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Going the whole six yards

Author: admin

Social media keeps Sunita Budhiraja’s love for saris and looms alive, writes Ambica Gulati

Did you know the exotic Patan Patola is woven by just three families in Gujarat who zealously guard their family secret? Or that the Baluchari wraps mythological tales on the pallu? If you believe a sari is not just a garment but a piece of art, Facebook group Six Yards and 365 Days is the right platform for you. Launched by a group of likeminded people in 2015, it aims to encourage women to wear saris and revive the handloom industry.

“Saris are disappearing and so are our weavers,” notes Sunita Buddhiraja, founder of the pro-sari movement. “The beauty of the sari is that it can be worn by every woman and on any occasion.” Launched with just three members—art curator and critic Alka Raghuvanshi, Sanjeev Manglani, owner of Kalpana sari shop in Connaught Place, Delhi, and former director-general of Doordarshan Vijaya Lakshmi Chabbra—besides Buddhiraja herself, a communications professional and author, the group has grown by leaps and bounds and boasts almost 25,000 members.

“The love for handlooms is in my genes,” says Buddhiraja, whose maternal grandfather Ganesh Das Kukreja owned looms in Lahore and employed close to a hundred weavers before moving to India following Partition.”My grandmother had a charkha at home. She would make the yarn, which would then go to the weavers.”

Recalling her first buy, a Kashmiri printed silk, the 62 year-old says, “I bought it with my own earning from Kalpana on 10 October 1972, the day the store opened.” It was not just the beginning of a love story with saris, but friendship with the owners of the store, the Manglanis. “Every time I would go there to buy a sari, Sanjeev Manglani would share the intricacies and details of the drape.” In time, both Buddhiraja and Manglani agreed they needed to join hands to help prop up the handloom industry. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for Digital India, the friends decided to retell the narrative of the six yards digitally. Today, with members from countries such as the UK, Canada, Russia, Greece, USA, France, Malaysia, Indonesia, UAE, Mauritius, Singapore and Netherlands, the group has become a talking point and treasure trove of knowledge on the rare weaves of India.

The rules of the group are simple. A member can post one picture a day and within 48 hours of wearing a sari. Repeat sari is allowed, repeat pictures are not allowed.. Machine-made and synthetic saris are also not featured, ensuring our handlooms are kept alive. When a member reaches a milestone such as 100, 200, 365 and 500 posts, certificates and gifts—sponsored by members—are distributed.

Agreeing that draping the sari can be cumbersome for those not familiar with it, Buddhiraja claims she can drape it in just one minute and 20 seconds. Her sari inspirations: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Indira Gandhi. “I also admire Maharani Gayatri Devi, though she wore chiffons and not handlooms,” she reveals. Her grandmother and mother were also instrumental in cultivating a love for handlooms in Buddhiraja. Her mother wore handwoven saris even to Tokyo University, where she taught Hindi. Among Buddhiraja’s priceless collection are Patolas that her nani bought in the 1960s. “She had bought three Patola saris from Patan in Gujarat, each worth Rs 500. Today they are worth Rs 1 lakh each. The silk has not worn out and the colours are still bright.”

Incidentally, Buddhiraja wore her first sari in school for Saraswati puja. In college, too, she wore a sari on special occasions. Gradually, she became so comfortable that she decided to stick to the garment even while travelling abroad. During a trip to Poland in 1981, she was approached by a lady who wanted to know if the sari was worn on the streets in India. “She was surprised when I told her that Indians managed their daily chores in saris,” she recalls with a chuckle.

Later, on a visit to Leipzig for an exhibition, the owner of the guest house where she stayed asked her if she could keep the Gujarati Gharchola Buddhiraja wore while welcoming German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the India pavilion. Buddhiraja admits that she was happy to leave a piece of Indian heritage behind. “The sari does us Indians proud, particularly abroad!” Her favourite sari tale, however, is another one. “A photographer friend was shooting corals in the Andaman. I was on the beach, as usual in a sari. Unexpectedly, he pulled me into the water and held me as I paddled. So yes, I can claim that I even swam in a sari!” she laughs.

Lamenting the takeover of the sari industry by power looms, she sighs, “It’s indeed sad that master weavers are a dying tribe today.” During her travels through Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh for coffee-table books, Buddhiraja met weavers and was appalled to see the deplorable conditions under which they worked. “Someone recently told me that one cotton sari gives work to 60 people and a silk sari to 80 people. Imagine how many people would benefit if we revive our handloom industry,” she says.

With classical dancers such as Sonal Mansingh, Shovana Narayan and Sharon Lowen among others extending support, the FB group is now a virtual encyclopaedia on the little known traditions and textiles of India. Participants proudly drape handwoven saris, click photographs and post them on the group. And members from cities such as Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai even meet, at least once a month. Sometimes workshops and seminars are held and fun activities organised, such as ramp walks. “We had an 82 year-old walk the ramp at one of our recent events,” Buddhiraja shares.

Though the group was launched to help the handloom industry, it has become an emotional support system for many women. Over the common love for handwoven saris, friendships are forged and careers launched. For instance, Aditi Mukherjee from Kolkata, Mrunalini Makhale from Pune and Sarita Garabadu from Bhubhaneswar—all members of the group—have started selling saris, while Indu Nair from Mumbai does business in handcrafted accessories. Weavers from Orissa, West Bengal, Assam and other places in the group have also reported an increase in online sales.

What keeps Buddhiraja going, besides her love for handlooms, is music and writing. An author, her latest book is Saat Suron ke Beech, a musicology based on interactions with doyens of Indian classical music such as Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pt Kishan Maharaj, Pt Jasraj, M Balamuralikrishna, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pt Birju Maharaj and Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia. Currently, she is working on a book on Pandit Jasraj and the second part of Saat Suron ke Beech.

With the FB platform becoming quite a rage among sari lovers, Buddhiraja has almost 5,000 pending requests to join the group. If your drape hides a story within its pleats, what are you waiting for? Jump on the bandwagon.

Photo courtesy: Sunita Budhiraja

November 2017