Sarita Alurkar-Sriram, 50, is a champion and keen collector of the traditional Indian dress, sari. She is particularly appreciative of the garment’s historical and cultural value and has devoted time to sharing her knowledge and passion with the public.

“It was like a piece of art coming to life in front of my eyes. It reflects the weaver who is an artist in my eye, his aesthetics and sensibilities and that was what hooked me.”

Her passion for saris shines through in the hour or so that we’d spent in her company. Whether it’s from her animated manner or word choices, there’s no mistaking her passion for the subject. 

How and when did her love affair with the sari begin?

When Sarita was 16 and looking for an outfit to wear to her class’s ‘social’ (equivalent of prom night), she was inspired by how elegant her mother always looked whenever she wore a sari. She decided to select one from her mother’s wardrobe. She fondly recollected details of her first sari which she eventually inherited from her mother. “It was a Banthini sari from the state of Rajakstan. The fabric was tie-dyed, very bright and colorful with turquoise and patterns done in white, yellow and red, and it draped very well as it was made from chiffon. When I wore it, I felt like a Bollywood actress.”

When she began working as a young executive in an advertising agency, she had the opportunity to travel to nearly 60 cities across India. These trips opened her eyes to the various intricate sari weaves that each state and weaving community offered, and her love affair with the sari began. Whenever such an opportunity arose, she would pick up saris from weavers and cooperative stores.

Even after moving to Singapore in the early 2000s, she continued to visit India for both business and pleasure. On one particular visit to Chandriri, Madhya Pradesh, in 2014, she was struck by how vividly a weaver had incorporated nature into his art.

“I saw a sari he was weaving and the whole piece was filled with motifs of lilies and lotuses. When asked how he came up with the design, he told me to step out of his home to take a look outside. Outside his humble home was a pond that was filled to the brim with lilies and lotuses. Inspired by this view of nature, he actually brought it to life in the sari.”

Mr Abdul, a home weaver from Chandiri in 2014. Photo courtesy of Sarita Sriram

A sample of a Chanderi weave featuring the lotus motif. Photo courtesy of ‘The Timeless Appeal of the Indian Sari’ Facebook page

To keep the sari’s rich heritage alive, Sarita and her like-minded friends (comprising a mix of Indian nationals and locals) have also participated in an online initiative on the Facebook group, Kai Thari Karigar (Handloom Artisan), which was started in 2016 to revive the interest in the Udupi (Karnataka, India) sari. The group of 15 people donned their saris and took pictures at various local iconic spots such as the Merlion Park and Chinatown and shared these pictures online. As a result, “the number of ‘likes’ on the page increased and led to a boost in orders for the weavers and helped keep the community and weave alive.”

Sarita (sixth from left) and her friends dressed in Udupi saris at a street in Chinatown. Photo courtesy of Lijesh Karunakaran

Reaching out to new followers through social media has been fairly effective for these preservation efforts. Followers not only get to see Bollywood actresses in saris attending international events such as the Cannes Film Festival, they could also understand that the sari is not only meant for the older generation and could get inspired to experiment with new styles of wearing it. After all, the sari itself has evolved through the decades. It would continue to do so, reflecting the trends of the times.

Even traditional weavers have seen the potential of extending their customer base via social media. It is not uncommon today to find weavers reaching out to customers directly and taking orders on Instagram.

Following a successful run of public talks at the Asian Civilisations Museum in 2014, a fair bit of buzz was created and people wanted to know more about the history and art of the sari. Together with Vinisha, a fellow enthusiast, and her friend Ashwini, they decided to create the Facebook page ‘The Timeless Appeal of the Indian Sari’. Their goal was to continue promoting interest in the sari through events and activities, and sharing information.

Sarita and her friends are also involved in public outreach sessions where they explain the history of the sari and include a hands-on session where eager participants are shown how to drape a sari around themselves.

A hands-on session with participants after a public talk by Sarita at the library@orchard in 2016. Photo courtesy of Sarita Sriram

With a personal collection of more than 200 saris, one would assume that Sarita has seen it all when it comes to saris. Sarita humbly acknowledges that it would be impossible to recognise all existing weaves as each Indian state has its own peculiar style of weaving.

Each style is further diversified by the various villages of each state, and by an indefinite number of communities in each village. Each community then has its own weaving style literally spinning off an infinite number of weaves and styles. This is before styles are “borrowed” between the communities which would then generate another multifold of designs. Rather than viewing the ‘borrowing’ of designs as artistic plagiarism, it has become a means to keep the sari relevant to trends.

Much of Sarita’s collection was acquired from the generous contributions of her mother, grandmother and relatives who knew her passion for the garment. From her collection, a sari belonging to Sarita’s great-grandmother stood out as it is the oldest one at 100 years old. Apart from its age, the Banasari sari is unique for its motifs that were intricately embroidered out of pure silver thread (zari) coated in gold which was indicative of the status and wealth of its wearer. It is an heirloom that she cherishes and when she showcases it at talks, the audience is always intrigued by the workmanship and artistry that had gone into it.

“It was an heirloom handed down from my great-grandmother who had received it from a weaver in Banaras, India. She had a great collection of saris and as the wife of the first Director-General of the Great Archaeological Society of India she was fortunate to have weavers visit her regularly to create new outfits for her. The sari could have been given to any one of her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren but I got it and that is what makes it so special and precious to me.”

It is her hope that she can eventually pass down her extensive sari collection to the next generation who can appreciate it as an artform and continue her work to promote it as a historical heirloom. Just like the 100 year old sari she had showcased, her own saris would also take on the same significance as part of a cultural legacy in a century’s time.

Written by: Terence C. Fong

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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