Saturday, March 1, 2008

Western women and the saree

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!

10 comments:

Indrani Ghose said...

The advice you gave was very appropriate, she should get used to wearing the saree before she joins the wedding crowd. It will make her feel at ease.

Liked your post very much especially the part where you explained the final flinging of the pallu...

Happy Kitten said...

U said it right...

liked ur post...agree that the saree is the most sensual/femine attire..

ultrabluesky said...

I really liked this post - I've been wondering and imagining about Saris for a while; your notes are very interesting and insightful. Thank you!

michelle said...

I just bought my first sari for my friend's wedding and I have to say that it really does make you feel unusually beautiful! There were six of us American girls all trying on about a dozen different sarees and it felt so glamorous. I chose a pink and gold one finally and I have been obsessed with them ever since. I wish I could wear them out on a normal day! I don't know what other people would think about it though, they might perceive it as a bit pretentious if I did...

*Anna* said...

I liked your post a lot :-) what you say about saree is very true - that you need that special posture and a very graceful way of carrying yourself to look good in it. I am planni,ng to wear one to a friend's wedding and I did exactly what you recommended to that lady - bought one and have tried it on at home a couple of times. I am really happy with the whole experience!It makes you feel so feminine and so different :-)

Edinburgh Wedding Photography said...

I love the Saree. I've always wanted an excuse to wear one. Maybe one day. They are absolutely gorgeous.

Saree World said...

Nice article. I have a friend from Australia. He had come here and we gifted him saree for his girl friend. It was funny looking her in saree.

Lynn said...

Hi, I am planning to go to Delhi/Agra soon, and thinking of taking pictures (hubby and me in traditional indian clothes...saree for me of course). Nothing too flashy, I actually was thinking of white and light blue combination(no prints). Somehow, the images of us wearing this just came up. Does any of the photo studio in Delhi offer saree for rental etc? I coulnt get anything on the net. Would be great if we can have that in front f Taj Mahal..:)

Anonymous said...

Hi, your advice is great. I am wondering about the cultural implications for a western woman wearing a saree? are there any 'rules' around convention and culture that western women should be aware of? I am getting married soon and really want to wear a saree but don't want to offend anyone. thanks

Deepa Krishnan said...

Don't wear white or black to your wedding. Any of the other gorgeous colours that you see in the market should be fine. Red is traditionally the colour of brides in North India. That is not the case in Western and Southern India, or among all communities in Eastern India.