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The Sari State of Mind

From learning how to drape a sari by Bollywood experts to using specialized gadgets to get the pleats right, the art of sari draping in the United States seems to be on its version 2.0.

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A sari for most women from the Indian subcontinent is one of the most powerful tools of nostalgia. Images of our mothers or grandmothers effortlessly draping a sari are often finely etched in our collective memories. The six yard long, single piece of unstitched garment may have survived centuries thanks to its rich cultural history, but somewhere the slightly complicated task of how to drape a sari has gotten lost in translation between generations.

Today many young girls of Indian origin, especially those living outside India, admit to having worn a sari at least once in a lifetime for a special occasion, but most scarcely know how to drape one. So, in a bid to keep the tradition alive, a host of services in the United States are not only undertaking draping orders, offering classes and video tutorials on how to tie a sari, but some websites and professional sari drapers are also deploying technology to get the drape and palla right.

On a balmy weekend in Dallas, Texas, Diana Thomas, a corporate HR professional during weekdays and a busy sari draper on weekends, is readying her bag for a professional sari-draping workshop. Apart from a few saris in fabrics ranging from heavy silks to gossamer georgettes, she packs a bunch of safety pins, a few pairs of shoes with varying heels and a hot hair straightener. But lest you think that Thomas doubles as a hair stylist, she clarifies that she uses the hair straightener to iron out and set the pleats right on a draped sari. A technique she learnt from her own experiences.

She says, “Sometimes the heavy fabric does not allow that perfect pleats,” and so she uses a hot hair straightner to set it right.

Elsewhere, a website sarisaheli.com dispatches sari draping gadgets, such as a pleat maker and a sari pin, all across the globe to make the process of sari draping easier. The website has also tied up with stores from the United States to the United Kingdom, Trinidad and Mauritius to sell the sari draping tools besides posting video tutorials on how to use the slightly complicated looking pleat maker.

Other websites, such as sariandthings.com, have been renting an entire sari look, complete with blouse, petticoat, matching jewelry and bindis all across the country, while others, such as saridhoti.com, sell special occasion saris to men’s veshtis (a type of dhoti worn in Tamil culture).

At a time when sari sales are hitting a low across the United States and many brick and mortar sari shops folding up, does this elaborate bid to get the sari drape right have a future? Diana Thomas, who runs her professional service called Draped2Nines, admits that while the sari is worn by South Asians in U.S. only on special occasions because of both practical considerations and climatic conditions, there remains an interest, especially amongst the young, to get their sari drape just as sexy as their favorite Bollywood actress.

She says: “Even if the first generation Indians in U.S. want to wear a sari on a wedding or engagement, they do not want the matronly drape associated with grandmas. They pay special attention that the drapes must flatter their form and hence the need to master the art of getting the sari right.”

In Edison, NJ, where it is as easy to spot a sari shop as it is to buy a pizza slice, Ravi Kumar, a sari salesman, says, “When women come to buy saris they often bring along with them print outs of Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone wearing saris and want similar styles.”

Also, while most prefer to wear a sari on festive occasions, the new generation of women are also seeing the sari as a way to express their identity. Last year, Tanya Rawal, an Indian origin adjunct professor at University of California Riverside, launched a #sareenotsorry campaign on the Internet to fight xenophobia. Rawal began by Instagramming photos of herself dressed in a sari to familiarize Americans with the dress and to counter prejudices. The campaign went viral and women across the globe began sharing their sari pictures. Rawal told the media: “The sari is such a useful piece of clothing. I’ve seen women carry a baby with that piece. I’ve seen women carry their food with it. It’s this really functional piece of fabric you can wear that speaks to how women are. We can do so many things and still be a woman at the same time. It’s miraculous.”

For New Delhi native Anindita Dutt, who came to New York University to study, a sari was an obvious choice for her graduation ceremony, not because she wanted to make any political statement, but simply because it was her mother’s dream to see her in a sari and there could have been no special occasion than this one to wear one.

Thomas agrees that often it is the alienation or isolation that underscores the cultural connections for immigrants. She shares her own story: “I came to the U.S. as a toddler and only wore sari on a few occasions, but when I went to college, living away with family many of us found comfort in befriending people from our community. As my friends began getting married we would all want to wear a sari and that’s when I realized why we should all know how to drape a perfect sari.”

Thomas took initial lessons from her mom, but her quest took her to Mumbai, where she learnt the various ways to drape a sari from Bollywood sari draper Kalpana Shah, who has been doing Aishwarya Rai’s and Deepika Padukone’s drapes.

Interestingly, wedding planners say that it’s not just Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi women who want to wear their sari right. A large number of cross cultural marriages in the U.S. has also led to women from various nationalities wanting to wear the sari. Special events planner Preeti Vasudeva, who runs a wedding management company, says that she has seen Mexican Indian, American Indian and various other cross cultural marriages where a non-subcontinent bride has chosen to wear a sari or a lehenga.

Also with a number of Bollywood actresses showing off their perfectly draped saris during international events has led to an interest to wearing a sari, albeit in a sexy and not exactly demure style. 

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Lifestyle | Life | April 2017

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