• Akshay Patel

Undraping Bollywood: The Sari.

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

The iconic fashion garment, the Saree. An internationally known fashion piece recognised for its beauty, thousands of years of history and a liberating fashion choice for most Indian women. It is one of the only fashion pieces which has managed to remain, “unstitched from history” according to fashion stylist Onita Prasada. In terms of Brexit, the potential of stronger trade deals between India and UK, may be on rise to help British Indian fashion evolve but this may have consequential effect to factory industries back in India. Although, for most British Indians as they rejoice their culture through dance, song, and prayer in religious festivals like Diwali and the recently celebrated event Holi, the saree remains a common feature. However, the story of the creation is one always lost.

After discovering Daniyya Haq, 21, a self-proclaimed ‘Bollywood enthusiast’. Daniyya has over 7,000 twitter followers, her views surrounding Bollywood and Indian culture remain honest and unfiltered. Daniyya a student Psychologist in Reading, views her relationship with Bollywood to be that of “love and hate”. She said, “I’ve grown up with Bollywood it’s helped me understand my culture, my religion and my mother tongue and so I appreciate what it has done for me personally”. According to the Leicester Mercury, in the 1970’s Bollywood had managed to overtake Hollywood and become the world’s largest film producer thus taking the name Bollywood.

Hidden in nearly every British Indian’s memory was the first time when they came across one of the top highest grossing 2001 Bollywood sensations Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, according to IMDB. Daniyya spoke about being clueless when watching but would strictly be following the subtitles as Bollywood legends Kajol, Rani Mukerji and Bollywood sweetheart Kareena Kapoor would be creating some very, very dramatic scenes.

For Daniyya Haq it went a little like this. “Mum would be all emotional sobbing at the scenes and Dad would be in his armchair, with his chai nodding off, but I watched in awe at the beauty. There’s an iconic scene when the three biggest divas are all in red sarees disobeying the men, which I love because you could just feel how strong they were, them being in a saree had something to do with that” she said.

Bollywood for many British Indian girls was the first sign of strong independent brown-skinned women being successful outside the traditional role of a ‘housewife’. It gave them heroines like Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai and first ever Bollywood film director Fatma Begum. Daniyya said: “Watching these women on screen, I can’t explain how it made me feel. More than empowered, I idolised them for breaking that stupid housewife stigma imposed on us.”

However, the tension quickly changed as Danniya in a heated outburst, confrontationally said; “Here’s why I have a love/hate with Bollywood. It sexualised the saree, always. In modern Bollywood they know sex sells, so nearly every style of saree is styled in order to meet this new demand. They’ve turned something with so many years of history and culture, into something which it never needed to be, which makes me sad because it mostly only happens to the women.” Danniya reminisced how she felt that modern Bollywood had gone too far, that even old Bollywood will be forgotten.

The truth behind the demands of Bollywood and how the industry has developed this garment has pressured small town Indian communities[AP1] with threatening burdens, a topic overshadowed by the beauty of it.

Bollywood has managed to be pioneer for Indian fashion. Every saree remains unique, each with their own intricate detailing and personal story. Although Bollywood has managed to liberate Indian women, for a small margin of women in India, it has done the complete opposite. The story of the creation of the sari is a story hard to image as it remains polar opposite to the end creation.

Manisha Mistry, 28, works at a cotton research station in the region of Surat, Gujarat. Surat situated in the southern region of Gujarat holds the second biggest cotton collecting farm in Gujarat. The first being in Saurashtra. She described the look of a cotton farm, “A cotton farm is a pretty place. I’ve never seen snow in my life but when I look at a cotton farm, all I see is a white field and it’s beautiful, it’s the closest thing we have to snow.”

According to Worldstopexports, India is the second biggest cotton exporters in the world holding 12.2% of the world’s cotton exports in 2016. China is number one.

Manisha explained the process in which growing cotton, collecting cotton and the current high demands of cotton. She said: “After working in the cotton industry I understand how demanding it can be. The need for cotton especially in regard to Indian fashion is very high and sometimes demands cannot be met”.

Cases of high exhaustion, tiredness and anxiety in order to meet demands is a common occurrence throughout cotton farms in India. According to the Economic Times, the saree industry is a £8m plus market. Manisha reflected on a tragic recent case she witnessed at the cotton farm one summer’s day in 2017: “This day was hotter than normal, a week before we had monsoon-like weather, so the air was humid and sticky. The farm owners employ local village people to increase employment levels. I remember, we just employed two village girls about the age of 17 who had already been working 4 days in order to meet their target. It was about 43°c and she collapsed for about 15 minutes before anyone noticed and was rushed to A&E. It was scary. But demands are extremely high, the saree is the national dress of India and it’s not just India’s demands but the worlds for cotton.”

Cotton is the key material in the making of the saree. The cotton is collected in farms throughout India and sent to specialised factories in order to mass produce garments. Manisha isn’t alone in her fear about the high demand for sarees and the consequences of it.

Indira Patel, 52, a working factory lady in the Gujurat district of India works 12-hour days in an authentic Saree Factory, Ajmera Fashion, situated in the City Navsari. Initially, Indira revealed signs of optimism, she said: “Bollywood is great, it’s given me a job, in a region where its frowned upon to work, it’s been good to me.”

Indira reminisced about the beginning of her career and her life as a young teenager. She said: “I started my job as a factory woman being happy. I grew up in a country where Bollywood was a part of every aspect of life, we were constantly surrounded by it as kids. We idolised fashion Bollywood icons like Sri Devi and Jaya Bhaduri for what they wore, they lived the Indian dream.”

Indira’s optimism gradually diminished. She discussed the daily demand and ill behavior she’s exposed to, in order to survive and provide for her family. She said; “for many families in India to provide for their family, many simply cannot. Working 15-hour days in a 38-degree factor feels impossible at times”. Indira discussed the location in which she works: “It’s dark from morning to night, even when it’ light outside, it’s dark inside. To say I feel safe is wrong because at time’s I’m frightened. The machines there’s never any certainty.”

A textile ministry annual report 2016, show that current estimates of craftspeople have been placed at 11 million people employed by the industry. It's hard to imagine a textile with such a vivid colour textile, grace and sentiment can be linked to stories shared by Manisha and Indira.

The demands for saree textiles are high internationally. The garment can be draped over a hundred ways, depending on each region of India. Each region having a distinct and unique style, popularity varies the most common are the nivi drape, mekhela chador and the athpourey shari. However, now that Brexit is hitting the UK hard, the potential for greater imports for textiles from India may help surge Indian fashion in the UK and increase sales for the fashion garment.

Indian born fashion stylist and designer Onita Prasada,41, who owns O’nitaa The Essence of Asian Couture in Chelsea, London discussed the rise in Asian couture fashion in the UK. Onita had moved to London as she felt there wasn’t enough focus and appreciation towards traditional Indian fashion in the UK’S fashion market. She said: “I wanted to remind the capital, that Indian fashion is changing, over the years I’ve seen the growth and it’s just getting better and better. Indian designers are no longer afraid to maintain complete modesty, they’ve become daring.”

Onita described the saree to be, “a garment which has age-old beauty. It’s this kind of culture which has kept the saree fashion market popular. It’s both luxury and comfort”. Onita showcases the work from 15 different Asian couture designers both international and UK based in her shop and has showcased her talent at the International Asian fashion awards, annual Asian wedding exhibition and India fashion week. She has high hopes to show at London Indian fashion week 2018.

When discussing Brexit and what this may bring to Indian fashion; Onita showed subtle signs of enthusiasm; “It could mean more Indian textiles will be imported to reach a greater audience”. Onita remains prosperous about the direction Indian fashion is going In; “London India fashion week has been running for only two years and the response has been great. Indian fashion designers and manufacturers are finally getting the credit they deserve.”

The story of a saree is worth telling; the love, respect and liberation given to it help showcase this beautiful garment. Bollywood has evolved the saree; whether that’s good or bad is a difficult discussion. Onita ends on a final note; “The saree will always be a part of Indian fashion, but its creation should never be forgotten.”


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