This week, on a travel advisory column, an American lady asked me a question. "I'm coming to Delhi for a wedding", she said. "Should I try wearing a saree?"
Many overseas visitors to India are fascinated by the saree, of course. The women look at the fabrics and designs, and immediately wonder what it would be like to wear one. "How long does it take you to drape this?" they ask me. "Can you teach me?" "What does it cost? Does it come in different fabrics?" "You think I could wear it? I mean, can I pull it off?"
The questions are very female, framed in a sort of universal language that all women understand. One question that I get asked often is "Do you like wearing it?"...perhaps the person asking wishes to really understand what's going on inside my head...why do I drape six yards of fabric around my body, when I could be more comfortable in other clothes?
To tell the truth, I find the draping of the saree a sensuous pleasure. That final flinging of the pallu over the shoulder, the twisting to look at your back in the mirror, the feel of crepe silk as it goes round the bare midriff - everything contributes to a subtle sensual delight even as you dress for work. The saree allows me to be feminine, to experiment with colours and jewellery, confident that no matter what kind of figure I have, this garment will help me look my best.
On formal occasions such as weddings, saree draping is a group affair. At tea-time, the women of the household exchange notes: "What are you planning to wear?" "Ah, that gold and maroon one? Perfect." "Are you going to wear those ruby tear-drops? You know, the ones you bought in Hyderabad?" By 6:00 p.m., the bedrooms in the house have been invaded by women, there are sarees strewn everywhere on the bed and garlands of jasmine by the dressing table. The women are in a state of sensory exploration. You hear the swish of Kanchi silk, the smell of sandal and perfume, the jingling of bangles. You see the gleam of gold-and-rubies, and you smell the heady scents of henna and jasmine. And then it is time to troop out of the house, and crowd into a car, more swishing and jingling sounds...the car fills with the smell of flowers and perfume, and the women are transported to the wedding grounds.
So - coming back to the American woman who asked me for advice - I wondered what sort of experience she'd have with the saree. Would she be part of a household of women? Or would she have to cope with the saree in a hotel room by herself?
And even if she did have other women to help her, there was still something else that bothered me. You see, I think what makes the saree graceful is not just the drape, but also a certain body posture and walking style. Just as the African woman has her own gait, and the Japanese woman her own, the Indian woman does too. This is what gives beauty to the saree and makes it seem feminine and graceful. I've always thought that the saree is not easy for Western women, whose walk is more of a confident stride, and less of a gentle sway. To add to that, there's the artificial wobble that high heels bring, and the discomfort that is natural to a first time wearer.
So although I wanted to recommend the saree, I was also very hesitant. All things considered, here's what I finally said to the lady: "If you're tempted to wear a saree, buy one and try it in the privacy of your hotel room. Get a little used to it before you wear it to a wedding. Or stick to a lehenga, it's much easier to wear because it is essentially, a skirt and blouse."
I'm still trying to figure out if I said the right thing!