sarees tell stories

A Unique Silk

Our family is vegetarian, which lifestyle later led to one member in the family taking this non-violent way a little further by adopting a vegan way of life.

LALITA ARYA, our first guest writer on Sarees Tell Stories, brings us the tale of a delightful fabric and more. Many thanks to Lalita for enjoying Writersbrew and deciding to write about a saree that touched her. 

Being vegan has become quite popular in the west, although this has been one of the many forms of diets well known in both ancient and modern India.

No dairy products, and as much as possible, no animal products, non-leather shoes, no woollen clothes, not even honey unless produced in an apian friendly environment. It is challenging to find substitutes in the western world, but Indian non-violent substitutes for protein like the vast amount of dals (lentils) and paneer (milk cheese) are available.  There are tofu, gluten, and all their various spiced and non-spiced varieties. In Indian shops one can find lentils like mung, masur, channa, toor, urad, rajma – split, washed of skin, and whole.

Then came the day when this member of the family decided to get married. If you have ever attended an Indian wedding you would realise that there is much finery in the form of exotic silks for both men and women for celebrations. As preparations for the marriage started, we were summoned and addressed very gently, and were requested: I have no control over what my bride and her family will be wearing for the wedding, but I am requesting you and others in our family not to wear silk at my marriage ceremonies and you know why.

Not silk? I thought, horrified. I cannot imagine a wedding – an Indian wedding and not wearing silk. What were the alternatives? Cotton, khadi or art silk saris?  I was left with a nightmare situation.

Fortunately I was in India at the time, went to our favourite sari shop Meenakshi Fashions, consulted with the owner with a very worried expression. I told him my request and he just smiled,  “Mataji, don’t worry, that is not a problem at all. The Jains wear silk all the time but it’s the Ahimsic kind you know – non-violent.”

“What! Ahimsic silk, what is that?”  I was happily surprised to learn about this and thought of my luck at this quick solution to a problem that to me had seemed unsolvable.

Then he took me to an upstairs showroom, opened a large cabinet and had his assistant pull out the most exquisite, colourful set of festival saris – all woven silk. As he started to unwrap and display, he explained, “These are all made of banana silk, completely non-violent. I keep these for special customers like you who do not wish to buy the regular silk saris.”

I was astonished. I had lived long enough in India to develop a healthy appreciation for the variety of silks available, had even visited some villages where saris were hand woven, but had never heard of silk spun from the suppliant banana plant.

“Banana fabric is a beautiful, animal-free textile that mimics real silk, and acts as a great vegan alternative. The fibre material comes from the stalk of the banana plant, and while it is certainly a unique idea, it is not new. The textile has been used in Japanese and Southeast Asian cultures as early as the 13th century.” (Wikipedia). 

I ran my hands over the soft material and was amazed at the delicate texture, the fine weave and patterns. He went into an elaborate description of how banana silk is transformed into such fabulous fabric.

My husband was from the Punjab and my ancestors were from Allahabad. I was born of Indian heritage in the only English-speaking colony on the South American coast Guyana, formerly British Guiana.

At the time when I was born in that country contact with first generation Indians was sparse – Sindhi merchants and North Indian Hindu missionaries. But we emotionally and psychologically identified with this faraway Mother India, irrespective of where we were domiciled. All Indian festivals gave us the opportunity to wear saris. It was a challenge at times, living in a diverse community, but we carried on irrespective of taunts and teasing.

At first our saris were just made from six yards of any soft flowing material, until Indian independence when contact opened up with India.

I will not go into the history of this particular settlement of the Indian diaspora here, but needless to say, when the Indian government opened up its cultural centres worldwide, and Indian business re-boomed globally, we welcomed them with great enthusiasm. Before this, however, we were trained by our parents to speak Hindi at home, study some Indian history, especially the biographies of great men and women in Indian history. The stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata were very familiar to us. At suitable occasions, stories of Ram Leela used to be performed open air – much to our enjoyment and delight. Our parents and the social and religious leaders of our communities made sure we went to the mandir (temple) as often as possible, to participate in havan (fire rituals) and other religious tasks. It was on these occasions we wore our saris, sometimes even riding a bike in them!

After Indian contact became more popular, Indian merchants opened up stores selling all kinds of Indian textiles including silk saris. This helped to increase our wardrobe of Indian dress and even men had the chance to wear Nehru-styled kurtas or band-gala suits. Nowadays if you were to look at an Indian woman in a sari outside of India, it would be difficult to tell whether she is originally Indian or from the diaspora. In some cities in the west, though the sari retains its elegant drape, now ready-made ones with sewn down pleats are available! However, while in India there are so many different ways of donning a sari, we just carried on with the pallu in the back style, more North Indian way.

I happened to marry one of these Hindu missionaries and he was originally from the Punjab. I knew nothing about shalwar-kameez. That was probably a good thing, as he loved saris. Later when he was appointed Lecturer of Sanskrit at an American university in the Midwest, I even wore them in the winter snow with boots. It was his gentle but firm request to see me as often as possible in sari.

After several years, we decided it was time for our children to be immersed in Indian culture, so we moved to India. For me it was like a new Mother with several arms opened wide to welcome me. In one of those arms were lots of colorful saris!

At that time I did not know about all the different kinds of silk – Banarsi. Bandhani, Madhubani, Kanjivaram, Moonga (later my husband had brought me the Mekhala which I have stored away carefully as it is so exquisite), and several others, but I learnt that the silk was all woven from cocoons that previously housed silk worms.  I love silk itself, but always have that little bit of discomfort on donning one of the exquisite designs, until I heard about the banana silk ones.  So when Sudeshji of the Meenakshi Fashions displayed his banana silk saris I was overjoyed with deep emotion that I could fulfill the request for non-violent silk saris for our Indian wedding.

I have this one particular one – shown in the illustration above – that I love to wear even fifteen years later. So soft, so flowing, so colourful that after draping it over myself I feel as if I am walking clothed in a web of swishing air spun around me.  And best of all it is plant based, so no one was hurt in its production. I still wear the other silk but only when gifted with one. A gift is something you don’t refuse.

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If you’re interested in wring something for Writersbrew, do get in touch with us, we’d love to hear from you.

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7 Comments

  • Reply
    indrani robbins
    July 5, 2016 at 5:28 am

    hi lalita,

    beautiful piece. the british guiana/guyana story, which you just gave us a glimpse of, was fascinating. feel like hearing more. ahimsic silk from banana plants? i must go find this. 🙂 recently read about ahimsa silk which is made from silkworm cocoons but without killing the worms. while i like silk and wear it practically every day, the aspect of finishing off millions of worms just to make a fibre feels incalculably cruel. i am a meat eater and yet, the killing of animals somewhere always bothers me. strange, huh. thanks so much for feeling like sharing this story on writersbrew. thoroughly enjoyed it. i love the part where you say how your husband gently requested to see you in a saree as often as possible.

    • Reply
      Writersbrew Guest
      July 11, 2016 at 4:36 am

      thanks indi for posting this article which talks about the background of indians little known in the Caribbean & Guyana. Most people know that region for the Cricket seasons, but there is a lot of history that connects it to Indian culture. The banana silk sarees are very precious to me. Lalita

  • popliarchana@hotmail.com'
    Reply
    Archana popli
    July 5, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    How interesting .talking of sarees I grew up in the south .but we were one of the few Sindhi families in Bangalore in early 50 .and my dad used to have clients who had chiffon and silk factories .and so he knew all the different weaves .today my dad gone but when I was getting married he personally came saree shopping so all my memories if him are with all the beautiful kanjeevrams and jamnevars and temple sarees he bought for me .he also liked all moms sarees for her .so it’s interesting to hear stories on sarees .

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      July 6, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      hi archana, precious memories of your father and all of you and the wedding shopping. our parents stay with us in such wonderful and particular places, don’ they? glad you enjoy the saree tales. i loved this one by lalita.

    • Reply
      Writersbrew Guest
      July 11, 2016 at 4:37 am

      Hi archana – how wonderful to have a dad who can actually guide you in choices of textile quality for your sarees. we all have memories of our parents, whose precious company is triggered with lovely incidents bringing the past right in front of us to enjoy again. thanks… Lalita

  • shinyfluff@gmail.com'
    Reply
    Allison
    July 10, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Beautiful piece. thank you and I did not know about alternatives to silk-worm silk!

  • jenniegazdik@gmail.com'
    Reply
    Jennie Gazdik
    July 11, 2016 at 9:50 am

    Than you for sharing your joy with us! I know this was an emotional peice to write. My family is built around textiles to an extent as well. But for me it’s more about weaving, spinning and quilting because of mother. This was an interesting read and the banana silk is gorgeous!

    Thank you for sharing this with all of us!

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