For my maternal grandmother, who migrated from Multan during the Partition, the sari is, and always was, an everyday affair. My mother, who grew up in post-partition India, took to the salwar-kameez way back in the 70’s; the sari had by then entered the realm of “occasion wear” for many in her generation. For me, however, the sari wasn’t even “occasion wear” until recently.
But Himanshu Verma, curator of the sari festival to be held in the city this weekend, reassures me that this is a “comfortable” garment. “The sari has been mystified for so long. That needs to change. There are so many styles of draping it,” he tells the participants at a sari-styling workshop held earlier this week as part of the festival. At the festival, handloom saris from states such as Odisha, Bengal, Assam and Banaras will be sold.
In his enterprise, Verma, a city-born and bred arts curator, is hoping to lead by example. “I took to the sari about 12 years ago, and found it to be a unisexual garment,” he says. Verma, who is known in art circles for bending gender norms in his dressing style, found an ally in the sari, that he says can be worn in a “masculine” way too. “I pair it with tops of different styles, even shirts bought from Sarojini Nagar!” he tells a bunch of enthusiastic participants.
Of course, Verma concedes that being a man gives him more freedom to style his blouses — “I can get away with a very short blouse that shows chest”. But he hopes that the versatility in blouses, and the mix and match of colours, textures, prints and fabrics will inspire urban women.
Recent trends of reviving the sari suggest there are many like Verma. While the sari has its own complex socio-cultural history — for instance, according to sari scholar Rta Kapur Chisti, sari weaving was banned by the Portuguese in Goa for 200 years — and draping styles are divided along lines of region and even caste, in urban, middle class circles, it is suddenly seeing a revival of sorts as a highly-stylised garment for the urban, young woman, epitomising ‘femininity’ for some, and ‘power-dressing’ for others.
Clearly, there are takers for it — this annual sari festival, where saris from several parts of the country are on sale, is in its third edition. Last year, two women decided to start the #100sareepact (they would wear 100 sarees in one year) that became popular on social media. But away from the glamour, the sari is also a story of grim realities of globalisation and lack of state patronage for the weavers. In Banaras, for instance, weavers of the classic sari are struggling to make ends meet since the advent of the power loom that produces fabric at a much cheaper cost, and has led to a fall in demand for the handloom variety.
Over the years, Verma says that weaving patterns have had an impact on the quality and texture of the fabrics too — thinner fabrics are more popular because of the ease in draping that they offer. For instance, the Manglagiri cotton has become thinner, and ‘Chanderi-like’ fabrics are more common.
But at the workshop the mood is far from sombre, as women mull over the choice of blouses, draping styles, and accessories. “Getting a sari is the easiest thing; styling blouses and accessories is the bigger challenge,” Verma says.
And with that, I rest my case.
The sari festival is on till April 17 at Alliance Francaise de Delhi, 72, Lodhi Estate, New Delhi