She lives in a world of handwoven saris. Even the blinds of her drawing room are, well, saris.
One Saturday afternoon, we enter the second-floor apartment of Jaya Jaitly in central Delhi’s idyllic Nizamuddin East. We want to see her sari closet, said to be one of the most beautiful in the capital.
Only a few people in Delhi are known for their great collection of handloom saris. The names that immediately come to mind are that of craft activist Laila Tyabji and thumri singer Vidya Rao. And, of course, Jaya Jaitly, the founder president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, an association of crafts people she founded in 1986.
Some of us might relate to Jaitly as the person who helped found the acclaimed craft market of Dilli Haat at INA. Many may remember her as a politician.
No longer active in that tumultuous world, however, Jaitly steered her life towards her principal passion — crafts and textiles — and today, along with Laila Tyabji, she is acknowledged as the connoisseur of the handwoven fabric.
In her 70s, Jaitly opens the door herself. She is wearing a beautiful blue and green Sri Lankan handloom. The sari, an acquisition from Colombo, sits intimately on her nimble erect figure.
The drawing room is lit up with the sunny daylight but it is no match to the cheeriness of the Sri Lankan hues.
“Good colours make me happy,” says Jaitly. “I like what colours do to each other... but I don’t wear embroideries.”
Jaitly feels that her attachment to minimalistic aesthetics might be attributed to her childhood in Japan — her father was independent India’s first ambassador to that country.
On our request, she opens up her bedroom. The walls are decked with books and photographs — her daughter lives with her family just upstairs, while her son also lives in the same neighbourhood.
Jaitly slides open a shutter and inside is her sari closet. It is large enough for two people to enter together comfortably. A long rack is stacked with saris carefully arranged on hangers.
Jaitly’s sartorial world is divided into what she calls dressy and undress saris. The former are for weddings and receptions. Everything else can be worn to a variety of occasions.
The other evening she was spotted in public in a crushed grey cotton. She had been wearing it since morning — she had flown back from Mumbai the same day. Even so, the cotton outshone the lovely silk worn by another guest in that book launch.
Jaitly takes out a Kanjeevaram, and gazes on it with fondness. Her sari collection is a work of 50 years. She has about 30 ‘dressy’ saris and 200 ‘non-dressy’ saris. “Some of my saris are too old to wear but I have saved them for their patterns and designs that you no longer see these days.”
Jaitly insists she always buys inexpensive saris. “Because beauty can be low-cost too,” she says.
On returning to the drawing room, she shows us her work table; these days she is working on a book on her public life as a woman in India. The laptop is covered with a beautiful piece of cloth — a souvenir from a long-ago journey to Iraq.
The sun is beginning to set. We ask Jaitly which sari she plans to wear tomorrow. “It will be Sunday,” she says. “That’s the only day in the week when I wear simple cotton pants or kurta pajama, and not sari.”