IN THE UAE

Nine mem­bers of a Face­book group talk of their love for saris and what they are do­ing to pro­mote this six-yard drape.

Friday - - Contents - PHO­TOS BY AIZA CASTILLO DOMINGO

In a small suit­case that is gath­er­ing dust in my loft lie a few ex­quis­ite pieces of In­dia’s rich tex­tile her­itage. Wrapped in soft cheese cloth to pre­vent dam­age from fric­tion, they are tra­di­tional, hand­wo­ven saris which were a small but in­te­gral part of my trousseau. Al­most two decades since, they have hardly seen the light of day. There should be an elab­o­rate man­ual on how to wear one, I tell my­self. And how does one walk in a sari with­out trip­ping over its nu­mer­ous pleats? And who has the lux­ury of time to spend on wear­ing it right?

Over the years, what val­i­dates this sense of in­com­pe­tency is the fact that I have rarely come across an­other In­dian woman who doesn’t feel the same. In spite of Bollywood stars wear­ing saris on the red car­pet, and global fash­ion in­dus­try’s A-lis­ters find­ing in­spi­ra­tion in its flow­ing sil­hou­ette – Jean Paul Gaultier’s re­cent col­lec­tion is a case in point – the sari has not man­aged to make it to the front rail of an In­dian woman’s wardrobe.

The re­sult? The tra­di­tional six-yard at­tire un­for­tu­nately is rel­e­gated to be­ing just bri­dal wear. And what’s worse is that it ei­ther gets turned into an­other out­fit, the ubiq­ui­tous sal­war kameez for in­stance or, even worse, into up­hol­stery.

But there is hope and it lies in the re­solve of some 150 UAE-based women

from vary­ing back­grounds, who are all mem­bers of a pri­vate face­book group called Gulf Sa­ree Pact – Threads That Bind Us To­gether.

I re­cently met nine mem­bers of the group, each wear­ing ex­quis­ite ex­am­ples of tra­di­tional weaves, to find out if their love for sari be­gan at first sight or if it evolved over a pe­riod of time. In the process I was also cu­ri­ous to know if they too, like me, ever felt over­whelmed while try­ing to wear it. There is no harm in look­ing for em­pa­thy, right?

‘Like you, I too used to find it cum­ber­some to wear a sari,’ ad­mits Priya Vishnu, who grew up in a fam­ily where women wore saris and only saris ev­ery day.

Now, how­ever, for this mother of a teenaged daugh­ter and a free­lance train­ing con­sul­tant for bankers, sari is the first choice of at­tire ev­ery day, even if she is sure she would be in a room full of men and women in crisp suits and jack­ets. So how did the shift oc­cur? ‘I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by colours, tex­tures and the way it would make me look all grown up. But what I did not en­joy was the process in­volved in drap­ing it. Now, over the years and with prac­tice, I can wear it in no time,’ she says.

What en­cour­ages Priya are the ‘com­pli­ments I re­ceive plus the im­mense pride I have in wear­ing a piece of In­dia’s rich and var­ied tex­tile her­itage,’ she says, ca­ress­ing her black and yel­low Bomkai sari.

It was to cel­e­brate this hand­loom her­itage that Priya joined Gulf Sa­ree Pact, a group who not only make it a point to wear saris as of­ten as they can but invite ex­perts to ed­u­cate the mem­bers about the ex­quis­ite crafts­man­ship that goes into mak­ing ev­ery hand­loom sari.

‘Each hand­made sari is truly like fine art,’ says Effie Thomas, the founder of the group who has made it her life’s pur­pose to learn as much as she can about the unique tech­niques, em­broi­deries, mo­tifs and pat­terns that weavers from dif­fer­ent parts

of In­dia use to cre­ate each sari.

For in­stance, Priya’s Bomkai sari, she says, has a rare mix of tribal art and el­e­ments of na­ture, all rep­re­sent­ing pomp and pros­per­ity.

For Rad­hika Subra­ma­nian, an­other mem­ber of the group, wear­ing a sari is a way of ex­press­ing her iden­tity. A teacher by pro­fes­sion, Rad­hika en­joys the at­ten­tion she gets from her stu­dents ev­ery time she wears a sari to school. ‘The com­pli­ments I re­ceive are in­stant mood boost­ers,’ she says. Wear­ing a stun­ning Kor­vai Kanchipu­ram silk sari in ver­mil­lion red and ripe mango yel­low, Rad­hika says she chose it for its fas­ci­nat­ing weave. ‘Al­though the bor­der, the body and the pallu (the flow­ing end that falls over the shoul­der) of the sari each has a dif­fer­ent colour with a dif­fer­ent pat­tern, it is per­fectly in­ter­wo­ven to be­come one co­he­sive piece,’ she says.

Un­til re­cently, this in­tri­cate school of man­ual weav­ing, which has its roots in south­ern In­dia, was threat­ened by saris mass pro­duced in tex­tile fac­to­ries. ‘But of late, Kor­vai Kanchipu­ram is see­ing a re­nais­sance of sorts, thanks to a resur­gence of peo­ple’s love for hand­made saris,’ she says.

This re­nais­sance is much needed to save the weavers from even­tual penury, Effie ex­plains.

For ex­am­ple the tra­di­tional Patan Pa­tola sari that Effie is wear­ing, is con­sid­ered to be an epit­ome of crafts­man­ship. ‘The com­plex geo­met­ric pat­terns and mo­tifs made us­ing

‘It is im­per­a­tive that we do all we can to pre­serve the pu­rity of ev­ery school of weav­ing to pre­vent it from go­ing ex­tinct’

ex­tremely pre­cise tie-and-dye and weav­ing tech­niques, the vi­brant colours and the fact that both sides of the sari are iden­ti­cal, make Patan Pa­tola a mar­vel that can­not be repli­cated by a machine,’ she says.

‘The art of mak­ing th­ese saris is a closely guarded se­cret known to only three fam­i­lies in In­dia and is passed down only to the sons as daugh­ters, after get­ting mar­ried, be­come a part of an­other fam­ily.’

Each sari could take al­most a year to weave – a rea­son they are highly val­ued and can cost around at least Rs100,000 (Dh5,742). Some go up to Rs700,000 and take about two-and-a-half years to make.

Ex­plain­ing more about the Patan Pa­tola saris, Effie says, ‘Th­ese saris are made in silk only as it lasts for at least 80 to 100 years. A cot­ton sari’s life­span is no more than 50 years, so the weavers feel it is not worth their time and hard­work to cre­ate some­thing that does not last long. And the veg­etable dyes that the weavers use have a life­span of about three cen­turies.’

In a bid to do their bit for weavers, mem­bers of the Gulf Sa­ree Pact have re­solved that they will buy and wear only tra­di­tional weaves thereby sup­port­ing the tra­di­tional sari mak­ers and en­sur­ing their skills will con­tinue to thrive.

Weaves are not the only high­lights of a sari. Shub­hoshree Sinha’s six-yarder, for in­stance, is an ex­traor­di­nary ex­am­ple of one of In­dia’s old­est em­broi­dery styles called Kan­tha. ‘One of my favourite saris, this was cre­ated by the artists of Shanti Nike­tan,’ she says. In 1940s, this pres­ti­gious art school in In­dia’s east­ern state of West Ben­gal was instrumental in sav­ing this cen­turies-old skill from ex­tinc­tion.

‘This sari was a gift to me from my aunt when I was get­ting mar­ried 19 years ago but I chose the colour com­bi­na­tion and the pat­tern. It took the artists about a year to trans­late what I had in mind into this amaz­ing piece,’ says the home­maker who dreams of own­ing a sari from ev­ery state of In­dia.

Ex­plain­ing the com­plex­i­ties in­volved, Shub­hoshree says that tra­di­tion­ally the pat­tern is never drawn on cloth. One artist first em­broi­ders the pat­tern that be­comes the out­line, then other artists come to­gether to fill in with a va­ri­ety of stitches, all be­long­ing to the kan­tha school of em­broi­dery. ‘How­ever, nowa­days tra­di­tional kan­tha that is pure in its form is rare. Sev­eral other styles of em­broi­dery like Kash­miri and cross stitch can also be found on the same piece of cloth,’ she says.

It is to en­sure the con­ti­nu­ity of the tra­di­tional de­signs and styles that the UAE sari sis­ter­hood of sorts at­tend reg­u­lar meet­ings shar­ing in­for­ma­tion and invit­ing ex­perts to talk about the in­tri­ca­cies of the weave and weft, thread and de­sign.

‘It is im­per­a­tive that we do all we can to pre­serve the pu­rity of ev­ery school of weav­ing and em­broi­dery to pre­vent it from go­ing ex­tinct,’ says Effie, who takes longdis­tance cour­ses, at­tends we­bi­nars and goes on tex­tile trails across In­dia to not only keep her­self up­dated about the her­itage but to spread the word among any­one who is in­ter­ested in know­ing more about the su­pe­rior crafts­man­ship that lives in re­mote vil­lages of In­dia.

‘We not only want to ed­u­cate the mem­bers about the in­tri­cate method in­volved in weav­ing each sari but want to spread the joy that wear­ing a sari can give,’ says Effie who or­gan­ises blood do­na­tion camps and sev­eral char­ity ini­tia­tives across the UAE where mem­bers, all wear­ing

saris, par­tic­i­pate to gen­er­ate in­ter­est in the gar­ment. The ef­fects are be­gin­ning to be felt. ‘It’s only after I joined Gulf Sa­ree Pact, did I come to know that, for in­stance, the sari I’m wear­ing is a rare Pocham­palli Ikat,’ says Abu Dhabi-based Sindhu Prasad. ‘While most Ikat saris nowa­days have pat­terns and mo­tifs that are In­dian in­spired, this one is true to the de­signs that orig­i­nated in In­done­sia and Cam­bo­dia, the birth­place of Ikat, mak­ing this sari a rare piece.’

That it was a gift from her hus­band 26 years ago on their sec­ond wed­ding an­niver­sary makes it more spe­cial.

‘Patan Pa­tola in fact is a form of Ikat,’ says Effie. Ex­plain­ing more about the in­tri­cate work that goes into mak­ing Ikat saris, Effie says that a form of re­sist dye­ing is em­ployed where yarns are dyed keep­ing in mind the end pat­tern on the sari be­fore they are even wo­ven.

‘Un­like other forms of re­sist dye­ing such as batik and tie-and-dye where the wo­ven cloth is dyed, in Ikat it is the yarn that is dyed. This en­sures both sides of the cloth will have the pat­tern and the colours will be of the same in­ten­sity.’

While there are in­nu­mer­able sari­weav­ing tech­niques and schools that are on the brink of ex­tinc­tion due to lack of pa­tron­age and fi­nan­cial sup­port, a hand­ful have achieved iconic sta­tus. Kan­jee­varam is one of them. Anu­radha Ra­jagopalan’s 18-year-old Kan­jee­varam is an ex­am­ple why this weave is hugely pop­u­lar. ‘The mo­tifs, colours, over­all richness and the al­most in­stant el­e­gance it adds to your de­meanour once you wear it are rea­sons this style of sari is my favourite,’ says Anu­radha, who has al­most 100 saris in her wardrobe and no longer waits for an oc­ca­sion to wear one.

Splen­dour is an in­te­gral part of mak­ing a tra­di­tional sari. Bindu Nair’s sari for in­stance has pure gold threads wo­ven to­gether with coloured threads, a com­bi­na­tion that cre­ates a stun­ning shim­mer ev­ery time she moves. ‘It is a Mun­dum Neriy­athum which is typ­i­cal to the south In­dian state of Ker­ala,’ says Bindu, a bou­tique owner who is pas­sion­ate about the at­tire. While saris are nor­mally one long piece of gar­ment, Mun­dum Neriy­athum has two pieces. The piece that goes around the waist is called Mundu and Neriy­athum is the piece that cov­ers the torso go­ing over the left shoul­der. ‘I love this sari’s sub­tle so­phis­ti­ca­tion,’ says this mother of two

Hand-painted kalamkari saris are stun­ning in de­tail. What is amaz­ing is that the pat­tern on the sari is not drawn us­ing a tem­plate

who hopes one day her daugh­ters too will love to wear a sari and would be keen to in­herit her’s the same way she in­her­ited her grand­mother’s hand­wo­ven saris.

How­ever, not all saris are about weav­ing tech­niques. Sus­tain­abil­ity is an im­por­tant fac­tor too. Sridevi Di­wakar’s sari, for ex­am­ple, is by Ethi­cus. ‘I was at­tracted to the phi­los­o­phy be­hind the brand,’ says this painter who has held ex­hi­bi­tions of her works and cre­ates art­works on or­der. Ethi­cus, Sridevi ex­plains, is a farm-to­fash­ion ini­tia­tive that not only uses 100 per cent or­ganic cot­ton or silk, eco-friendly colours and tra­di­tional weav­ing meth­ods, but is com­mit­ted to fair trade to en­sure the weavers, farm­ers and all those in­volved in the chain get their due credit and recog­ni­tion. ‘And be­ing an artist, I feel a con­nec­tion to that phi­los­o­phy,’ she says.

So, is this is her favourite sari? ‘No, ac­tu­ally I love kalamkaris,’ she ad­mits, point­ing to­wards Sruti Karthik’s sari.

Why? ‘Be­ing a painter, I un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult it is to paint one,’ she says. ‘In the group, I’m in fact called the kalamkari queen for the num­ber of kalamkari saris I have,’ she says.

A close look at Sruti’s sari and one can un­der­stand why Sridevi is so en­am­oured by this school of sari-mak­ing.

Com­pletely hand-painted, it is stun­ning in de­tail. ‘Kalamkari saris are from south In­dia and the pat­tern is not drawn us­ing a tem­plate or block-printed. The artist first draws a free hand sketch us­ing a pen made from a piece of bam­boo and then fills in the colours, a process that is ex­tremely la­bo­ri­ous as the artists need to en­sure the colours don’t bleed when the sari is washed,’ ex­plains Sruti, a HR pro­fes­sional.

‘But my favourite is a Shi­bori Chan­deri sari that I re­cently bought. It looks as if it’s spew­ing fire. Ev­ery time I wear it, I feel like the dragon queen from the Game of Thrones se­ries,’ she says with a big smile.

It is ev­i­dent that for th­ese women, a sari is not merely a piece of cloth but an in­tri­cate weave of mem­o­ries and as­so­ci­a­tions, an af­fair to re­mem­ber.

Shub­hoshree Sinha had a say in ev­ery as­pect of this Kan­tha sari’s mak­ing

Sruti Karthik’s hand-painted Kalamkari sari is an ex­am­ple of a lot of skill and hard­work

Be­ing an artist, Sridevi Di­wakar loves this sari by Ethi­cus, an ini­tia­tive com­mit­ted to fair trade

Priya Vishnu’s Bomkai sari is a rare com­bi­na­tion of pat­terns and mo­tifs

More than its rare pat­tern, Sindhu Prasad loves this Pocham­palli Ikat for the mem­o­ries as­so­ci­ated with it

Rad­hika Subra­ma­nian loves her Kor­vai Kanchipu­ram sari for its crafts­man­ship

Anu­radha Ra­jagopalan’s Kan­jee­varam silk sari is 18 years old

Effie Thomas’ Patan Pa­tola sari is a trib­ute to the weavers’ artis­tic as well as math­e­mat­i­cal skills

Bindu Nair wears a Mun­dum

Neriy­athum, a two-piece sari that is said to the old­est form of sari

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