Heritage,  Sarees

My Saree Stories: Part 5

I’m back with more saree stories, this time with stories about typical Bihari traditions and some lesser known handlooms.

Saree #41: A green leheriya from Rajasthan

This was a very special moment for us in 2014. My niece’s daughter Anvita was born in Sevagram. I wore this green leheriya saree on Anvita’s sixth day pooja (chatthi). And teamed it up with chunky oxidized jhumkas and chains. Even when she was a baby I loved to wrap my dupattas around Anvita like a saree. Now of course she is a complete chatterbox bursting with questions.

That evening, I asked my niece who now lives in Bangalore, if she had any photos of Anvita in a saree. And she said she will dress her up in one. All through the process I got questions from my now-grown up grand daughter: “But Nani, why do you want my photo in a saree?” And when her photos came they were adorable!

I just asked Anvita whether she enjoyed wearing a saree. With the disarming candour that is typical of this bright generation, she said: “Uff, haalat kharaab ho gayi!”

Saree #42: A Bhagalpuri Jute silk and the Bihari drape

I originally belong to Bihar. But for a long time I’ve had this identity crisis because I have hardly stayed there except for fleeting visits during summer vacations. I grew up in Pondicherry and Maharashtra. It is only now after my marriage that I have been able to discover Bihar better.

This is a colourful Bhagalpuri jute silk saree. Jute is a sustainable eco-friendly fibre. The good thing about jute is that these thin fibres have their own sheen and lustre which makes them amenable to being woven into wearable sarees. The intrepid weavers of Bhagalpur are able to blend both silk and cotton with jute thus making these sarees considerably more affordable than their tussar counterparts. The only difference that I noticed is their coarser texture compared to the Bhagalpuri tussar silks.

This is the first time I’m experimenting with a seedha palla. But then I decided to go traditional all the way with the aanchal on the head and wear typical lahthis on my wrists made of lac from Muzaffarpur. My attire reminded me of my grandmothers. And this writeup is a tribute to two very different women- my Nani and my Dadi.

Saree #43: A chikankari saree with murri and hool stitches

Yesterday I received some questions about one of the photographs that I had posted earlier, where my nieces and I are seeing sporting sindoor right from the tips of our noses until our scalps. Why do we do that?

This practice of wearing long sindoor is typical of Bihar and Jharkhand on auspicious occasions. I have asked my mother why they did that. She said it symbolizes the longevity of the husband’s life. The longer the length of the sindoor, the longer your spouse will live.

Another peculiarity is the colour of the sindoor. While other parts of the country wear red, we use a orangish yellow vermilion. This is called Bhakra Sindoor and is considered better and more natural as it is devoid of heavy metals like mercury. In fact during the worship of Hanumanji this is the orange sindoor which is preferred. Actually the first sindoor applied during the wedding itself in my community is light pink in colour and is said to be most auspicious.

I personally do not prefer a middle parting. And every time I reached Bihar someone at home would physically part my hair in the centre and apply the sindoor. It has to be clearly visible for the longevity miracle to work, I’d be told. I couldn’t comment in front of others for fear of hurting their emotions, but with my mother, I would always be in grumble mode. Especially when they had the tel-sindoor ritual. They first apply oil to both sides of your hair parting and then let the sindoor stick on firmly. I hate oil in my hair, and so I would cringe.

As for my preference for the side parting, my mother would say: If you have a crooked parting you will get a crooked husband! Well I have a very seedha pati despite never having a seedha maang! So that funda is fake. Personal experience!

Here I’m wearing a lavender chikankari saree with some unusual embroidery. I think it is a mix of murri and hool stitches. Murri refers to the grain like work done on the periphery of the flowers. Here diagonal satin stitches are worked several times with a knot on a basic tepchi stitch to form a grain shape. Hool is a fine detached eyelet stitch. Here, a hole is punched in the fabric and the threads are teased apart. It is then held by small straight stitches all around and worked with one thread on the right side of the fabric.

Saree #44: A Bobbili handloom saree

This is a Bobbili handloom saree. Easy on the purse, I couldn’t resist buying it for two reasons. The first was the earthy colour and soothing combination. The second was the really soft texture. I wore it the whole day until 11.30 pm and it didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.

Bobbili is a town in Andhra Pradesh which is around 55 kilometres from Vizinagaram. The town is of historical importance as the Battle of Bobbili was fought here in 1757 (Look it up. Really interesting tale). Literally Bobbili means “royal tiger” and the town derives its name from the Bobbili fort dedicated to Sher Muhammed Khan. Another version says that the word is a distortion of the original name Peda-puli which means “big tiger” in Telugu.

Bobbili is also famous for producing Saraswathi Veenas. These are ekanda veenas carved from a single piece of wood of the jackfruit tree.

The weavers of Bobbili produce these really thin, delicate, soft sarees. They originally came in earthy tones, coloured with vegetable dyes. The common styles are either with checks or stripes, but I chose to buy a plain one. They are famous for their 120 thread count. What exactly is thread count?

When a saree is woven, threads on the loom are arranged vertically (warp) and horizontally (weft). In case the weave, ply and type of cotton is same, a look at the thread count helps you to choose the better quality of the cloth. Higher thread counts mean a smoother, silkier and more expensive fabric.

Thread count is often referred to with a number like 50s, 80s, 100s, 120s, 140s 160s, etc up to 200s. While most people think that 50s means 50 threads per square inch, that’s incorrect. Rather, these numbers refer to the yarn size. 140s means there are 140 hanks (1 hank = 840 yards) of yarn in one pound. Nevertheless, 140s fabric has a higher thread count than 120s, and 160s fabric has a higher thread count than 140s and so on. Threadcount of a fabric is easy to understand even if it’s not a literal measure of threadcount.

Saree #45: The Sanganeri block printed saree

This saree is a simple block printed Sanganeri gifted to me by my friend Deepa. This block printing technique originates from Sanganer in Rajasthan. The artisans belong to the Chippa community, who are originally migrants from Gujarat.

The Sanganeri motifs are delicate and inspired by flora and fauna. The basic motifs are butas, butis, bel and jaal. Butis are the smaller motifs (unlike the larger butas), usually inspired by flowers such as the rose, sunflower or narcissus. Conventionally designs which show a combination of flowers, buds and leaves are called bhant.

This cotton saree has kamal buti or a combination of lotus flowers, buds and leaves all over. While the edges have bel or creeper motifs.

Saree #46: A Kanjeevaram silk saree and some indelible memories

I always wanted to become a teacher. Medicine was never on my list of desires. But my Dad who had secured admission into medical school had had to quit during first year, as his family could not afford the fees for two children pursuing medicine. He started a career as a teacher instead. It was to fulfil his dreams that I joined medicine. But I began to enjoy it only after I got the opportunity to teach medical students. So my foray into medical education was natural.

In 2012 I was lucky to be awarded an international fellowship which allowed me to pursue my Masters in Medical Education from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Thrown among students of multiple nationalities, I learnt much more than the curriculum. It was a learning experience like no other. Read more about it here.

These pics are from my graduation ceremony in 2014. Maastricht has a very unique tradition where the families of the graduating students are invited for an intimate ceremony and dinner, the guides speak with warmth about their students and you are then awarded the degree.

My family couldn’t be there, but my friend Monika came from Brussels to celebrate my special day with me. I’m glad she was there, because to my delight they awarded me a Masters cum laude (with distinction). And I chose to wear a graceful Kanjeevaram for this memorable occasion.

Saree #47: A Kosa Silk Saree

Sometimes you have to pack in a lot in a single day. This calming kosa silk saree from Chhatisgarh with a pink temple border teamed with a floral print blouse helped me sail through the day .

In the morning was at a conference with my teachers and friends from college. It was overwhelming to be felicitated by Dr Shobha Grover who was one of my undergraduate teachers in Pathology.

But the moments that I treasured were with Subodh in the evening. We were at a kid’s birthday party in the neighbourhood, where Moana was the theme. And suddenly the hosts asked us to pose together. I love this picture, because it reminds us how many storms we have sailed through together in this journey called life.

Saree #48: The Gamcha Saree

This saree is a handloom woven Gamcha saree. I walked in to the department and was told that I was wearing a bedsheet! But then the weaving style is akin to what is used with the humble gamcha or quick dry towels used in India. These are easy to wash and wear, cool and comfortable. The colours are bright and bold. The checks are the signature style. This particular saree is sourced from a sixth generation family of weavers from Gaya in Bihar who are struggling to keep this tradition alive.

Saree #49: A polka dotted georgette

I stay in Sevagram, which is a very small place, though it has immense historical importance. The closest town is Wardha which is 8 kilometres away. Wardha has a large community of traders and business people, who mostly belong to the Marwari community. So despite being in Maharashtra you will see Navratri being celebrated with greater fervour than Ganapati festivities. The roads get a complete makeover and puja pandals are set up at every corner during Navratri.

I rarely do my saree shopping from Wardha. But there are times when I have to pick up sarees as gifts for the family, and then that’s the only option in emergency. And every time you shop for someone else there is a greedy voice in your head which wants to pick up one for yourself!

Keeping in with the needs of their clientele, the shops here stock mostly brightly coloured synthetic sarees with what is called “work wali sarees“. Now I don’t prefer sequins or crystals and it is extremely tough to explain what I’m looking for to the salesmen there. Finally I’ve found a mechanism to tell them what I prefer. I ask for my “bhaashan wali sarees” and then their drab and sober range emerges to be displayed from the forgotten nooks!

This georgette with white polka dots and embroidery is one of those purchases from Wardha where I succumbed to buying a ‘work wali saree’, simply because there was no nice ‘bhaashan wali saree‘ in sight and I really liked the colour.

Saree #50: A simple South Cotton saree

I don’t think I will be able to give away this saree even when it is faded or worn out. It is a simple handloom South cotton that I picked up on one of my Bangalore trips. But it has a precious memory attached to it. I wore it on 15 June 2007 when I was given an opportunity to compere a programme at MGIMS Sevagram where President Kalam was the Chief Guest.

Now, I have had the opportunity to compere programmes where politicians are chief guests. And my usual experience has been frustrating. So going by my previous encounters with ‘big people’ and their rude security, I was a tad nervous. But I was in for a big surprise. The President’s entourage was polite and respectful. Dr Kalam himself was alarmingly humble and completely dismissive of superfluous protocol. I remember him shifting from his chair to talk to our then Dean. And the protocol said, the President’s chair will be of the same height as other guests- none of those maharaja chairs for Kalam. His child like enthusiasm to answer questions posed by students still makes me smile.

I remember spending evenings with some Tamilian friends from the faculty who trained me to speak Thiruvalluvar’s verses in Tamil with the right accent. Not every guest bothers to talk to a compere. I certainly caught his attention, for when he left to leave, he gave me his big smile, and murmured… “Nice, very nice”. This is a photograph I will treasure for life.

Watch out for more saree stories!

My saree stories: Part 1
My saree stories: Part 2
My saree stories: Part 3
My saree stories: Part 4

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