Take the Indian away from India but you can’t take the saree from the Indian
Living in Singapore made INDRANI MITRA ROBBINS rediscover her love for the saree and how it allowed her to stay connected to the colours and silhouettes of India. She shares her journey to becoming a passionate collector
It was an old Banarasi. The whole saree hadn’t survived; only the borders and the pallu, frayed but shimmering, had been transplanted onto a new crepe base with a weave of matt gold. The signs of time showed in little rips and tears on the more than 60-year-old silk and zaree; however, that didn’t dim its glory, not one bit.
I was looking at the saree last Thursday evening, my mind was made up, that was the one I’d wear the next day. I wear a saree every Friday evening. It was about three years ago that I decided to do this.
Even now, the decision surprises me almost as much as it makes me happy. When I came to Singapore 25 years ago, I had stopped wearing sarees. I have always loved fabric and textiles, handloom thrilled me, khadi was part of me, and of course, I had a whole lot of sarees. At 21, I used to go to work in printed cottons and silks, I wore sarees to weddings, and when I got married, I tried to get a saree from every state. I had been a confident saree wearer, deft at managing the flowing yards and making it all come together nicely, pleats and pallu in perfect balance, no clumsy folds of fabric, no errant flyaway ends. I knew I looked good in sarees.
And yet, somewhere along the way, I lost touch with them. They stayed neatly folded in my cupboard, loved but pushed away. Why, I haven’t the faintest idea. Yes, I’d gained a fair bit of weight, but isn’t the saree the one garment that doesn’t judge you by your size? Even that made no
difference. I was done with sarees. I would wear them only if I had to. Weddings, some special occasions, that was it. No, I wasn’t going to buy any more sarees. Ah, the best laid plans….
In 1997, we came to Singapore. I thought we’d be here for a year, maximum two, then stay in a couple of other cities in different countries, and eventually go back to India. As is customary, things didn’t happen quite that way. And here we are still. Three years after coming to Singapore, the year I turned 40, on a visit to Kolkata, quite inexplicably, I who was never going to buy a saree, fell for a beautiful Tussar with Kañtha work. My mother bought it for me for my birthday.
I think that was the beginning of my return to the saree. Staying away for so long from what I considered home, India, had had an impact, perhaps. Living in this
pristine, green, extremely comfortable, and modern city was delightful, but maybe I missed colour… earth… the surge of life around me? Maybe I missed a familiar silhouette, and that hint of excess in an all too efficient world? Maybe I missed the rustle of swishing pleats and invitingly swaying pallus….
Soon, I began to buy sarees on my trips back home. But what about when I wasn’t there? Singapore, alas, despite its large Indian population that has been here for a few generations, isn’t the best place to shop for sarees. So, friends were accosted with frantic requests. “Could you please get me a Kanjeevaram on your next trip to Chennai?”, “What! Jaipur…oh, buy me a Bandhani!”, “When are you in Kolkata next? I hear an exhibition is on at Kanishka’s.”
Friends visiting us here came with sarees from India. A gorgeous off-white Chikan from Lucknow with work all over comes to mind. A deep green Rajkot Patola from Mumbai. A jet black Gadwal with orange and green border from Hyderabad…
Even strangers were pulled in for the cause. Many acted as couriers, carrying sarees bought by cousins and friends in India. My aunt, who had a boutique, where I’d had that encounter with the Tussar Kañtha, was inundated with my requests. I had a feeling people were beginning to avoid me, friendships were strained, but what was I to do? There were no shops on Instagram back then, no WhatsApp to contact saree sellers directly, no online saree stores. E-commerce had only just begun.
I remain eternally grateful to those who helped assuage my hankering for sarees. Now, of course, getting sarees from India is a breeze – oh, did a light pallu waft somewhere? Many websites, plenty of customer service on WhatsApp, some really good online stores. It’s fascinating to see the enterprise of young designers and people with a love for this timeless unstitched garment.
In a couple of weeks, two sarees will arrive from Assam, one is dyed with onion, the other came of a WhatsApp chat with the designer. Made with hand-spun Eri silk, the yarn has been dyed with myrobalan, madder root and turmeric by the designer himself, then woven by the skilful hands of a Mising weaver on faraway Majuli island. The saree is cool and off-beat, and everything about it is slow and real. I grew up in Assam. I may never return there, but that doesn’t mean Assam will be unreachable. When my daughter chose to wear a saree for her high school graduation, and donned her plain mustard Eri silk, matching it with a blue blouse and a pair of boots, I felt a strange kind of joy.
When a world goes away from you, do you find your own way to reach it somehow? My cupboards are stacked with sarees from all over India. Is it a way of keeping her close to me? I would most likely have gone back to wearing sarees had I never left my country, but would I be as much of a lover of sarees as I am today? I not only buy them, I think of them, I read about them, I write about sarees… I do believe they tell us stories, and most astonishing ones.
BUT WHY DO I WEAR A SAREE EVERY FRIDAY?
Well, acquiring sarees is only half of it, you have to wear them. I started by wearing sarees to dinners and other formal occasions. Sometimes, I’d wrap on one even to work. A Japanese colleague who had never exchanged a word with me until then, suddenly looked at me and exclaimed, “That is very beautiful… the saree!” A few years ago, at a posh sit-down dinner in London, the American gentleman sitting next to me said he knew Indra Nooyi and she always wore a saree for such events. I have to say, I felt pretty kicked that I’d brought the highly successful Indian corporate executive to mind. French friends have pointed out how fashion doesn’t limit the saree or its wearer; for example, there are no strict colours of the season, you choose what you like. I’d never thought of that. It was my Singaporean Chinese boss, a most perceptive man, who said the saree was the world’s most creative garment. Just a stretch of cloth, inviting you to dress yourself the way you please.
Many of my Indian friends started saying they were wearing sarees more often thanks to me, or, well, my obsession. That pleased me, but I realised I wasn’t getting to wear one as often as I wanted to. Then there was my husband, who’d say, “Another saree? But you hardly wear them!” In a way it was true, the new sarees were piling up, and the old ones had a forlorn air, as if neglected. I wondered how to solve this problem. Then, one day, it just came to me.
My husband and daughter are Jewish and they observe Shabbat from Friday evening to Saturday evening. We usually stay at home on Fridays, and have Shabbat dinner together. My husband’s brother joins us and there’s happy imbibing and chats that meander lazily, going nowhere. Amid good food, easy banter, and the occasional guest, the last weekday goes by. Everyone is dressed most casually.
Why not wear a saree every Shabbat evening, I thought. Shabbat is meant to be special, after all. And so began the Friday saree tradition. Three years on, I am still looking forward to it. The saree I was gazing at last Thursday had the border and pallu from one of my mother’s wonderful
Banarasis. My aunt had helped put it together, at least 13 years ago. I had never worn the saree. Till I did, last Friday.
No, a Banarasi doesn’t need a wedding to be enjoyed. Try a Friday. Or any other day of the week.
INDRANI MITRA ROBBINS: A copywriter for more than twenty years, working in ad agencies in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Singapore, and Amman, Indrani now runs ‘Writers Block’, a writing company based in Singapore.