SariGram and the Pandemic

SariGram and the Pandemic

Unruffled by ‘Bollywood fashion or mainstream trends, the sari continues to define conversations and continuity even in the pandemic 

It is National Handloom Day and a cross section of genuinely handloom-loving women and men, as well as handloom-posturing people, are busy posting their photographs in handwoven garments. For social media hashtags (what is handloom without a hashtag today), each chooses the socio-political lobby they want to align with—policy makers, politicians, weaver groups, civil society, retailers, handloom practitioners or well, some fashion designers.

Amidst this visual noise, dear reader, if you dread another handloom sari story unfurling nationalist pride, you have every reason to.

That is how this story began in fact—with some wariness if the sari was becoming a cliché as a site of display, continuity and personal vanity. Throughout the lockdown and then the extended COVID-19 related restrictions, ‘SariGram ’ (posts of sari decked women on Instagram and other social media) continued to flourish. They sliced through the gloom in cheerful drapes even as they pursued their jobs from home, cooked meals, kept up with restless children and played superwomen. Sarigrammers are very popular groups, when you speak with one; each gives you half a dozen other references. It is an ever-growing community.


Rasika Wakalkar.

Wearing handloom saris with statement jewellery for Instagram photos or attending Facebook parties in saris based on sartorial themes speak of a certain gendered response. However, it also speaks of autonomy in deciding what is fashionable, of rejecting the designer industry’s chameleonic influence, of using textile traditions to style contemporary looks and thus rejecting ready-to-wear, athleisure “trends” that surged during the pandemic. ‘SariGram’ not only reveals cultural consciousness but the comfort with being seen as “local” or Indian. Not just as a handloom-loving person but someone irreverent towards Bollywood style and internationalism often projected as a pre-requisite to being fashionable.

So to ask if the sari as a WFH home garment is “comfortable” for “working women” compared to pyjamas and athleisure clothes is perhaps being reductive. Especially in a country where lakhs of women only wear the sari and “work from home” is their primary and only reality.

Or, as Rasika Wakalkar, the founder of Pune’s multi-designer store Studio Rudraksh says, “The moment people thought they could be comfortable in pyjamas during the lockdown, I had an exact opposite reaction. At the end of March, on Gudi Padwa, which is a traditional festival for us, I decided to focus on 21 days of positivity in ‘normal clothes’. By normal, I mean clothes that we would wear to work, saris included. I was happy and surprised that a lot of my friends picked it up on Instagram without me ‘challenging’ them,” says Wakalkar who admits she was initially inspired by sari expert Rta Kapur Chishti’s sari draping workshops in Pune and since then, her fluidity and familiarity with the sari changed. During the lockdown, Wakalkar wore the sari even on days she was cooking three meals a day for the family.


Ally Mathan, in a Kodiyala sari.

The Kodiyala Sari and Why it Takes a Village

These Sarigram queries met with an instant ironing of sorts by Ally Matthan, founder and director of The Registry of Sarees. Also co-founder of the popular #100SariPact of a few years back that urged women to wear saris for a hundred days a year, the Bengaluru-based Matthan runs a company that manufactures soaps, shampoos, oils and detergents—that fell under “essentials” during the pandemic. “There is nothing like ghar ka kapda (clothes for home) for me,” says Matthan. “Our work fell under essentials and right in the middle of the lockdown, I was out there for permissions and then for the continuance of business, every day in saris in business-as-usual mode,” she adds.

Curiously, behind every “Why I Wore the Sari” account is another nuanced story waiting to be told. Matthan, for instance not only spent the lockdown months pursuing usual business but also singularly supported the research and documentation work of Kshitija Mrutunjaya, a PhD scholar whose dissertation thesis won a distinction during the lockdown and is being published by the NBA in Milan. Mrutunjaya’s work has nudged the Kodiyala sari with the local Kannada script uniquely (and with great handloom precision) woven on the warp. Cotton Kodiyala saris are currently being woven by a village community near Bengaluru and will soon be formally presented by The Registry of Sarees. Matthan is seen wearing one in her photo for this story.


Menaka Raman.

Maternal Memories and Continuity

Sari stories spin through personal narratives, cultural consciousness, maternal memories, private collections, habit and identity. Once you poke them, they break free of Instagram hashtags and FB challenges and find wings of their own.

Bengaluru-based columnist and author of children’s books, Menaka Raman explained her WFH saris as something she has always known as “tinacari putavai” (Tamil for ‘daily saris’). Soft, well-worn, easy-to-wash and drape everyday saris she saw her aunts, grandmother and mother wear all the time. Raman’s WFH sari wardrobe was made of these soft handloom cottons, which she would wash and drape frequently. For our Zoom interview, she wore a Chettinad cotton sari with a hand block printed blouse and spoke warmly of co-owning her handloom saris with her mother and how as a young girl she dutifully wore the pavda davani (Tamilian half-sari) even though it was considered “uncool”.

“The sari made me feel better about myself during the lockdown,” says Raman arguing for its value for continuity and reassurance.


Sumana Mukherjee.

Maternal memories clearly play a big role in sari relationships. Editorial consultant Sumana Mukherjee, also Bengaluru-based, says she got closer to handloom saris after her mother passed away. “She was a working woman and she always wore a sari; I had never seen her in something else. Wearing saris held her closer to me,” says Mukherjee. She couldn’t wear many saris during the lockdown but says that deciding which sari to wear, how to wear it, projecting a certain picture, being connected to the great work being done in sari weaving are important for her. “Even now, if I have to work towards a better mood, I will pull out a sari. I feel more like myself. It is a huge mental thing, it is about how I am a professional person, this is what I do and wear,” says Mukherjee who consciously buys handlooms in graphic, non-floral patterns and weaves, creating a certain aesthetic visible on her Instagram page.

The NRI and the Indian Identity

“I started wearing saris when Donald Trump won the presidency. He was so anti-immigrant. I am a proud American, but I trace my roots to India. I should not have to give up my identity to live in America,” says Anu Varshney. The Houston-based risk and assurance advisory consultant, who formerly worked in KPMG and Corporate America, says while she was initially inspired by the #100SariPact, and would wear saris occasionally, soon they became a part of her assertion as an American Indian. “Doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, Kathak classes, soccer games, movies, karaoke evenings and even for Las Vegas shows during a family vacation, people now associate saris with me,” says Varshney. From once to thrice every week to an everyday drape during the lockdown months with photographs taken by her daughter and then posted on Instagram, Varshney confesses to having become a sari devotee. “I would even wear it to work while on an assignment for Ernst & Young, the only corporate condition being to keep the waist covered,” she says explaining that she made sure her blouses were long, or she would wear her work saris with turtlenecks and jackets. Varshney shops ardently online and through personal networks for handlooms and handwoven saris, catalogues them by colour and weave, with a thumbnail photo on each so that her two daughters can find their way through her vast collection, which has “more than a few hundred saris” now. All of Varshney’s purchased saris are systematically delivered to Deepa Mehta the popular, Mumbai based blouse-making label that goes by the name Queen of Hearts. Mehta then works on the design of the blouse, gets the sari finished and sends it to Varshney in Texas.


Anu Varshney.

NRI sari stories bring home a fonder flavour, not surprisingly. Sonya Madeira, the founder of Rice PR Consultancy who currently lives in the UK and was earlier in Singapore says she has been regularly wearing saris for the last three years. “When you move out of the country, you try to fit in. I would earlier keep the saris for Bollywood nights, festivals, Indian gatherings etc. but one day I switched to wearing a sari for an awards night while all other female guests were in beautiful ball gowns. Then I began wearing it for special meetings and then a few months later to all meetings,” says Madeira. Through the lockdown, she says she continued to reach for the sari, preferring it for online meetings, to drop or pickup her daughter, water her plants or to the grocery store.

For Madeira, it was the sari communities on Instagram that helped her break the mould through a Navratri sari “challenge” where women were expected to wear different coloured saris for all nine nights and post photographs every day. “I was happier, comfortable. Wearing a sari is my way of standing up  a little, linked to my own culture, bring out my individuality. My saris are also conversation starters, people in the UK stop and curiously ask about the weave or the embellishment. It is also my way of contributing to India’s handloom sector, by buying what weavers make,” she says.


Sonya Madeira

The Sari’s Open Closet

From Varshney’s saris as rebellion against President Trump’s anti-immigrant stance to Wakalkar’s sari pursuit as a positivity potion or Raman’s faith and warmth for “everyday saris”—what appears repetitive on the surface is actually a nuanced narrative. “At first glance it can seem to be repetitive visually and as a narrative. But through discussion, you realise the sari comes out as a very powerful garment. It is tied to culture, religion, maternal memory, emotion. The minute you look at a photo with the judgement is that it just that hashtag, you miss the journey. But the journey is so beautiful,” says Malika V. Kashyap founder of Border&Fall, a committed chronicler of the sari’s cultural life and its contemporary relevance through draping styles. She adds that people who wear saris and post photos also convey cultural confidence. “It is an amazing signifier. There may be reasons of vanity but how is it different from those who style the white shirt for instance,” asks Kashyap, adding that when you see more people wearing it, it reinforces that the sari is alive and thriving and it denotes collective cultural confidence,”

Beyond the trending hashtags of 7 August, National Handloom Day, our Sarigram is really a gram , a village.

“It takes a village…” after all, to save and sustain the sari.


Banner (L-R): Anu Varshney, Rasika Wakalkar and Sonya Madeira.