The Sari: Mukulika Banerjee Daniel Miller

Nestling amidst stacks of photo albums and the reams of memories of every Indian woman perhaps lies one cherished image. Of a moment when she is partly the seductress, partly the nun, aching to shed the weight of childhood, striving to surpass her mother, dreaming to outshine her peers and seeking to impress upon herself that she in this new form has effected a successful metamorphosis to adulthood.

That moment when a woman allows five metres of fabric to drape her in its folds and reveal both her contours and her hopes. Her first sari and its wearing. In retrospect a memory that is accompanied by a feeling that is both wistful and poignant and in its very innocence captured the wide eyed expectation of a to-be woman….Such then is the power of the sari on the psyche of the Indian woman.

And it is the sari that Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller serenade in their remarkable coffee table book The Sari. Now most coffee table books have definite agendas. Either to showcase the beauty of a place, thing or an art form. Or sometimes it is the culmination of a person's years of research or a pet obsession. That photographs build the warp and weft of the coffee table book is taken for granted. Words seldom rule and even if written by well known writers have to take second place to the camera's five colour dominance. Nothing wrong with that as it is the nature of genre.

Pause there; for The Sari is not a conventional living room coffee table accessory. To be flipped through when waiting for the host to arrive or abandon when coffee is served…..The Sari defies all rules of accepted norms of coffee table book publishing. As the authors state in the introduction, it neither documents 'different ways of draping the sari' nor does it 'add to the already excellent reviews of the variety of types, colours and designs of the handloom sari.' Instead The Sari as if it were a work of fiction relies on words and stories to present a canvas and characters where the sari becomes a living entity that defines the peripheries of lives and dreams. It draws on 'women's most private moments to their points of doubt and creativity, and often in their own voices'.

Take Mina's story. She narrates what is her 'sari autobiography' in which we see her take the journey from initial trials with the sari and its draping [with countless nuances of colour, tradition and accepted ways of dressing] to a point where her familiarity with the sari reaches it acme: a time when at a Durga puja, she looks on with disapproval at a woman who arrives for the festivities in a shalwar kamiz.

With such personal accounts, the book reveals the relationship between a woman and a sari. From the place of the sari in the woman's life cycle to what she expects a sari to do for her in the eyes of the world, her family and as in Shona or Bimla's case achieve for her. Then there is my own favourite chapter: The Pleasure of What to Buy. With separate scenarios of a village peddler, a middle class couple dithering at a sari shop and a family buying a wedding trousseau, with great authenticity and understanding the authors present a true life picture in the genesis of the sari finding a place in a woman's wardrobe.

The Sari wove a kind of magic drawing me in and making me ponder on my living closet of memories as captured in the saris that populate my wardrobe. For most parts, here was a book that made me forget that I had a job to do namely review this book. In fact the critic in me surfaced only when suddenly from intimate portraits that began most chapters, the narrative receded to scholarly dissertations of what was written before and weighty conclusions [that were totally unnecessary] drawn. Considering that the authors are academics, this meandering into scholarly research paper presentation is perhaps unavoidable and excusable; what isn't though is an editor who has overlooked this tendency of the book to pontificate. Nevertheless the otherwise refreshing nature and honesty of the book itself compensates for this and I was quite happy to swallow my discomfort and go on….

How does one measure the success of a book such as this? By checking the factual information or by evaluating the living histories? By authenticating the experience or by gazing at the photographs and quantifying the rush of desire? In the end, I did none of this. Instead I went to my wardrobe to gaze at my saris. I caressed the silks and cottons and remembered what it was that had made me acquire them. And then I vowed that I would never again neglect them so and resolved to wear a sari more often….

What more can a book ask for from its reviewer?

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