I almost missed my graduation ceremony because I was at the salon to get my saree draped. I didn’t trust the “eyebrow didi” (who had enthusiastically agreed to help every single girl who’d asked her in the days leading up to D-day) to find time for the relatively soft-spoken me. And I most definitely did not trust my mother’s off-white silk saree in the hands of my 21-year-old classmates who’d have a better chance of accidentally throwing the nine yards in a fictitious paper shredder than managing to get halfway through a draping exercise. So, I ended up missing my batch photograph, and just about made it to collect my certificate and award.
Five years later, today, I can (almost) drape a saree in my sleep and get through a day without fearing a minor wardrobe malfunction every time I have to do a little more than breathe. So, what brought about this shift? Apart from an all-prevailing boredom with the contents of my closet (yes, really), an innate need to experiment with my look, and one of Anavila’s earlier shows (where linen sarees actually looked super comfy!), it was an admiration of the simple elegance with which the Maharashtrian ladies on the local trains carried themselves; their neatly parted hair, gajras, gold hoops and sensibly draped sarees (no floating pallus, please) inspired in me the need to emulate their effortless aesthetic. I found myself wanting to normalise the act of wearing a saree on an ordinary day, to put it in the same league as a bright floral dress or a pair of jeans.
This combined with a lifetime of admiring my mother every time she emerged from her boudoir in a saree, and having two grandmothers with diverse aesthetics—fluttering chiffons and ornate, heirloom jewellery on one side, and starched kota sarees with pearls on the other—helped nudge me into the saree-wearing world armed with a mishmash aesthetic that, I believe, is clearly my own.
Around the same time as I was beginning to consider the possibility of wearing a saree on an ordinary day, I was just about finding my personal sense of style. Increasingly, I was gravitating towards handlooms, linens, and cottons, with skirts and dresses tailored out of traditional textiles and weaves. A trial of one of my mother’s Bhutanese skirts brought about this shift—I had nothing to wear one time, and she happily lent a skirt to me, mainly because it was a far cry from the shorter lengths I would sport at the time. Reminiscent of lungis, straight cut and ankle length, my mother’s “skirts” could be considered the transitional outfit that helped ease me into wearing a saree.
It took me several attempts of putting on a saree only to discard it seconds after, till I mustered up the courage to ignore the nagging feeling of doubt and reach work. As expected, the initial reaction in a legging and denim-wearing world was, “Puja at home?” But when I told them no, I wore this of my own accord, to mix things up, the response was heart-warming. I was bombarded with compliments all day, with people going as far as saying I should wear sarees every day! By the end, I was encouraged, and my confidence was at an all-time high. “I can do this”, I thought to myself.
I started my saree-wearing journey with a single white cotton. Within a few months, I had added a black version to the mix. A year later, my school friend decided to gift me a black and white cotton saree. Now, I knew, I was a saree wearer! Soon, I was rummaging through my mother’s closet, picking up hand-painted and hand-embroidered versions that had been handed down to her by her mother. I realised, I had a “type”. Dull, “ugly”, sarees, that no one my age would be caught dead in!
What helped in normalising the saree, was making the drape as comfortable as possible. Think shorter lengths, pinned pleats and compact pallus that could be swung around, teamed with loose blouses or tank tops for a relaxed, easy vibe. Also, staying as close to my everyday slightly-undone aesthetic—messy hair and everything—helped me feel like me, by emphasising that I had not been airlifted from a puja and dropped off at work. With time, I got bolder, and added sneakers and bright socks to the mix (such fun!).
People still tell me “Only you can pull it off”, to which I tell them, “So can you”, not out of politeness, but because I strongly believe everyone can take a saree and make it their own. For me, simple cottons work well, because I tend to add interest with sneakers and a random hairdo. For you, bright printed chiffons with Grecian sandals and poker straight hair, may work wonders. Or a starched kota with a crisp and sheer organza blouse and leather brogues. Or a plain georgette saree with a matching georgette blouse and simple thong sandals. But you have to try it to believe it.
Once you find your very own kind of everyday-friendly drape, you’ll find yourself looking grudgingly at denims and leggings, dresses will no longer occupy prime real estate in your wardrobe, and a whole new world will open up in the form of frilly petticoats, crop tops, statement blouses that double up as underpinnings for a solid saree, and jewellery! You’ll begin to see every new trend in the context of a saree. Soon, questions like this will fill your mind: Can I team a corset belt with a crepe saree? Can I wear an off-shoulder, peasant top with a simple mul saree? Can I add ruffles to my blouse? And, just like that, you will have one more option to choose from, every morning. And who amongst us, apart from the Steve Jobs-inspired, does not want yet another outfit choice?