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Across The Border
Text by Sohiny Das
Published: Volume 18, Issue 8, August, 2010
The ornamented edging of the sari is not limited to the six yards, or to geography. It has travelled, unwound across destinations; yet retained a distinct Indian identity. Sohiny Das weaves a contemporary overview of the widely (or narrowly) accepted element with an ethno-edge

A few seasons back, French luxury house Hermès created a stir with its runway presentation of womenswear in Paris. Creative director Jean Paul Gaultier put together a range as an ode to one of his favourite ethnic destinations. There was no potpourri of vibrant hues, no embellishment overdose, no overt styling. Simple shapes, almost ascetic pieces, were shown in an earthy to neutral colour palette. It was pure, almost Zen. It could have been Grecian goddess or Egyptian princess, could have been Roman togas, could also have been indigenous African or Tibetan monastic drapes. But everyone knew that it was India which had inspired Gaultier. All because of one distinct element – a rich gold border.

It is the easiest way to ‘Indianise’ a garment. Take the most European-looking frilly lace farthingale, or the most stiff-upper-lipped Englishman’s swallow-tailed jacket. Add a woven border to the edges, and voila! The desi transformation is almost magical. The power of a single feature to overshadow the rest and pronounce strongly an ethnicity is admirable. While we have accepted zippered, tiered and ruffled saris, corset-cholis, leather fringed cowboy kurtas and seamed spandex legging-churidars, our ‘edge’ in the design arena has travelled great lengths, across borders, and attached itself firmly onto rails around the globe.

The outside view of the Indian border is a rich-looking linear brocade, but within the country, as we all know, there are many intricacies which are indigenous to various regions or states. A motif, a special yarn, a local dye, a weave or even the process of attaching a separately created border to the main textile body can indicate its origin. Of course, these are pure forms which we are talking about; present hybrids make them more complex and difficult to pinpoint exact roots. Aside from the category of woven borders, we also have embroidered and embellished ones, which are again distinctive regional representatives. A thin gold gota edging immediately speaks of North-West India and Pakistan (pre-Independence), while a thick floral thread embroidery is most likely to be Parsi. The combination of crisp cream/ecru with lines of gold speaks of Kerala’s maidens and menfolk (donning mundus).

While the state textile emporiums proudly carry their best specimens, the designer sector in the country bears the stamps of the creative houses, which are not necessarily regional. J J Valaya and Ritu Kumar may both be based in New Delhi, but they will have their individual pet creations. Kolkata phenomenon Sabyasachi Mukherjee is the border-boy of the decade; he first hit the national runways with a collection created by mixing and matching strips of various brocades, jaquards and a plethora of embellished borders. Ever since, the famous Sabya ‘bootas’ and ‘dori-work’ have been the prized possessions of every affluent, wardrobe-respecting woman in the country. Actresses embracing his brand of vintage desi chic have been Rani Mukerjee, Vidya Balan and Aishwarya Rai. The attack of the clones followed (and still thriving), but the designer has remained unperturbed. Imitation is the best form of flattery, after all.

But try spotting ‘coincidental’ similarities between the biggies, and each will shout plagiarism. Yet, ironically, ‘inspirations’ from India-inspired collections shown on European runways are allowed. Dries Van Noten’s perpetual penchant for anything desi, Zandra Rhodes’ mad masala mash or Alexander McQueen’s interpretation of the British Raj have taken circular routes and still fuel the creative energies of many here. The aforementioned Hermès sari-dress collection found its Indian creative counterparts too, where we claimed to embrace our own ‘heritage’, but very evidently eyed across borders to (re)discover novelty – through their eyes – in something that we are so accustomed to seeing, that we are jaded to its charms. Fair enough.

Catty competition at any ethnic society soiree (which invariably turns out to be a borderline battlefield of Pallavi Jaikishan vs Manish Malhotra vs Rohit Bal vs Kiran Uttam Ghosh vs Tarun Tahiliani) can unfailingly be won over by the mother or grandmother of aces – inheritances from Mum and Gran. Every designer worth his/her salt has raided their matrons’ closets for inspiration. Every lass with a trusted ‘ladies’ tailor’ has fashioned something out of her mother’s not-so-precious sari with a pretty border. But while ‘cutting-edge’ creativity begins at home, there are some blasphemies which should never be committed. Those century-old moth-eaten treasures carry family legacies, and rather than being framed as art or crafted as cushion covers, they are better restored and worn. More often than not, the body decays, but the border survives, because of a stronger weave/embellishment. Meticulous restoration procedures replace the base fabric, but retain the original edging, reinforcing the historic piece to witness some more of life – the present and possibly even the future. The border lives to tell the tale.

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