You know the story of how as a girl you watched your mum drape a sari and one day, you grew up, and it was your turn, and the whole thing came almost instinctively because you’ve seen it done so many times? Yeah, that’s not my story.
It wasn’t my story with cooking, it wasn’t my story with caring for babies and it wasn’t my story with saris. I did watch my mum cooking growing up and lost interest at about the time I might have actually been useful in the kitchen, I had only one baby cousin in my city and but I was too young to really pay attention, and my mum didn’t wear a sari that often. I think she stopped around the time we came along actually. So while my mum can drape a sari competently, the sari as a measure of womanhood wasn’t an image I carried with me into adulthood.
Maybe for that reason, the sari held a fascination for me. Well, first of all it’s a naturally graceful and gorgeous garment. I would stop short of saying it’s the most comfortable garment, though some people might find it so. Wearing nine yards of cloth is going to impede you from really sprinting for a bus, for example, and it’s definitely hotter than a salwar-kurta in summer. And if you’re as clumsy as I am, it’s another story… So yeah, while for other people the sari might have been a tradition they rebelled against, for me it was one I grew into.
I’m in my 30s now and I’ve probably donned a sari five times in my life. The first time was at a cousin’s wedding a week before mine, and the second time was at my own wedding. The common thread here is … weddings. I only ever wear saris to weddings, and so far I’ve had someone on hand to drape them for me. Each time I swore I would learn to do it myself, and then promptly forgot because typically, there was a couple of years’ interval between the next outing.
As usual, I was invited to talk about India at the kids’ kindergarten for International Day, and this time, I felt I really should wear a sari. It is so much more exciting than seeing me in a salwar, not to mention that kurtas I own here are extremely simple, and hardly representative of the richness of Indian textile. On the other hand, the only sari I have in Hong Kong is extremely grand; it is the one I wore way back when for my cousin’s wedding, the first one I’ve ever worn. The blouse is extremely skimpy featuring spaghetti straps. The embroidery is heavy and trickily placed so that the two people who draped it on me in the past struggled.
And this was the sari I had to teach myself to drape.
First, I checked out a couple of YouTube videos. Now, these videos (or at least the two I checked out before giving up) take the same approach that people who wrote the Hindi textbooks in school did – they are supposed to be teaching you something but they kinda assume you already know. The technique is so instinctive to them that they forget that a newcomer needs to be told every single step. So yeah, that didn’t work.
I almost gave up in frustration but something but egging me on – and I think it was the belief that now was the time to tick this thing of my bucket list.
Reluctantly, I reached out to two Indian women to see if they could teach me. Turns out they didn’t know either.
So I did what I should have done in the first place. I tapped MinCat, prolific wearer of saris and draper extraordinaire. And we had a Skype sessions where she took me through the steps as excellently as only she could do, with just the right amount of information. Turns out that the videos were skipping a crucial step between the first time the sari goes round one and when one drapes the pallu. This might seem like common sense to some people but I’m directionally challenged. In about 15 minutes, I felt confident that I could do it myself at school.
So I did. The school was kind enough to give me a slightly big room, so I had ample space if not a mirror (though turns out I don’t need a mirror except for a final check). I did end up somehow getting confused but kept calm and carried on. In the end it was fine. I’m sure my pleats weren’t as nicely aligned as they should have been but with an audience of three to six year olds, who cares? I even managed to teach them some Bollywood steps in the thing without it falling off, so I consider this mission achieved.
Mainly though, I feel confident (and maybe this is misplaced confidence – I haven’t yet tacked a Kanjivaram yet) that I get do this myself again and again. No need to sheepishly request anyone to help, except maybe in adjusting the pleats.
The only question is – when will the opportunity arise next?