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Come, Let Instagrammer Nikaytaa Help You Fall In Love With The Various Avatars Of The Versatile Saree

Posted: January 14, 2020
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Even if you are a saree lover, I can bet you don’t know all the different ways in which Nikaytaa can teach you to drape it! Read on.

Nikaytaa, Saree Researcher and Founder, The Indian Draping Co., aims to bring this ubiquitous yet seldom-worn, forgotten attire back to the limelight where it belongs. She is determined to revive the ancient forms of saree draping to make it convenient for modern women in various lines of work.

I love wearing sarees, especially the crisp cotton ones. A decade long career as a teacher, had given me umpteen opportunities to sport a saree; cottons, silks, chiffons, jute and many more. But of, course every single time I have only worn the Nivi drape. Wondering how I know the name of the drape? Well, believe me, I had no idea, at least not until I was introduced to Nikaytaa. I didn’t know I was going to come out learning so much about the quintessential saree that I assumed, I knew all about!

How it all began…

As we get talking, Nikaytaa travels down memory lane, opening up about her earliest memories of the saree.

She says she had grown up seeing her mother wear a saree regularly and fondly recalls the time when she and her sister engaged in role-playing by draping dupattas as sarees. But that love for the saree was short-lived because of a few scathing body-shaming episodes she encountered as an adult, which severed her relationship with the Saree but not for long as we get to know. An event in San Francisco where she had unassumingly worn a saree, got her tremendous attention and a unique identity that awakened her love for the Saree once again.

It’s funny sometimes, how a foreign land is where we realize the deeper connection to our native roots, isn’t it!

She shares an interesting story about how she became a saree enthusiast. She says her interest in the Saree was rekindled after she fell in love and married Baishampayan Ghose, a Bengali by ethnicity. The fifteen sarees that were gifted by their parents on both sides was the reason she learnt how to drape a saree.

From then on it was just a matter of time before the universe began throwing up resources her way. As she became more serious about learning how to drape a Saree, she searched out further resources to learn from. Rta Kapur Chishti’s book, Saris of India was an eye opener into the world of Saris. Then her husband came across Border & Fall’s Kickstarter campaign for The Sari Series. The reward for her contribution to the campaign was a workshop with Rta Kapur Chishti herself!

One workshop led to another and soon she found herself quitting her full-time job and founding The Indian Draping Co. to focus on research and revival of the indigenous Saree drapes.

The Universe conspires and how! It’s wonderful to see how a set of incidents got the ball rolling.

She describes her journey so far as rewarding as well as challenging. She fondly recalls the tremendous love, adulation and support she received from people of different backgrounds. It has provided her with opportunities to work with brands, festivals, educational institutions, and big corporates as well. She especially enjoys working with students and young adults.

Nikaytaa at the Nauvari Saree draping workshop at Bhimthadi Jatra 2019. Pic by Saahil.

Being one of the pioneers is a challenge, she says. As a society, our knowledge is limited to the popular Nivi, Bengali, Gujarati, and Madisaru drapes and it is a challenge to create awareness of the indigenous ways the saree has been draped.

She says, “The art of draping a Saree needs more attention and it will happen only when we begin looking at draping as a science that must be studied and an art form that needs to be preserved.”

Intersection with issues of caste, sexuality, gender, age,…

Her initiative might look quite simple at a peripheral level, probably even dismissed as something frivolous, but a closer look reveals that it is tackling myriad social issues like caste biases, sexuality, age and gender discrimination.

Draping workshop at Hill Hacks, Himachal Pradesh, May 2018. Pic by Baishampayan Ghose.

Patriarchy cuts both ways, she rues. Women, men and gender-fluid people are all affected by associating certain garments to specific genders. She receives quite a few messages from men who identify themselves as women stating their love for the Saree. Most of the time she realizes that she is probably the only one who knows about their alternate identity and it is heartbreaking!

She remarks, “Androgynous fashion is getting its due credit. Brands are introducing more unisex collections. We need them to be more creative and inclusive but I believe we will get there sooner than later.”

Coming to caste biases, Indian society is entrenched in the caste system. Different utensils for the domestic workers, separate toilets, and spaces to sit are just some of the problematic actions of the rich and privileged upper castes of India. As she began learning the indigenous drapes of India, the influence of caste (and resulting occupation) on the draping style became evident. The ‘higher’ the caste, the more covered the man and woman would be. The ‘lower’ the caste, the less covered the man and woman would be.

She says, “One cannot undo the influence of unjust rules such as ‘upper caste’ Savarna women being ‘allowed’ to cover their breasts while ‘lower caste’ Dalit women were made to pay a breast tax depending on how big their breasts were. Economic status is a function of the caste system.

When talking about age she says, age has nothing to do with the love one has for saree. She conducts Saree draping workshops for people of all ages. Her youngest participant being a 7 year old and the oldest 77.

Monami draping Rusha using the Fluid Saree Zine. Pic by Bhargabi Ghosh

Her book, The Fluid Sari, has been designed keeping in mind a young learner with no background knowledge of the Saree.

Pic by Bhargabi Ghosh

She uses detailed illustrations paired with short and succinct instructions to teach the Saree drape. The instructions are so simple that even her eight-year-old niece was able to help her sister-in-law in a skirt drape as explained in the book.

Never appropriate indigenous drapes – give credit

Regarding the challenges she encountered in this path she says that the biggest challenge has to be sensitizing people on gender identity and the caste system through her work. Not everyone is ready to accept the existing and changing gender identities. Through her talks, workshops and online presence she confronts people’s biases on gender and caste.

You can feel the frustration in her words when she says, “Indigenous drapes are not for us, upper-caste Savarna people, to appropriate at will. We need to be sensitive to the centuries of exploitation these communities have experienced.”

She feels strongly, that any platform should amplify their voices and give them space. In her line of work she always makes it a point to instruct those whom she teaches, to always mention the source of their drape or drape inspiration. That is the least we must do, she says. On her part, she is looking to work with indigenous communities to bring forth their stories and connections with their drapes.

A defining moment in her journey

One of the defining moments in her journey was a fashion show she had organized in 2017 with 20 women walking the ramp in different saree drapes of India. This event turned out to be that “Aha” moment which made her realize the importance of the journey she has undertaken, recalls Nikaytaa. The participants were women from different backgrounds, mostly mothers and the audience included parents, in-laws, children and friends of the women participating. This show was a culmination of two months of tiring yet exhilarating work which included conducting numerous workshops for saree draping. This first experience of teaching someone how to drape left her with a unique sense of pride in sharing the indigenous knowledge of the Saree.

Nikaytaa wearing the Dhokna Jalpaiguri drape from West Bengal. Pic by Nikhil Prabhakar.

Nikaytaa in a Venuka Gundaram drape from Andhra Pradesh. Pic by Orka Photography/ Shalini Siva Prasad.

Nikaytaa wearing a Dhokna Jalpaiguri drape from West Bengal. Pic by Helena Wolfenson.

She says, “It made me understand the importance of Saree Research as a faculty and helped cement my path to becoming one.”

She adds that the fashion show actually helped in bridging the perception gap between the young and the old. As it was a mixed audience spanning three generations, the experience had to be sensitive to their interests. She believes in the power of music and hence came up with an eclectic music list. The music included the tunes of Desperado, Game of Thrones, theme songs albeit played using Indian classical instruments. And the result was mind-blowing! While the older generation swayed to classical music, the younger generation sang the lyrics. Both were extremely intrigued and interested through the entire duration of the show which was well over an hour!

I am completely awe-struck by this ingenious idea! This is such a clever and interesting way to keep audience of all age groups happily invested in the show throughout.

Nikaytaa says, “We need to start talking about the Saree and the unparalleled fluidity of the garment. There needs to be a dialogue amongst us.”

The Nivi drape’s (almost) monoculture in India

The Nivi drape monoculture has taken over our imagination of the Saree. In reality, form follows function and not the other way around. Most women give up on the saree because the popular way of wearing it is the Nivi drape Saree, and it is not the most efficient. The Nivi drape limits the freedom of the person and doesn’t allow for mobility as do other drapes – Rani Lakshmi Bai rode the horse, fought the British, and performed all functions of a warrior in a Saree draped as pants.

Nikaytaa wearing the pants drape. Pic by Baishampayan Ghose.

Did you know, during British rule, Indian women weren’t allowed to enter British Clubs because they considered blouse-less saree drapes ‘immodest’!

The Indian women of that time had a real problem to solve, that of figuring out how to conform to the British sense of morality without sacrificing their Indian cultural identity.  Jnanadanandini Tagore, sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore travelled across the country in the 1860s to seek inspiration for the Saree. She found it in the Parsi style of Lady Bachoobai Nowroji Vakil.

Nikaytaa wearing the Gujarati drape. Pic by Baishampayan Ghose.

When Jnanadanandini returned, she had the “complete set” with her, the left-shouldered Saree, the petticoat, blouse and fall.

This reminds me of the flak Priyanka Chopra received for her blouse-less saree look where the trolls took to criticizing her for shaming our culture. Well, all this without even knowing that blouse was never a part of the saree culture to begin with; it was a British import that became so synonymous with saree that it became an integral part of our ‘sanskaar’ …oh, the irony of it!

Ever wondered why the pallu is on the left? Because being right-handed, Jnanadanandini Devi needed her right hand free for handshakes and courtesies!

Talking about the stigma attached to the Saree worn in any other way to a large extent even as we approach 2020, she feels that it stems from morality and ignorance. She says, “Morality is subjective and changes according to space and time. Ignorance can be countered with historical facts and knowledge. I would request the naysayers to read the history of the Indian subcontinent including the sustainable ways of living in harmony with nature. The Saree is a gender-fluid garment and is worn by indigenous people in functional ways sans a petticoat and blouse.”

Now, that explains a lot of things, isn’t it? And here we are, trolling PC for her look, which if you see, was totally conforming to ancient Indian culture! It is quite unfortunate that we as a collective Indian community have forgotten to even check our facts before we jump into mindless debates.

Experiment with this versatile garment!

She says that one does not need a petticoat or a blouse to wear the Saree. One can pair the Saree with t-shirts, crop tops, sweaters, and jackets. The matching blouse is already a thing of the past, she says. We are heading towards an age of individuality and self-expression, and Nikaytaa feels that the Saree can play a pivotal role in providing individuals from all communities, across the gender spectrum and professions, a fluid way of expressing themselves.

Nikaytaa wearing a self-created skirt drape. Pic by Baishampayan Ghose.

Nikaytaa wearing a self-created dress drape at the Saree draping workshop for children at Bhimthadi Jatra 2018. Pic by SuruPixels.

“I request everyone to move towards a more conscious approach to how we dress, our fashion consumption and the impact it has on the planet.”

Nikaytaa wearing a gown drape inspired by the Halakki Vokkaliga tribe from Karnataka. Pic by Baishampayan Ghose.

To cater to modern sensibilities she has experimented with the Saree drapes in form of gown drapes, dress drapes, skirts, pants, shorts, and Dhotis. Till date, she has draped the Saree on herself and others in more than 150 ways and she is on the path to learning many more each day.

Nikaytaa draping a volunteer at the Taneira, Bangalore Saree draping workshop. Pic by Orka Photography

“I can make pockets using the Saree to keep items such as my mobile phone, car keys, and even a kilo of tomatoes!” Says Nikaytaa.

I am absolutely floored by this woman who has taken her simple love affair with the saree to a whole new level.

What is the future for The Indian Drape Co.?

As for the vision for her venture, she says, “What began as an experiment, grew into a movement and is now becoming a full-fledged organization.” Though her focus was primarily on offline workshops earlier, she is now looking into creating more online content such as draping tutorials on YouTube and IGTV, live sessions, and blogging keeping her online audience in mind.

When asked about the one message she would like to convey through her initiative, pat comes the reply – “Decolonize the Saree!”

Asked if there are any exciting new ideas in the pipeline for 2020, she signs off by saying that she is currently working on hernext how-to drape book, has plans to launch a newsletter and create a safe space (both online and offline) for Saree lovers regardless of their gender identity, age, and caste.

That’s Nikaytaa for you. To learn more about her venture, visit her here on Instagram.

Header image credits: Nikaytaa wearing the Gujarati drape, pic by Baishampayan Ghose, and Dhoti drape variations at the first-ever workshop, Goa, pic by Nikaytaa

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A mother of two amazing kids and a teacher by profession, I have varied interests.

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