Thursday, October 1, 2015


Andal was a sensuous woman, who lived 100 years ago. She symbolised the era of the saree, when you start wearing it very early and learn to accept it as if it was your skin. She wore sarees from the age of 7 and she learnt to do everything in it, including playing hopscotch, climbing trees, and skipping. When she reached puberty, she looked at the mirror more often and liked what she saw. She applied kohl made at home on those almond shaped eyes and placed a big pottu on her forehead. She strung the jasmine which grew in her garden and adorned her hair with it. She wore the saree with grace, and since it was woven short she could show off her pretty anklets. Her blouse was made from the thin printed calico that was in vogue those days. She matched it with the colours from the saree which had yarn dyed in natural colours when the alchemy of synthetic dyes hadn’t stormed the bastion of dye workshops.
Her mother, aunts and grandmother only wore pattu sarees woven in simple designs, with motifs of hamsas, rudrakshams and vel darri. Often they were korvai sarees with solid contrast borders and pallus. The sarees were washed immediately after they were worn for a full day. They had lines strung in the back yard, and the pattu sarees were washed with punga kottai, which was a kind of soap nut, soaked in water and lather coaxed by hand. The soap nut was kind to the sarees and gave them a becoming sheen. With every wash, the saree became soft and clinging and felt so good next to the skin. The saris were dried without too much of wringing, and hung with the borders facing downwards, and if there was space, singly in a horizontal manner. Andal would smooth out the wrinkles while the saree was still wet so that when you took it out, it looked well laundered.
And when cotton sarees were washed, they were immersed in rice conjee diluted, and placed in a bucket, and strung singly on the line so that the saree did not stick to the next layer. The saree had to be very lightly starched, if at all. All sarees were dried in the shade, and carefully folded and placed under the pillow or under the mattress if you slept on one.
Andal like all young women liked to think of herself as progressive. She would keep smoothing the crinkles that were invariably present. She decided one day to use a brass pot with hot water and apply it to the saree and lo and behold it looked so wondrous and perfectly smooth. When she wore sarees people whispered behind her back that she knew some magic to make her sarees so exquisitely smooth. No one dared to ask Andal, but an urchin who looked through her bedroom window one afternoon, watched her iron her sarees painstakingly, wearing out all the wrinkles as she pressed. Of course it went round the village, and most women looked smug as they sported nicely ironed sarees.
The grand sarees worn for weddings were preserved differently. Andal’s mother used to wrap each saree in a soft mulmul waishti. She placed dried neem leaves in the folds of the waishti to ward off insects. Andal’s Ammamma a wise old lady told her never to keep a silk saree unwashed however expensive. She explained to Andal that the perspiration ruined a saree, and the starch with the weavers spread on the yarn, eventually would eat away the saree. And sarees should always be dried in the shade.
Andal passed on the wisdom of caring for sarees to her children and grandchildren. She told them that she would sneak some jasmine into the folds of the saree, so that the smell lingered for months. Of course you had to make sure that the jasmine did not let out any liquid and spoil the silk.
She taught her grandchildren as they grew up that the saree is the most graceful garment in the world, and no other new fangled fashion could ever replace the saree, a rich gift from the Gods themselves. Those children whose mothers and grandmothers told them these stories are all saree wearers and many of them are members of the Kai Thari group today.
Andal is a fictitious character, but everything written about her is true and taken from life. Sarees should be stacked and not hung, though we are all guilty of doing that. Sarees not worn for sometime should be taken out and aired otherwise they split at the folds.
Image courtesy Internet