In Rohena Gera’s delicately crafted Sir, Tillotama Shome plays a maid who dreams of starting her own tailoring business. Here, her employer has just given her a sewing machine as a gift.
In Rohena Gera’s delicately crafted Sir, Tillotama Shome plays a maid who dreams of starting her own tailoring business. Here, her employer has just given her a sewing machine as a gift.

If Bollywood films could, then sew could we: The Way We Were by Poonam Saxena

On screen and off, the sewing machine transformed lives for decades, and it’s still appearing in the role of agent of change.
UPDATED ON JAN 31, 2021 06:28 AM IST

Last week I watched Sir, the debut feature film by Rohena Gera that was the toast of the international festival circuit in 2018-19 and was released earlier this month on Netflix. While the reviews have understandably focused on the delicately etched relationship between the affluent Mumbai architect Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and his domestic help Ratna (Tillotama Shome), I was struck by something else entirely.

Ratna is a young widow earning a living and paying for the education of her younger sister by working as a “servant”, but she has a dream — of learning to sew and starting her own tailoring business. She enrols in a three-month tailoring course after trying and failing to learn the trade from a disagreeable tailor. When Ashwin gifts her a sewing machine, Ratna’s happiness overwhelms her. She runs her hand lovingly over it, gazing at it in wonder.

In the popular imagination, the sewing machine was often seen as the last and only fallback of the lone woman — especially one without a commercial skill or the benefit of a formal education. It was a way to support oneself and one’s children, in the absence of a husband.

In Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970), Raju’s widowed mother (Achala Sachdev) stitches his school uniforms and slaves away at her machine making clothes for others, to give him a good education so he won’t grow up to be a circus clown like his father. Eight years later, in Yash Chopra’s Trishul (1978), when a pregnant Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) is abandoned by her lover Raj (Sanjeev Kumar), she raises her son on the money she earns stitching clothes on her sewing machine.

As recently as 2007, in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, set in Banaras, Savitri (Jaya Bachchan), whose husband has fallen on hard times, runs her household on her earnings from stitching petticoats on her machine late into the night.

The sewing machine has also stood for ideal wifely and feminine qualities, a symbol of the kind of woman who excels in quiet and useful domestic work. In the early ’70s, an ad for a popular sewing machine brand showed a picture of a mother and daughter, with the tagline: “Train her to be an ideal housewife.” It exhorted the mother to “transform her into a capable, economical housewife…” Another ad announced, with a photograph of a traditional Indian bride: “A gift of love on her wedding day… for a lifetime of happiness.” (My own mother got a gleaming Singer sewing machine when she got married, and used it for years.)

Historian David Arnold, in his terrific book Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, reveals that sewing machines were first introduced in India in the 1850s, but even by the beginning of World War 1, barely 1% of Indian households had one.

These were imported machines, mostly of the American Singer brand. But after Independence, the indigenisation of sewing machines took off in earnest, and domestic manufacturers even began exporting to other Asian and African countries.

Singer the brand, incidentally, comes from Isaac Merrit Singer, the American businessman who first patented and mass-produced the sewing machine. Tim Harford, presenter of the BBC radio show and podcast 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, says Singer was a womaniser who fathered 22 children and kept a sharp eye on the profit line (he liked to say he cared only for the dime). But as Harford reminds us, sometimes “…social progress can be advanced by the most self-interested of motives”.

Despite the clichés, in the end the sewing machine was a game-changing invention for women. It was easy to operate, relatively cheap, could be carried from place to place, was an enormous time-saver (if it took over 10 hours to stitch a shirt by hand, it took barely an hour on the machine), and most important of all, it opened up an avenue by which women could earn a living independently and at home.

As for how it changed the life of the professional darzi and paved the way for the modern garments industry, well, that’s a story for another day.

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