Saree for the 21st century woman

What does the saree mean to a 21st century woman like me, a global citizen with very strong ties to India?

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Photos: Vincent Boyer (Say hi on instagram @vincetravelbook)

For eons partiarchy has dictated what women should wear and deviating from the norm has had devastating consequences for some. As I watch my motherland descend into a violently misogynistic, fiery pit from the relative safety of another country, I wonder why the saree is so important to me?

The answer is that I actually find the unstitched cloth tremendously practical. I wear it to work, to hang with friends, to go to a pub, to go out dancing, to hike and sometimes just to chill at home. I wear it not to make a statement or to be different but just because I feel like it.

The saree is just another type of garment option I have, separate from the centuries of traditions. I wear the saree when I want to live my life as a living, breathing person not as the flag bearer of my culture or faith.

Things like societal rules, family values, race, religion and socio-economic status continue to impact clothing choices of Indian women. However, many of us are cultivating personal styles that are a reflection of our own personality, interests and identity.

The kind of 21st century woman I choose to be is fearless and willing to experiment. I wear whatever I feel like based on my mood and needs, naysayers be damned.

It is a personal choice for me to choose to wear clothing that is made sustainably with natural fabrics that don’t clog up landfills for the next thousand years. And sarees are only a part of the plethora of options I give myself.

Over time I have realised my desire to wear the saree has less to do with tradition et heritage, and more to do with the versatility of the garment. I love the sheer number of handloom weaves from each state in India and the innumerable ways I can play with them.

I love the fact that the six or nine yards of unstitched fabric is unstructured and I can knot, tuck as well as pleat away to my hearts content.

For some reason men have always described the saree-clad woman as a poetic figure, enveloped in the mist of the nation’s collective imagination. But in the 21st century we are very happy to be visible in a way that goes beyond the trendiness of the drape or the fabric. I wear the saree as I wish, in ways that are practical to me,  not to pander to someone’s idea of a decent or beautiful.

No matter what people might say, the saree is not the national costume of India and its definitely not the religious dress for  Hindus. For me it is just a fun way of expressing myself that connects me to centuries of women who have worn this garment.

However, I have no desire to dress as women from the past, I am me and I dress like myself.

The saree has persisted, transformed and continues to evolve, enveloping the changing world in its folds but also remaining consistently true to its innate fluidity. And remains as relevant to me, a fiercely feminist 21st century woman as it is to a girl in the Indian hinterland.

The saree isn’t burdened by the labels we put on ourselves, it is free and I am only trying to imbibe some of that freedom.

I wore this wonderful handloom saree from Madhya Pradesh on a long bike ride and then an arduous hike to get to this magical spot. It was bought from a fabulous lady who goes exploring the deepest corners of India and Bangladesh to source locally made, hand crafted textiles that are a sight for sore eyes. You can find her on instagram and facebook.

 

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Walking the dog in a nandana print saree

Sarees can be a fuss-free but vibrant clothing option if only we eschew the popular edicts that govern women’s clothing  …

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Photos: Vincent Boyer (Say hi on instagram @vincetravelbook)

After a month of showcasing various weaves from West Bengal, I am ready to explore other states in my sartorial journey…

These photos were taken on an afternoon spent with the furbaby, playing in the park, walking around the neighborhood and getting yummy gelatos. Wore a Nandana print cotton saree draped in a fun way with a gajji silk bandhani blouse, no petticoat, no pins just easy breezy relaxed comfort.

Nandana is an elaborate style of hand block printing practiced by local Chippa community in the Tarapur village of Madhya Pradesh. It is a time consuming and labor intensive process involving about 16 steps to get to the final design.

Traditionally these prints decorated rough thick fabrics used for making ghagras by the women of tribal communities in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. These prints have a limited number of block patterns, mostly flowers and fruits and printed in the same manner all over the fabric.

I believe there are just five designs ranging from small buti to big buta known as mirch, champakali, dholamaru, amba and salaam are the signature motifs for these prints.

I love easy lengths of fabrics like this saree with handcrafted fun patterns because I don’t have to worry about them too much and can get on with my monkeying. I chuck them in the washing machine and never bother ironing out creases.

In the last decade my wardrobe has seen an addition of these kinds of fuss-free clothing over the harder to maintain pieces.

In my opinion the unstitched cloth can be a wonderfully practical garment that really adapts to the needs of the wearer if we remove the baggage of rules and  traditions.

The saree is a purely functional garment that has been saddled with too many do’s and don’ts.

We must remember that anyone can wear sarees (if they want to). Anyone can have fun with sarees, you don’t need video tutorials just an open mind and the willingness to play with them.

No one, I repeat no one is the wrong shape or size or age for them, and we must stop stressing about the nonsensical rules tied to the wearing of sarees.

Don’t believe me? Here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here are a few of my older posts where either my sister or I concocted a drape on handcrafted sarees.

None of these are the result of any one else’s tutorials, just the outcome of enjoying playing with the six yards of fabric.

 

 

 

Fulia Tangail tant saree by the beach

Another instalment of my perennial favourite West Bengal Handloom, featuring this Fulia  Tangail worn by the beach in Sydney…

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IMG_4166Photos: Vincent Boyer (Say hi on instagram @vincetravelbook)

The words of this poem describe my love and longing for Bengal more eloquently than I can…

তুমি রবে নীরবে হৃদয়ে মম

নিবিড় নিভৃত পূর্ণিমানিশীথিনী-সম॥

মম জীবন যৌবন    মম অখিল ভুবন

তুমি    ভরিবে গৌরবে নিশীথিনী-সম॥

জাগিবে একাকী তব করুণ আঁখি,

তব অঞ্চলছায়া মোরে রহিবে ঢাকি।

মম দুঃখবেদন মম সফল স্বপন

তুমি ভরিবে সৌরভে নিশীথিনী-সম॥

Thou shalt dwell in silence in my heart like the full moon in the summer night.
Thy sad eyes shall watch over me in my wanderings.
The shadow of thy veil shall rest upon my heart
Thy breath like the full moon in the summer night shall hover about my dreams, making them fragrant- Rabindranath Tagore.

This fondness extends to the textiles from various parts of the state. I love everything about the weaves from West Bengal including the feel & fall of the fabric, the variety & subtlety of patterns, the texture & translucent intensity of the colours and above all the faint aroma of Marh ( the residual rice boiled water, often used to starch cotton clothes).

This post is the culmination of my April series featuring the various kinds of handcrafted sarees from West Bengal, India.

You can check out my previous posts this month featuring a vintage Shantipuri, a Dhonekhali with Ikat patterns, a tant Baluchari and a vintage Jamdani. This post features a contemporary Fulia Tangail tant that I wear very often and style in many ways.

I wore this saree on a longish bike ride to get to a national park and walk through the dense bush to get to a spectacular cliff overlooking an isolated beach that only the locals know of. The saree was a breeze to wear all day and was soft enough to be comfortable but warm enough to protect against the wind.

It was draped without a petticoat or safety-pins and as per usual it wasn’t ironed after being washed. The hand block print top I am wearing here is something I wear often with other sarees as well as denims. You can see it here, worn with a hand block print six yards in autumn last year.

Tangail sarees are known for their extra-weft butis, tiny repeated motifs, all over the ground of the Saree, worked like embroidery on the loom. Originally they were handcrafted  in Tangail District in present day Bangladesh.

However, scores of weavers from Tangail migrated after the partition of India to Phulia (colloquially called Fulia) in Nadia District & Samudragarh, Dhatrigram in Burdwan district of West Bengal.

The various types of designs particular to this kind of fabric are Megho Dombur, Mayur Pekham, Agun Path, Kalo Path, Ashman Tara, Pahar Surya, Sanja Phool, Hira Mon, Yatra Siddhi, Khunja, Megho Mala, Ganga Jal, Mayur Konthi, Dhup Chayya, Belpata, Padma, Jhomkolata and Pata bajar.

The various types of shaft designs on Tangail tants include Beki, Borfi, Bhomra, Taaj, Aash Par, Danth (Teeth), Terchi and Gajo Moti.

The different names of traditional Tangail sarees are Begam Bahar, Ganga- Jamuna, Ayna Khupi, Chou Khupi, Khorke Dure, Araa Dure, Jal Dure, Anarkoli, Pacha Paar and Nilambari.

The current crop of weavers produce a large variety of designs that no longer adhere  strictly to traditional patterns. Combining the weaving styles of the original Shantipur weavers in the area, the migrant weavers from Tangail who settled in Fulia, developed the ‘Fulia Tangail style’ of weaving.

Fulia Tangails like the saree in the photos are similar to the Jamdani weave in technique but softer in feel, with the motifs spaced out. This particular tant is divided into stripes and florals, a contemporary take on the designs this weave is known for.

The fact that I like Bengal tants is no surprise, but I can feel my fixation for them becoming an all consuming passion with every wear.

If you are looking to delve into handlooms I would seriously urge you to consider the various pocket-friendly weaves from West Bengal that get more amazing with every wear.

Perfect saree pleats feat. a vintage jamdani

A lot of people insist on the perfect pleats on a saree but I wonder why that is?

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Photos: Vincent Boyer (Say hi on instagram @vincetravelbook)

There are a plethora of articles online telling women how to wear sarees, with tips to get the neatest pleats to look slim, elegant, poised and who knows what else.

What these articles seem to forget is that women are living breathing entities who actually believe it or not run around and get sh*t done. And people who are doing stuff and living their lives don’t have the time or the inclination to perfectly pleat their sarees. Also, what I find most appalling about these articles is that they are almost always written by women.

The multiple ways in which women who wear sarees are shamed by other women are subtle but obvious, small but inescapable. What is the big deal about perfect pleats anyway? To be honest the stiff safety pinned look does nothing for me.

These articles get shared and re-shared and we’ve set up a world in which wearing a saree seems like an unknowable mystery and we all feel at least a little unsure and bad about ourselves while trying to sort it out.

I don’t know what is it but asserting some sense of moral authority, know-how, expertise at another’s expense seems like people’s favourite sport. We like rules and we like checklists and we are vulnerable to people who seem like they have it all figured out.

Rules about wearing a saree well are not actually real but a reflection of the institutionally sizeist/racist/ageist/misogynist stew we’re all marinating in.

There are no actual experts when it comes to wearing sarees, it is a fluid garment that takes the personality of the wearer. No one knows how you should be wearing your unstitched cloth — not the bullies, not the rule-makers, not the writers of stupid articles online.

Often people think there’s only one way to wear a sari – that is the ‘Nivi’ drape.

But the truth is that there are hundreds of different region specific ways to drape a sari.  Just like cuisines,  language and customs in India – the drapes are an outcome of context, geography, climate and function.

I would assume that there are other drapes that have died out or ones that haven’t yet been officially documented. And this safety-pinned neatly pleated look that most of us are told to aspire to is a very recent concoction.

So I say, wear whatever the hell kinda saree you want, in any damn way you want. We are all perfectly imperfect and our sarees don’t have to be impeccably pleated if we are happy running around chasing our dreams and having fun.

I strut around all day in this vintage jamdani, put it on over my bathing suit in the morning, road-tripped in it through tropical rainforests, danced in the said forests, took it off to swim and put it back on, had a picnic lunch, drank copious amounts of beer, hug and kissed my love and above all chased waterfalls with him all day.

I see no reason for neat pleats or to ‘secure’ the saree with safety pins while doing any of the above. Even at work, I refuse to pin my pallu up, instead I use it as a scarf to protect me from the freezing temperatures.

In fact, I feel most people overuse safety pins  and often make their sarees more rigid, which is not absolutely not how I wear my un-stiched cloth.

As women, we need to set new saree styling rules for ourselves, ones that have nothing to do with age, body types, colors or shapes but everything to do with how our clothing makes us feel.

 

 

Lazy girl hacks to iron a saree feat. a cotton Baluchari

I wear a lot of Bengal handloom tant sarees and have been asked by many how I manage to iron them. This cotton Baluchari in the photos has been worn about four times and hasn’t seen an iron even once …

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Photos: Vincent Boyer (Say hi on instagram @vincetravelbook)

I can’t remember the last time I ironed a whole saree, sometimes I try and then complain that the iron is refusing to co-operate.

I mean, why do so many people insist on the right length or a neat pallu or razor sharp pleats, others suggest the right petticoat or blouse? Who the hell has the time to ensure five or six pleats every time one wears a saree?

What happened to the fluidity that is the essence of the un-stitched cloth? And what is the big deal about wearing an un-ironed saree? No seriously, what in God’s name is up with this ironing business?

We’ve had the idea of perfectly pleated Nivi drape drilled into our heads for decades, so much so that it has become the only representation of the un-stitched cloth and I think that is why many run away from the idea of wearing a saree.

All this talk of wearing the immaculate Nivi drape traditionally goes hand in hand with the ideas of dry-cleaning, ironing, regularly starching and maintaining sarees as per the pre-determined standards that I have no time for.

My name is Tanaya and I refuse to iron the sarees I wear, even ones that I wear in photographs that I share online. Honestly, all I care about when I post photos are that they meet my idea of perfect and I know they might not meet someone else’s standards. I am absolutely fine with that and have no desire to change my aesthetic to something different for any reason.

I mean who has the time to iron when one has to run out the door to go spend the afternoon at the beach. By the time these photos were taken I had already taken the saree off gone swimming, come back out, beach-combed for pretty shells and drank a few beers. Its not just the wind that resulted in the messy, stringy-ness of my hair.

So, what do I do to ensure my sarees do not look crushed and crumpled? I don’t care. It’s as simple as that.

If a saree looks too crushed even by my very lax standards then I will take one of the following easy ways out:

  1. Take a steamy shower: I leave the saree hanging in the bathroom and proceed to take a hot shower and insist anyone else in the house does too.
  2. Blow dry my saree: Yep, I do this. I hang the saree up, dab a damp cloth on the super crushed area/s, turn my blow dryer on and proceed to do my I love wearing non-ironed saree dance while the wrinkles disappear.
  3. Use the clothes (tumble) dryer: I only do this during absolute emergencies because I really don’t like wasting electricity. I just toss my saree in the dryer with a damp cloth or a few cubes of ice and turn it on a low cycle for 10 to 15 minutes.
  4. Wrinkle removing spray: I use a DIY natural concoction because I don’t like the wrinkle removing sprays that one gets in the supermarkets. But even just a bit of water in a spray bottle, spritz-ed on and then lightly tugging does the job for me.

And if any of you are wondering about the plethora of Bengal handloom sarees on here the past few posts, I am in the tant kind of mood this month.

 

 

 

 

Mountain biking in a Dhonekhali saree

Carrying on the Bengal handloom saga by mountain biking in this Dhonekhali taant with thread-work border and ikat stripes on the body…

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Photos: Vincent Boyer (Say hi on instagram @vincetravelbook)

Cycling down a steep rocky terrain down a mountain into a river and continuing our way by, as well as in the water was one of the highlights of the past weekend.

I woke up wanting to wear a saree and didn’t think the activity of the day should stop me. So out came this comfortable length of cloth named after a village called Dhaniakhali (we Bengalis pronounce it Dhonekhali) in the Hooghly district of West Bengal — one of the taant hubs of the state along with Phulia and Shantipur.

Fun fact: The British East India company also had a weaving factory in the village and referred to the place as Dooneacolly.

Dhonekhali ‘taant’ was famous mainly for men’s dhotis and plain bordered sarees. They have a tighter weave and a coarser feel than Tangails, Fulias or Shantipuri,  making them more durable.

These sarees have only been around for a century or so and are produced in Haripal, Rajbalhat Rasidpur, Dwarhata, Ramnagar, Gurap and Antpur area of Hooghly Disitrict in West Bengal.

It is a square-fold saree with a thick border and a decorative pallu/ aanchol, and can be woven with a variety of paisley, floral, and other artistic motifs such as bhomra (bumble bee), rajmahal (royal palace), chandmala (garland of moons), hathi (elephant), ratan chokh (gem-eyed), and tara (star).

This weave is characterised by the double threaded – braided design called Khejurchheri. Also, there is much more to Dhonekhalis than the fish motifs sarees being hawked by sellers all over social media. I mean look at the lovely border and the Ikat stripes running through the saree in the photos above.

A lot of younger women believe that stiff taant sarees are difficult to drape and are hard to manage. The designs might seem too traditional to some and the colour palette to limited to others. I have no such issues with Dhonekhali taants, I love the traditional motifs, yes they come heavily starched but I wash them a few times and wear them heaps to break them in.

The six-yard beauty in the photos is a relatively new addition to my saree closet and has been washed only a handful of times but it has softened enough so I could drape it in my own way to suit my day of adventure. Also, I believe the very traditional colour can make for an interesting mix with more contemporary accessories.

Most people will tell you flowy sarees don’t go together with riding up and down forest trails on rough terrain as well as on water. But I beg to differ, as long as one’s drape is modified to suit the activity and one is careful, it is possible to do pretty much anything while wearing the unstitched cloth.Women in sarees riding bikes is a common sight all over rural and semi-urban India.

There are those who will question the suitability/ practicality of wearing a saree for such an activity, others who will wonder if it was worn to attract attention or make a statement. I wear whatever I wear because I feel like it on a certain day and honestly I don’t care who is looking. This is not the first time I have worn a saree on a trail and certainly won’t be the last.

As you can see the drape here is quite short with very few pleats, pallu mostly stayed wrapped around my neck, no petticoat under the saree as per usual, no safety pins and the blouse worn is not fitted.

Yes, I had to be very careful as this bicycle is not equipped with a chain guard and the cloth could billow into the spokes, get caught in the chain or drawn in under the brakes. I did get a few scratches (nothing to do with the saree), skidded to a screeching halt right at the edge of a fall and had to be encouraged to take on the more steep declines but I am glad I pushed myself slightly outside my comfort zone.

So if you’re curious about sarees and are afraid to attempt draping the stiff taants, I would urge you to step a little outside of your comfort zone and give the humble Dhonekhali a go.

Bengal handloom: Shantipur taant saree

And the Bengal handloom love continues in the form of this vintage Shantipur beauty…

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Photos: Vincent Boyer (Say hi on instagram @vincetravelbook)

আমার এই পথ-চাওয়াতেই আনন্দ।

খেলে যায় রৌদ্র ছায়া, বর্ষা আসে বসন্ত ॥

কারা এই সমুখ দিয়ে আসে যায় খবর নিয়ে,

খুশি রই আপন মনে– বাতাস বহে সুমন্দ ॥

(This is my delight, thus to wait and watch at the wayside where shadow chases light and the rain comes in the wake of the summer. Messengers, with tidings from unknown skies, greet me and speed along the road – Rabindranath Tagore

When one thinks of Bengal handloom sarees the image that immediately pops into people’s minds is of a woman in a laal paar in the athpourey drape. Which is a little bit of a shame since there is much more the state has to offer than just jamdanis, laal paar and the fish dhonekhali.

My fixation with Bengal handlooms is no secret and I have shared my intense love for them many times (hereherehere, here, here and here). So today I would like to focus on the weave that I am wearing in the photos.

It is a vintage Shantipur tant saree with a jharna weave in the body and a broad border called mathaapaar in Bengali. I am fairly certain the design on the saree is called the ‘Brindabani Mour Par’ where the border is depicted by peacocks and cotton yarn is used for both the base and the border.

The drape is my own concoction worn to make the most of the wide border and it stayed put all through an evening out without a single safety pin.

The weaving centre of Shantipur in Nadia district of West Bengal, India, is just 90 kilometres north of the the city of joy. Neighbouring Fulia is often uttered in the same breath with Shantipur even though both the cities produce distinctly different kinds of sarees.

Shantipur has been a weaving centre for centuries and Fulia only came to flourish after the partition of Bengal.

Some of the first mentions of the long history of weaving in the Shantipur cluster began with the records of handloom artisans having settled down in the township during the reign of King Ganesha of Gaur, Bengal in the earlier part of the 15th century. Their work received wide national acclaim during the reign of King Rudra Roy of Nadia in late 17th century.

Weaving flourished throughout the medieval era, and the famed indigo-dyed Neelambari gained the Shantipur saree fame.

What I find really inspiring is that the weaving artisans of Shantipur united to agitate against colonialism of the British East India Company and even took their grievances to colonial courts during the 19th century.

For me there is a strange minimalism in donning vintage sarees like this one with broad borders as opposed to heavily embellished ones with sequins, baubles and diamante.

I am not big on surface ornamentation of the disco ball kinds and prefer the artistry to be embedded into handwoven fabrics like this one. I find weaves like this opulent but subtly understated at the same time.

And to me nothing defines understated splendour like elaborate taant sarees from amar sonar Bangla.