This wasn’t, to be honest, what I expected. It has a bright and evocative picture on the front cover but this isn’t a book about colourful textiles, it’s about how the sari is worn and the place it holds in Indian society. It’s a simple length of cloth but to suggest that is all it is would be rather like saying a book is just reconstituted tree.
I have always admired women in saris. It’s not just the fabric that holds one’s attention but rather the form, the drape, the movement of the material. It’s an ancient dress but one that is by the same token timeless. It hints at exotic sexuality while simultaneously conveying an impression of modesty.
It is is about the wearers and their relationship to it. It’s complex and varied but one that has impact. The diverse strands of feminine Indian society have a common denominator and that is the sari, with all its myriad styles and significance: it is not just an item of clothing like, for example, a western tee-shirt – a sari plays a role in much of Indian social interaction.
This book has a collection of personal stories from women who wear or have worn the garment on a regular basis. For some it’s reserved for smart evening wear, with western attire being the choice for the majority of the time. Others are full-time wearers who might even wear one to bed to ensure that they are covered from prying eyes at all times. The sari in many of these cases is used as an expression of religious and familial conformity.
Indian school girls don’t wear this costume and the first time one is worn heralds the start of adult life. It was interesting to read that Indian women do, in fact, have sari accidents and anxieties. Yes, there have been occasions when a sari has become unwound, a careless foot causing embarrassment. I have tried a sari and I’ll not feel safe in one without the use of several 4-inch nails and a weightlifter’s belt. Sari-wearing is an art.
The Sari is a book that has introduced me to an aspect of Indian society that is seldom discussed. One looks at attractive ladies in beautiful clothes and one takes the sari at face value, but this amazing book shows a fascinating aspect of the lives of so many women of and from the subcontinent. It’s a worthwhile and compelling read and encourages one to consider the wearer rather than the worn.
Authors: Mukulika Banerjee, Daniel Miller
Published by: Berg
Asian travel book review by Chrissie Walker © 2018