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Saree school seeks to revive sartorial heritage

Lakshmi Chand Singh, a 33-year-old architect, learns how to wear a saree.

Mansi Thapliyal

The class did not begin auspiciously. Five professional Delhi women were standing in a circle, swathed in many metres of fabric, frowning in various degrees of alarm as the cloth billowed and pooled around them.

Their unsympathetic taskmistress was snapping instructions. "Pleat! Tuck! Make a V! Over your shoulder! Tighter! No, tighter!" Pallavi Verma barked.

They pulled, they pleated and they began to look like cocoons, like lumpy dumplings.

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Ms. Verma shook her head in dismay and unspooled. Handing each of the women the ends of their sarees, she instructed them to begin again. Fifteen minutes and much alarmed muttering later, each woman wore some version of the Mali Kase, a style of saree drape worn by theatrical performers in the south Indian state of Karnataka, forming pantaloons and knotting behind the neck. Each looked undeniably elegant. Even, in fact, sexy.

This was Saturday afternoon Saree School not long ago, where Rta Kapur Chishti, India's saree doyenne, was overseeing an instalment in her decades-long effort to protect and revive the fortunes of the nation's traditional garment.

A saree is a single piece of cloth typically a metre wide and about six metres long, and it has been women's staple garment in South Asia going back at least 4,000 years. But it has suffered a recent fall from fashion. Young Indian women, convinced the saree is too fussy, too restrictive, too complicated, have for a generation eschewed it for the tunic-pant combination known as a kurta-pajama, or for Western clothes. Sarees are saved for weddings and other fancy social occasions, and for senior professional women who use them to convey authority.

But because they rarely wear sarees – and because increasing numbers of urban women live in a nuclear family, without their older generations around – they don't know how to drape them. The loss of that familiarity means that only a single style is commonly worn, says Ms. Chishti, and as a consequence, women don't know all that a saree could do for them.

"My mother knows how to wear a saree but she didn't teach me," said Vrinda Oberoi. The 23-year-old corporate lawyer came to saree school with her mother and her friend, Mansi Malhotra, who was also struggling with the folds of fabric. "We're stuck between the Western world and our world. But we're coming back to it."

Ms. Chishti, 63, is one of a handful of saree enthusiasts across the country offering a crash course (about $17 for an afternoon) in something that was once as natural as rolling chapati. She sees growing numbers of young women who are curious about this aspect of their sartorial heritage, part of an overall shift in Indians' self-perception.

"It's become cool to wear a saree – I'd do it for a party," said Lakshmi Chand Singh, a 33-year-old architect. "It's part of thinking, 'This is not such a bad country to live in.' It's rediscovering your identity and being proud to be Indian."

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In a typical afternoon class, Ms. Chishti teaches six different drapes, plus several hundred years of history. Her students learn to tie their saree so that it forms trousers, or a belted "dress" or a sort of toga baring one shoulder ("That's damn cool, man," Ms. Chand Singh said of her reflection in the last one.)

Nearly 30 years ago, the Indian government hired Ms. Chishti, then a writer, to document traditional weaving and dying methods. It became an obsession – first she produced a huge coffee table book, Saris: Tradition and Beyond, and then began a business. Today she employs farmers who grow organic cotton, of the three indigenous varieties traditionally used in sarees. She has sought out master weavers who know all the many patterns of saree borders and set up shops where they can pass on their craft. She has studied the dyeing and draping of every region in the country. In addition to the school, she exhibits and sells sarees in shows that travel the country.

As the demand for sarees has dropped, the traditional skills of India's weavers and dyers are being lost. Today the traditional cotton saree Ms. Chishti favours has been eclipsed by shiny, machine-woven Chinese silk. The country's de facto ruler, Indian National Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, is never seen in anything but one of the traditional weaves, modestly draped over midriff, but she's a rarity. High-end Indian designers do "party sarees" or "cocktail sarees" made of silks and chiffons; they are worn over backless blouses studded with gems or sprinkled in sequins.The French luxury brand Hermès brought a saree line to India last year, in silk patterns similar to its trademark scarves. They sell for between $6,000 and $8,000. (A local market offers a mass-produced machine weave for as little as $15.) But none of that's any use if you don't know how to wear it.

Shweta Dhamija, 40, confessed she has "stacks of sarees lying in the cupboard" at home. "I don't wear them because I don't know how." When Ms. Dhamija, a graphic designer, must wear a saree for a wedding, she goes to the local beauty parlour to have it tied, the ignorant urbanite's reliable fallback. They do a fine job with the standard, ubiquitous city tie at the parlour. But they know only one, leaving 107 options.

Ms. Chishti dismissed the idea that a saree is restrictive, noting that agricultural labourers all over India wear them, often tied as trousers – and the versatility in drapes makes it flattering to any silhouette, she added.

Pallavi Verma, who assists Ms. Chishti with the classes, is a 29-year-old textile designer who was originally hired to do the step-by-step-instruction line drawings for the saree book. A few years ago, she was as loath as the next hip city girl to wear a saree. But she soon fell in love with the more unusual drapes and today wears a saree at least once a week.

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"But then people constantly stop and ask me, 'What style is this, where are you from?' They ask me twice: 'But is it a saree? I don't think so.' We're still so used to that stagnant style that we don't believe it's a saree." When she can't face the scrutiny, she confessed, she reverts to jeans.

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