Until recently, traveling to India meant carrying a half-empty suitcase, so it could be packed with saris to be brought back to the US. But as the Indian immigrant population began to grow, the second suitcase was no longer necessary. We have gone global and so have our methods of expression. I can find any type of sari at a local shop near me, as I would in the sari shops lining the streets of Abids in Hyderabad.
The quintessential Indian drape, 6 yards of sheer fabric or the Sari, has been a trusted sakhi for all women of all ages and personalities. The word Sakhi comes from Sanskrit, meaning girlfriend – a friend with whom you shared your innermost secrets, a friend for life. South Asian women feel connected to their roots, in a foreign land, whenever we drape ourselves in a sari, our fond sakhi. We feel her embrace and forget our inhibitions.
“Sari stores thrive in many Indian enclaves in America. Among the largest is India Sari Palace in New York, with a vast inventory from India, as well as Japan. Many in the Indian community wear mostly saris, and so there is a constant demand even in America. Just looking at the stores in ‘Little Indias’ across America indicates the sari market is thriving. In the 60s, many women were reluctant to wear saris in the US, afraid they would stand out. But in multicultural America…there seems to be a new pride in one’s roots.”, writes Lavina Melwani, “And why not? After all, there is quite as graceful as a sari.”
The sari drape got revolutionized by Garden Vareli, a brand that used women who were modern, bold, and draped the sari in novel ways.
Garden Vareli’s marketing expert, Santosh Sood, emphasized, “We had a sari ad that celebrated the sexuality of women unabashedly, but without being vulgar. A woman does not always have to be somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister. She is she and that is her identity.”
Thus began the sari revolution. It no longer was the attire of the homemaker or of the average middle class. It was a bold fashion statement. Navroze Dhondy of Garden Vareli, commented, “For the first time, it was a shift from the sari being perceived as boring, everyday wear without any sensuality to a smart, bold and sexy attire meant for the modern woman.”
But long before Garden Vareli, Princess Niloufer of Hyderabad and the daughters of Vijaylakshmi Pandit were refashioning the sari and making its presence known, globally. The sisters, Nayantara Sahgal and Rita Dar, after their graduation in the summer of 1947 from Wellesley College, went to Mexico on a visit and met the legendary painter and fashion icon, Frida Kahlo, and dressed her up in the traditional Indian attire.
Princess Niloufer, a Turkish princess, learnt to drape a sari when she got married to Prince Moazzam Jah, son of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1931, and was always seen in a sari even when overseas.
The sari today has become an expression of who the person is and of their style. Women are not draping them in just the traditional way but are experimenting with their drapes. Blouses are being replaced by Crop tops and fashionable blouses, t-shirts, and jackets. Belts are being worn to hold the pleats better and some saris also have a pocket for your cell phone. The sari, itself, is being draped over pants and skirts and isn’t necessarily worn with a matching blouse.
The function of the sari has expanded beyond the function of the home. Women are not only walking and exercising in a sari but also running marathons.
But more importantly, there are Sari Sakhis all over the world – friends who share their love of saris and its utility. The sari connects, empowers, and gives voice to South Asian women, regardless of how far apart they may be.
Saree Speaks: A Revolution
Vini Tandon Keni, sari influencer and founder of the group, Saree Speak, has managed to start a sari revolution! Founded in April 2016, the group has 144,722 women of South Asian diaspora including many celebrities and movie stars like Kalpana Iyer, Anita Kanwal, Himani Shivpuri, Indira Krishnan, and the famous designer Anita Dongre. I spoke with Vini Tandon Keni to get more insight into the sari revolution:
AM: Other than your love for saris, what inspired you to start this group?
VT: To encourage and make draping saris more acceptable and friendly to the younger sari wearer.
AM: Being a member of this group, I know that you not only decide the theme of each month but also encourage members to share their personal stories and stories associated with each sari. Is this why the name Saree Speak was chosen or is there another reason as well?
VT: Speak is the common name for all my groups. Another word for ‘voice’, another word for ‘share’. When you share you add to your joy or reduce your fear.
AM: How do you inspire your members?
VT: We try to promote the unconventional styles that have come up, to add interest to the sari. Give it a variety, make it the fashion-forward.
The sari has withstood the test of time, the pressures and struggles. It has fought to keep its place against the salwar kameez, trousers, jeans, capri, churidar, tights, and the palazzos, and became its own entity. And as Tandon says – every sari has a story. Just as we wear our scars, we women wear our saris, close to our hearts with pride and with joy.
So we drape ourselves in six yards of fabric, layered with our emotions, identities, and voices. We remain wrapped in the warm embrace of our sakhi, our friend, our modern armor – our sari.
Anita R Mohan is a poet and writer based in Fairfax, Virginia.