Features / Fashion

The Sari Series: Where The Past, Present and Future Meet

We speak to the collaborators of The Sari Series, a unique digital anthology documenting the various ways saris are draped in India while telling the story of the Sari’s past, present & future.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 19 February

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Behind the scene of The Sari Series

The Sari Series: An Anthology of Drape is an important archival project by Malika Verma Kashyap, founder of Border & Fall, which documents over 80 regional drapes from 15 states across India through short, how-to films. By examining the current status of the sari and how it looks on women today, the project aims to document, not revive the garment, which is evidently still very much alive and worn by millions of women everyday. Instead, what it offers is a fresh dialogue for the sari, showing its relevance in the modern times we live in.

We spoke to Malika about her vision, the everlasting love story of the sari, and execution of the mammoth project. We also got in touch with Rta Kapur Chishti, the Sari Advisor for the project and author of Saris: Tradition and Beyond; filmmakers Pooja Kaul and Bon Duke, who helped create independent films exploring the sari’s past, present and future.

What is the scope and relevance of The Sari Series?

By archiving the rich past of the sari, The Sari Series is trying to look ahead by creating a shared dialogue for the garment today, which is so much more than a cloth.

Our project and its contribution to this dialogue has already been acknowledged by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), who showcased five films we made as a part of their 2017 exhibit Items: Is Fashion Modern?, which looked at the impact on society and history of fashion items that have been a part of a country’s culture and identity. These are accessible on Google's Art & Culture platform.

Last month, MoMA screened Sari Men, a film by Q, as part of their film programme. We have also had design schools in Pakistan and Singapore screening the films for their study body, following which we join in for a Q&A session. Worldwide, there has been a lot of interest generated about the project and we are grateful for all the support.

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Behind the scene of The Sari Series

In terms of good design, which is apparent in the way the films have been shot, we are impressed by the project website’s clean, minimal look. Tell us about the aesthetic you went for.

Malika: The website’s focus was the films, which do all the talking. So the clean look of the website and minimal colour used in the design was intentional and meant to complement the colours, textures and movement in the films. The site was designed by Squadron, whose work is incredibly well informed and design is equally focused on functionality and aesthetic. Since this entire project is an original body of work, we didn't have any sites as specific references.

After working on the project, how do you feel the perception of the sari has been impacted?

Malika: We’ve always maintained that this would take an effort which is much larger than us alone. Many people are currently working in this space and together, we will hopefully see change. But that will still take considerable time. What we can say is that we immediately connected with a very receptive audience through the series, who continue to try new drapes, share their amazement at the various drapes and discuss the sari more than they have before.

We have been growing steadily. Our films have had nearly 1000 hours of viewing time. And given that they are short 2-minute films, we are more than happy. Also, considering we didn’t use ‘SEO friendly’ catchy titles on YouTube and stuck to our language of documentation, which understandably affects the visibility.

What is most interesting is that our audience is 60:40 female: male and mainly from India, followed by the United States, Japan and the UK. The engagement is high, and we regularly receive photographs of people trying out new sari drapes, comments, emails and requests, which has all been wonderful. We intend to keep the the momentum of the sari conversation going.

How-to-drape videos from The Sari Series

Rta, as the Sari Advisor for the project and author of Saris: Tradition and Beyond, what was your involvement in documenting the story of the sari in a digital way?

Rta: I’ve been running the Sari School and conducting workshops since 2009 with AV and video support for those who enrolled with the goal of increasing the scope and outreach that my books could not ensure. These workshops created a lot of interest among student of design, fashion, young brides and working people who were otherwise not inclined to sari wearing but were interested in a garment that they could drape for their own convenience, profession and occasion. When I was approached by Border & Fall and Raw Mango for The Sari Series, the goal of creating an international dialogue on the unstitched garment had me hooked.

While Western wear has taken over the sari’s place in the last 20 years, people were in search of something that not only gave them a sense of identity but also something more appropriate for the Indian climate and social milieu.

What was your biggest takeaway from the project?

Rta: The research and documentation for the project emerged from the Vishwakarma series of seven textile art and history exhibitions from 1982-92, which was initiated and curated by Martand Singh, whom I had worked with at the time. Martand had thought that we should dig deeper for the design directory of all sari types as the sari would have a long standing future, which he saw decline in the 90s. In some ways, the project is my contribution in preventing that decline.

The Sari Series certainly brings to life the actual sari draping and hopefully, will create greater interest in what makes a sari even more unique and capable of constant reinvention because of its variable density in its various parts with patterning, which is the basis of all fabric development.

Untitled, a film by Bon Duke

Bon, you directed the how-to drape films in The Sari Series, along with one independent film. Were you familiar with the sari and what it stands for in the Indian culture?

Bon: Malika’s passion and my curiosity about the sari really interested me. The passion she had was amazing and it was clearly something that needed to be documented. For me, it was a learning experience to understand the various drapes and history behind it. It was fascinating because she was not only trying to capture a piece of history but also questioning and pushing the boundaries of cultural progression in India. This was something I wanted to see and help with.

Pooja, you directed the film Sundar Sari about how “a woman finds a bundle of saris which evokes memories of young love”. Take me through your process of getting into the project.

Pooja: Sundar Sari offers an awareness of material - texture, sound, cloth - as the fabric of our lives, the trigger of our dreams and our memory and therefore suggests that material is spiritual.

We connect the sari to our mothers and grandmothers, so there’s a sense of wrapping yourself in a memory. There’s also an oddly distinct sense of ritual and memory colliding as you tie your morning sari, of past and present meeting.

Pooja: I took on the project because it was challenging to make something which was as free and open as the sari itself, and still as complex; something that came with a measure of its emotional weight. I felt a responsibility to the sari but no sense of burden. i just wanted to present its spirit, its intense everydayness and iconic-ness in one fell stroke. I also liked Border and Fall, the quality of their publication and the fact that they followed their dream project with ambition and integrity. Thanks to the project, I fell even more in love with the sari.

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Behind the scene of Untitled, a film by Bon Duke

What is the future of the project? Are you currently working on extending it or taking it even further via more collaborations?

Malika: In terms of the future, there are so many directions in which the project could head. For now, we are conducting screenings of the independent films across cities. So far, we have had screenings in Bengaluru and Mumbai, and have one coming up in New Delhi as part of the India Art Fair. From February, Blue Tokai's New Delhi and Mumbai branches will be screening a selection of the how-to drape films on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

We are open to collaborations and partnerships which bring the project to new audiences and increase the reach, as have our associations with Google Arts and Culture and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.

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