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.
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His entry into the sari-wearing universe was tinged with a dramatic flair — sashaying in as the curator of a show in saddi agro Dilli, exuding gorgeous diva vibes — but over the years, he’s eased into it and made it a style of his own.
Like a superhero almost, Himanshu Verma became Saree Man.
Deeply invested in the Indian heritage, Saree Man’s sari-wearing is a political, conscious choice, and one that distances itself from the gender constraints we’ve all grown up with and continue to live amidst. His stance today is gentler, less dramatic, you could say, and the move from Delhi to Jaipur has been interesting.
If earlier, he enjoyed people being “whacked out of their senses” when they saw him walk the streets draped in a georgette, today, he’d rather sit you down and explain, how the “Indian tradition of clothing is so non-binary.”
Presenting Saree Man in his own voice, on the beloved dhoti tradition, Krishna, carrying colonial baggage, and how he’s “just going to have to rock out Jaipur”…
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In 2006, I curated an art show on the theme of masculinity — this was during that wave of urban metrosexuality — and the art project became an ongoing fest. I wore a sari to the opening. There was an agenda to wearing it — the whole idea was my self-expression of being in touch with my feminine side. Of saying that in India, there are many ways of being feminine, which are accessible to a man. I wanted to draw attention towards that.
I’d borrowed my mum’s sari and a friend of mine had draped it for me. I guess I must have enjoyed it a lot that first time. And so, I started wearing saris for social occasions, to art openings, to festivals I was organizing, to parties. At that point, I would wear only very feminine saris — georgettes, lots of embroidery. The bling-bling was exciting, I was also young then!
“There was an agenda to wearing it — the whole idea was my self-expression of being in touch with my feminine side.”
I think the people who’d snigger or giggle at me then were mostly harmless — they were curious, more whacked out of their senses than anything else. For me, it was an act of sense-making — wearing the sari and walking out onto the streets of Delhi — I did get asked about it a lot, and whether it was cynicism or opposition or sarcasm, there was definitely curiosity. Also, randomly, a stranger would complement me, on how beautiful I was looking! Also, since I’ve always been a devotee of Krishna, I would wear a tulsi mala and a tilak, and I think people made that connect as well.
But really, there are these binary values — a whole construct of colonialism, like the manly Sikhs and the effeminate Bengalis, for instance. So, in some sense, the binary sense-making is colonial baggage that we all still carry. Our Indian tradition of clothing is actually so non-binary — but we have these many layers of alienation from our own concepts of clothing and costume. So, if you wear a dhoti or a kurta, it’s a “formal day,” and that’s why you’re wearing it, not because it’s part of your tradition!
I slowly started expanding my sari repertoire and gravitated towards handloom, the different sorts of weaves — and I realized this is an endless universe. That’s when I moved away from the chhamiya saris to the quieter saris. Today, I wear saris that are minimal, elementary. Saris that are more dhotis actually — that’s more my style now. Minimal saris are actually so much more versatile. A plain sari with a border means you can play around with the drape as you please. I can wear it like a dhoti. I can jazz up the blouse, I can accessorize. In fact, there is no difference between the sari and the dhoti in that sense.
“Our Indian tradition of clothing is actually so non-binary …”
Before Islamic rule, as we know, there was only draping, there was no stitched clothing. The dhoti is generally a two-piece thing though and the sari can usually cover your entire body. How the Buddhist monks wear their dhotis is like a sari. So, the sari I find is more an umbrella term. This urban style of wearing a sari that was spearheaded by women, is only some 150 years old.
I’m always curious about why people don’t wear saris. And it’s almost always about too much fabric, I can’t iron all this, too hot, too cold — very funny stuff. Most of it is ill-founded, I feel, because it’s definitely comfortable. It’s also so adaptable. If I’m feeling cold, I can wrap it around. If it’s too noisy, I can use it to cover my ears!
My favorite sari-wearing person is Shubha Mudgal ji. She’s somebody I learnt a lot from in the years I worked with her, generally, and also about the sari — how it should fall, what the composition and design of a sari should be ideally. She’s a huge inspiration, and I am lucky to have the chance to sari-gossip with her!
“A lot of my friends asked me if I was planning to wear saris in Jaipur when I moved here, and I said of course, and they were all like, ‘Oh, but it’s a conservative city.’”
A lot of my friends asked me if I was planning to wear saris in Jaipur when I moved here, and I said of course, and they were all like, “Oh, but it’s a conservative city.” Jaipur is very aggressive for women — I’ve been studying how Rajput women find saris to be like prisons, because they are like impositions on them, and then they go to Goa and wear anything they want.
I moved to Jaipur because there are a lot of Krishna temples here. I can handle the aggression because I can bloody-well stare back at anybody giving me that glare. I’ve done it in Delhi for so long, and they look away if I glare back. But here, in Jaipur, I find women doing this aggressive glare and judgement so much more, much more than the men in Delhi!
Even in the temple, where you’re supposed to be free of your prejudices, this elderly woman kept staring at me because I was wearing a sari. I gave her one of my nastiest stares back in response, but it made no difference to her! So, in that sense, Jaipur is shocking, but it’s also such a beautiful city. So, I’m just going to have to stay, going to have to rock out Jaipur.
You know, it doesn’t matter if I wear a sari or not. I’m not super-macho anyway, so that one day when I feel I want to be part of mainstream culture and I wear a shirt and trousers, I still find people staring at me, saying those same things. In fact, a sari gives you respect. Even with somebody too curious about it — someone who simply can’t digest the idea of a man wearing a sari — even for him, this is a garment that automatically lends respect. It’s a dignified garment and it commands respect.
And who doesn’t want that? Millennials? Just kidding! Chapter Seven of Sari Stories explores the sari equation with two under-30s.
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Find Saree Man on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/genda.phool/ and on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmBIeBhGb7Vx9hPVse_jy4Q.
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.