Heritage,  Sarees

My Saree Stories: Part 8

It is festival time in India, and every week you have one celebration after the other. This is a good time for sarees to be aired. And no one minds if you choose to wear something over the top and glitzy these months. Enjoy the next set of ten saree stories!

Saree #71: A Maheshwari saree with Katab applique work

This is a Maheshwari cotton silk saree which has been wonderfully embellished all over by applique work from Kutch.

This work is known as Katab in Gujarat. I read somewhere that the word Katab is probably a distortion of the English “cut-up”. But I have no way of confirming if this is true.

The process of applique involves stitching pieces of cloth decoratively onto a larger piece. Applique work in Kutch was developed out of embroidery traditions of native communities such as the Mahajans (business men), Kathis (land owners), and Rabaris (nomadic camel herders). Some of these migrated from Sindh in Pakistan during the partition. They pieced together quilts or coverlets using bold colours. One can find distinct patterns used by each community. They decorate tents, canopies or even covers for their animals using pieces of cloth of different colours or textures. Imagine the luxury of such beautiful craftsmanship if you were a king who went out hunting and this was what your tent looked like!

It is believed that the Huns brought applique to India around 500 AD.

Similar decoration, sometimes embellished with embroidery and mirror work, is used to increase the visual depth and richness of the cloth. These days torans, friezes, cushion covers, table runners made with applique are the rage. Why should sarees be left behind?!

Saree #72: A red Brasso saree reminding me of Teej

The festival of Teej starts today. I don’t celebrate Teej. But it brings back memories of my mother doing her ‘nirjala vrat‘. The festival rituals begin with a bath following which the lady eats a full meal. Then she fasts without water for the next 24 hours praying to Shiva and Parvati for the health and happiness of her husband. While I was never concerned with the religious part of the rituals, the image of my mother in a bright red saree and a big red bindi lingers on. Her big gold jewellery would emerge from the locker that day and she would look so resplendent in that red and gold. Especially that maang teeka.

I am cheating by trying to post some of my old pictures in red with my head covered like her from another occasion as a representative picture. But the truth is I’m no match for the stunning beauty that she was. This saree which I’m wearing is a Brasso with green and red embroidery. She would have worn nothing but her red Kanjeevaram. And she would have definitely disapproved that my ornaments were not gold. But I like these pictures because this is perhaps the closest where I’ve tried to go completely traditional!

Saree # 73: An onion coloured soft silk saree

The fervour of Ganeshotsav echoes all around us. The undergraduates installed their Ganesh idol yesterday morning and decorated the hall beautifully. They bunked my lecture today and I couldn’t be upset. After all we too used to be engrossed with our Ganapati during our second year. It was the first chance that we got to freely talk with our batchmates in such informal settings. Nothing bonded us like the ten day Ganesh Festival celebrations did. Organizing events together taught us more about team work than any lecture did.

Dressed today in an onion coloured soft silk saree. It was drizzling all day and I had to hop, skip and jump to avoid the puddles, while the raindrops created rangolis on my silk saree. I loved hearing the rain fall on my window all day.

Saree #74: A Bengali cotton saree from Smita Ma’am

I first joined Sevagram after my wedding in 1999. On day one after I joined the Pathology department, I was telling someone which reference book to read. A colleague wondered how I knew about Pathology reference books. I thought he was weird.

A few weeks into trying to set up home, I was buying something in Wardha. The shopkeeper turned to me and said: “But you are a regular customer. You know I will give you only the best.” It was my first visit to Wardha, and I thought the man was trying to sugar talk me into buying something.

But a few days later I was buying veggies on the chowk in Sevagram, when the sabziwallah politely picked the best for me, and then said he will come to my OPD to get his eyes checked. I looked up to tell him I was a pathologist, but something stopped me.

Clearly I was being mistaken for someone else in this new place. Who was this person who looked like me? I asked my postgraduates and they instantly said: Smita Ma’am!

Tell me does she look like me?

And that’s how I discovered Smita Singh, who works as a Professor in Ophthalmology in MGIMS. She lives three houses away from me and now she is like family. Then I used to plait my hair quite like her, so perhaps there was some resemblance. I didn’t agree that we looked alike. And now 20 years later, with my weight gain of 20 kilos, no one mistakes me for her any more! We work together in the medical education arena and enjoy conducting workshops together. Somehow with her the wavelength matches, and the tuning is always right.

It is a long extended weekend where I am trying to finish a lot of pending work in view of an upcoming trip. The first surprise came on this lazy Sunday when Smita ma’am turned up at my doorstep with a suitcase. She said something which sounded like ‘meri sari library laayi hoon‘. And I presumed that she’s got me a pile of novels knowing her family’s love for reading books. Two minutes later I figure out that she had said “saree library” and she’s got me more than a dozen handloom sarees to wear as a saree exchange!! She said our tastes in sarees match. So excited to see the different weaves! Though I haven’t shared any of my sarees with her yet! But it is such a sweet thing to do! And we had such fun discussing the memory associated with each saree. Now it is an added responsibility to wear and showcase each saree properly. Thank you Smita Singh Ma’am!

I opened Smita Ma’am’s pitara this morning and picked this lovely yellow and green Bengal cotton saree of hers to wear. I loved the combination. I met her on the way to work, more nervous about how her daughter Aakanksha would react to me wearing her Mom’s saree, than Smita Ma’am would!

Thanks again for your lovely gesture ma’am.

Saree #75: A Venkatagiri Saree

Ganeshotsav is on, and today is also Teachers’ Day. So today, let’s see what this jolly overweight elephant God Ganesh teaches us!

He teaches us to use our bulk and strength to push all obstacles away from our path- the Vighnaharta. His elephant head symbolizes the huge wisdom he has. His large winnow like ears teach us to be good listeners- to hear others and to be sensitive to the cries of those who call out to us. His small eyes teach you to concentrate, while his small mouth tells us to talk less. His pot belly tells us how he has digested all the joys and sorrows of the world. His broken tusk teaches us the powers of discrimination – to retain the good, and to throw out the bad. The way his trunk is folded symbolizes control over power.

The position of his legs (one resting on the ground and one raised) denote the need to maintain balance between spiritual knowledge and worldly matters. Ganesh’s corpulent body symbolizes happiness, benevolence, and his role as the bestower of success.

His hands hold several symbols. The lotus flowers, books, and swastika painted on his hand are symbols of spiritual knowledge. The axe and mace indicate ability to destroy evil demons, the noose his ability to draw close those he loves most dearly and to reach out to encircle and save those who stray. The fourth hand holds a modak which symbolizes the sweetness of the realized inner self. It also denotes the reward of sadhana (devotion).

Ganesh’s vehicle, the mouse, teaches us humility- respect the tiniest creature, for he too has the power to carry huge burdens. It also teaches you to control your desires, for they can play havoc like the little mouse in our quest for spiritual knowledge.

May Lord Ganesh usher in new beginnings into our lives! May we all be humble learners all our lives!

Today I chose to wear a burgundy coloured Venkatagiri handloom saree. This saree has checks all over with zari interwoven on the borders and pallu. These lightweight sarees come from Venkatagiri in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. Decided to wear traditional jewellery to go with the sober formal theme today for Teachers’ Day.

Saree #76: A saree full of memories from Teachers’ Day

I spent the whole of Teachers’ Day hunting for this precious photograph. I turned the whole house upside down in the process. Just when I had given up searching it turned up in the most unexpected place.

Why is this precious? This is a picture from 5th September 1988. I was in 12th standard. Perhaps one of the three times I wore a saree to school.

There is this lovely tradition which is followed in Kendriya Vidyalayas. On Teachers’ Day every student of Class 11 and 12 played the role of a teaching or non-teaching staff member. So if you played a particular teacher you would acquire the timetable and teach the classes she usually taught. If you played a clerk or a peon or a sweeper or a gardener you would perform their tasks. It not just gave the staff a day of rest, but also taught us to value the dignity of labour.

When I was in Std 11 I had taught mathematics to middle schoolers. But this year I was School Pupil Leader. So automatically I was expected to play the Principal.

There were two dilemmas I faced. The first was that my Dad was the Principal and so the jibes and jokes were relentless. But I took my task very seriously. The second was that I loved teaching. My Dad sometimes taught biology when regular teachers were absent. So when I asked my teachers if I could teach, they all agreed.

I remember teaching Enzymes that day to Class 10. It is one of the best classes I have ever taught. Still remember carrying a lock and a bunch of keys into the classroom to illustrate the specificity of enzymes. Later I had to handle administrative tasks in the Principal’s office sitting on Dad’s chair. It was a moment I treasured. That afternoon I won one of the many prizes awarded on Teachers’ Day.

This photo brings back a rush of memories. Of choosing my mother’s floral cotton saree. Of begging her to get me dressed. The way she did my hair in a bun so that I could look like a strict principal. Of wearing my Dad’s crown of thorns and knowing how uneasy that head feels. But most of all I remember the pride in my Dad’s eyes when he saw me lead the school assembly or taking rounds to ensure discipline in school.

I am emotional about this picture as my parents aren’t around. But the memories linger on. Still fresh and vivid.

Saree #77: A Magan Khadi saree with leaf prints

A very hectic day which began before dawn broke. Lots of cooking to do as we had guests staying over. Then had to rush for my morning lecture. Last lecture for this batch so I put in that little bit of extra effort trying to make things memorable for the kids.

Things turned crazy and unpredictable mid morning and tired me. But then we had to take everyone out to see the cattle dressed in their finery on Pola. Lots of loud throbbing music, teeming crowds and the festival fervour at its peak. The best part of Pola for me is the pooranpolis. Everyone knows how much I love them. And no one forgets to send me some!

Here is my blog post on Pola and the Marbats of Nagpur.

But could I forget my saree in this furore? Certainly not! This is a khadi saree woven at Magan Khadi Bhandar at Wardha. It is really heartening to see them trying out new things. This is a leaf print. The saleswoman showed me other sarees where they had made prints with leaves of the tur dal plant, and she said this was shevanti. But it looks like hibiscus leaves to me. Whatever it was it was unique enough for me to pick up.

Saree #78: A Kasavu saree which reminded me of failure

The nation watched as Chandrayaan-2 faltered in the final moments of its mission. They say that the night is darkest before dawn. But it also means that the glimmer of sunshine is not far behind. It takes courage to venture where no one has ventured before. And each failure powers you to excel further. Sometimes nothing teaches you more than the pain of not being able to succeed. I had written a piece on the fuel called failure a few months ago.

Kerala has begun celebrating Onam. God’s own land has suffered from the devastation of floods since the last two years. May this Onam bring prosperity and peace to the people of Kerala. Onam is one festival which is celebrated by everyone in Kerala, irrespective of the religion they follow, and that’s what I find most special. Thiruonam is on the 11th, but I will be travelling abroad. Wish I had a chance to relish the sadhya. I just love the pookalams. So decided to show my solidarity with my Malayali friends by wearing this simple Kasavu saree today. It is extremely comfortable and drapes like a dream.

Saree #79: A Himroo saree with block like weaves

This is a Himroo handloom silk cotton saree which I bought in my last trip to Aurangabad. I couldn’t resist the block print style weaves as well as the colour. Learnt so much about the Himroo tradition. Will write a full blog post soon. I have already described Himroo sarees in Part 2.

Saree #80: A Goan Adivasi parampara Kunbi saree

Today’s saree is a Goan Adivasi parampara Kunbi saree. The purple and white small chequered saree drapes like a dream.

The word Kunbi comes from kun meaning people and bi meaning seeds. Or ‘people who produce more seeds from seeds’. This term is for the community of farm workers who grow paddy. Keeping in with the needs of the women who work in paddy fields the length and width of the original Kunbi saree used to be less than that of traditional sarees of today. Women used to drape them just below the knees so that they could manouvere themselves in the slush of the paddy fields. These sarees used to be worn without blouses and draped with a knot on the left shoulder.

With the advent of the power looms, the weavers of this traditional saree and their hand looms disappeared. Through the efforts of history professor Dr Rohit Phalgaonkar and art historian Vinayak Khedekar, there has been a revival of the Kunbi weaving tradition and this saree is now a collector’s item. Priced between Rs 2000 and 3000 these cotton sarees are affordable and comfortable to wear.

Dr Phalgaonkar has tried to popularize these sarees by giving them names of Goan goddesses like Shantadurga, Navdurga, Shitalai, Bhumika, Mahamaya and Kamakshi. This particular purple saree is called Tuloshimaye.

Another person who is experimenting with the Kunbi Saree is designer Wendell Rodricks. But his sarees do not have the typical borders of the original. His creations are more contemporary versions in more subtle colours.

Follow my blog for more saree stories!

My saree stories: Part 1
My saree stories: Part 2
My saree stories: Part 3
My saree stories: Part 4
My saree stories: Part 5
My saree stories: Part 6
My saree stories: Part 7

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