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December 08, 2015

Are You A Sari Warrior?

Text by Madhu Jain

Ignore the dictates of fashion and express yourself with the original nine-yards

It was late spring in Paris. A rather whimsical friend came over for lunch. We were then living on the fringes of the fashionable Marais quartier, not too far from the Centre Georges Pompidou: a building which had caused many an eyebrow to rise alarmingly when it first came up in the late 1970s, in one of the oldest areas of Paris. All glass, with its innards (huge green, white, red and blue pipes) on the outside, it looked like something which had landed from outer space, right in the middle of the 17th-century buildings. When the Eiffel Tower came up in the 19th century, there had been a similar shock-and-awe reaction.

When my friend from my student days in this city of light presented me with a handbag when she visited us that day, I must have had much the same reaction as the others when they first saw the architectural ‘monstrosities’, now so vibrant and integral a part of Paris. Bright purple, and made of fine leather, the accessory had a spout — like the old-fashioned watering can with holes in the disc at the other end. “Oh, this will be quite the rage soon. It has just come into the market, and very few people know about it,” she blurted out when she saw my horrified expression.

Today’s oddity is tomorrow’s norm. I imagined that spouts sprouting on handbags, hats and shoes may soon become the rage — even for a season. Stands to reason: if the ladies in their annual outings at the Ascot races can sport hats with veritable miniature gardens on them (I have even seen a photograph of an ersatz nest with a stuffed bird perched on it), a watering-can handbag can be almost considered prosaic.

Cool to passé
We returned to Delhi soon afterwards. And, I never discovered if spouts proliferated and reached high street. But I passed on the bag to the pre-teen daughter of a friend in Mumbai. I imagine she put some plastic flowers in it, the sensible thing to do. For me, what I choose to wear or not wear has rarely been influenced by what the fashion pundits declare from their pulpits. From being cool-and-in to becoming passé is sometimes just the blink of an eye away. If you are never in fashion, can you ever really be out of fashion?

I have always worn saris, and until a few years ago, that was all I wore. For most of those years many relatives and friends thought I was a bit of a behenji, not in sync with the latest trends: so ‘yesterday’! Saris had been relegated to the archives, even demoted to the rank of costumes, brought out of mothballs for rituals and weddings — somewhat like what happened to the kimono in Japan. Until the wheel turned again and it became what designer Suneet Varma memorably defined as ‘five-and-a-half yards of pure mischief’— and more.

The sari has now been elevated to the status of a threatened species. Sari warriors are lining up to ensure not only its survival but its proliferation. Leading the sari brigade are two friends from Bengaluru, Ally Mathan and Anju Maudgal Kadam. Going the whole nine yards they made a pact to wear 100 saris by the end of this year. Leading designers are now playing with the sari, bringing it up to date, mixing and matching, trying to make it more happening and more in tune with the times. In short, making it a ‘cool’ drape, accessorised with boots or whatever.

The behenji in me, a permanent resident I am afraid, does not like the trend to tamper with the form of this often ethereal drape: it has already evolved to a state of perfection over a long time. The blouse, on the other hand, is open to interpretation. After all, upper-caste Bengali women wanting to keep up with the ladies of the Raj (and Victorian notions of modesty) began wearing blouses and petticoats (with lace or embroidery) inspired by Victorian attire, with their saris. Earlier, they only wore the drape, without blouses and petticoats because of the hot and humid weather.

Setting down rules
Fashion and dressing-up play an important part in our lives, allowing us to express our desires and cater to our whims — to, as it were, put a bit of our individual selves out there. But we should not let the mandarins of the fashion world dictate what we can and can’t wear — leaving no room for and stifling individuality. Nor is it just the media, movies and designers (the last increasingly being treated like royalty in our big cities and influencing lifestyle choices and the way we live) who set down the rules. Peers, friends and family also try to snip the budding ‘designer’ in many of us.

A friend with a slightly idiosyncratic taste and flair to juxtapose the most unlikely elements was always a butt of jokes in her larger family. When blouses had to match saris — the ‘matchy-matchy’ dictum with the choli material usually attached to the sari — she would use diverse textiles for her blouses. She was often criticised for wearing ‘lampshade blouses’, when she began to attach tassels to some of hers. Following her example and free spirit I once made a blouse from curtain material from Fabindia — beautiful off-white on off-white cloth. I wore it proudly until I discovered that it was exactly the same cloth that my Fabindia lampshade was made from!

The pièce de résistance, however, was what the writer Arundhati Roy wore in the film directed by Pradip Kishen in the late ’80s: In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones. Author of the screenplay, she also acted in the film and wore a sari with a hat as a delightfully insolent accessory.

To return to the story of the spout: perhaps it might make a good motif for a sari print. You can have your idiosyncrasy and wear it too.

Vive la difference.

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