I was 3 when I got my first sari. It was dark green, and instead of the usual 18 feet long by four feet wide, this sari was sized to reach my waist. My mum would put it on me on special occasions and I would dance to my favorite songs.
I was a senior in college before I next wore a sari. And this time, there was no one to help me put it on. Keep in mind this was before YouTube and sari tutorials. It took me so long to drape the sari correctly — get the pleats of the skirt part neatly aligned and the pallu to fall over the shoulder at the right length. If you miscalculate, the sari either sweeps the floor or looks like you threw a kitchen towel over your shoulder.
Even if you get the sari wrapped correctly, there’s the issue of walking: no strides, only mincing steps. And climbing up and down the stairs is a whole other story. I actually know two women who have shattered their kneecaps, tripping after getting their toes caught in the hem of a sari.
It’s no wonder that a sari, which can also be spelled as saree, is not my go-to outfit of choice.
There’s also the image. Thanks to the campaign #100SareePact, a sari can be somewhat cool. But it’s still not very contemporary. It’s the "same old, same old" that your mother or even your grandma wore.
Besides, these days women have more choices. My generation grew up thinking power dressing meant a skirt-suit, like Stephanie Forrester wore in The Bold and The Beautiful — not an Indira Gandhi-style austere sari.
So, the sari is definitely due for a makeover. Designers who make beautiful and very expensive saris abound, of course, as do funky things like saris with pockets, but those are out of reach for most of us.
Enter Deepa Mehta, who runs Queen of Hearts, a sari shop in Mumbai. Mehta doesn’t just sell saris — she repurposes old saris.
“You know the classic Indian saris? Sadly, we haven’t contemporized them,” she says. “Girls in their 20s, they’re my muse.”
Mehta says she got the idea for renewing saris from her own daughter, who became her first client. Mehta says her daughter needed to borrow a sari, but didn’t want to wear one just "as is."
“She said, do something on it so that it doesn’t look like a ‘mom’s sari.’ ”
Together, Mehta and her daughter chose some saris from her closet. And then, armed with sketches, they went to Mehta’s network of tailors, embroiderers and block printers and came up with something fresh.
These days, Mehta takes traditional saris in cotton or silk and then jazzes them up. On a bright green sari, she embroiders fluorescent fish. On a Bengali one, she block prints owls, umbrellas — even a deck of cards.
“I love playing cards, playing solitaire, therefore [the store's name is] Queen of Hearts,” Mehta says.
I have a sari that I’ve kept in my closet for years. My grandmother left it to me, and it’s the only tangible remembrance I have of her. It’s exquisitely embroidered in real silver thread, but it’s such a ghastly shade of green that I can’t bring myself to wear it. With saris, if you don’t wear them, they can ladder and fall apart. I don’t want that to happen because this sari, like all saris, has a story. And I don’t want that story to disappear.
Courtesy of Chhavi Sachdev
So Mehta talked to me about how I can hold on to this legacy, by making it my own. She looked it over and suggested that her expert tailors can cut out some of the motifs and then restitch them on to a magenta sari. The idea appeals to me. I could wear magenta with a little bit of green and silver on it.
“Hundreds of women are wearing pieces of other saris,” Mehta says. “It’s fun.”
Then she says something else that resonates with me.
“Saris are emotional, no?”
I agree. And my favorites are still the ones my mother and my grandmothers gave me … loved, worn, and passed down like treasured family jewels.