By: Atmanah Parab
When I had six yards of fabric wrapped haphazardly around my body, hands clumsy and unsure of which step to take next. I wondered, was now the time for a YouTube search? I also wondered whether my cousins would laugh if they could see me at that moment.
When my mom had helped me put the sari on just two days prior, the fabric had slipped through her fingers like magic and laid precisely where she wanted it to, the result of years of experience. Eventually, with the help of several safety pins, two or three friends, and the aforementioned Youtube video, I strolled out of the house, sari somewhat intact. I felt a sense of pride as that was the first time I’d put on a sari on my own without my mom’s assistance.
When I was seven years old, I remember gasping in awe as my mom showed me a newspaper clipping of an article about her and her sari collection. In 1997 when my mother and father moved into a small apartment in Ontario, CA, they were some of the first Indian people in the city. The article featured pictures of my mom doing her laundry in the apartment complex laundry room wearing a shiny green sari. The luster and hue of the fabric in stark contrast with the neutrality of her background despite the fading from age.
When I was just a little older and living in India, I marveled at my grandmother who wore a sari almost every day of her life. Uncomfortable in pants of any kind, she lived her life in a balancing act of fabric and friction. In it, she couldn’t run or jump but she could work in the kitchen, walk around the neighborhood and take her afternoon naps without even a grumble of discomfort.
When I tried on my first sari at thirteen, I was shocked and confused when I didn’t instantly look like my favorite Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone. The saris present in the movies certainly tell a story of womanhood but it is one altered by the need to appeal to lust. Featuring prominently in Bollywood movies is not the Indian woman and her sari but almost a costume of them. Blouses are reduced to bejeweled bras and the front of the sari is pushed off to the side to expose a flat stomach. There isn’t anything wrong with choosing to wear a sari that is decidedly sexy, but the use of such saris almost exclusively in songs or scenes where a female in a movie is to be highlighted as attractive runs counter to the true significance of saris to the Indian woman.
The sari is not just an item of clothing, it is an institution. Indian women wear the sari as a form of expression, but the sari itself tells a story of the woman who wears it. Traditionally, a girl is bought her first sari after her first period, a sign of her transition into womanhood. She is taught how to wear it by the other females in the house and can now wear it on special occasions.
Buying a sari is an event in itself. There are as many variations to the sari as there are languages and subgroups within the Indian subcontinent. Not only that, locales are known for saris in special fabrics, colors and patterns. The way a sari is draped around the body is also a matter of regional preference. All this versatility and identity wrapped up in a length of fabric.
Upon setting foot into a specialty sari store in Kerala, two states over from where my family lives in India, we were greeted with a bustle of activity on arrival. Sitting around a large table laid out with a veritable competitive bracket of potential purchases, we chatted and exchanged stories while sipping on complimentary sodas. The four women in my family including me, did not leave the store until each of us had two or three saris each in a sampling of the local flavor. Simply the mode of shopping makes the experience feel heavier and more substantial than running to your local Forever 21 for a dress.
However, for some the cost of donning sari is higher than just the rupees or dollars on the price tag. For Indian transwomen, life is incredibly difficult, outwardly using femine presentation such as saris and having other people be aware of their identities often leads them away from their homes and communities to the “hijra” communities that are mired by poverty and kept afloat by coerced sex work. However, these communities are often the only places where they can be accepted for who they are. In an interview with the Diplomat, Shreya, a transgender woman living in Mumbai, spoke to her experience, “We leave our families, the security and safety of our homes, only to plunge into poverty and destitution. All this so that we can wear a saree.” There are risks to being authentically feminine, to wear something like a sari that for many woman is an unquestioned given.
To be a woman anywhere is complicated, marking a balance between what is perceived as femininity and what is seen as “other”. As a symbol of womanhood and femininity in India, the sari is not just beautiful fabric draped about the body free from the complexities of history and society. It is history, it is womanhood, it is femininity. Uncovering the secrets of a sari as I’ve learned go far beyond a Youtube tutorial.