In May 2018, I collaborated with Bay Area artists Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao for the art installation “Sari Dress Tent“. The 13-feet tall tent with a 12- foot circumference was commissioned by the Asian Art Museum and Livable City, San Francisco. The dress tent was accessible to the public on 6th May and 23rd September 2018 at the Asian Art Museum. A book titled “Sari Dress Tent” was published by artists Robin and Adrienne articulating their vision, the creative journey and the interviews conducted. I was requested to write a foreword for the Sari Dress Tent book made available for public viewing and purchase.
The Sari has fascinated me since childhood. As a five-year-old, I would see my mother wearing the Sari every day and going about her work. I would imitate her Nivi drape and role-play being a teacher or a librarian (that’s what the women in the profession would wear back in 1988). The Nivi drape is the popular drape worn today by millions of women across the Indian subcontinent. This drape requires a blouse and an underskirt called a petticoat. It drapes like a skirt with pleats in the front and the “pallu” or outer-end of the Sari going over the left shoulder.
With the birth of my brother and simultaneous globalization in India in 1990, I soon began seeing my mother and people adopt the “modern Salwar Kameez”. The reasons ranged from ‘the Sari is cumbersome to wear with the kids’ to ‘the underskirt needs to be fitted’. In hindsight, this would be the first sign that the rules around wearing the Sari were catching up.
I began now to view the Sari as a love that I had to work for. It was rewarding but yet intensive. A year ago, I learnt that the underskirt I so deeply despised was a recent introduction to the Sari trousseau. It was created in 1906 when an Indian renaissance woman, belonging to the upper echelons of society, was denied entry to a Bombay Club citing her revealing shoulders and translucent legs as blasphemy to the club’s Victorian moral conduct. It was then that the Indian rich bourgeois introduced the underskirt, called the petticoat and the humble blouse; both English words with no synonym in the Hindi dictionary.
Learning this, I began wearing the Sari sans the underskirt; just as my ancestors in pre-British India would wear. The unstitched fabric of 5 yards could become anything I needed it to be. It could become a pair of pants like the dancers of Odisha or a pair of shorts like the Goan fisherwomen. Or I could take inspiration from the farmlands of West Bengal and wear the short gown dress as the women there do. I tap into the design etiquette of the agricultural women of Andhra Pradesh who would wear their Sari as functional, aesthetic dresses.
I discarded the petticoat and with it the knowledge of the Sari as I’d learnt from the society around me. I experimented and tapped into the knowledge of my ancestors to experience the freedom they’d felt working and living in decolonized India. Both the women and men wore the unstitched as a garment of choice. The ubiquitous cotton made the use of handloom prevalent amongst the masses which further ensured livelihoods for cotton farmers, thread spinners and dyers, and weavers. The handloom material also worked well with the climate of the region. The ancestors knew well how to work with nature than against it.
I adopted handloom as a way of life last September when I moved to hot and humid Goa for two months. I discarded my jeans and other figure-hugging dresses for the comfort of the pure organic cotton handwoven Sari. The natural dye colours ensured the well-being of my skin while the handloom kept me cool and energetic.
Matka silk block-printed Sari draped in two ways.
I am a minimalist and the two months allowed me to live the small suitcase life I’d always imagined but never lived. I tended to stick to a few favourite Saris and regularly recycled them into various garments as the need arose. I have, on record, worn the same Sari for three consecutive days amidst the same audience albeit in three different ways. The same Sari became a pair of pants one day and a skirt the next and a dress the day after that. The same Sari also served me well as a sarong, bedsheet, towel, and dress for the days at the beach!
Ṛta Kapur Chishti, a renowned Sari historian and a textile scholar, has documented a 108 ways to wear a Sari in her book “Saris of India” that was put together after a decade of travelling across thirteen states in India. Chantal Boulanger, a French anthropologist, devoted much of her time between 1980 and 1996 to travel throughout the south, central and eastern India. She has researched 100 different styles of draping the Sari documented in her book “Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping”.
It is imperative to state that the majority of the Indian subcontinent and the world are not aware of this research and thus the dominant culture of the past. It’s fascinating that the culture and the stories of a country can change so much so that even the historical narratives seem to fade into oblivion.
The colonization of the Indian culture through the Sari, an intrinsic garment of choice then led me to understand the colonization of gender. Till now what had been a binary for me began to emerge as a spectrum with some women opting for “masculine” looks while some men felt more comfortable in a “feminine” drape. The use of quotes is to highlight the prevalent stereotyping of gender in an everyday construct. Thus, I started questioning, “What is gender?” “What is feminine? What is masculine?” And what is “being human”? Gender is personal and the personal is political. Hence the gender is political and so is the fluid spectrum of clothes and visual identities.
In the global society, today more than ever, women from the Indian subcontinent are asserting themselves and wearing the Sari with pride and identity. More and more women of colour globally are now questioning the colonized, global society and its narratives and asserting their individuality through the clothes; whether it be the Hijab or the Turban or the Sari.
The Sari tent by Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao is a step in the direction of dialogue amidst the political climate that surrounds us today. The stories heard in the tent are of 10 women from India who are now living in the Bay Area. Some of them have migrated recently while some have been living and working here for decades. Each of the saris inside the tent has been donated by the women interviewed for the installation. The tent, the audios and the Saris allow the women to take space and share their experiences, their stories and their connection with the Sari.
I believe in the vision that Robin and Adrienne share; of creating a space to hold a dialogue around cultures and migration and I am proud to collaborate with them.