A new flag bearer for India’s handloom heritage

Most recent articles that have dwelt on the attire of President Droupadi Murmu – not only the first tribal woman to hold the highest post but the first incumbent born after Independence – have been rather inadequate. It seems all the writers drew on the same news agency source that did not have much to add beyond the fact that she wore a Santhali saree, gifted by her sister-in-law. This merely highlights how crucial and timely her sartorial gesture is.

Incidentally, the classic thick and soft Santhal drape is called phuta jhala for women and phuta kacha for men. It has a criss-cross of vertical and horizontal stripes on a solid (mostly white) base, and a striped pallu with bright flora and fauna motifs. Once upon a time, the only dye used for the stripes and checks was the rich red made from the powdered roots of the ‘aal’ tree – Morinda citrifolia or Indian mulberry. Now all the primary colours are used.

Though there are very enthusiastic groups of saree lovers on social media who offer not only lovely anecdotes but also practical information on our six-yard-wonders, knowledge and appreciation of sarees is generally waning. Many if not most people have only the faintest idea about saree regions and weaving centres, and often do not even know the difference between a weave and print. And before its recent renaissance, it was seen as frumpy “aunty-wear”.

The advent of a woman President with a strong personal identity, could be just what sarees need to get back into the public eye. Prominent people in public life with distinct styles always have a salutary effect, a good example being the charismatic former Prime Minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko, who opted for her country’s traditional braided hair set in a band round her head amid the national tumult of the early 2000s, inspiring her compatriots to rally round.

Aficionados have already noted that President Murmu has a good eye: she has been seen in recent photos only in handloom sarees with minimalist but classic combinations: plain bases with borders in contrast colours, immaculately pleated, draped and pinned up. The overall impression is elegance with practicality, which is the working woman’s mantra the world over. The dwindling constituency of saree lovers may have just found a new star to follow.

At a more rarefied level-in the elegant salons of Lutyens Delhi, for instance-there has always been interest in handloom, which is a sort of secret code for people of a certain milieu. They would never be caught wearing anything made with any mechanised process. No zardozi, sequin and gota embellished ‘designer’ sarees either; textile revivalists only thank you. Preferably those who work with weavers to invent new classics and reimagine old ones.

For a long time Indira Gandhi showed the way with her style of plain handloom cottons and silks in vegetable dyes or jewel colours, usually with small floral motifs. Those near 1, Safdarjung Road (geographically or metaphorically) faithfully followed suit, setting off saree trends that spread with appropriate lag times to the rest of the political and social class in New Delhi. Since it helped weavers earn more, there was really no reason to complain.

The cultural czarinas of Delhi at the time, most of them her close associates if not friends, ensured that Cottage Industries and the state emporia stocked exactly the type of sarees that the Prime Minister liked so that ladies who were (or aspired to be) part of the socially and politically well-connected set could also strike their colours, so to speak. From classic silk Kanjivarams and Ikats to cool Kerala and Bengal cottons, she wrapped herself in India so to speak.

Indira Gandhi’s saree choices also set off trends like silk Baluchari prints, a very 1970s innovation at a time when interest in the woven ones from the eponymous weaving centre in West Bengal was steadily declining, perhaps due to bad marketing or adverse perceptions. In fact one of her most popular photos-supposedly a favourite of her daughter-in-law Sonia-shows her in a fetching crimson printed Baluchari. Many bought exact replicas.

Sonia Gandhi may have baulked at becoming Prime Minister but has followed in her mother-in-law’s footsteps when it comes to being a trendsetter. It can rightfully be said, actually, that she has gone beyond Mrs Gandhi Senior in sartorial achievements, as the second textile revival took off around the time she was looking for a personal saree style and she readily took advantage of the modern handlooms that emerged from that creative ferment.

She is also probably the person who has made tribal sarees trendy among the handloom elites of New Delhi-1: ‘new classic’ cotton Bhujodis (using techniques adapted from Kutchi shawls) from Gujarat, soft silk Bodos with striped borders and geometric or floral weave patterns on the pallu from Assam, coarse cotton Kotpads from Odisha, she has debuted them all. And in each case these sarees and their weavers have found new patrons down the years.

But Sonia Gandhi’s public appearances and social profile have reduced in recent times and her daughter Priyanka’s choices have not had the same effect on either saree wearers or weavers although she is also a bona fide member of the exclusive handlooms-only club of Lutyens Delhi. There is a space and a need for a new brand ambassador for our six-yard staple. Thus President Murmu has stepped into the limelight at the perfect moment in her Santhali saree.

Roy Walsh

Related post