By Kiru Naidoo
DURBAN – Call it a cross-dressing fetish.
I am fascinated by the sari. Six metres of cloth, woven from exceedingly humble cotton to the most luscious silk. It can be draped from the demure, to the scorchingly seductive.
The sari is the oldest continuously worn fashion garment in human history. Its style has remained pretty much the same since it graced the Indus Valley, Benares and Kanchipuram 5000 years ago. In Western fashion, the mini-skirt, Breton shirt and clamdiggers come and go, but the sari has remained perennially fashionable in the East. It is the veritable cultural icon of the Indian subcontinent, whose variations have spread throughout South East Asia and even the Horn of Africa.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, the sari is typically wrapped around the waist, with the loose end or pallu thrown over the shoulder, leaving the midriff bare.
Dancers in the south of India took pride in showing off their navels because it revealed the source of life. The draping, however, depends on the regions, ethnicities and cultural sensibilities of the Indian subcontinent.
The Bengali style, for instance, has a box pleat in front. The loose end comes from the back to the front on both sides.
Sulagna Chakrabati makes an interesting observation that, traditionally, a bunch of keys was attached to the end of the pallu. The keys signified the reigns of the household. In the south of India, among the banker Chettiar community, those were also keys to the money safes – with their elaborate codes and locking mechanisms. Since the sari never left the woman of the house, neither did the keys.
Telegu women from the bifurcated states of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, of which there are a sizeable number in South Africa, wear the sari in the nivi style, sensuously accentuating the hips, with the lower end sweeping the floor. The latter is not ideal for working women and may be a habit of the better heeled.
My labouring grandmother Kanniamma Govindrajulu hitched her sari several inches above her heels, even when she had occasion to dress to the nines.
The more petite women of the north eastern state of Assam wear the bottom like a sarong, with the pleats in front.
The saris traditionally worn in the nauvari style by the women of Maharashtra are much longer than the six-metre norm and runs a whole eight metres. It is draped around the legs in a split pattern for ease of movement, resembling the dhoti trouser garment worn by men. Costumes favoured by classical Bharatanatyam dancers also adopt part of this style because it allows for rapid and agile routines.
A sporting legend of my Chatsworth township is Sitha Singh, better known as the Sari Aunty, who routinely hit the marathon circuit in a white sari and takkies. She may even have run the New York Marathon in that gear.
One of the most ingenious drapes is the Madisaru style, favoured by married women of the Iyengar and Iyer communities of Tamil Nadu. The upper half is pleated like a normal sari while the lower half is tied like a man’s dhoti.
Parsi women find their distant origins are among the Zoroastrians fleeing religious persecution in Persia. Seeking refuge in India, they took with them a simple yet elegant style with the loose end taken from behind, covering the head and hanging over one shoulder.
Other than the allure of donning the garment, my own interest has been the sari in literature.
In the fictional work, The Sari of Surya Vilas, novelist Vayu Naidu enthrals with the story of Allarmelu, who was nine when her mother died, leaving her in Surya Vilas, the family home. She soon discovered that her mother’s heirloom wedding sari, passed down through the generations, was missing.
A most entertaining and enlightening tale of political marginalisation unfolds from there.
Javier Moro’s The Red Sari is a dramatised biography of the constantly sari-clad Italian wife of late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
While a visiting scholar at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation two decades ago, Sonia invited me home to 10 Janpath. I was received in the study, where three Indian prime ministers had tucked into their books. The then-prime ministerial hopeful made animated conversation with her hands, while sitting rigidly upright in a handloom cotton sari.
A real conundrum for those not in the know, is how on earth this piece of cloth stays up without a single button, hook, pin or knot.
The magic lies in a whole lot of nifty tucks. For those wanting to venture on to the sari landscape, it is best to enlist the help of a knowledgeable friend to avoid an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction.
Were I to venture into the salacious cross-dressing underworld, I would surely need a leather belt.
Kiru Naidoo is the author of Made in Chatsworth recently published by MicroMega.
Independent On Saturday