The delights of wearing a sari

This is going to be my year of regional styles of donning this garment.  Just saw and loved Baji Rao Mastani.

Nanditha Lakshmanan, Shilpa Sharma, Sudha Kanago, Deepa Krishnan, Ally Mathan, Jo Pattabhiraman, Chandra Jain, Geetha Rao, and all you casual and effortless sari wearers, this one is for you.

 

25 December 2015 | E-Paper

The delights of wearing a sari

For many of this generation, donning a sari is both a moral and an aesthetic choice


Dress is not a moral question. It is an aesthetic question,” pronounces Rta Kapur Chishti. For her, maybe. But for many 30- and 40-something women who are used to the “comfort” of wearing pants, the sari can seem constraining. So why bother with this garment? Why bother with six or nine yards of unstitched cloth that is, along with curry, cricket, bindis and bling, an instantly recognizable icon of India?

For some, like Ally Matthan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, who co-founded the 100 Saree Pact, the sari has become a crusade; a movement; a sisterhood. It is a way to preserve and relish a garment that is ours for the taking.

For others, like Shilpa Sharma, a co-founder of Jaypore, the online retailer, the sari is a work of art and a way to access Indian culture. Sharma organizes “textile trails” through the different states, introducing participants to weavers, techniques and experts like Chishti. Jaypore has brought Chishti to Bengaluru to run “The Sari School” workshop, in which she demonstrates some of the many regional styles she has learnt from all over India. I am one of the giddy participants.

Wearing a sari, for me, is both an aesthetic and a moral question. Do I sleep in a sari like my mother? No. Do I wear it throughout the day and travel to global conferences in a sari like my mother-in-law? No. Is the sari a second skin for me, as it is for Chishti? No. Then why am I wearing this garment? I certainly don’t reflexively reach for it every morning like countless women of the previous generation did. When invited to a party where I know most women will be dressed in designer Western clothes, the choice of a sari isn’t merely aesthetic. It is a blend of loyalty, even patriotism towards a garment that you believe is endangered and deserves to be saved, preserved and handed over to the next generation. It is a way of asserting an identity at the risk of standing out, something that many women dislike. It is a statement: “See, if I can wear a sari, maybe you will too.” It is—many times—uncomfortable to go to a party, be the only one in a sari and risk being stereotyped as old-fashioned.

Wearing a sari, for people of this generation, is an act of principle; a conscious choice. Having said that, I discovered a delightful consequence. The sari disarms. You walk into a room full of stylish, svelte women in bandage dresses and think, “Oh God! I am the only one in a sari.” But then they gravitate towards you, these men and women. They talk about Mangalore tiles; red-oxide floors; and grandparents. “I love your sari,” she says. “I wanted to wear one.” They associate your garment and you with comfort, nostalgia and family. That is the effect of this garment. It disarms the viewer and connects you with your past.

Chishti and Saumya Nagar, who works with her, demonstrated several regional styles, none of which required a petticoat. “Once you get hooked on to the feel of a sari around your body, you can never go back to the restrictions of a petticoat.”

The regional styles, many of which involve a kache, or drape between the legs, are like pyjamas; they are more comfortable than the way we wear a sari now, because they free up the legs to move.

That said, would you wear such a drape to a party? It requires conscious choice; the risk of standing out and being labelled “strange”, and the confidence to “own” a style that is Indian and ours for the taking. It is, in other words, the next and natural step for someone who chooses to wear a sari, not only for its aesthetic but also for what it represents.

Shoba Narayan is wearing regional-style sari variations to parties these days. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns here .

The Savage Beauty of Alexander McQueen

Memories of the V&A and my Parisienne friend Elisabeth Guez are fresh in my mind.

The V&A has another nice exhibit where they try to answer: “What is luxury?”

Wish I could have seen the John Galliano retrospective also– in Paris.

My review of the exhibit here.  And you have to see it on the newly launched Mint on Sunday.  There is a great piece on the “Quest for the Himalayan Quail.”

I never thought I would say this, but digital publications can be just as beautiful as nicely laid out print publications.

Would you wear a garment without a blouse?

This piece was a reaction to seeing a room full of amazing black and white photos by Sunil Janah of women who were topless. Like the below photo of a Hill Maria Woman from Bastar.  Courtesy of the Swaraj Art Archive, as are all the images here.

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The free women in Sunil Janah’s photography

Scurrilous as it sounds, it was the breasts that stupefied me—and I might as well warn you now—this is a word you are going to read a lot in this column—and if it makes you uncomfortable—well, that’s the point. I had entered Tasveer art gallery in Bengaluru to cultivate the sagacity that comes with viewing art—or so we hope. Instead, my thoughts were salacious.

Sunil Janah: Vintage Photographs, 1940-1960, contains a selection of black and white photos of tribal women. Janah’s images are well known and venerated by the cognoscenti. Knowing little about him beforehand except that he was Bengali and that the images in the exhibit were from the Swaraj Art Archive, I entered Tasveer tabula rasa, which arguably is the best state of mind from which to view art.

Janah’s photos are disorientingly intimate—as great photos are. He captured tribal women and courtesans in their natural milieus. The photos look as if these women were going about their daily rituals—pounding rice, picking fruit, dancing, gossiping and laughing. They glance casually at the camera; and boom—Janah just happens to be there to click the picture and capture the moment for posterity. Yet, great art doesn’t happen by happenstance. A casual pause or pose does not a great photo make. Great photographs offer a sense of being a voyeur. They give us the feeling of having been at the scene. So how did he do it?

Many of the tribal women have towels wrapped around their waist. That’s the extent of their clothes. Didn’t these women find Janah and his camera intrusive? Were they self-conscious? How did he get them to agree to pose? How did they allow him to capture them half naked; bare breasted?

Ah yes, those breasts. We live in a time when breasts are over-sexualized. Of all the female organs, they are the ones that arouse—literally and figuratively. They are the stuff of ire and fantasy; fashion lingerie and erotic fiction. Agent Provocateur has built a business around sexy bras that fetishize this body part. Looking at these images showed me that breasts weren’t always viewed this way; at least in India. That gave me hope and hopeless nostalgia.

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One image riveted me. She was a tribal woman from Bihar, staring at the camera, her head cocked to one side, her torso bare and beautifully shaped. She just stood there, staring at the camera. Fearless. Free. With just a towel wrapped around her waist. Stuck in hot Bengaluru, clad in a stifling full-sleeved salwar-kameez, I felt pangs of envy. You know what the weirdest thing was? This woman; this beautiful woman clad in a simple loin cloth was wearing multiple necklaces around her neck. It was as if the breasts that she revealed, the body-part that is the fetish and focus of our time, was just a functional organ to her, no different from a heel or elbow. She needed jewellery beyond that—to decorate and ornament. Her clothes were appropriate for the place and climate. Today, we just ape the West.

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Art inspires. It makes your thoughts fly unbidden to corners of your head and heart, provoking surprising and occasionally shocking thoughts.You know what I thought when I saw Sunil Janah’s photos? I thought of Sundari-paati. She was my neighbour’s grandmother (Dadi). A widow. She went around Madras (now Chennai) in the 1980s—not that long ago—clad in a soft beige nine-yard sari, worn without the constraints of a blouse or the added layer of an underskirt. Her attire made eminent sense in humid Chennai, just as the tribal women’s attire made sense in India. Malayali women used to go topless in scorching Kerala until the 1900s. What happened? When did we become so prudish and don clothes that are inappropriate for our climate? When did a certain female body part go from being a functional organ to an object of prurient fantasy? They wore jewellery, you see; beyond the bare breasts; those tribal women. They didn’t think that going topless was enough to stop traffic. They needed the lipstick in the form of necklaces. And this wasn’t so long ago.

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Two Bengaluru women, Ally Mathan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, have started a Facebook project called the #100sareepact. They plan to wear the saris they own 100 times at least in 2015, and tell stories about it. It is rather wonderful; just as Tasveer’s photo exhibits and lectures are. But the six-yard sari that we wear today is less than 150 years old. Before that women in India wore nine yards of unstitched cloth without the British-imposed petticoat and blouse. It made sense for our weather. We had glorious regional variations. Anyone who loves Indian textiles should look at Janah’s photos. They should listen to literary critic Ganesh Devy’s lectures on the colonial mindset. I love the #100sareepact because it encourage PLUs (People Like Us) to wear saris. I wonder though, will the pendulum swing back far enough for women to give up on blouses entirely, like the women in Janah’s photos, or during my grandmother’s time. It is not logical for us to be wearing thick jeans and tailored layered long-sleeved clothes. The women in his photographs were more scantily clad than Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. But they exude authenticity and a spirit of the land. There lies the hope and tragedy.

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Shoba Narayan wears nine-yard saris sans petticoat within her home. Not always but on special occasions. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

I found some good blogs on this topic on Pinterest here and here

Ally Mathan’s sari project on Facebook here

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

FIRST PUBLISHED: SAT, DEC 20 2014. 12 46 AM ISTHOME» LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh). http://www.perrinparis.com/en
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The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600. http://www.sophiehulme.com

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Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy. http://www.bodosperlein.com

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Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each. http://www.leebroom.com

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Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else. http://www.akris.ch/en

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Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on eBay.in. http://www.williampenn.net

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper. http://www.champderevesvineyards.com

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. http://www.fpettinaroli.it/ and http://www.rubberbandproducts.com

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu. http://www.theammashop.org

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Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring. http://en.bulgari.com

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Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Brooms

The big brooming business

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An acquaintance of mine, Chantal, called from New York the other day with a request: she needed brooms; lots of them. Could I source them from India? Chantal is a gaunt French-Algerian chain smoker. She says merde (shit) a lot; wears Dior rouge lipstick, and lots of moody grey Chanel eyeshadow. She used to be a hand model but now specializes in department store windows. Her job, she says, is to make mannequins “look like models”.
Over Skype, Chantal explained her idea. She would decorate an entire department store with brooms. She had watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York, US. Her current boyfriend is Gujarati and had told her about the “Clean India” campaign. She had seen photos of Modi cleaning the streets. She didn’t care for the politicians but she wanted those brooms; at least a hundred of them. The mannequins could hold the brooms in various poses.
“Think about it,” said Chantal. “Flying Balenciaga clothes with brooms; Sacai on brooms; Givenchy’s Antigona bag surrounded by a chandelier of brooms; Celine in a forest of brooms; Christian’s nail polish (shoe designer Christian Louboutin) dripping red and purple on brooms. The possibilities are endless.”
I told Chantal that I would see what I could do. I knew a person who could deliver on this demand: Nagamma.
As a young girl, Nagamma had worked for my grandparents in Coimbatore. She was now a septuagenarian and had returned to the family business: broom making. She taught me many of the skills that have made me the woman I am today: stringing together a jasmine garland with a thread made from banana fibre; playing “five stones” and picking up three, four, five and even seven stones with one fist; drawing elaborate kolams or rangoli designs on festive days; and expertly parting hair with fingers and catching running lice.
I caught up with Nagamma at her village near Modakurichi, Tamil Nadu. We squatted under the swaying coconut trees with verdant paddy fields on all sides and engaged in an activity that she had taught me as a child. On one side were dried up coconut leaves. We had to squat on the ground and slit the leaves to pull out the spine. It was an activity that was as meditative as tying jasmine flowers or cleaning a lice-comb with a toothpick. For a while, Nagamma and I sat in companionable silence, ripping the coconut spine from its leaves. We both were chewing betel leaves and it was tough to talk over the red juice that was on the verge of drooling every time I opened my mouth. Finally, I tucked the leaf expertly in a corner of my mouth—another skill that Nagamma had taught me—and proceeded to lay out my proposal. I needed 100 brooms to export to the US, I said.
Nagamma leaned forward confidentially. “Kannu,” she said. The word means “eye” in Tamil but is used not as an “eye for an eye” type threat but an endearment. “Kannu, ever since the Aam Aadmi party, our bijiness has been very good. Every politican wants to wield a broom these days. How can I supply 100 brooms for your friend, Shanta?”
“Chantal,” I corrected absently but that wasn’t really the point.
Nagamma corrected my technique: slit in the middle, not the top, she said. That way I could pull the spine out on both sides. Quickly, she tied a bunch of coconut sticks, or eer-kuchi, as we called it, with a coir rope. A broom was done.
“You’ll get paid in euros, Nagamma,” I said.
She frowned. “Can I buy vethalai (betel leaves) with euros?”
I nodded vigorously. She could buy a barnyard full of betel leaves with euros.
That got her attention. Now I had to lay the problem at her feet. Chantal wanted the brooms to be tied with twine of multiple colours: neon, purple, candy pink, red, and turquoise. “We can’t put Chloé on traditional brooms,” she had said. “We need the brooms to have fashion also.”
Nagamma would have none of it. In the past, she said, they tied brooms with banana fibre. Tying it with coir was itself a compromise that she made for city-dwellers. Neon plastic twine was sacrilege. “In our country, we can eat our brooms, Kannu,” she said. “It comes from earth and it goes back to earth. How can I put all this false colours on the broom?”
I consulted Indologist Rekha Rao, who has written several terrific books on therapeutics in Indian sculptures and how they depict healing mudras and marma points (published by Aryan Books International but hard to find in bookstores). “There are objects that look like our brooms in Indus seals,” said Rao. “In fact, Narendra Modi looks like the male figure of Indus seals. With the same type of beard and facial features.”
Brooms in ancient India were used for saucha, said Rao. Cleaning the external space but also the inner negativities. Rao has analysed the sculptures of Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. She said many of the sculptures there held brooms and their uses were somewhat similar to the shamanism that was practised in Tibet and Nepal— where the body was literally swept clean. “We use the chamara for fanning and similarly such brooms were used to sweep the body clean,” said Rao.
Rajiv Sethi, the painter and art curator, once showed me photos of brooms designed and held by tribal women, each of which was hand-tied and decorated in a fashion that was almost Japanese in its minimalism and subtlety.
So I did the only thing possible. I called Chantal and told her that I could provide Harry Potter’s flying brooms in a variety of colours if needed. But the humble Indian jhaadu was non negotiable: take it or leave it. She is still thinking about it.

Shoba Narayan knows how to make brooms. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Male Perfume

I thought male perfume was a bit of musk, wood, leather, and all those usual suspect-ingredients. Who would have thought about oudh, orange blossom and the like? These new male perfumers are changing the paradigm. I pitched the story to my editor, Ted, based on Byredo. The perfumer is half-Indian which is how I heard about it. I also sniffed the perfume at a shop in Paris. Bloomberg Pursuits gave me the other names. My Parisienne friend, Elisabeth helped me a lot with this piece. Sourcing contacts and the like. Here it is finally.

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The magazine is here.
BloombergPursuits-Spring2014

Coming of Age

My colleague, Shefalee Vasudev, who has a wonderful sense of Indian fashion, wrote this piece in which she included me. Shefalee knows Indian fashion well. Her aesthetic veers towards handmade, handwoven, quirky and local. I like the photos they have included with the piece as well.

I have another friend, Shruthi, who is a curator of content for an extended group of readers. But she mostly sends articles from US publications. Wonder why Indian publications have not hit her eagle eye and eclectic taste? Is it because they are not as good? Or because we are so bombarded with media and stimuli in India that we prefer to subscribe to our NYT online or The Atlantic online (both of which I do) and forget the India Today, Open, Caravan, Outlook, etc. etc. magazines?

Sari Warrior

A piece on my favorite subject.

The National Conversation

The sari is neatly woven into my country’s social fabric
Shoba Narayan
Aug 28, 2013

Different people have differing relationships with their country’s traditional clothes. The Japanese, for instance, have eschewed the kimono and adapted western attire. So too the Chinese. In Arab nations, women still wear traditional clothes. So too in Vietnam and India, where women switch between western and traditional wear depending upon mood and circumstance.
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In the last few months, I have started to wear Indian clothes, specifically saris, more often. It didn’t start out this way. During the 18 years when I lived in the US, I rarely wore saris. Vintage Christian Dior suits for formal occasions and shorts when the weather turned warm was more my style. They were comfortable and functional; and got me where I wanted to go.
After returning to India six years ago, I began to look for a style that suited a new life in a new land. Since I work from home, I had to dress for the people I dealt with on a daily basis: the plumbers and carpenters who came to fix my home and hang my paintings; the two women who helped cook and clean; and assorted home-delivery people such as the dry cleaner and tailor.
Gradually, I discovered they took me more seriously if I wore traditional clothes. The sari gave me gravitas. It allowed me to wield authority like my mother instead of appearing like a little girl clad in shorts and a shirt.
The sari also drew me into a life that I didn’t know existed.
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The sari, to put it simply, is six yards of unstitched cloth that is woven and draped by women all over the Indian subcontinent. For women of my mother’s generation, the sari has a huge resonance. It is a dress that they know, love and understand. It conveys purity, unsullied by needle and thread. So much so that most women don’t even stitch the edges of the woven fabric, preferring to tie it into knots to prevent it from fraying. No stitches, no pins, no cutting, just long swathes of beautiful textile that they drape over themselves like the ancient Greeks. This is the sari.
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If you ask Indian women, they will tell you that the sari is supremely graceful. It is also, to the modern woman, cumbersome, because it relies on drapery rather than tailoring to give it shape. When I began wearing the sari, I could barely move. The sari, in that sense, is a luxury garment, because it demands a certain leisure and grace that is reminiscent of the past. But looks can be deceiving. My housekeeper, for example, wears a sari to clean my bathrooms. My cook goes through the day – bending, chopping and lifting, all clad in a sari. It is, like haute couture, all a matter of practice.
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With practice, wearing a sari got easier. I realised that it was all a matter of how I draped the fabric and where I tucked it. Soon, I could sprint across the road clad in a sari. It suited the climate of India perfectly, airing out heat from the open midriff and covering the appropriate shoulder when the weather got cold. It made me feel at home. It also made me feel like an anomaly.
You see, the sari, for better or worse, has become a garment that the young and fashionable will not wear, unless it is a special occasion. The young women who populate my book club often prefer to wear skirts and dresses from Banana Republic and Nanette Lepore instead of a sari. They associate the sari with their mothers; with being old fashioned and traditional; with orthodoxy; with being an anomaly. Often, at parties, I am the only one clad in a sari. It makes me feel weird and not “with it” as my teenage daughter says.
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The sari disarms people though. When I go into a gathering populated by the Indian elite, clad in a sari, everyone in the room visibly softens, probably because I remind them of a time when all the women they loved wore saris. Just as the red oxide in my floor prompts Indians to say, “Oh, this floor reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” the sari is an icon that evokes nostalgia. So I disarm the audience in my sari and then slowly reveal the feminist underneath. What was it that they said about iron hand in a velvet glove?

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir