sarees tell stories

time for a lal benaroshi

i was pretty young, six or seven i think, when i decided i’d wear my mother’s wedding saree when i got married. it was of course a lal benaroshi as bengali brides have worn at their weddings for years perhaps centuries… a red banarasi saree from varanasi where beautiful sarees are made with fine gold and silver and silk thread work, where the ganga flows deep and wide and shining with tales, where bulls charge you in narrow lanes  saree back 350with slippery surfaces, where sadhus and sanyasis and mysticism and mandirs jostle with tourists and trade, where the magai paan is folded in precise pale green triangles ready to dissolve in your mouth, where aurangzeb’s mosque and kashi vishwanath’s abode sit right next to each other even if there were hard feelings once, where the sight of  the sarnath stupa envelops you with a silence from far far away… varanasi, benaras, kashi, where my mother was born.

at that age i had no idea that no matter how beautiful a saree, how intricate its brocade weave, how refulgent its gold and red, and how powerful its hold on one’s imagination, one day it would fray and tear. i wore the saree to a dear friend’s wedding, and a friend of mine wore it to her friend’s wedding. but in time the thread lost its suppleness, its strength, or maybe it had seen too much and a sadness made it weak… i don’t know. the saree remained lovely, though no longer could one wear it.

the year after my mother passed away, i felt a strong desire to visit her birth place. she used to laugh and say she was more blessed than mere mortals us, for she was born in kashi, the holiest city, and she would die by the ganga too… go straight to heaven or whatever. knowing her i am certain it was all in jest and yet maybe in some corner of  her consciousness was there a memory from a time before everything. i had no idea how ancient benares was till i started finding out a bit more as i prepared to go there. seems it’s been mentioned in the rig veda and goes back three thousand years and more.

two banarasis, the one on the right is new.

i spent four days in benaras in august that year, fifty years after she got married wearing her lal benaroshi. on her birthday i stood before the ganga as i’d wanted to. it’s hard to describe the chaos and yet utter beauty of the ghats and the river. there’s everything there, the hygiene conscious won’t last a second, all thoughts of what’s normal and what’s not will melt away faster than a magai paan; yes you did just see the burning ghat, and that there is, yeah, what you think it is, floating in the river; right next to that a man is indeed brushing his teeth with much concentration; then come the children jumping into the water and playing; and no, boatman, i am fine, i don’t need to put lots of money in the hole under the floorboard so i may be specially blessed.

there’s everything here. time, a sense of the sacred, birth and death of course.

i had carried my mother’s saree with me, a person i barely knew helped me locate a shop that would replicate it. i met zubair ahmad ansari at silk khazana, a sprawling warehouse like shop. he saw the saree. no, he was sure, the zari was not pure silver, then it wouldn’t have this deep golden sheen. i said fine, but could he make me one just like that, with good silver zari. he said he could. while we spoke, a weaver walked in completely drunk. he had made this cotton banarasi with a dhakai motif but who would buy it? the man seemed strangely desperate, his restlessness contagious.

i asked to see the saree. it was stunning, i bought it, of course. i had read of weavers in benares who were killing themselves because cheap chinese knock offs were affecting trade. on my way out i saw an old man stooped over his many reels of thread, sitting on the floor at his loom. there was endless beauty and again that sense of time in that picture.

three or four months later, my new lal benaroshi reached singapore. i was fascinated at the cleverness of the weavers, all unknown, unlettered most likely, who could just look at a piece of fabric and understand its intricate weave and pattern, repeat it without missing a yarn or motif. the red was not exactly the same, the zari had a silvery gold sheen. but it was like ma’s saree. i felt happy, something felt restored.

as i was writing this i realised it’s mother’s day tomorrow… oh, it’s 12.39am, happy mother’s day.



sarees tell stories | red brocade banarasis from 1958 and 2008, replica made by silk khazana, qazi saidullahpura, varanasi.


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    Ladki Kijhy
    May 10, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Thank you Indi di for sharing this. I’ve always wanted a benarasi, a good one, not the cheap ones we see more often. I remember years back, my nani’s younger sister used to live in Bareilly then. My ammamma had visted her a few times and on one visit I think they had gone to benaras too. I remember this beautiful cream with purple border sari she had got from there. Unfortunately don’t think its around now. Our wedding saris used to be cream before, I think my mom’s is a cream with gold work, don’t think its in any state to be worn. Mine is a maroonish pink kanjeevaram.
    Isn’t it sad that we have so much tradition and heritage as far as textiles and weaving is concerned and nothing is being done to protect all that. Recently I read something about doing away with some law which would take away whatever help protection the handloom industry enjoys now.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      May 10, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      thanks, lady k… one of the reasons i feel like writing about sarees is because of that spectacular tradition which actually i don’t think any other country or group of people has… not like this. when i got married, wanted a saree from every state, well got many but not all… banarasis are gorgeous, the brocades, the simpler katan with zari, the tanchois. tanchoi or twill silk work is apparently learned from the chinese, silk actually used to come from there it seems. i love textiles… kapda. and whaever i chat about asaree of atype or raead something, feels like the story of our land, people are all there. some day i must write about agara… it tells you practically the entire tale of parsis post leavving their homeland. i know too little but you can feel the trad, the depth when you look at sarees, when you ask the simplest of questions… the demand for real stuff on the wane, everyone wants cheaper… weavers’ next gen also protesting and finding jobs in call centres and other places… i heard while buying the kanjeevarams in bangalore that the traditional ones are sort of disappearing there too. you are right about not losing all this… that law, he he i signed the petition against abolishing it… power looms taking over the world, aaargh. seems the law is still around, the signatures helped. okay, help please, i would like to write about the kasava (forget the second word) saree of kerala, i have a couple… if there’s anything you can tell me about it, grateful. i mean the plain gold bordered off white cottons, not the mundu veshti… the saree. in benaras, i thought i’d be inundated with fab stuff… not so. you really have to look. nothing came close to the sarees my mother had. not in terms of quality nor design… but i did manage to get a lovely black one and that dhakai type. the guys are struggling to reinvent and be relevant. you know wedgwood china, waterford crystal, and royal doultan have already died… because maybe people show their money with bags and shoes and watches now, things they wear. and entertaining at home is waning. now our thinking western fashion is the only fashion and our stuff is somehow not good enough to establish wealth as well as isstylewa may have really a bad effect on saree weaving. the cheong sam has practically disappeared from the world of fashion and good dressing. i hope it doesn’t happen to the saree. also. may all the handloom traditions, the vast vast range survive. if cheapest is the only consideration… it’s going to be tough.

    August 30, 2015 at 9:33 am

    I somehow reached the website of touch of class paithani and landed at your blog. I read your posts on sarees and love them. I strongly support that we must as consumers protect the amazing handwoven tradition of our country. It is unique, crazily beautiful and endless in variety. It is only post my marriage recently that I feel in love with the traditional designs and sarees. I appreciate sharing your stories and you must. You never know who you inspire.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      August 30, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      hi deepa,

      delighted you found your way here and thanks so much for reading the sarees tell stories pieces. i have had my love and don’t love thing with sarees, but ultimately sigh you got to love them… just wonderful they are and how they invite us to remain creative, thinking, dressing up the way we wish to… of course the fabulous weaving traditions and all the craft by hand by ordinary folk, not just designers. i will keep writing and i hope readers such as yourself do come by. thanks again. and i hope you have a great time with your sarees. “crazily beautiful”, salaam for those words. see you.

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