By Laila Tyabji
For decades, I wore everything — bikinis, bell-bottoms, and bermuda shorts, and kurtas, kaftans and culottes. Pherans and wraparounds. Everything except dresses, which were a bit of a no-no in my time, in the 60s and 70s. I designed, sewed, and embroidered my own clothes, and was particularly fond of lungis with little skimpy tops. I had a rather neat midriff! I wore sarees too, of course — everyone did back then. Who would imagine that a day would come, as it did recently, when a dashing young Jet Airlines steward would greet a sari-clad me with the comment, “Ma’am, I really like your costume; what do you call it…?”
When I was approaching my 50th birthday, it seemed appropriate to greet this rite of passage with something apocalyptic. I decided that I would cut my long hair and switch entirely to sarees. At that time, 50 seemed the beginning of staid middle-going-on-old age — the end of youth, adventure and pizzazz. (I think slightly differently now that I am 70.) So, comfort, ease in packing, and the elimination of too many wardrobe choices was the objective. By virtue of my advancing years and greying hair, I was also increasingly being put onto government committees, and I realised bureaucrats and politicians (generally male) were much more receptive to a small woman in a sari — one could be subversive without their realising!
In the years after my saree resolution, on the weekends, I did occasionally put on a pair of jeans. They made me feel delightfully invisible and no longer the Dastkar craft-y lady. But once my waistline began expanding, I abandoned that too. Nowadays, except for kaftans for lounging in, it’s sarees, sarees, sarees.
The result? A feeling of great liberation. Sarees work for every occasion, and (more importantly) they cover every flaw, concealing your bulges and bumps in subtle swathes of beautiful fabric. They garner you respect and wonderful compliments wherever you are in the world. People offer to carry your luggage or give you a seat. Equally wonderful, this 5 1/2 metre length of cloth can be a veil, cradle, towel, sunshade, handkerchief, duster and keychain.
It’s true that sari wearers have become a bit of an endangered species — the dinosaurs of the fashion world, but really who cares? The sari may not be trendy but it’s absolutely timeless. You don’t need to buy new outfits or lower or raise hem lengths every time fashions change. And, unless you are Mamta Banerjee, you simply can’t look frumpy wearing a sari.
There is a fallacy too that wearing a sari one becomes typecast, a bit of a behenji, always looking the same. This is so not true. One of the sari’s extraordinary strengths — contributing to its survival as a wearing style, even in an age of globalised culture — is that each wearer’s persona becomes unique, and in a way that cannot be copied. Priyanka Chopra is a sensuous sex-bomb, while Indira Nooyi, is the epitome of corporate power. The sari itself has infinite variety too, and I am not just talking about the 108 different wearing styles in which one can drape it. Every state has its own distinctive weave and character. The endless variations of colour, texture, motif, and fabric add yet another dimension of choice. The fact that the weaver can change both pattern and colour in each sari on the loom if he chooses leads to almost every piece being slightly different.
Proof? In my 55 years of sari-wearing, I have only encountered someone twice with exactly the same sari as I had in my cupboard.
Some years ago I was doing a workshop at NIFT, when an aspiring young designer came up and greeted me with, “Wow ma’am, I didn’t know anyone with grey hair and a sari could have ‘attitude’.” A typical knee-jerk reaction of the young to sarees today – sari wearers are automatically associated with the dull, the passé and the unsuccessful. As a result, you won’t find the sari in most so-called ‘lifestyle’ ads. In TV commercials, where most Indians pick up the signals of what’s “in” and what’s “out”, the only women shown sari-clad are the obedient bahu virtuously frying puris, the wicked mother-in-law demanding a Harpic-cleaned toilet, or the plain girl with acne, BO and bad breath.
This is so obviously a marketing ploy, since, if people realised how amazingly becoming (and comfortable) sarees were, garment manufacturers and designers would go out of business! Nothing therefore makes me happier than some young woman coming up to me at our Dastkar Bazaars and saying, “Ma’am, you’ve really inspired me, help me buy a sari….” (This happens quite often, especially since I started my online SARI DIARY.)
With all this wealth of choice, how do I select my sarees? Entirely by impulse. I don’t go out shopping or surfing for sarees — I have more than enough, plus a self-imposed restriction on not exceeding 250 (extra ones get given away if I cross the limit). But when I see something I really like I generally buy it. Since sarees seldom repeat themselves, one otherwise regrets it later. (I do have another self-imposed restriction — price. After all, its ultimately just a piece of cloth to wear.) I love ikat and bandhini, and prefer woven motifs to printed ones, though ajrakh is the exception. I don’t generally like embroidered saris, but chikan and kasuti are exempt. I loathe Swarovski-studded chiffons, but love some of the creative riffs on tradition that young craftspeople are doing.
Having got the sarees, how do I decide which one to wear? Well, sarees sort themselves into categories anyway — elaborate, generally gold-encrusted ones for weddings and festivities; slightly less grand ones for evenings and parties. There are the sarees one wears everyday; silks for winter and cottons in summer — I make the transition to silk at Diwali and to cotton at Holi (even though global warming has made nonsense of Delhi seasons). After that it’s a matter of mood — does one go for drama or subtlety, colour or cool? They are all hanging up in my walk-in closet, and picking one for the day is almost osmosis. The jewellery matches itself from my fairly organised drawers – anything from coconut shell beads to antique kundan, I enjoy ringing the changes. My comfortable flat chappals are made by our Dastkar Ranthambhore Project regurs in Rajasthan, covered with block-printed fabric in colours that match my ensembles.
I try not to get typecast in a predictable colour palette, something that often happens after a certain age. Inevitably though, the role and occasion do dictate ones choices. When the weather’s hot or I am mourning someone loved, I usually wear white, cream or grey; when I’m going to a meeting it’s an elegant but restrained navy blue, brown or green; when I am peppy and having fun, the bright colours come out. (Though I do remember Indira Gandhi telling my mother that if you are tired, wear red — it brightens your skin!) If I’m speaking somewhere, I choose a sari that will stand out against the usually black or white podium backdrop. There ARE occasions I’ve been totally caught out: the most appalling being a recent conference on crafts in Bangkok for which I’d packed my most stunning sarees, only to discover that the whole country was in a years mourning for their late King; all dressed in funereal black!
I am absolutely comfortable in sarees. I wear them while bussing it in Bihar, clambering onto the top berth on a train, or climbing ladders doing our Dastkar displays. I wore a sari when I crossed the Banni on a camel, and when I go out for my early morning business with my lota on field trips. I feel no longing for little black dresses, or what now seems the restrictive uniformity of jeans. Meanwhile my colleagues, the craftspeople we work with, and those who follow my weekly Sari Diary posts, all seem to look forward to seeing which sari I am wearing.
I do agree a sari is the fashion industry’s worst nightmare; a garment that never becomes dated, and therefore never needs be re-invented and “marketed”. But luckily that’s not my problem.
Laila Tyabji works with crafts and textiles, and is founder member and Chairperson of DASTKAR Society for Crafts & Craftspeople.