then that the sari hangover lasts a few years, huh.
Both Artika and Alka are in a “getting there” place with the sari. As Artika says, “From being an occasional thing, I now actively strive to make it an everyday thing. Easier said than done though. I have this feeling of longing for the sari, for that time when I will just quickly throw one on and breeze into office.” Alka links it to body language, “Sari mein meri chaal hi badal jaati hai. Actually, tameez ke sath rehna padta hai na, who thoda uncomfortable kar sakta hai. Matlab sari khul sakti hai. (The way I walk changes when I wear a sari. Also, you have to be so mindful when you wear one — what if it comes undone? So, it can get a bit uncomfortable).”
They’re both in awe of it and also certain about making their own journeys with this garment. Says Artika, “Somewhere I am still trying to let go of the ‘occasion’ feeling I associate it with. It might be because growing up in Delhi, wearing a saree often attracts strange comments like ‘Oh, you’re wearing ethnic today?’ I mean, what does that even mean?!”
Alka, who wears saris to honor Women’s Day pacts, thinks/knows that they make her look “feminine/sexy.” She shares some of the comments she’s heard growing up in a small town, “Maine kai bar logo ke moonh se suna hain ki shaadi nhi hui to saree kyon pahnti ho? Par saree ke liye shaadi karna zaruri hai, yeh kahaan likha hai, mujhe nahi pata. (I’ve heard people say it so many times, that why do you wear a sari when you’re unmarried? But where is this rule written, I’d like to know, that you have to marry first before draping a sari!)”
When Alka moved to Delhi for work, she began looking forward to Durga Pujo when the license to wear saris seemed like a celebration, with no linkages to her marital status! “Main har saal puja ka intezaar karti hoon, ki main apni new saree ko pehenkar pandal mein ghumu, bas. (I wait for the festival every year, so I can wear a new sari and walk around the fairs and pandals).”
“I think Bollywood was where you could say one saw saris in larger than life settings. But I don’t remember feeling particularly awed by what I saw.” Artika spends some time recalling her first encounters, “Maybe it had something to do with being skinny and dusky, while all the Bollywood heroines were fair apsaras with flowing pallus!” It wasn’t until Artika saw “women like Chitrangda Sen and Nandita Das on screen” did she make that personal connect, “Their version of it was also very smart and intelligent-sexy, if I can put it like that, and that, I loved it!”
Alka goes back to the women in her family, “Meri badi amma aur chhoti amma seedhe palle ki saree pehenti thi. Dono apna sar hamesha dhakti thi bahar jaate hue. (Both my mum and my aunt would drape the sari in the seedha-palla or front pallu style. And they would both be sure to cover their heads with the pallus while walking out of the house).” Alka adds that her mum would wear saris even if she was given 1000 other options. And that suits Alka just fine, because that pallu is her own haven, she confesses, “Woh jagah hai jahaan main tootkar ro sakti hoon, jahaan main jaisi hoon waise hi khud ko maan sakti hoon, bina milawat ke. Pareshaniyon se chhup sakti hoon. (It’s a safe space for me, one where I can breakdown and cry, where I can be myself, without any artifice, where I can hide from my troubles).”
Interestingly, this changes for Alka the moment she drapes it on herself; it’s when she transforms into “har challenge ko aankh dikhane wali ladki.” Explains Alka, “Jitni baar mere body mein fold hogi main utni hi bold banne ki koshish karungi, duniya ka saamna karungi. (The number of times it folds on my body, that’s how much bolder I will feel. The girl who can take on any challenge and face this world).”
Perhaps it is ultimately about the body and the politics of what you put on it, after all. “As long as the body is political, which it is and always will be, I think anything you put on it will be too,” says Artika, who loves Sabika’s poem, and introduced this writer to the poet-activist for this series.
Saris also evoke “a sense of the Indian self”, Artika feels, and Alka agrees, “I think insisting on saris for athletes to wear at the opening ceremony of international games etc. is important. They should absolutely wear only saris at platforms like that.”
But when you speak with word-weavers, you’ll find yourself both lost and hypnotized, just like the drape of a sari you’ve longed for. Up next, in Chapter Eight of Sari Stories, two lyrical storytellers, master word-players.
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Pooja Pande is a writer-editor who grew up in, considers home, and hence has a suitably complex love-hate relationship with the capital city of India, Delhi. Her first book is Red Lipstick, a literary-styled memoir on celebrity transgender rights activist Laxminarayan Tripathi. Find her on Twitter at @derrindo.