The school for saris


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - AARTI BETIGERI

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

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