Giving New Life to Old Saris

Sahapedia recently held a sale of donated vintage handloom and silk saris to help foster a community of those who are interested in India’s long and diverse tradition of textiles.

Sahapedia sari sale - readying the display

Sahapedia sari sale. Credit: Ayan Ghosh

On August 6, even as the morning turned mercurial with the sky melting into a downpour, a determined group of sari and handloom lovers from across the capital made their way to a vintage sari sale that we at Sahapedia had organised at our office in South Delhi. It was a sale of handloom saris that were donated by connoisseurs who no longer wore those saris, but had treasured them for long.

An unusual bagh print, which would have cost the owner around Rs 4,000 today, was available for just Rs 400. On the other end, a pristine white Kanchi cotton with a green border could be snapped up for Rs 100.

Many might wonder why Sahapedia, an open online encyclopaedia on the art, culture and history of India, chose to organise such an event. After all, we are as far from being a marketplace as Flipkart is from being a library.

However, there is a real connection between what we did last weekend and our broader aim of ‘saha’ –  Sanskrit for ‘together with’ – which was an invitation to explore the richness of India’s cultural diversity.

An organic idea

Like all ideas, this one too evolved organically.

A few months ago, some of us  who had begun to wear saris to work regularly, were asked by our older colleagues and friends if we wanted some of their gently worn saris or whether it would bother us to wear second-hand clothes.

Knowing that their sari collections were a loving ode to the genius of India’s textile traditions, we leapt at their offer. Over the years, our schools have successfully drummed the mantra of ‘reuse, reduce, recycle’ into our heads and here was an actual opportunity to give this mantra a beautiful turn by commencing a new circle of life for an old sari.

While wearing those saris, we would also be inheriting the heritage of a particular weave from a particular place. The feel of a fabric against the skin would foster a connection to a larger tradition.

Needless to say, we were taken with the idea. A few discussions later we came to the conclusion that many more people, particularly young women, might want a slice of this generosity, so we decided to make an event around it.

Sahapedia sari sale - Saris on display

Saris on display at the Sahapedia sari sale. Credit: Ayan Ghosh

We asked a few women in our circle of friends, who own fabulous sari collections, particularly handloom ones, whether they would be interested in donating the saris that they rarely wore. Within no time we had about 180 saris donated by fewer than 15 women, all on the strength of word-of-mouth requests.

Depending on the material, condition and a certain je ne sais quoi, the saris were then priced between Rs 100 and Rs 800. Owing to the generosity of both the donors and the buyers, Sahapedia can now donate over Rs 50,000 to Palna, the Delhi Council for Child Welfare’s home for abandoned, homeless and destitute children. The 20-odd unsold saris will be donated to Goonj, an NGO that highlights clothing as a basic but unaddressed need and repositions the discards of urban households as a development resource for villages.

Getting back to the original question – why would we organise such an event? The answer is simple: because it was an attempt, however small, to keep handloom in circulation by making it available to newer circles; to create space in cupboards that are holding on to old saris by placing them in new wardrobes bereft of traditional Indian weaves; to makes hand-woven saris affordable for young students; to brings together old memories and new interpretations of gently-used clothes; and raise money and material for organisations engaged in commendable activities. Finally, it was to help foster a community of those who are interested in India’s long and diverse tradition of textiles, which is also one of our areas of focus.

We discovered during our conversations with the donors that the saris came with their own stories. Take Raka Chakravarty’s story, for instance. A well-known architect and a member of the Delhi Crafts Council, Chakravarty said that she would always buy three saris from every region she visited for the three women in her household – her mother, aunt and herself. At one point she contemplated not buying any more saris, but realised that “there is a larger concern that we have to recognise. Handloom is a work of art, a continuing tradition. If  you don’t buy, what happens to the tradition?”

The event

We organised the sale on the eve of National Handloom Day to underline our engagement with issues of sustainable promotion of diverse Indian weaves such as ikat and Chettinad, dyeing techniques such as kalamkari and batik, and materials such as Puneri silk, malkha and Bengal cotton.

An early visitor to the event, Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, was struck by the grace of many a vintage weave. “Every part of India has its own traditions about how it weaves and why it weaves like that and the  kind of cotton it sources for that. All this is related to both biodiversity and culture,” she said.

Sahapedia sari sale 6

Sahapedia sari sale. Credit: Ayan Ghosh

Some visitors were drawn to the feel, the tactile pleasure of the warp and weft of a handloom weave on the skin. Others marvelled at the hues of textile traditions that come in shades such as pink like the first blush of dawn or the green of a tender sapling.

The current popularity of social media campaigns such as #ilovehandloom and the #100saripact point to an increasing interest  in this languishing sector among the younger generation.

As wr discovered, among the visitors of the sale were a large number of young women who may have just discovered handloom and the comfort of wearing saris.

Hoping to buy expensive saris at an affordable price, they became proud owners of saris with rich histories. For instance, Meenakshi Bahadur, a board member of Palna, recounted the story of one such piece: “One South Indian silk sari that I donated belonged to my  mother-in-law. After wearing it for years she got it block-printed and loved wearing it in its new guise. Then she gave it to me and I wore it for a few years. I’m glad that somebody else will be wearing it now.”

Shatavisha, who came to the sale wearing a lovely pink Dhakai from Bangladesh that was gifted to her by her mother, summed it up beautifully: “Each time you wear a sari, it’s like you’re adding a chapter to its story.”

Like the many pleats of a sari, this event was an experiment in flagging concerns that may start at the individual level, but resonate as the warp and weft of common issues at the societal level – what to do with the saris one no longer wears; how to afford handlooms; how to re-circulate existing resources; and how to spread awareness about the linkages between our biodiversity and our diverse cultural traditions that create the fabric of life as we know it.

Neha Paliwal is the director of projects at Sahapedia.