Understand a sari, own a sari, fall in love with it – says Joy Mitra

Joy Mitra, a leading designer and a dear friend, weaves magic with his anarkalis, lehangas, kurtas, dupattas and Indo-western wear. Most of all I love the saris that he designs. He takes the traditional Indian weaves like ajrakh, kalamkari or handprinted cotton and silk and turns them into masterpieces. Being a sari lover myself I decided to talk sari with Joy

What do you think about saris? Why do your work with saris?

When I say sari, I mean drapes – the basic attire of the subcontinent that probably evolved 5000 years ago. We all know that very state has its own drape, its own way of wearing sari. The modern way of draping sari evolved 100 years ago, made popular by the women of the Tagore family. It’s a beautiful attire that complements the Indian body type.

Sharmila Tagore in a Joy Mitra

However, over the years we have seen a dip in the popularity of sari. There was a time when Indian women flaunted sari. Even girls of senior schools and colleges would wear sari, were encouraged to wear sari. This changed 80s onwards with sari becoming just another outfit. And now I hardly see modern city women wearing sari, it has been reduced to a costume for special occasions. There are various reasons for this change. Modern city life doesn’t encourage sari. Many women don’t know how to drape a sari anymore, western outfits are much easier to wear. Therefore, it is important to first understand a sari, own a sari, fall in love with it. Give sari a chance and you will see how much it can change you, add to you.

But coming back to saris, they will always be there. The number of people wearing sari may vary, the number of sari lovers may rise or fall, but sari will never die.

We have seen 100-day sari challenge bringing back some excitement around draping a sari

There’s always excitement around any movement, be it bringing back the handloom, or planting more trees or saying no to plastic. We create excitement around things or issues that we as a society want to push, to make them for relevant for the time. Of course, there is a group of people who love sari, swear by sari and want to wear a sari. They want to bring back excitement around saris, not only because it’s a beautiful outfit but also to encourage our weavers. Our banarasi, kanjivaram, ikat and tangail weavers. That is also our job as a society.

When you started, and I have seen you right from your first show, you used to make those beautiful cotton saris in ajrakh and kalamkari. I absolutely loved then, but then you stopped. So, it’s good to see you bring them back again. Can you tell me about your kind of saris, what makes them different?

I like working with traditional saris, I have a very earthy taste. I love these rustic Indian colours, natural dyes, Indian prints, block prints, kalamkaris and ajrakhs, these have always been my first love. Of course, I am also in the trade, in the business of selling garments so I keep changing and evolving and coming back. It’s a cycle. It’s not that I stopped, it’s just that I was not doing that many ajrakhs and kalamkaris for a while. I am back to ajrakhs, kalamkaris, sanganeri and bagh prints again because I genuinely love them.

Is there a taker, especially in a place like Delhi where we see more georgettes and chiffons?

That can be a challenge. I invest a lot of money in some cotton saris, I find them so beautiful. But most of my clients would say ‘that but that’s a cotton, why will I wear a cotton sari for a wedding or a festival?’ And the funny part is if I don’t tell them and a show a picture after I have done a shoot, they immediately want that sari. This psychology that cotton can’t be expensive, cotton can’t be worn to weddings annoys me. I work with chanderis, silks and georgettes as well. Each has its own appeal. But as a designer, I am more inclined towards silks and cottons.

Anything different about the kind of work that you do with your saris, and the kind of blouses you team up your saris with?

I need to do something different, something that inspires me. However, I should be able to sell my pieces as well, it’s a process. For me it’s not about being different, it’s about making something truly beautiful, that’s all that matters.

I am often asked ‘Is this in?’, ‘Is that out?’ ‘Should I buy that?’, again these questions upset me. For me, a garment is either beautiful or not. If I like something, I will like it even after 10 years unless my taste has changed completely. What is beautiful is always beautiful. You don’t go to Taj Mahal and say ‘Oh, Taj Mahal was so beautiful 10 years back now I have outgrown it.’ It will always remain beautiful. Especially the Indian weaves and textiles, they are timeless.

Another worry, a lot of these prints are replicated by digital printing, which of course is faster and cheaper, and more people can wear them. But the essence is dying. The whole process to make ajrakh sari takes 40 to 60 days – so many kinds of layering and dying. Digital machine replicates it in a day and that hurts me. That’s the reason why so many of these weavers are leaving their jobs, looking for other work. I feel it is our responsibility to promote these traditional textiles and prints. Sustainable fashion it’s not just about promoting cotton or certain fabrics or a craft. It’s more challenging, it’s about sustaining the society, this whole ecosystem of weavers and dyers, all of us have to work towards it.

Aparna Badlani donning a Joy Mitra sari in Bengali style

Bengal has a very strong tradition of saris from tant to baluchari. But you don’t work with those saris?

I do, I work with these saris from time to time. Maybe if you come next month you will see many tangails and balucharis. I love these saris.

Most people feel balucharis are not in vogue, and I feel sad about it. Any particular reason for that?

We don’t see the real balucharis anymore. The whole palla and border of a real baluchari would tell a story from Ramayana, Mahabharata or Panchatantra. It was not a repeat border, the whole sari had different patterns depicting a story. Thus, weaving a baluchari took a long time and making it a very expensive affair.

Secondly, baluchari looks almost like a banarasi, just that banarasi uses more zari while baluchari is more resham. Both these saris come from the Indo Gangetic plane. Banarasi is woven near Banaras, then comes the famous bhagalpuri silks and cottons from Bhagalpur. Further down in Bishnupur where balucharis are woven and then you have the dhakais and jamdanis of Bangladesh. The whole belt is rich with variety of weaves and textiles that vary with changing atmosphere and culture.

Balucharis were too expensive and the dazzle of benarasi was much more making them a popular choice. Baluchari was made popular by the rulers of Bengal, but this beautiful sari somehow got lost and is still dwindling. Also, baluchari appeals to a certain taste and that’s another problem, you have to understand a Baluchari. It’s like a paithani, a very expensive and a beautiful weave that not everybody would like to own. Or a real kanjivaram with gold work. Sadly, there are not many takers for these saris. People are going for digital, from pure to artificial, so these real saris and the real crafts are dying

I remember our mothers had 4 to 5 expensive saris that they would wear for all occasions. Now you need a different outfit for every function.

That culture has died, and that’s not just for sari, that’s for all outfits. Our life is like Facebook, we constantly need to put something new. We can’t tell the world we have the same sari. We are fishing for something new to post every day. And that’s why we opt for those easy, faster and cheaper variants. It’s like a fast-food culture, it’s a fast-food lifestyle

But we still have sari lovers

There will always be, though the number may have reduced over the years. Maybe lesser women are wearing saris now due to financial or cultural reasons, or just practicality. But sari will never die

Women who inspired you to do sari, or you love to see in sari.

I am from Bengal; I have seen my grandmothers and mother wear the best of saris and that’s how I developed a taste for sari. The range and the variety of saris that we have are just fabulous. Even today when a client comes to me with an old traditional sari and asks me to highlight it or do some work on it, I shy away. They are so beautiful. I ask them to keep them as they are and pass them to the next generation. I want more people to love sari.

I hope with your saris will revive that love

I hope I do more saris, all kinds of saris not just handloom. Every sari looks different on different body types. I want people to experiment more with sari and drapes. It could be a cotton sari, silk or georgette, start wearing saris, start developing a taste for this beautiful drape

Your favourite drape

The modern drape is beautiful. And of course, being a bong, I like the Bengali way of wearing a sari. I have used this drape in many of my shows. I find it very beautiful and elegant, effortlessly sexy.

Thank you Joy, I hope more women start wearing saris after reading this interview.

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