“To be honest,” Mr. Prakash says in a lowered tone, “a saree gives a sexy look. Yes, yes, it is a fact,” he nods gently. His small shop is stuffed with the saree’s colourful accompaniment, the cropped blouse or choli. They are stacked in veritable mountains – splashes of colours and stitched for every size. Worn with a saree (or sari) to expose the midriff, Mr. Prakash specialises in these enticing bodices.
Considering the vast array of colours, choosing a choli is proving to be interesting. And as is the custom, a choli can also be stitched from the end piece of the fabric of one’s saree. I ponder it all rather carefully. After all, this choli will be for a grand event… I’ve been invited to a wedding at the Palace!
Having my own choli, and saree, had long been on my wish list; the wedding invitation finally coaxed me into action. And by chance, a few days prior to Mr. Prakash’s affirmation of the garment’s sensuality, a saree draping event had helped convince me – it was time to finally own this iconic garment of India.
The draping event was in the home of a member of the women’s group I belong to in Bangalore. I adore these ladies, a mixture of Indians and foreigners – refined and interesting, welcoming and fun to be with. The morning of the saree event was no exception. While the women shared their techniques of saree draping, there was laughter, humour and, wonderfully, a bit of ‘girl’s only’ talk.
First things first. “Make sure you’re wearing your heels before you begin,” someone pointed out while imparting the method of draping in her home state.
I learned that there are at least eighty different ways to wrap oneself in a saree. “Back and forth, back and forth. Now five pleats here,” expert fingers moved slowly for those of us not so adept at this age-old practice. With the saree in place, a lovely voice called out.
“You’re looking smart, very smart. Yes, it’s draped beautifully.” All were in agreement.
Stories were shared and that ‘sexy’ word was mentioned more than once. There seems to be no question; the saree is a sensual garment to wear and we’re told that regional differences can impact this.
“In the old days in Kerala, the young housemaids weren’t allowed to wear full saree. Oh those girls were so lovely, perfect shoulders, no bras, saree gathered at their chest. I can’t tell you how beautiful they were and such an enticement for the men,” someone recalled from earlier days.
“Yes and to think that originally there were no blouses, no cholis. Just the fabric draped over the breasts,” a friend reminded the group. This is an intriguing fact that I had gleaned in my reading. The usage of the short blouse and a petticoat came during the Mughal and British Raj period. The Victorian age demanded a little more modesty – especially in the Empire’s far flung nations where the local ladies were often a ‘distraction.’
The 5 meters of fabric has always been associated with elegance, grace and a bit of mystery. The word saree derives from the Sanskrit meaning ‘a strip of cloth,’ and not only is it beautiful with its endless fabrics and prints, it is practical; warming in the winter and cooling for the summer months.
I have been bewitched by sarees since I arrived in India and that morning’s talk is not only instructive for me as I soon planned to buy one, I simply loved the stories recounted and the insight into this aspect of Indian culture.
“As is the Bengali way, our keys are pinned to the end of the pallu then flung over the shoulder,” a lady originally from that area demonstrated.
“In Coorg, ours are pinned with a brooch,” a Southerner added. There was then a bit of to and fro in the conversation as to the merit of pricking your precious fabric with a pin and perhaps spoiling it.
We heard about the sarees from Assam in North India, much of their silk a unique golden colour – their silk worms prefer only golden leaves, so the story goes. Another saree was modelled, then one from Orissa, and from Lucknow with its typical chikan fabric. How will I ever decide what type of saree to choose, I mused to myself. Will it be silk, silk crepe, chiffon, georgette, silk twill, organza, even cotton?
“I bought my first saree while on a college trip,” one lady recounted nostalgically, taking me away from my impending decision. “I had empty pockets and had to borrow 200 rupees. The agent got 6 of that. Oh it was a special one!”
That reminded one of the foreigners in our group of her own treasured saree. “I’ve been wearing one for some 60 years, since I married my Indian husband,” Mary related, showing off her wedding saree of the finest green and golden Benares silk.
“Ah Mary it’s still looking lovely, very lovely,” she’s assured. When Mary then revealed that she had just celebrated her 55th wedding anniversary, a chorus of congratulations rang through the room.
I then saw an opportunity to pose that nagging question. “How many sarees do you ladies have in your wardrobe?”
“Oh at least 100.” – “Not less than 200.” – “Ah, it would be difficult to count.”
It had been a wonderful morning and I felt more prepared for the endeavour of a saree purchase.
So here I am a few days later chatting with Mr. Prakash and pondering which choli to buy. Along with a simple set of Indian jewellery, my saree had been chosen – and of this rich and visual event, I’m pleased to share it in a video below.
With Mr. Prakash’s help, I’ve finally decided upon on a brushed-golden choli with tiny capped sleeves. The transaction complete, Mr. Prakash guides me through a lane to his tailor for on-the-spot-adjustment.
Vinod is a young tailor whose father was in the newspaper business, “But I started stitching at 12 years old,” he tells me. His shop is no larger than a triple-wide broom closet, yet Vinod is the proud owner and he clearly takes pride in his profession.
There’s just enough room for an apprentice tailor who sits at an old Singer sewing machine behind him. As Vinod adds another hook-and-eye to my little blouse, I announce excitedly that in fact, I’ll be going to my first Indian wedding. When I ask Vinod if he’s married, he laments that these days, it isn’t always suitable to marry a tailor.
“Now everyone wants to marry an IT person,” he says ruefully. Bangalore is of course the IT capital of India, yet Vinod doesn’t dwell on it.
Flashing a smile, he asks, “Have saree already Ma’am?”
“Yes indeed. It’s a soft navy blue, with golden highlights,”
“Ah Ma’am will be looking tip-top,” Vinod reassures me.
“Thank you Vinod, let’s hope for the best,” I say, promising that I’ll be back soon for some tailoring.
“Very good Ma’am. Welcome, welcome anytime.”
And so just like that, I had a ‘wedding ready’ choli and jewellery waiting to don, yet the choice of a saree had been much more involved. It was just how I had envisioned it – a wonderful experience full of colour and fabrics, a confusion of choices enriched by kind advice from strangers and from experts. It is normally the kind of experience that I would revel in relating to you but just for once, I decided to share the experience in a short video. I hope you’ll enjoy accompanying me on my saree adventure…
Filmed at Mysore Saree Udyoy in Bangalore
Mr. Prakash is close by at Attraction in Commercial Plaza B-3
Video by Trixie Pacis – So It Goes Production