The Taming of the Sari: Rani Moorthy writes for Northern Soul
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1972
A 10-year-old Tamil girl steps into her first sari as she takes the giant leap into womanhood. Hers is nothing like the flowing saris she has seen in Indian films, where the heroine seems totally encased and yet reveals so much sensuality. The girl’s sari is stiff and scratchy and smells of mothballs. She’d rather be playing with her school friends. Instead she sits on a stool and is the heroine in her own ancient coming-of age ritual. Her father and uncles now bathe her in milk, give her gold and she is initiated into adulthood. Everyone looks incredibly solemn, and she feels the weight of some kind of responsibility and also of being looked at differently. She feels like she’s wrapped up like a present, being ‘offered’ to every witness at this ceremony which in ancient times was exactly that. She is now ready for marriage.
And so began my encounter with my first sari.
Those complicated and uneasy feelings eventually gave way to learning to drape the sari in a way that allowed me to express my creativity and identity. As a young adult, the sari matched my larger than life personality and allowed me to stand out from the sea of grunge dressing that marked the 80s. There I was, the peacock in bright colours and flowing drape in full display. Here I didn’t mind being on show. The one-size-fits-all saris gave me freedom from the growing body-conscious fashion trend. And in the era of Dynasty, purple mascara and power dressing, my saris gave me own particular street cred.
I didn’t realise it then (being too busy showing off and trying desperately to land a husband) but the sari was also an expression of my burgeoning political awareness. The civil war had started in Sri Lanka. At first I had no real feelings about it except for the fact that much of my family were migrating to different parts of the world and holidays there were out of the question.
Awareness of my ethnicity increased in tandem with the awareness of the oppression of my people. I couldn’t articulate it then, but something within me made the sari an extension of my true identity. Before this I was happy to let my Singaporean friends think I was Indian, South Indian at a push. But now I declared myself Sri Lankan Tamil and looked out for the particular silks and colours of my tribe.
Johor Baru, Malaysia, 1989
The things you do to please your parents. Ahead of my arranged marriage, I presented myself in a sari, a red-gold silk number, walking like a geisha towards a pleasant enough man who looked like a bank clerk (although he was really an electrical engineer/computer programmer/accountant with great prospects).
Suddenly I was plunged into my 10-year-old self again. The pleats were too tight, the folds constricting and I felt trapped. In my head I was rebelling with every fibre of my being but I had seen enough Bollywood films to play the part really well, at least until the tea I served grew lukewarm. My Lakme make-up cracked, along with the illusion.
I failed. I wrapped all my saris in plastic and fled.
Manchester, a bitter winter in 1997
I had chosen the Gujarati drape where the pallu fans out in front. Why did I choose an unfamiliar drape? Why didn’t I wear it like I did all those years ago? Who was I trying to impress? No one knew me at this posh party and my sari seemed to be some kind of barrier to normal conversation. Mostly I was ignored so I did what I usually do and let the actress in me dominate.
Would my secret come out eventually? That underneath I had corduroy jeans to keep me warm. My silk underskirt would have frozen and wilted away. Why did I wear green? I never wear green but it was the colour of the season (or rather the main sari worn in the most popular Bollywood film). I swear if someone had put fairy lights on me I would have looked like a Christmas tree.
I got married in not one but two saris.
The first sari given to me by my parents and the second by my English husband. How theatrical for the bride to leave half-way through the ceremony to change into another sari. It appealed to the actress in me and the old show-off. The front row of Tamil relatives whispered loud enough for me to hear “in this light, at certain angles, he practically looks Tamil”.
I walked taller that day because I had come to terms with this complicated garment and my complicated identity – and all on my own terms.
I’ve lived in Manchester for nearly two decades. While I can only wear saris on special occasions or on days when I don’t take public transport, I feel a cultural solidarity with women who display that shaft of colour under a winter coat or beige cardigan. And I love the the swish of fabric above trainers.
My work with Rasa Theatre attempts to shed light on the migrant experience. As the first generation of South Asian migrants age and fade from public life, so too are the glimpses of saris as an everyday garment more and more infrequent. It’s like the sari has retreated into the private space of ceremony and tradition. In my new play, Whose Sari Now?, I look at the sari as a metaphor for migrant life. Following the evolution of the western sari in the form of either pre-sewn drapes or fancy couture gowns, Whose Sari Now? questions the role of saris in six characters’ lives, crossing generations and borders.
By Rani Moorthy
Whose Sari Now? is written and performed by Rani Moorthy and directed by Kimberley Sykes. It will be on at The Lowry, Salford on Thursday November 19, 2015
To win tickets for the show courtesy of Northern Soul, click here
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