Rani Moorthy’s one-woman play Whose Sari Now? examines the role the sari plays in the lives of generations of women. Here, she reveals her own complicated relationship with the garment.
Hated it so much that I can’t even remember the colour or the type of fabric. It was scratchy and stiff and didn’t sit well. I felt humiliated and exposed, like someone had found out a deep secret and everyone knew, but no one could talk about it openly.
As an 11-year-old I sat on a wooden stool watched by 30 close relatives, my boy cousins grinning and winking cheekily. It’s called the ‘coming of age ritual’, where menstruation is marked by being dressed like a bride and bathed in milk. Somewhere in my psyche I clocked that this was some kind of bath of shame; for what, being born a girl? Though in the bosom of a loving family, I was being publicly abluted for some wrongdoing that a sari and the milk bath would somehow make all better. I was given gold bangles, which I will one day have to wear at my wedding.
The sari didn’t make me feel beautiful. In Bollywood, saris offer instant femininity, the hero grabbing a waist for a quick, timorous feel of bare midriff. In Bollywood, the sari guards your honour and the fallen pallu (the bit that covers your breasts) has deep symbolic meaning: the woman who allows her pallu to expose the secret body tends to meet a tragic end.
Mouth-to-mouth kissing is forbidden in Indian films, but the kissing of the exposed navel is completely acceptable. The harridans and crones wear stiff pleats like armour. The widows wear white. The whores and bad women wear very little under transparent saris, making their vampish charms more intriguing.
“I tentatively started draping saris, as a display of my own power, the malleable nature of my identity and my burgeoning sense that the sari was complicated.”
The women in my life made it seem as easy as winding a long-ish six-yard scarf around you. My mother wore it pregnant with my younger sister. This was in Kuala Lumpur, the tropics, and sweat poured down her back as she struggled up the stairs, folding the pleats over her expanding stomach to hide her exposed belly.
It wouldn’t have crossed her mind to wear maternity dresses or sarongs like her Malay and Chinese friends. The sari was the only garment allowed for a respectable married Tamil woman. And it was 1966, when women were casting off their bras elsewhere.
After my initial sari encounter, I acquired my first pair of Levi jeans and that was that for the next decade. But as I got older I felt pressure to express my cultural identity; I began to interrogate my own complex responses to this apparently simple strip of cloth.
I was grappling with my rising awareness of patriarchy but also with the history, mythology and the unquestioned Indian philosophy I inherited growing up second generation Sri Lankan Tamil in a racially fractious Malaysia. Nothing like a surfeit of racism, sexism and anti-intellectualism to make you look at the sacred cows in your life and have a good old think about why you rejected them in the first place.
This led me to tentatively start draping saris, as a display of my own power, the malleable nature of my identity and my burgeoning sense that the sari was complicated.
I came to live in Manchester 20 years ago. Food shopping along Curry Mile, I noticed that I could still catch glimpses of colourful pallus under heavy winter coats.
As time went by, I realised the sari had gone into the closet. Perhaps it is the complicated way of draping the sari: how do you negotiate public transport? Or perhaps this generation only wore it for ceremony. How do you deal with the highly ritualised ‘baggage’ that comes with the garment? I still feel it.
In Whose Sari Now? I play five characters: an old first-generation Indian migrant whose dying wish is to bequeath her precious second skins to people who will value these treasure troves of memory; a transgender man; a low-caste weaver who can make the most beautiful saris using age-old handloom techniques but can never wear them herself because she is conditioned by oppressive caste and class divides.
The fourth, a Malaysian Tamil working at the national museum, when the only time her race is seen to play in her favour is coordinating the Bollywood exhibition. Finally, using footage from the Channel 4 documentary No Fire Zone, I play Rasee, who has to give birth in the war zone with only her rescued wedding sari to protect the baby.
I wanted to show how the sari brings complicated issues of human life to the fore for some women. Unwrapping the sari’s multilayers reveals a transformative experience, as the personal jostles with the political.
Whose Sari Now? is touring to Nottingham Lakeside Arts (27 October), Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham (28 October), West Yorkshire Playhouse (10-12 November) and Theatre Royal Stratford East (24 November to 17 December).
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Rani Moorthy is artistic director of Rasa. A Sri Lankan Tamil, in Manchester via Malaysia and Singapore, her unique alchemy has set her up as a writer and performer deeply invested in exploring the migrant journey.