Tag Archives: Unconventional

Six Yards of Draped Emotions

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.”  

Princess Niloufer

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

Saree Speak Members: Yogita Pradip Hudekar (right), Sunayana Mundra (middle), Namita Arora (left)

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.

Sari Stands

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.

Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil: Soul Sisters

At the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Frist Museum of Art in Nashville, a pair of dark eyes followed me. The exhibition displayed an expressive vista of twentieth-century Mexican art by Frida Kahlo, her husband Diego Rivera, and many others. More haunting than the breathtaking murals in public buildings were the black-and-white photographs of Kahlo’s crutches, corset, and bed. These relics testified the magical paintings created by Frida despite her  painful crippling disability. Frida was petite, yet her self portraits accentuate a distinctive un-plucked-v-shaped uni-brow, un-depilated upper-lip, brown eyes, braids, and colorful Mexican clothing.  

Amrita Sher-Gil

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), born in Coyoacán, Mexico City, from  a German-Hungarian father, and a Spanish-Tehuana mother; reminds me of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Amrita was an avant-garde artist, the second daughter of an Indian father who was a Sanskrit scholar and a Hungarian-Jewish mother. She was known as India’s Frida Kahlo for her unconventional style. 

Beloved Frida, Immortal Amrita

During their impressionable childhoods, both artists showed commonalities. Frida learned the human structure from her photographer father, while Amrita filled her sketchbooks with portraits of their servants. Kahlo had polio at six and a bus and a tram accident at eighteen. Multiple injuries and 37 surgeries left her bedridden. She painted in her bed, painting her own face for hours, depicting graphic anatomical details of her suffering body. 

Prodigious Frida did not attend art school but sought out Mexico’s leading painters, including Rivera, to teach her. Their friendship became a courtship and then a turbulent marriage.

Amrita got evicted from convent school by declaring herself an atheist. She went to Florence with her mother to study the Italian renaissance. Later she attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière under Pierre Vaillent and Lucien Simon. She drew inspiration from Paul Cézanneand Paul Gauguin. She made her first self portrait for another artist friend, Tazlitsky, as a gift: bold red lips, flowing hair and prominent eyes.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self Portrait, 1930

Amrita was homesick for India and she returned to Lahore, there she was shocked to see how the British rule had impoverished the Indian stock. They were emaciated versions of themselves, “shadow women with sunken eyes and skeletonized men.” Distraught, she began painting  in earthy hues, reds, ochers and whites, dramatic canvases reminiscent of Gauguin.

 In 2006 her painting, Village Scene, sold for ₹6.9 crores, the highest amount ever paid for a painting in India. Amrita used the despondency of her paintings to ignite a social epoch. 

Longing for Home

Both these artists lived abroad. In America, Frida yearned to go back to her native roots in Mexico. When she returned back to Casa Azul, she played in the courtyard with exotic pets, the spider monkey (her surrogate baby, a gift from Diego), a black cat, African parrots, a hummingbird.They are all immortalized in her paintings.  

Amrita was restless in Hungary and said, “Paris belonged to Van Gogh and Pissaro, India belongs only to me.” She returned to India and painted tirelessly.  She was getting ready for an exhibition when the trajectory of her life was ended by a sudden death at a young age of 28 years. Frida lived longer despite her disability and kept herself busy making rudimentary paintings. When Frida bid her final adieu, she was in excruciating pain and prayed for deliverance. 

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), Harry Ransom Center

Worldwide Acclaim

Both artists received accolades for their work. Amrita’s “Young Girls” won a gold medal and election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. Frida was acclaimed for her “Birth of Moses” a complex surreal masterpiece invoking Spanish grand masters.

Amrita’s art was encouraged by her mother but she dressed in a sari. Frida’s art was groomed by her father but she donned her mother’s attire symbolic of common life. 

Both artists became National treasures. Amrita became the most important modern artist of the 20thcentury from India and Frida established herself style distinct from her husband’s. Kahlo’s paintings attracted international acclaim following her death. Her work continued to resonate with Frida, a 1983 book by Hayden Herrera, and the 2002 biopic with Salma Hayek. Amrita’s paintings are in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

My Aunt Tripta

Tripta Sareen was my aunt who reminded me of Amrita Sher-Gil. It was her, who sparked my research of both these artists. She had her hair in braids, twinkling eyes and generous smile. She wore a red bindi and colorful Punjabi juttis. A soulful poetess, she  tried to adjust to the banality of domesticity. Tripta lives on in her poems. She enjoyed teaching the literary arts in Chandigarh till her final breath.

Their paintings and portraits luminesce in my heart, as I tiptoe in the wake of their glory.

Monita Soni is a pathologist and helps diagnose cancer. Her writing style weaves Eastern and Western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”