How I learned to wear a sari, and enjoy it
- 9 December 2013
- From the section Magazine
I've always had a love-hate relationship with the sari.
When I see an Indian woman wrapped in its silken cocoon, the elegant drape accentuating her neck, one end falling gracefully over her shoulder, silk pleats swishing as she walks - and that bare midriff, both demure and suggestive no matter what size her waistline - I desperately want to wear one.
Yet faced with yards and yards of fabric, I always end up hopelessly entangled and looking like a silky sack of potatoes.
On the handful of occasions when someone else has tied a sari on me, not only have I felt like a cheat, but I've found the style too constraining. Who wants to be forced to take mincing little steps?
Still, as a woman of Indian origin, I have always wanted to learn the art of sari wearing. And now that I actually live in India, there's really no excuse. Luckily for me, and hundreds of other women, there is The Sari School.
I turn up one Saturday morning in my jeans and a black t-shirt to find several other women, some Indian, some foreigners taking part.
The teacher is Rta Kapur Chishti, a vivacious lady in her 60s, and an ardent sari historian. She tells us she wore her first sari at the age of five, and that she knows at least 108 different ways of tying one.
A sari, Chishti goes on, is a lifelong garment. Tied tight or loose, low slung with navel showing, or over a pregnant bump, the same one will fit you from adolescence into old age. It can be worn as a dress, a sarong, as pantaloons, even shorts.
What's more, she informs us, the hand-woven sari industry supports tens of thousands of Indian workers in rural areas.
She then educates us on India's stunning regional sari fabrics. The bandhani or tie-dyed cotton saris of Rajasthan; the naturally golden mooga silks, worn in Assam; the bold geometric patola saris of Gujarat. Even embroidered woollen saris from alpine Kashmir.
At long last, we're given our own sari to practice with- mine is a tissue-soft cotton in spring green with a subtle gold border. A tall British woman takes a silky purple one. And the young Indian fashion design student next to me picks out a funky, solid red.
We learn five styles in all. The simplest involves wrapping the sari around three times, slightly higher each time to form a layered skirt - the end is then wrapped around the neck like a scarf... or tied into a fetching bow.
We learn to wear the sari as a pantaloon, as women working on farms and in fishing villages still do, as well as hip ways of pleating our saris - pleats in front, pleats in back, pleats hanging over the waist and fanned out with flair.
I'm told the narrow petticoat skirt usually worn under a sari - the thing that forced me to shorten my gait, was actually a foreign import, based on ideas of modesty that entered India in the late 19th Century.
Indeed, we are encouraged to forego petticoats altogether and wear our saris over trousers, or just knotted at the waist. Pre-colonisation, women didn't bother to iron saris either. They simply twisted them into bundles, giving them a lovely crinoline finish in the bargain.
I'm no longer mincing about but striding in my gorgeous green sari, feeling in control - feminist, rather than just feminine.
Finally, we learn the most traditional sari style, wrapped around the waist twice, chastely hiding our ankles, pleated in front like the folds of a flower, with the end draped over the left shoulder.
For the first time in 40 years, I've managed to tie a sari completely solo - and it looks pretty good!
I canvas my fellow women... will they really adopt this garment into their lives?
The British lady who works for an international organization admits throwing on trousers and a shirt will always be quicker, but she says she can't think of a more appropriate garment for the evening corporate scene in India, where dresses simply can't compete with the sari's combination of elegance and modesty.
Later, flushed with the success of having gone the whole nine yards, I post a photo of myself, smiling, in my self-tied sari on the internet.
An Indian friend, one of those amazingly brainy women who is also able to carry off a sari with everyday panache writes back: "Almost there."
For a moment, I think, "Yup, stick to the trousers."
Then I remember that no matter what, at least I know my saris will always fit me. And that is very liberating indeed.