For years I have admired the elegance of Indian women wearing saris, and their skill at draping them – and keep them firmly on, whether they are riding motorbikes, working, cooking or shopping.
I have had two beautiful silk saris sitting in a cupboard for years, having acquired them in different parts of India as things of beauty and something I could buy to help support a hard-working weaver. But how to wear them was another matter.
Then came an invitation to the several events that make up an Indian wedding, so it was now or never. But how to wear them, what else did I need, and where would I equip myself with the necessary accessories? My wonderful neighbour Neelima to the rescue!
First stop the Matching Palace in Udaipur’s Bapu Bazar. You take in your sari (between 5 and 7 metres long, in cotton or silk, patterned or relatively plain – depending on the season, your taste and pocket, and the type of occasion on which you intend to wear it) and choose fabric of a suitable colour and texture to make a blouse. The men behind the counter are skilled at matching colours and textures and the possibilities are endless.
I learned that some saris are made with an extra length of fabric on the end of the sari portion, in one continuous piece, with a clearly delineated border and probably a complementary pattern, which is intended to be cut off and used to make the blouse. In which case, you can head straight to the seamstress without choosing a matching fabric from which to have your blouse made.
You also need a petticoat to wear under the sari (and to anchor your sari firmly at the start of the wrapping process). So you choose another piece of fabric to make the petticoat.
The sari itself needs one further touch: a fall. This is a length of fabric sown all along the bottom of the cloth to ensure that the sari falls nicely and to protect it from wear and tear. Yet another choice to be made. The Matching Palace will take charge of sewing the fall onto my saris.
Having selected and had cut all the necessary fabric to match however many saris you have taken in, off you go to the seamstress, who will make you your petticoats and blouses, figure-hugging and short little tops to wear under your sari. Having given up bikinis many years ago, I am a little alarmed at the thought of a midriff-revealing blouse, but hope I can rely on acres of silk to protect my modesty.
Now for the dressing! One of the most elegant women I know (the mother of the bride at this wedding) told me that after two – or three … or maybe four – times of wearing a sari I would get the hang of it. I realized that this was not the time to trust to luck. As the wedding involved formal lunches, dinners and a procession through the streets of Udaipur following the groom on his white horse, I was alarmed at the thought of tripping on my hem and unravelling the yards of silk. So a secure and foolproof mummification was greatly to be desired!
Armed with a number of safety pins, I enlisted Neelima to help with this.
First you put on blouse or choli and your petticoat and tie the latter very firmly with its drawstring. Then the leading edge of the sari is placed to one side at the front and tucked into the petticoat. You turn around once so that one layer of sari wraps around you. Then comes the skilled part: you have to work out how much of the length of fabric you will use as the pallu to drape over your shoulder, and how much you need for the pleats to complete the process. What is left is then wrapped further around your middle and tucked in at the back. The pleats are neatly made and firmly tucked in at the front, secured to the petticoat with a nappy pin. Then the pallu is thrown over your shoulder (and does indeed hide the midriff, I’m glad to say). Neelima sensibly suggested pinning the pallu to my blouse to ensure that, as a novice sari-wearer, I did not dislodge it. Her last discreet comment was: if the whole thing starts to droop, just tighten the petticoat and all will be well! Et voilà!
And it was! The saris felt wonderful, seemed to impart an aura of elegance, and remained safe and secure throughout the long events to which I wore them.
It will take a few more sessions for me to feel I could contemplate dressing myself safely, but perhaps I will buy a light cotton sari, which doesn’t have to be treated with quite such care and respect as the yards of beautiful silk, and have a go at becoming adept!