All seemed quiet from a distance at a still green stretch in Delhi’s Nizamuddin East. Someone familiar with the city will know how difficult it is find a place that’s quiet enough to hear the sound of their inner voice. In the cosy depths of a palatial bungalow, not a sound more than that of soft giggle and chatter of a bunch of women with yards of fabric on their hands, could be heard. They stood around saris stacked and strewn. Rta Kapur Chishti, a textile scholar and author deftly pleated, draped and converted nine yards of unstitched fabric into runway ready dresses. She peppers her talk with anecdotes.
“Imagine the plight of a bhodhro mahila from Kolkata landing in Mumbai in her chador sans blouse in the 1860s. She must have been swept by the need to preserve her style even as the glamour blinded her,” Chishti says about Gyanodanandini, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law, who single-handedly gave sari its modern-day avatar. She took a liking to the Parsi style of wearing structured sari and fused it with the Bengali form. For the final touch, she changed the direction of her pallu, wearing it on her left shoulder instead of the right. She didn’t stop there.
She went back to Kolkata with a grand plan of promoting a standard style. She even opened a school to teach women how to drape the right away. “A hundred years on, I am trying to reintroduce the magic of nine yards to suit a modern lifestyle through workshops, TedTalks and my Sari School,” Chishti says while conducting a workshop organised by online store Jaypore.com. She had a different drape for every girl, some seven of them. These are just few among the 108 ways.
Chishti’s love story with the nine yards began when she was all of six. “It was a gift. By the time we reached college, saris were staple,” she recalls. The sari, Chishti says, is all about being comfortable. It doesn’t matter if you are tall, short, skinny or plump, sari complements every body type. “It’s not as difficult to wear as a kimono or structured like a gown. It has a fall and a flow of its own. Thanks to the difference in weight, body, border and pallu,” Chishti explains.
Take for example the mohiniattam style from Kerala that is used by the mohiniattam dancer where there’s a fan in front making the sari look like a two-piece dress. Although, the dancers only wear the Kerala kasavu sari, Chishti experimented with a khadi number available at Jaypore.com. She first made pleats from one end of the sari and let it hang at the front even as she draped the other end over it and above the shoulder.
In another variation, she tied the two loose ends of the sari at the back giving a warrior-like detail for better mobility and an easy-chic look.
“If Rani Lakshmi Bai could ride a horse in a sari why can’t a modern woman sail through her corporate life in it?” asks Chishti. She showed the way Maharashtrian drape their sari, between the legs, giving it a palazzo pant-like structure. By the end of it, young women—professionals, artists, bloggers—seemed nodding to themselves taking a little oath of wearing the sari more often.
There was the north Goa Kunbis Christian style with six-petal flowers, skirt sari of Saurashtra and Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh’s long veil and the boyanika sari of Odisha with its central knot. Most of these saris were sourced from Chishti’s own collection of cottons, silks and handlooms. “I want everyone to understand the difference between a six-yard and a nine-yard,” says Chishti.
Meanwhile, Shilpa Sharma, co-founder of Jaypore.com, plans to include some of the saris used in this workshop in its capsule collection. The site is already famous for its handcrafted traditional saris. “It’s an extension of what we are doing and also a chance to interact with customers. We’re toying with the idea of hosting these sessions in Bengaluru too,” Sharma says.
Chishti doesn’t just talk about the revival and acceptance of sari in modern framework but also feels like India, with its strong handspun culture, shouldn’t compete with machine. “If we start today, we can have a monopoly for handspun fabric in ten years time,” Chishti says, all optimistic.
The sari survives.