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#NoSariRules in the second wave

The power of the sari is that it belongs to everyone and that idea is now catching on

Staff of GallerySke and PhotoInk, dressed in saris by Sanjay Garg. Photo courtesy: Galleryske
Staff of GallerySke and PhotoInk, dressed in saris by Sanjay Garg. Photo courtesy: Galleryske

Close your eyes and imagine someone in a sari, she says. I see my mother, getting ready to go out in a red satin sari, perfectly accessorized with gold jhumkas, her first jewellery purchase after marriage, and a long gold necklace. White asters, her favourite flower, are pinned to her hair.

A couple of months before designer Sabyasachi’s weak attempt to shame Indian women (like me) who can’t drape a sari, I signed up for a hands-on sari-draping workshop with Niketa Malhotra, founder of The Indian Draping Company. The impact-assessment practitioner turned expert draper, who prefers to call herself Nikaytaa, began the workshop with the above exercise.

In recent years, there have been many convincing attempts to get us city slickers to fall in love with a favourite handloom weave. Whether it’s Wendell Rodericks’ Kunbi revival, Sabyasachi’s Save the Sari, Ritu Kumar’s Benaras Revival project, Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Chanderiyan project, the engineer-turned-author who recently founded Only Paithani or the Kalakshetra Foundation’s love affair with the Kodali Karuppur, many of our state weaves have had their solo show.

Social media played its part. After the #100sareepact—when two friends decided to wear their saris 100 times in 2015 and share their stories online—lots of friends on my Facebook timeline revisited their sari collections. Three years later, many of them are bona-fide experts in collecting and wearing the garment though, sometimes, I can’t help feeling the sari has a fuller life on social media than on the city’s streets.

It’s taken me a while to catch up, but I’m glad I’m turning six-yard supporter in the midst of the Second Wave—a crucial time in the urban sari movement, when the biggest rule about wearing a sari is that there are no rules (and feel free to log your un-rule with a custom-made hashtag).

Himanshu Verma’s #socialsaree urges you to celebrate the “social media presence" of the garment and post your reflections on any aspect of the sari in social media. Verma, who acquired the moniker of Delhi’s sari man when he started wearing saris in 2006, is experimenting with “man blouses" which replace the traditional backless blouse with ones that expose the wearer’s chest.

“The power of the sari is that it belongs to everyone and that idea is now catching on. Now you see a lot of men experimenting with the sari," says Verma.

Increasingly, the sari, an unstitched piece of garment like the dhoti, is reiterating its gender neutrality and has nothing to do with the male wearer’s sexuality, Verma says. “Heterosexual men are playing with the drape, girlfriends are getting their men to wear saris. It’s androgynous, with an element of crossing over into a more feminine space that is lovely."

We are firmly in an age when, if an over-smart relative at a wedding tells you you’ve worn your pleats all wrong, you can respond as women’s apparel store owner Kusum Rohra did: “This is how they wear it in Mumbai, auntie."

Nikaytaa, who learnt to drape at Rta Kapur Chishti’s workshop in Delhi, unpacks a set of un-rules. I belatedly discover she will take us through several drapes but not the popular Nivi style worn by most urban women (so I guess I’m still on Sabyasachi’s blacklist).

Her Instagram feed showcases her sari adventures. Like the time she draped her Bomkai sari Bengali style, but then discovered she had extra fabric on the outer pallu because the blouse piece was still attached. So she pleated it, twisted the mini pleats and created a flower that rested on her shoulder. The day we meet, she has opted for Andhra Pradesh’s Venuka Gundaram drape in a skirt style.

She explains how the science of the handloom sari allows you the option of doing away with the blouse, the petticoat and the fall. “The lower thread count of the handloom sari allows for opacity, the older the sari the more opaque it becomes. The weight of the borders is half the weight of the sari, their heaviness helps manage the wear and tear and gives you the ability to knot the sari in as many places as you want," she says.

A simple knot replaces the function of a petticoat; you can unhook your bra and blouse if you use the pallu to drape the upper portion of your body so the fabric takes the shape of a halter-neck jumpsuit; and the border functions as a fall. Stripping the sari of all its accoutrements allows you to walk into a store and walk out wearing your sari even over your jeans. Add a pocket to your drape if you need a place to store your phone or throw away the underwear in a Jalpaiguri drape, like Nikaytaa once did on a long road trip, or run a marathon in a practical Odisha drape.

For more inspiration, look at The Sari Series, fashion website Border&Fall’s collection of 80 short films that document regional sari drapes. Then, as both Verma and Nikaytaa recommend, just go ahead and invent your own drape.

Of course, as my friend and sari evangelist Sumana Mukherjee, who was recently part of #thetravellingsari project, points out, saris must evolve not just in the way we wear them but also in the way they are designed. “If weaving and weavers are endangered, doing more of what they’ve been doing all these years isn’t going to help. The Kanjeevarams your grandma wore are heirlooms all right, but the granddaughter needs her saris to be more contemporary, lighter and not just about pure gold thread," she says. Mukherjee’s hashtag is #notmymumssarees because mum would probably not approve. What’s yours?

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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