Nine yards of nostalgia

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Designers strike a stunning balance between tradition and modernity as the sari becomes the newest style statement
The sari Mother wears everyday is sometimes a train, sometimes a river, or a swing, or a hiding place . . .”

My Mother’s Sari by Sandhya Rao

Once, on the ramp, not so long ago, it had everyday motifs such as cycle-rickshaws on it. The handloom sari was mundane, yet beautiful on the ramps of Delhi. That was in 2006, when David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore presented their version of the eternal nine yards. It was also the first sari of theirs to be acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Nostalgia has its role. There are mothers and grandmothers, chiffons and georgettes, handloom and Banarasis, and Kancheepurams that are part of the heritage, and memory. Today, the sari is an art that challenges designers with its versatility and potential. Not that it was ever out of the scene. It’s been part of the fashion industry’s repertoire as a ‘trousseau’ garment. Textiles are a way of establishing an identity in an ever-changing world. Even when chiffon was around, it was in a way showcasing its ‘stubbornness’, saying that the sari would somehow adapt but not lose its hold on India.

Abraham says he cut it. To him it was a design concept. He wanted the modern woman to be able to wear it as an edgy outfit. One metre was gone. There was a belt, and a printed tunic to go with the jamdanisari, and it was their opening outfit. Years ago, when he was in design school, his teacher wore a black and white and red Sambalpuri sari, and he was fascinated with the geometry and austerity of the concept. Abraham thinks the sari poses an ‘identity question’ that makes him want to do things with it.

At the 2014 Wills India Fashion Week, A&T (Abraham & Thakore) showcased a range of saris that still catered to Western notions of minimalism, but in their characteristic way, they fused it with traditional Indian textiles, using laser-cut triangles on the pallu to hint at precision and craft and modernity and industrial design. The silk was woven in Assam. Mostly, everything was in beige and black. Tussar and crepe. Other young designers also had a version of the sari in their collections then. Like Rimzim Dadu, who showcased a few pieces in her collection for the first time. Even beyond the ramp, designers like Mrinalini Gupta and Rina Singh of Ekà were also taking it up.

Abraham, who sells under the label A&T, says that through the resurgence of the sari, the Indian fashion industry is coming into its own. Nostalgia has a larger role in fashion than many would like to admit. The sari has always been part of the visual scene. Abraham’s mother was Chinese, he grew up in cantonments, and had no direct relation with the sari in childhood. Yet, the garment was all around him. “I am not interested in paying homage to crafts. I just want to acknowledge the vast resources that we have,” he says. “All Indian silhouettes are challenging. The question is: how does one keep it relevant?”

Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango, who started doing Chanderi saris, doesn’t call himself a designer. But like a graphic artist who pretends he is looking at a frame to understand design and implement it, he says the sari intrigued him. It could be minimal. There existed something like Indian minimalism.

He grew up in Rajasthan, and the monotony of the dusty parts was broken beautifully by the rani, the sharbati, the lime-greens, the reds and the yellows. He began with a white Chanderis with gold borders. But he figured weavers had a lot more to offer. What was needed was design intervention. “I wanted to write a story that nobody wrote,” he says. “I have a problem with the way we were aesthetically representing the sari. We weren’t changing with time. Everything was getting modified everywhere. The sari needed to go through a churn,”Garg earnestly believes.

His saris are poetry. A bird in flight, flowers in bloom, and everything that is beautiful, woven with colours that are essentially Indian. “My romance is with history. It is with pehchaan,” he says, referring to ‘identity’. “I wanted answers. If we didn’t do bootis on saris, the weavers would be betraying their craft, and would fade away.”

In just a matter of a few years, he has acquired a clientele that includes writers, politicians and actors. He has moved beyond Chanderis. There’s Banarasi, and there is cotton. White on white, gold on rani pink. That’s his answer to Western minimalism, and it’s with a vengeance. “Why would you drape the sari as a saafa for a fashion shoot?” he says. “Let it be what it is, and make it desirable.” It has to be released from elitism and weird fashion perceptions, he adds.

The sari, once written off as an occasional wear by many fashionistas, is now a commercially viable option for designers. Kallol Datta, a Kolkata-based designer, says, “I think it automatically found a place [in my label’s product mix] by virtue of its being an unstitched piece of fabric. The possibilities are limitless.” He adds, “The sari has helped with storytelling. When you have six metres of fabric and print all over it, not only does it belong to the collection but becomes a manifesto of sorts for that particular fashion season. The influence of the sari on the international fashion circuit cannot be denied. Any garment with a shoulder or shoulder-to-waist drape is called sari-esque.” He explains why the sari hasn’t found space in wardrobes worldwide.“The reasons are the same as to why the kimono or the lederhosen or the burkha haven’t found takers beyond a certain ethnic or religious group. Native clothing, when taken beyond the concept of race or geography, is perhaps looked upon as costume- like,” says Datta.

In his Fall Winter 2014 line, Datta calls his sari ‘Paranoia Pronoia’. The entire look has 20 metres of fabric. He has done away with the conventional blouse, and a traditional Japanese kimono is incorporated into the look.

Arjun Saluja, who owns the label Rishta, says the sari is like a chameleon. It can change, mutate and transform, yet hold its soul in place. His first ever sari attempt was inspired by a chapter in Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. The particular chapter spoke about Zeenat’s first tryst with the burkha, and how she, a eunuch, loved the way it felt against her body sans the salwar or kameez. She also never gave up on the sari. That’s his story. The story of not giving up.

He fused the two. The opening garment then was the burkha-sari, zipped up (a pre-stitched version), and the model walked the ramp in a cloud of smoke—a memorable image from 2012 in black.

This time, Saluja tried yet another version. Stitched, as the previous one, but hand-woven in Odisha, it was inspired by Lahore and its excesses. Paired with a treated leather blouse, frayed at the edges to hint at the city’s violence, churn, state of mind and also at the work of several artists he met on trips across the border, his sari crossed over in many ways. Yet again.

After the burkha-sari, Saluja’s next was a white stitched Hakama pant-style sari with a shirt blouse. It had darts, and a gathered, pleated pallu, a signature style. “It is very naked. It exposes, and yet it hides,” he says. “The sari is contradictory. It has no occasion. It is the ‘staple diet’ of women in India, the kind of women you interact with. That’s how I understand the sari, and approach it.

Then, there are other approaches to the sari. Not as complex, but more simplistic. A way of living. Rina Singh of Ekà says the sari to her is “far from the boundaries of Indian or Western silhouettes”. It’s for women who approach fashion likewise, without being caught up in trend cycles and such notions. “Earlier, though not consciously but somewhere in my mind, I felt a beautiful sari was the ultimate sexy statement for a woman. My notions were Indian; my references for a sari were also the same,” she says. “Why make it modern and fashionable? When it’s already a wonder. It’s a full circle in Indian Fashion. The 70s rocked the sari with elegance.”

In fashion, the sari has always found itself in the crossfire of the stitched and unstitched. Rina Singh says she doesn’t fathom stitched saris. “Maybe for ease of wearing... But as a purist, I’d rather think it takes the charm away from the specialty of a sari,” she says.

Among other purists is Neeru Kumar, a senior designer who owns Tulsi, and has a loyal clientele that includes Priyanka Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi (for her handloom saris). “The format of the sari by definition is body-border- and-pallu. Every element plays an important role, and they come together to make a strong statement. The sari commands a certain respect for the wearer and viewer,” she says. “It all started with Indira Gandhi, who always wore handwoven saris. It meant something, it suggested that it was important for us Indians to wear.” Neeru Kumar started weaving saris back in 2000.

Mrinalini Gupta’s favourite fashion phrase is ‘swinging it’. She herself went through plenty before she found her own response to the sari (she had under-rated nostalgia as part of the creative process). She is yet to showcase it on the ramp. As a designer, she merely took it for granted. After all, it was everywhere. “Weren’t your sketches supposed to be different, springing from nowhere?” But then, she says, she grew up. The encounter was with a “stunning gold weave and I knew that I wanted to wear it in the simplest way possible. No clutter... just classic and cold.”

“My grandmother had a knack of really swinging the sari at that time and at her age. In the 50s and 60s, she was independent, pragmatic, a thinker, humorous and fashionable. I remember her stepping out crisply dressed for her various sojourns. A complete shopper. My mother belongs to a more classic school of thought—read chiffon and pearl drops—and the sari on her came across as a more elegant affair. I was an unfortunate counter to this trend as my interest in the sari has kindled as recently as two years ago. But I am happy to say it’s a quintessentially Indian concept, steeped in our history with a million stories woven into it. In a nutshell, [others] just don’t get it.”

Like Sanjay Garg, Anavila Sindhu Misra only does saris. In linen. That’s how she started. Her collection of linen saris was well received at the Lakme Fashion Week this year. It was her first-ever fashion week. Misra’s moment came in a rural belt in Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, where she was handling a cluster that was part of a Textiles Ministry project.“I was from the corporate sector. I was called in to instill discipline. The project was a turning point. This was 2004. Here, I was dealing with human hands… I had a socialistic point of view then, but all that changed during those three years. You have to make it a viable business. For how many days will you say ‘ These people are poor and you must save them’?”

She realised the beauty of the sari in daily chores. She started wearing saris herself then. She invested her money, and the first sari took months to weave and develop. Misra draped the sari in 30 different ways for her last show. “Apart from being feminine, the sari gives you a lot of strength. I don’t feel docile. I feel so much in control of myself, like my mother. Like all the other women in these rural areas,” she says. “There is the strength of simplicity. It is very sentimental.”

For Deepika Govind, a designer who works with textiles, the sari is a garment of freedom. “It’s interesting for it defines our Indian identity. All the variations from every state: from the tribal woman, from the fields, women sitting in a palatial haveli, every one of them wore and accessorised it differently. Not only that, the men too wore the dhoti, panche and angavastram, which is similar to saris in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.”

And then there are those who are weaving copper and steel into saris. Like Gaurav Jai Gupta of Akaaro.

There’s a lot going on in the sari narrative, aiding its comeback. Handloom or otherwise, approaches could be sentimental or unsentimental. But what makes it appealing is a basic human condition: nostalgia.

We return to belong, to stay.