Six yards of magic
Drug of choice? Sari! Ever since I entered Presidency College, Kolkata, and heard on the grapevine that the dress code was sari and jhola, my long love affair with this uniquely adaptable piece of cloth began. What other garment can one hitch up for a Bharatnatyam rehearsal? Which garment allows one to use part of it as a headscarf? Worn Maharshtrian style, the sari can be suitable attire for selling fish in a market or drying Bombay duck by the sea! And it is a garment that has little association with class or economic status. Migrant workers as well as socialites wear it with equal elan.
At first, I was content with tangail and dhonekhali from my native Bengal. I remember Shimlai Babu coming to us with his mysterious bundle. Why was he called Shimlai Babu, one wonders. He certainly didn't hail from Shimla and neither was there any Bengali name close to the word "Shimlai." He rarely smiled, spoke in courteous low tones, was dark and slim and wore spectacles with thick black frames. He was always dressed in a khadi kurta and spotless white dhoti. One could easily mistake him for a professor of a local college. Once he opened his bundle, he displayed the simplest of cream dhonekhalis with their narrow maroon or forest green borders. The material was super fine, having none of the usual coarseness of dhonekhali, and so cool to wear in the hot, muggy Kolkata summer. Then there were the trips to the fabled shops of College Street and Gariahat before Durga Puja to buy the latest
selections. "Please, come in, Boudi!" the portly shop owner of Sri Durga Stores would exclaim, and quickly make room for us on the sheet spread on the floor of his shop. As one looked on mesmerized, he would unfurl sari after irridescent sari for our benefit. "Look at this aansh paar," (a border with a design like fish scales in zari) he would say, pulling out a buttercup yellow concoction, "It's the latest craze!" "This cream and vermillion one is just made for you, Boudi," he would say, looking admiringly at my mother's peaches and cream complexion. "Feel the jomi (texture) of this-the sari barely has any weight! It's spun from the finest yarn." There would be saris to be bought for aunts and grandmothers and cousins. My Thakuma (paternal grandmother) would wear only pure white or cream tangail saris with narrow black or brown borders. Since she was a widow, any shade of red was completely forbidden, as were butis--dots--or any kind of design on the body of the sari. My dida (maternal grandmother,) as a sage mother-in-law and granny, would wear whites and creams with elegant broad red borders to match the sindoor in her hair-no garish, brightly coloured saris for her.
Trips to South Kolkata meant visiting the wonderful collections housed in private homes-- Kundahar at the Guha Thakurtas' home and Meera Basu just next door. Whenever the Kundahar sale was on it was complete mayhem. Beautiful Bengali women with their loose buns, large, kohl-rimmed eyes and huge bindis would waft in and out of rooms crammed floor to ceiling with elegant Bengal handlooms, picking up with a careless air one dazzling weave after another. Meera Basu was quite a character. She was an extremely imaginative designer who would preside over her treasure trove of Bengal handloom clad in polyester or georgette! Meera had strong likes and dislikes. When a naive customer asked her about the designs of Bengal saris she replied tartly, "Bengal saris-no design. Only border and buti." If Meera had a favourite customer-and my mother certainly was a favourite-she would raise her eyebrow slightly and one of her attendants would scurry to the next room and come staggering in with a pile of the latest designs. Baby pink with a paisley grey anchal, lime green and purple stripes on cream, black with a broad, resplendent silver aansh border, ice blue with a slate grey border and buti. There would be all kinds of borders-churi-thin stripes like glass bangles or dhala and daant (a solid colour with little triangular designs on top) and all kinds of butis-macchi buit, hazaar buti-dots as dizzyingly close as a swarm of bees or a sari with a thousand dots, evenly distributed all over the 6 yards, or the zig-zag, hell-to-weave, diagonal pattern of a jamdani. I would love the mystery of the folded sari on the shelf, teasingly revealing just a tiny bit of itself. "That one," I'd point. "No, next row, two down." And the sari would be unfurled, either fulfilling its promise with a perfect balance of colour and design or be a disappointment with the border clashing discordantly with the body of the sari.
Gradually my wardrobe evolved to include saris from other states. The rich, velvety kanjeevarams of Bhojraj and Vasudev Tolaram that would dazzle with the intensity of their colours-magenta, puce, turquoise, teal, fuscia-and the striking way in which the broad borders were of a completely different colour-maroon with saffron, parrot green with purple, crimson with sable. One didn't wear a kanjeevaram, the kanjeevaram wore one-it caressed ones shoulders and fell softly against one's back, making one feel snug, warm, well-cared for. On visits to Puri or Bhuvaneshwar, one picked up elegant sambhalpuris with their intricate fish borders in terracotta or bright fire-engine red. I was not too fond of the kotkis-after the understated elegance of the sambhlapuris they seemed loud and overdone, their designs too broad and out of focus. Visits to my aunt in Baroda yielded handblock Gujarati cottons in bright shades of orange and sindoor red and mustard-often all combined in the same sari! As a special treat one might pick up a patola, the heavy cream silk with the traditional bridal red border and bandhni dots. The list goes on and on-Maheshwaris with their sheer, almost gauzy body of dull earth tones like muddy brown or grey with the dazzle of the narrow, bright zari border; paithanis with their loud, extrovert colours, their look at me! scream of lime green, purple and fuscia and their huge, ornate, zari embossed anchals; the Coimbatore cottons in self-effacing shades of biscuit and fawn and simple, nondescript borders of navy or chocolate-they came to life when worn, such was their softness; the dense, heavy tanchoi of Benaras in shades of plum and magenta, the subtle design woven in gold all over the sari, often taking the weaver months to complete; the kalamkari saris of Hyderabad with their gorgeous vegetable dyes and intricate, age-old floral patterns; the Assamese silks with their superbly woven butis, borders and anchals in classic shades of white, black and red; the gossamer thin kota saris of Rajasthan, woven of silk and cotton thread, with their pastel shades and distinctive paisley designs going back centuries....
There were special saris for special occasions. On Saraswati pujo one wore a tangail in any shade of yellow: chrome, sulphur, lemon, daffodil, golden. For a winter wedding it was an ornate Benarasi or a bright kanjeevaram; for a summer nuptial, a dhakai. For the last day of Durga pujo one wore a traditional red and white tant. There would be saris for all different ages. The bright, multicoloured striped or checked tangails with narrow borders for young girls, the more ostentatious colours, maroon, forest green, with complicated butis and borders, for the middle aged women, and, inevitably, the creams and the whites for those above fifty-five. This was the style in the Kolkata of my youth. No doubt it is different now. But I still get a bit of a jolt when I see mature north Indian women sporting colours like peacock blue or bright emerald. For Bengali widows coloured saris were a no no; if saris had a hint of red, even on a white background, they could not be worn.
So much of the sari culture is intertwined with the people who design them, weave them, and display them. They make up the whole magical experience. The plight of the weavers alone should be enough to halt the trend of wearing polyester, wash-and-wear salwar suits or western wear. The weavers--be they of Shantipur, which boasts of a 1000-year tradition of weaving tant and where middlemen pay the weavers a pittance for their creations, selling them at a 200% profit in the cities, or Kanchipuram where they weave saris worth Rs. 860 crore that lying rotting in storage unsold, or Benaras, the last recently getting a Rs. 2350 crore help package from the government to battle the illegal flooding of cheap Chinese silk in the market--almost all are in a pitiable condition.
The impersonality of online shopping or the experience of picking clothes, identical in design and colour and varying only in size, off a rack in a mall completely obliterates the joy of shopping at a shop which has been patronised by your mother and grandmother, where the owner will offer you tea and pull out sari after sari and wait patiently for you to make up your mind, where a rookie attendant will invariably be perched above the false ceiling and fling down saris from the loft above the shop, where another attendant, always male, will expertly drape the sari around his own spindly frame so that the full glory of border and anchal may be displayed, where the owner will make polite enquiries about the health of your father or, as time goes by, husband, and lament over inflation and the rising cost of living.
And saris would be handed down from mother to daughter in a treasured, age-old tradition. Can one do that with a salwar kameez or a shirt? Saris form a rite of passage. The first sari a girl wears is more often than not bought by her mother who looks on disbelievingly at the transformation from girl to woman as she drapes the cloth around her daughter. A bride may choose to wear her mother's wedding sari, carefully preserved over the years. After my father died, my mother handed me a packet. It contained an exquisite white tangail with a broad red border and red butis. "It's the last sari your father bought for me," she told me quietly. "You wear it now."
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More about Shormishtha Panja
Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
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