Image: Front cover of Issue 77 Chakra
Wardrobes are keepers of memories, creating an anthology of our lives and experiences through each piece.
In India, many women love to collect saris - the most versatile and classic clothing of the sub-continent. Peeking into an Indian woman’s wardrobe one can find a symphony of textures and colours. In these unstitched textiles, memories are held of the person who gave it, where it was first worn and many other anecdotes. Often hung with symmetry and sometimes paired with matching and contrasting blouses, saris in these elaborate wardrobes reflect the wearer’s identity and history. The sari is about family, togetherness, and belonging. It speaks of personal experiences, day-to-day routine and social interactions. A newly bought sari-friend is welcomed into the wardrobe, eventually mingling with the old ones, becoming kith and kin just as in a household.
Image: Illustration by Ketna Patel
A sari not only wraps and embodies its wearer but also ties and binds her to an extended family of tailors and launderers. This tie remains as long as the sari continues to be worn. The intertwined relationship of the woman with her go-to tailor and launderer is threaded with each sari she possesses. A darji (tailor) and a dhobhi (launderer) are small occupations in every residential corner street of an Indian town. Imagine a narrow store with an open counter and about half a dozen tailoring machines sprinkled with colourful trimmings all over the floor, the walls decorated with freshly cut and sewn sari blouses and kurtas hanging next to each other waiting to go home to their new family wardrobe. A scene of coloured fabrics tinted with a smell of sewing machine lubricants, populated with the familiar faces of women clients visiting for two or three generations; the shop becomes a nursery for these sari blouses. The darji wearing his measuring tape as a signature accessory keeps a set of catalogues with illimitable design ideas for blouses - borders on the sleeves, a buti on the back, a bandhgalla collar or a dainty piping on the neckline. Sometimes they offer extra services like alterations and adding a Fall-Pico on the sari - ‘Blouse, Fall, Pico’ being the quintessential sign advertised on the shop facade.
The dhobhi becomes a woman’s next best friend as he takes care of her saris. He nourishes them with starch water; often the leftover water from boiled rice is used to soak them. His weekly visit to starch, wash, dry and iron a pile of cotton saris is a ritual, generation after generation. Many dhobhis are found on alternating streets usually under a tree, established with a wide makeshift plywood table layered with clothes to mimic an ironing board. They use a charcoal iron box as it enables them to work free of electricity essential as they work outdoors. The frequent power cuts during working hours are another advantage of using charcoal irons. In some cities dhobhis have a cluster where they wash and dry out in a collective open air laundromat or what is called a dhobhi ghat.
Image: Illustration by Georgina McAusland
Whilst celebrating many cultures in India, festivals harness the essence of new clothing each year. Be it Eid, Navratra, Durga Puja, Dashehra, Diwali; festivities bring a sense of urgency in preparing the right outfit. A new sari blouse or a special sari that once belonged to grandmother needs to be steam-ironed for the occasion; the tailors and launderers go through an exceptionally busy time. The hustle, the chaos, the mishaps in fits become a common sight during this season. Imagine a family preparing for a big wedding day. During the great effort of arrangements and adjustments for an important happy day, some women rush to their tailor’s on the morning of Diwali to receive their new blouse and to the launderer for the final pat of iron on the sari. All of this for the outfit to make it to the evening puja. With the fall of dusk every home lights up with diyas, the smell of mogra incense wanders over the sari. It looks bright and crisp, primed to be appreciated amongst other women who’d share and laugh about all the hustle they and their extended family of tailors and launderers went through.
To appreciate this social-sari is to enter the world of the tactile, emotional, and intimate. Each sari has a family; the tailor it its birth-giver, the woman is its nurturer and the launderer is its caretaker. It is a multiverse of lengthy textiles wrapped, washed, hemmed and handled until each piece becomes imbued with belongingness, tradition. The unique characteristic of its weight, tactile nature, falls and drapes brings together many cultures and trades. This continuous yarn is spun through many generations. While throwing a light on the personality of the wearer, the sari makes its journey through the lives of many, woven together not just metaphorically but literally with textiles.
Written by Niyati Hirani
Illustration by Ketna Patel