By Nilakshi Roy
When I dress for work it’s a pleasure that tells. It tells in my choice of sari and blouse, their colours, textures, the jewellery I wear, the lingerie I match, the shoes and bag I pick for the day. Not always the bag, but some days, yes.
I work in a college. I teach literature to students of suburban Mumbai. They are 17 to 20 years old. They are free, but in the chains of suburbia. They need stimulus. I like to think that they revel in the way I dress, talk, read, enact, sometimes even sing in class. I guess this awakens their minds to the possibilities beyond the world out there for them.
The students have teasingly said, “Do you think we sit in your class for your lectures? No, it’s for the sarees and the jewellery, make no mistake” (Pah, I have known that for years.) Many students and ex-students over the generations have written in saying that they have dreamt of my saris. Imagine that. And that they have intentions of raiding my wardrobe and my jewellery stash. They declare that publicly on social media. I guess their own tee-jeans or kurti-jeans combos tire them! They do wear sarees when in festive mood or during weddings and yes of course, when in college on the ‘sari day’ or ‘traditional day’. When they leave college, start working and settle down, they share their sari-clad pictures on Facebook and tag me! Mind you, they still wear sarees only on special occasions.
What do I wear? From February to December, I wear cotton from Mumbai, Solapur, Kerala, Kota, Kolkata, Shantiniketan. Colours that I imagine a wild young woman or a dreamy young man chose to put together on printed cloth and hand-woven khesh. Block print. Kantha and batik. Shibori, ajrakh, rangrez, kalamkari or ari.
I imagine the touch of the hand that made what I wear. On the sari, the embroidered blouses by Parama, or the ones I get stitched when I pick up cotton handloom from a local shop — they make a statement. About the stories of the earth and the human hand. The loom, the dye, the stitch, the patient and loving embroidered poetry of the Indian artisan on it.
I teach drama and poetry in some of the classes, so even there the slightly dramatic dressing helps. I wish I could share exactly why I choose a sari on a given day, but it’s not that easy to specify. It’s the mood, the colour of the sky, the heat, the breeze, or the lack of it that often makes me pick or cast aside a sari or its matching blouse. I choose another instead, for its contrast, material, the soft airiness or the interesting back (of the blouse). My day starts at 7.30 am and ends at 1.30 pm. When I go to the university or to other colleges, my day starts at the same time, but ends at 4.30-5.00 pm. Every morning, I keep in mind the long day ahead including the four to five lectures; my choice has to make me feel good. It has to have a good “fall” — a drape that stays. Only then can I create an impact. And the magic of it is that it lasts for the entire day. Even if I go to the university and return late, I feel fresh and cool in a sari.
And then there’s the jewellery. I choose short but flamboyant neckpieces, not very big danglers and one bracelet to match. I do flaunt a biggish coloured bindi.
And then there’s the subtle pressure of belonging, of making people happy in the staffroom, where I’m known for my saris, jewellery, and the latest blouses. We really brandish our sarees during Navaratri when we all pose in the staffroom, ladies wearing the nine colours that Maharashtra Times declares in advance, to be worn on those days as Maa Durga would adorn those. Even the men join in on the colour brigade. Obliging young men bring selfie sticks for the purpose, so that no one is left out. We are a riot, I swear.
In January and only in January, it’s a pleasure to wear silk in Mumbai. I reserve my silks for the colour days starting with Makar Sankranti when we all wear black as is the tradition in Maharashtra, and then we move on to the colours or different types of saris from our wardrobes: induri, maheshwari, ikkat, tangail, kantha, batik… what have you. Our staffroom is a pretty place, and I revel in it and lead the charge. I love the way we have all grown up together, loving the saree and the accessories, and how so many of my colleagues, specially juniors, come and whisper, “Aaj tera/aap ka style try kiya”… or “Aap first jewellery lete ho ya sari? Ya saath saath?” “Ma’am yeh blouse…. What to say… how did you think this would go with this saree? I’m going to try this!” and they have started experimenting and charting out new dressing styles for themselves.
I don’t wear synthetic saris anymore as I don’t have to travel so much. I definitely had a decent collection. Back in the day I bought them and loved it when people gifted a “nice” (only colour, mind you) synthetic sari. During the monsoon they were a blessing! I used to travel by bus and train back then, but now I have a car and that changes things. Though the sari has always been my work-wear, come rain or shine!
I will wear a salwar kameez if I have to, but after sarees I like trousers and tops best. Sporting a black tee and trouser to work is not for me, though I love them at play.
What will I do after I retire? Donate my 150 saris maybe? Maybe, the black tee and jeans can adopt me.
Nilakshi Roy is a writer, poet and an Associate Professor of English at Vaze College, Mulund Mumbai