The school for saris
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
IN one corner, a lithe American woman struggles to tie a knot, her brow knitted in a determined frown. In another, a girl in a black cotton sari with a prominent tattoo on her arm helps a fellow student drape a length of fabric over her shoulder.
Elsewhere, two women admire their handiwork in a mirror. They have succeeded in manipulating a long piece of fabric into a single wearable garment. They have mastered the art of the sari.
I am in a basement in a genteel inner New Delhi neighbourhood where sari evangelist Rta Kumar Chishti is hosting one of her semi-regular sari workshops. These are four-hour masterclasses aimed at teaching new styles of tying the garment and, well, spreading sari love.
The cloth, usually between 5m and 8m long, is undoubtedly the subcontinent’s most iconic apparel but it is rapidly falling out of favour with the young and fashionable.
I’ve come to the workshop simply to learn how to tie a sari properly. Four years living in India and I’ve had but a handful of opportunities to wear the garment — a couple of weddings, a dinner soiree and, memorably, a Halloween party in which I dressed as the particularly pugnacious regional political leader Mamata Banerjee.
Sari wearers in my New Delhi neighbourhood are increasingly few, with most women preferring salwar kameez and jeans. I have childhood memories of watching my mother pleat and pin her saris into shape, but the first surprise of the class is the sheer variety of regional styles. Most modern sari wearers tend to all tie their saris the same way — with pleats in the front and the pallu (decorative endpiece) over the left shoulder. But there are scores of variations and Kumar Chishti has painstakingly documented and illustrated 108 ways in her latest book, Saris: Tradition and Beyond.
There are styles unique to Brahmins in the Himalayas, fisherwomen in Goa and Bengali aristocrats. My classmates and I are learning three styles: those of a temple dancer from Orissa, a maid in Tamil Nadu and saris worn in the southern mountain region of Coorg. They are all different; the dancer style involves passing the cloth between your legs to form pants, while the Coorgi fashion has the garment wrapped around the chest, much like a sarong, with the pallu in the front.
‘ ‘ It’s j ust so much easier to wear pants and a top, and there’s so much choice available,’’ says Shreya Dhingra, an image consultant who’s here to learn about India’s sartorial heritage. ‘‘But it’s important for Indian women to stick with the sari. It’s our tradition. This is where we have come from.’’
With the help of Kumar Chishti’s army of helpers, we drape, we fold, we tie, we tuck, all the time following instructions closely. And soon, there we are: a handful of Delhi women expertly masquerading as south Indian maids, thanks to the particular folds of fabric in which we are wrapped.
And by the time we leave the basement we are converts to Kumar Chishti’s sari gospel, armed with the knowledge of the transformative capacities of a single piece of cloth.
There are many different ways to wear a sari and each is unique to a region in India