Sari Dress Tent: The Foreword

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.

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Sari Dress Tent, San Francisco May 2018.

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.

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Nivi drape. Photo: Baishampayan Ghose

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.

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Savantwadi farmer in Dhangad drape. Photo: Baishampayan Ghose

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.

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Gender fluid fashion. Photo: Shazia Shaikh

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.

The magic of the Handloom

Handloom, defined as “any of various looms or weaving devices operated wholly or partly by hand or foot power”, is one of the greatest sciences of India. Within the warp and the weft of the fabric is the ingenuity of the people behind the craft.

The journey of the handloom starts with the farmer sowing the cotton and then harvesting it a few months later only to be spun into thread by the spinner. The threads then make their way to the dyer who then prepares a palette of multiple colours and soaks the threads into pots of individual colour. Once dried to perfection, the weaver warps the loom with the threads that will make up the Sari. This is no easy feat requiring math, precision and technique as each thread is individually tied according to the design the weaver has in mind. Yes in mind. Not always on paper! It takes anything from a day to many more to set up the loom with the hundreds of threads. This requires time and patience and a love for making a unique garment for a wearer they haven’t seen and might never meet.

1 handloom supports 20 people. Most of them are employed in the cotton field while the others work on sorting cotton, dyeing & spinning thread, setting up the loom and weaving the garment. 

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Handloom weaver weaving a Bengal Tant Sari. Photo: Biswarup Ganguly [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)
The handloom is science. It dries up quickly, keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer, and is opaque so you can go about your day sans a petticoat. The handloom is a craft and must be preserved for those qualities. Weavers are craftspeople and were given high regard in the past; even accompanying a princess or prince to the new kingdom after marriage! Unfortunately, today changing tastes, globalization, cheap Chinese cotton, and domestic policies such as demonetization & GST are the bane of handloom. If you were to elevate a weaver to a master jewellery maker, it is development. But if they are being reduced to a rickshaw puller or driver, then that is not development.

Our choices influence and shape livelihoods. Our intentions have ramifications; good and bad. It’s imperative to be mindful of the power our choices and intentions have on a craft, a life, and a smile. The next time you find yourself holding a handloom Sari please take a moment to run your hands over the threads, feel the texture, notice the criss-cross of the waft & weft and experience the magic that is the handloom.

 

Happy Raksha to me!

For the longest time, I have excitedly looked forward to Rakshabandhan. I would collect Rakhis all year round keeping in mind the person who would be wearing it. I would mail about 14 Rakhis to my brothers all over India. And then tie another 10 to the local brothers. Spongy ones for my elder brothers. Thin ones for my younger ones.

In the last year, I’ve had experiences where my (girl) friends and I have been followed in the middle of the night by six men in two cars. I’ve had people ogle at me lustily in safe spaces. I’ve been harassed by men and women at workplaces and have had folks reported and taken action against.

In all of these experiences, I had to rely on myself, my intuition, my knowledge (of roads, procedures, and people), and my faith to find a way out of this situation. I’ve had to grow patience, perseverance, confidence and identity to come out of this strong and safe. Physical. Mental. Emotional.

On Raksha Bandhan, we tie a Rakhi on the person we expect to protect us at all times. But in reality, it is unrealistic to expect someone else to be there to protect one at all times. This is like the superman theory where the smart yet ultimately helpless Lois Lane needs to wait for Superman to come and save her when she is in distress. This is patriarchy at its best. Putting the responsibility of safety on someone else; usually, a male, while making yourself; usually a woman feel like a damsel in distress.

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Tying a Rakhi to myself. Photo: Baishampayan Ghose

This year onwards I reject the traditional concept of Raksha Bandhan. My safety is my prerogative and my responsibility. I have a pepper spray in my bag, a baseball bat in my car, and will also learn self-defence. And if anyone deserves my Rakhi this year then it is me and ONLY me. Ultimately it is I who needs to be responsible for my own protection. Cause only I can and must keep myself safe.

To all my strong, intelligent and amazing women, I can only say let’s take the responsibility of creating safe spaces for ourselves.

Happy Raksha to me!

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Cheers! Photo: Baishampayan Ghose

The Journey Begins

The first time I ever shared my draping skills was at Mrinalini Pandey Awasthi a.k.a. Nikki’s behest. Mrinalini is the local coordinator for a Saree group on Facebook, “The Saree Story”. The group boasts of 5000 members who regularly share details about their Sari of the day and what it means to them. The camaraderie within the group is impressive with members forming friendships and organising meetups regularly.

Last Sunday, the group organised an Online Global Sari meet where Sari enthusiasts from all over the world logged on to Google Hangouts dressed in their favourite Saris. The local members from Pune convened at my home. We logged in at the time decided and after a quick “Hello” waited for others to join in. The response was overwhelming. More than 30 women from 7 cities and 3 continents joined the event.   

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Online discussion. Google Hangouts
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Offline discussion. Pune Chapter, The Saree Story. Photo: Mrinalini Awasthi

I felt included and at ease within the group. It was a good-natured bunch of young women with a common love for the Sari. We began with a round of introductions that included our names, our occupation, and details about the Sari we were wearing. Since I was the only one in a non-Nivi drape, my introduction included details about the drape I was wearing. The ladies’ interest was piqued.

Since time was short, we immediately moved to my session where I spoke about the history of the Sari drapes, the introduction of the humble petticoat to the Sari trousseau, and the role of colonisation on the Sari. The fluid unstitched Sari has seen and survived many cultures. For the past 2500 years, women and men draped the Sari according to their occupation and geography. Rulers changed and so did the Sari. The cultural exposure over the years added layers of techniques, motifs and draping styles to the Sari. The British rule defined the ‘modest’ period for the Sari. The Victorian rules required women to cover themselves up even if it meant losing freedom of movement and efficiency.

Most of the women at the online conference were shocked. They had never known, least imagined an alternate reality where the Sari was truly fluid. The women shared their tirade of petticoats and rashes, being chided for imperfect pleats, and body-shaming. It disappoints me that a once freedom enhancing garment is now a freedom restricting garment to some. It seems like a reflection of the times we live in I guess.

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[L-R] Nishigandha in Venuka Gundaram, Nikaytaa in Santhal drape, Radhika in Boggilli Posi Kattukodam. Photo: Mrinalini Awasthi

I had decided to demonstrate drapes that are simple and functional, yet aesthetic. I began with a favourite, the Boggilli Post Kattukodam from Andhra Pradesh. We then moved north to the Santhal drape worn by the women living in Jharkhand. We concluded the draping session with the Mekhla Chador, a two-piece drape from Assam. Nishigandha, Radhika and Mrinalini who were the models for the demonstration were visibly excited. Their smiles say it all! The enthusiastic trio didn’t cease to mention how comfortable they felt in the drapes sans the petticoat.

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Mrinalini in the Mekhla Chador.

The session came to a close with a photo session. My friends left soon after and I found myself happily drop on the sofa feeling a sense of happiness and achievement. “Some impact was achieved today” I remember saying to myself. 30+ women enlightened on the history and versatility of the Sari. Three members learnt and experienced the freedom of the drapes while I gained experience talking about and teaching the drapes. The journey has begun. I can feel it.

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The Santhal drape. Notice the translucence around the legs which would have been a blasphemy in the Victorian rules of dressing etiquette. Photo: Mrinalini Awasthi