My mother unfolded the silk and pulled it above me. As cloth slipped around my shoulders, her hands pleated swiftly. Fabric fans tumbled from her fingertips, and she tucked them into my waist. Let it flow, don’t forget to walk with your back straight, my mother whispered, safety pins clenched between her teeth. I held my neck high as she draped a jeweled corner across my chest as my sister watched in silence. Done. The ritual was complete. I stood in the mirror, admiring her work, the rushes and falling of garment from my hips.
Since the 1980’s people of Indian origin have embarked on a mass migration to the United States. America has been a beacon of hope for those trapped in the convulsions of poverty and education for the past two decades. Whenever I ask my mother why she came to the US with my father in 1989, she replies by saying it was those movies. Stories of strong sultry women in furs and clinging to wine glasses was what I wanted. I was young. America was adventure. And so she flew over the great green ocean with the ambition that her husband would make it big. But immigration was more complex than my mother anticipated. Primarily, my parents had to decide where they would live. Most Indians migrated to urban areas on the East and West coasts. My parents decided on Pittsburgh, a city between Washington DC and New York City. But what set Pittsburgh apart from other cities was the fact that Pittsburgh had a strong Hindu population. The first temple in the United States was built in Pittsburgh and was the home of a tightly knit Indian community that protected and participated in Indian rituals and sentiments. The Indian American micro-culture helped my parents raise me, not only as an American, but as a proud desi or Indian American youth. Even though we second generation Indians live in an American society, prescribed gender roles have been passed down to us. Under Indian rituals, females take part in specific ones while males take part in others. Being an Indian American girl, my mother initiated me in female-ascribed ceremonies that were secrets themselves. Rituals that bonded those in one micro-culture in another micro-culture.
There is one ritual in particular that is the most intimate of them all. The ritual of tying a sari ceremony is not a rare occurrence. In fact every week, my mother and I wear saris to our local temple for prayer. But this common place act of dressing is steeped in an array of issues: gender specification, sexuality, coming of age, and the continuation of an ancient tradition. As I am analyzing the ritual from a cultural interpretevist perspective, the garment itself is a veil of several aspects of the products of migration and the disequilibrium of old and new traditions.
Every aspect of this ethnic dress whether it is the garment itself, how it is worn, who teaches you how to wear it, and where you wear it demonstrates the overarching themes of Indian and Western terms of female sexuality and duty. These are themes that Franz Boas, the father of interpretivism would deem integral facets of the ceremony.
First, we must look at the garment as an entity. The sari is six yards long of cotton or silk fabric. When I unfold the fabric on the ground, I am always astounded at the simplicity of the cloth because when it is woven around the body, it hangs so elaborately. It is wrapped, folded, and tucked around the body on top of a cropped blouse. The sari is a symbol of “womanhood” in Hindu society since the Indus River Civilization predating the 2800 BC. The same design that was worn in the ancient civilization has been passed down generation after generation. Growing up, I used to watch my mother tie her sari thinking that it was the most beautiful dress in the whole world. Her upper back was exposed and the dramatic drapes gave her such an elegant stance. The ethnic dress is sensual yet practical. It is so well fastened that it well never fall, yet when women walk, the folds make them look graceful and fragile. But as an cultural interpretist would say, the cloth is only a shroud or symbol of something more. The sari is a tableau for the complex identity of Indian women.
There are several styles of sari. From a simple cotton sari to diamond studded silk saris, the conventional cloth is so elegant because of the different styles of saris. My mother has a total of 500 hundred saris. Some of them are in traditional colors of red and white, the colors of the holy days. Some of the saris are rich jewel-tones: garnet, emerald, amethyst, sapphire. Some are shocking pastels like soft corals, robin egg blue, and sea foam green. Each sari is different from the other. Each sari tells a story of weddings, holy days, birthdays, births, and sometimes death.
On Saturday, my family and I were planning to attend a classical Indian dance performance fund raiser. My sister and I were expected to wear saris because it was a cultural event. Sari tying is a ritual that my sister’s and my body has gotten used it. Its all about patience.
The actual ritual occurs objectively like this:
1.My mother lies out the cloth and safety pins out while my sister and I wear our cropped blouses and slips. There should be a lof of safety pins or the fabric will slip off. As my mother prepares the cloth, my sister and I wait. As I had said, sari tying is an art balanced by patience.
2. My mother then tucks the plain/upper end into the petticoat, at a position which is a little bit to the right of the navel. The lower end of the sari touches the floor, and the whole length of the sari comes on the left-hand side. Then she wraps the sari around my sister once, with the sari now coming back in the front.
3. My mother proceeds by making about 5 to 7 pleats of equal width of 5 inches, starting at the tucked-in end. Then she gathers the pleats together, neatly, ensuring that the lower edge of the pleats are even and just off the ground and that the pleats fall straight and evenly. A safety pin may be used to stop the pleats from scattering. Make it several.
4. She neatly tucks the pleats into the petticoat, at the waist, slightly to the left of the navel.
5. Then she drapes the remaining fabric around the body once more left to right, and bring it round the hips to the front, holding the top edge of the sari.
6. She slightly raises the remaining portion of the sari on the back, bringing it up under the right arm and over the left shoulder so that the end of the sari falls to about the level of the knees.
The end portion thus draped, from the left shoulder onwards.
But as my mother spins the cloth around us, there is more occurring than meets the eye.
When my mother ties a sari for me and my sister, she tells us stories about India and her family. Tying a sari is a communal event. For a novice sari wearer, it is so difficult to tie the sari for herself. It takes a lot of opening of safety pins, holding cloth, spinning it into little fans to tuck along the waistline. So while, we wait, my mother is busy weaving tales about married cousins and sleepy village days where young girls in saris pick jasmines in desert gardens after classes.
I once asked my mother why she dresses in saris and how she presents herself. She replied by saying: Indian women were born to please Indian men. I dress the part. Whenever I open old wedding albums of the women in my family, I notice the lines of young women draped in sequined cloth. They look so elegant in their dresses. They look like little dolls lined in rows by their husbands. The sari turns the girl into a woman. On my first day of college, my mother gave me a photo of her on her wedding day. She was barely seventeen, but she looked strong, confident, cool, and ready for marriage. The sari is a symbol of womanhood. It was her uniform of marriage. The sari was a mark of pride for my mother. Whenever she pulls out her wedding sari, her face flushes with emotion. She excitedly stretches the cloth over her breast and insists on me running my hands between the silk. The cloth is so fine that you can pull it through my engagement ring she gushes hurriedly. How could a piece of cloth mean so much to someone? This is the beauty of the sari: it is woven with the secret story of Indian women.
In the United States, the sari is not worn everyday like my mother did in her youth. My sister and I wear the sari during religious and cultural events at our local temple. When my sister and I wear the sari, we feel the same pride my mother feels when she wears hers. We feel pride because we know that we are keeping our traditions up and protected an ancestral tradition. For my high school graduation, the graduating females had to wear white dresses. I chose to wear my grandmother’s white sari because it defined who I am. The sari is the mark of my history: my mother’s struggle of adjusting to America, my grandmother’s struggle of marrying at the age of ten. The sari to me is a symbol of strength. My mother was so thrilled when I decided to wear the sari because I was demonstrating what I stood for at a right of passage ceremony. I was able to wear what I believed in and pay tribute to my culture.
But the reason is not only for ourselves, because when we go to community events, wearing a sari gives us an impression that we have Indian pride. We are demonstrating to other Indian families that we are grounded in our culture. Image is very important to an Indian woman because this is how a husband gains stature. My mother believes the more beautiful and grounded the wife and daughters, more affluent and strong the family. To my mother and Indian women, presentation is everything. Personal grooming and the neatness brings luck of the family. The sari is a physical emblem of etiquette training for girls. When you wear a sari, you must do so with ease, grace, poise, and elegance. When you wear a sari, you become an instant lady. Women bring joy, luck, and pride to a family. The more poised the woman, the more refined the family. I learned quite quickly to walk tiny steps and to hold my head high so that my family will be proud of me, and my family will have a high stature here in America among the Indian American families.
In conclusion, the sari, under the microscope of a cultural interpretist, is a symbol of a complex identity of Indian women. Due to globalization, Indian women are torn between old Eastern traditions and Western, autonomous lifestyles. The tying of a sari is a secret communal act that is shared between different generations. The tying of saris is a forum for women to come together and share gossip, stories, and advice. The reason Indian make sure their saris are tied in a proper fashion and dress to perfection because their looks and demeanor are a reflection on their husbands and family. The sari, since it is a traditional apparel, brings pride that is two-fold: feeling joy that you find yourself looking beautiful and knowing that other women acknowledge the beauty of your sari folds. The sari is a tradition that is passed on from woman to woman. Those who are born and raised in the United States feel a pull to wear the sari because it is a recognizable symbol of Indian pride.
As my mother adjusts the shoulder fabric, I look into the mirror and watch the pleats roll off my shoulder, I can not help but smile. I hold my neck up high, just like my mother told me to. And her mother told her. And her mother told her. We, woven together like the golden threads of a sari.