Spectator by Seema Goswami: Who’s (in a) sari now?
Over the last fortnight, one hashtag has been trending on twitter. It’s called #SariTwitter and is used by women from across the world to upload pictures of them wearing saris. So, how could I possibly resist? The moment I saw it, I went scrolling through the pictures on my phone to pull out some shots that I could upload as my contribution to #SariTwitter. As did most of my friends, and the days passed in a pleasant blur of mutual admiration that left us feeling all warm and fuzzy. (Anybody who has ever been on Twitter will recognise this as a novel feeling.)
But all those lovely pictures of women of all ages, shapes, sizes and, indeed, ethnicities, left me marvelling about the sari all over again. It is such a versatile garment that it suits every single woman who drapes it. It can be made to look sexy. It can be turned into something conservative and staid. It can be used to play dress up. And it works perfectly as a utilitarian everyday garment as well. There are as many ways to drape the sari as there are to love it.
That was a lesson that I learnt pretty early in my childhood. Growing up in a joint family I was always intrigued by the fact that my mother and grandmother (both Punjabis who were brought up in Pre-Partition Punjab) draped the sari differently. While my mom draped her pallu over her left shoulder – what we would call the modern drape, I guess – my grandmother favoured the ‘seedha palla’ in which the pallu went over her right shoulder and then fanned across her torso in a concertina style. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the ladies to explain this difference. The only answer I got from my mother was a short: “This (pointing to herself) is how we wear the sari now. That (pointing to my grandmother) is the old style.”
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. Even today, many decades on, there are Indian communities, like the Gujaratis for instance, who still swear by the ‘seedha palla’ style. Though, ironically enough, my mother-in-law who was a Gujarati, never favoured that style. (Maybe she too thought it was old-fashioned, because that was how her mother wore her sari.)
But the style of sari-wearing that really intrigued me as a child was the one favoured by the grandmother of one of my Bengali friends. She wore her sari Bengali style, with an absence of proper pleats and with the pallu draped almost toga-style, and held in place with a bunch of keys tied to the end of it. To my childish eyes, that looked like the most elegant style of all.
So glamorous did the sari – and all that you could do with it – look to our young eyes and I would spend entire afternoons with the best friend of my childhood experimenting with the drape. It wasn’t easy. We were so short that we had to first fold the width of the sari in half before it would fit us. But once we had done that, we would spend hours trying out different styles. With one drape, we were matriarchs ruling the domestic roost. With another, we were modern women heading out for our first jobs. And so on.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait for my first job to get my first sari. That happened when I joined junior college (or plus two, as we used to call it in those days). I was studying in Loreto House, where the normal school uniform was a nice blue midi-length skirt matched with a no-nonsense white blouse. But somewhere along the line, the nuns in charge decided that we girls needed a sari uniform as well. After all we were growing up into young ladies; and young ladies needed to know how to wear the sari.
So, all of us were assigned light-blue georgette saris, that we were enjoined to wear to school at least one day a week (we could wear it more often of course; but once a week was compulsory). Many of my friends complained bitterly but I have to admit that I loved it. In no time at all, I was wearing it through the week, comfortable enough in its folds to walk the streets and even run after buses (and board them).
That early training has stood me in good stead. Even, I am never more comfortable than when I am in a sari. I can drape it in a matter of seconds, I don’t need a pin to keep my pleats together (or even my pallu in place), and I can do anything from light up a dance floor to cook a meal in it.
Not that there’s anything especially amazing about that. Millions of Indian women have been doing the same through the millennia. And I can only hope that millions of us, and those who come after us, continue to do that. And if hashtags like #SariTwitter make the sari seem more accessible – even glamorous – to young women everywhere, then I for one hope that it trends for all time to come. The sari deserves nothing less.
Journalist and author Seema Goswami has been a columnist with HT Brunch since 2004
Spectator appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, July 28, 2019
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