You can get lost in a saree. Not in its myriad folds but in its patterns.
Childhood memories of seeing my mother.Of holding on to the folds of her saree for dear life when she picked me up after I had careered down some two flights of stairs outside our apartment.Of seeing my six month old brother clutching the corner of its shoulder length bit with his chubby little fingers wound tightly around it like petals in stalk.When she hastly unwound them,leaving for work.A waft of her talcum powder when she walked by in beauty,her saree’s beauty.
Going to her workplace,after having been introduced to her boss I find these voluminous folds of a gorgeous Murshidabad muslin encasing the lady’s form like a candle. Ms. Malik ,always enclosed in white creamy cottons ,never changing colour or form which by itself was white,alabaster except for her thick dark hair rolled into a lose bun.She was kind enough to let me in mother’s office during my long summer hols.,one of the times when we didn’t take the LTC(Leave Travel Concession)to the south.I’d of course earnestly try to volunteer my time and effort to the best of my 6 yr. old ability.
Back in the 15th. century and earlier these garments were worn for comfort -as in a tropical environment there was no other better garment than a fabric fold that draped around you and made it air-conditioned- and designed too in the comfort of farms, foothills and huts.The natural surrounds provided the patterns as well as the materials to bring them into being. By the 60″s in the 20th. century, patterns for the sarees came to be designed and worked in corporate offices,essentially fashion houses spread out in the big cities of India,complete with mod-cons, the whole works.
My mother used to work in one such establishment.She asked the girls in the fabric room to supervise me while she handled her paper work.There I would be with them all working at folding the sarees in such a way as to fit them longitudinally into thick brown envelopes smelling of cellulose from the hills of Shimla and then stacked neatly into cartons made of fragrant pinewood from the hills of Nainital. A sliver from the carton still shows its place on my little finger where it got lodged.Endless conversations of husbands and children flowed-if they weren’t married they related things about their parents,neighbours and schoolmates- amidst constant pourings of ‘chai’,’samosas’ and Fanta.Sometimes another set of busy hands would take over and the girls doing would get down under the work tables for their twenty winks.
In a room close by Chopin Banerjee -the artist-in-residence would be giving some final strokes to a creation in ochre and yellow ,a fleck here,a brush there and survey it from a distance.The board held strong for it didn’t pucker or dampen either under all those sharp points,paints and patterns. Naina, his assistant had just come back from a degree in the US. All agog to incorporate everything that she had learned and meticulously reproduce which would then essay a Benarsi fitting.You could run a rousing encore to her Garhwals.They were amazing.Her drawings looked straight out of the miniature paintings that hung on the wall of the tiny textile artist’s studio.
Laden with some pencils and paper myself,generously provided by Chopin, I’d try to concentrate on Minnie’s sunglasses-another intern- and try to draw them. Next I’d extricate the plasticine clay in my pocket and capture an impression of the little block that Minnie had created to stamp on the bit of Japanese fabric laid out in front of her.I would attempt at making a secret language of plasticene paisley blocks dipped in orange juice stamped out over Chopin’s sketch paper and then puzzle over later to figure out what was in there. I had just completed reading the Five-Find Outers by Enid Blyton and was all eagerness to try solving an imaginary mystery by communicating through orange juice ink ironed out for visibility.
Chopin, Naina and Minnie worked hard. They ate sandwiches standing,didn’t order for ‘ chai’ or ‘samoasas’ and didn’t duck under their tables for rest.They looked remarkable,very fascinating,glowing with ideas,constantly chattering,discussing ways to make patterns for wefts, for warps,their endless tesselations and variations.In a few months time their’s would be the designs printed in shipments exported to different continents and worn in sares by the elite in India.I would sometimes sidle up to them to see what they had made and they would show me these gorgeous- picture calculations,they seemed to me.
My mother would then come for her coffee break,fetch me and take me to Nirula’s ice cream parlour,a furlong down from Connaught’s pillars called Connaught Circus.Dad would join us and I would then go to his workplace, an oil corporation,government owned,quite drab and desultory compared to my mother’s.