Rare is the Indian woman who doesn’t remember the first time she ever wore a sari, or indeed, the first sari she ever wore. All of us grew up playing with our mothers’ saris and draping them around us when she wasn’t looking, parading in front of her dressing table and fantasising about how it would feel when we were grown up enough to wear them for real.
In my case, my grandmother, who tended to treat me as her own real-life doll, would drape her saris around me for her personal amusement, even though the folds quite drowned my childish frame. And I loved every moment of it.
But that was just playtime. The first time I ever wore a sari out in public was serious stuff. It was the school farewell and the entire graduating class made a pledge to wear a sari to the party. After much agonising back and forth between chiffon and cotton, printed or plain, I finally decided to go with the traditional option: a plain off-white silk with a red border.
Called the garad in Bengal, this is the sari that has since been immortalised in the Dola Re Dola song sequence in Devdas, in which both Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai don the style worn by all Bengali women on Bijoya Dashimi as they participate in a ritual called Sindur Khela.
I can’t quite describe the thrill I felt when it was finally on. Looking at myself in the mirror to put on the finishing touch of a red bindi, I realised that I had never felt so beautiful, or even elegant, in my entire life.
My teenage body suddenly seemed to acquire a sinuous grace that had until then been quite unknown to it. I stood straighter, I felt taller, and best of all, I looked like a grown up.
In that moment, as I stood staring at the reflection of the stranger in the mirror, I made the transition from girl to woman (even if it was just in my own mind). My story is far from unique. Ask any Indian woman and she will have a similar experience to narrate. For all of us, wearing a sari for the first time ever is a rite of passage.
Most often, it happens for a special occasion: a family function, a wedding in the neighbourhood, a school social, a religious festival. And the process itself is marked by a sense of occasion. Everyone has an opinion on what kind of sari would be best, what sort of blouse would suit the most, whether the pallav should be worn seedha or ulta.
Mothers and elder sisters fuss around as the sari is finally draped, while grandmoms get a bit teary in the background. And these days, no doubt, many selfies are taken to mark the occasion.
The sad part, however, is that these days for urban women like myself and those younger than me, the sari then gets relegated to the category of ‘special occasion wear’. We only pull it out when we have a special event in our lives: a presentation to the big boss; the college graduation; a friend’s engagement party; a child’s first birthday; a 10-year anniversary; a wedding.
It’s only when we want to feel special that we drape a sari, folding ourselves into its special embrace. Otherwise, it’s all jeans and shirts, churidar-kurtas, salwar-kameezes, skirts and tops, short dresses. Oh, they’re so much more convenient, we tell ourselves, as we relegate our saris to that steel cupboard that never gets opened more than once a year.
Well, you know what? It’s time to change all that. It is time we reclaimed the sari for our own, and for the everyday – not just the special – moments of our lives.
Not just because the elegance of the sari, the sensual beauty of its drape, would elevate even the most mundane day of our lives. Not just because the sari deserves its moment in the sun after spending decades in the darkness at the back of our closets.
But because we need to reinforce its image as a living, breathing garment before our daughters and granddaughters dismiss it as a dead relic of the past, treating it as ‘costume-wear’ rather than ‘everyday-wear’ (like the Chinese treat the cheongsam or the Japanese the kimono).
If you are up for the task, then you can’t do better than join the #100sareepact.
This is an initiative started by two Bangalore women, Ahalya (Ally) Mathan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, who made a pact between themselves to wear a hundred saris in 2015.
They started a social media hashtag – which has since gone viral – to encourage other women to join in.
Joining the #100sareepact is simplicity itself.
All you have to do is pledge to wear a sari on 100 days out of 365 (no, you don’t have to wear a hundred different saris; that would be plain silly), take a picture of yourself in the sari of the day and upload it on social media (Twitter, Facebook, or on www.100sareepact.com) with a small note on the sari itself, or the memories and stories attached with it for other women to share and comment on.
It’s been a week since I joined, and I have already chalked up five saris out of a 100. Several of my friends have too, and we haven’t had so much fun in a long time, as we bond over our saris and the stories that revolve around them. Come join the club. You have nothing to lose but those boring blue jeans!
From HT Brunch, May 3
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